Monday, February 25, 2008


“Charity begins at home,” goes the old saying. But with the Zenawi regime, it is, “No good deed will go unpunished.” The so-called “Charities and Societies Draft Proclamation No. 00/2007” [hereinafter “Proclamation”] currently under review by the Ethiopian “parliament” is one mean-spirited and uncharitable edict masquerading as a legislative measure. It is an understatement to say the Proclamation is incredibly oppressive, intrusive and arbitrary. It is simply a travesty of law that does not pass the “smell test”, let alone any serious legal analytical scrutiny. It offers a classic case study of law making in a police state — sweeping, stealthy, harsh, heavy-handed and irrational.

Private associations, endowments and trusts have existed in Ethiopia for decades. But modern civil society institutions (that is, domestic and international non-governmental, non-profit, voluntary citizens’ groups that provide humanitarian assistance, communicate citizens’ concerns to governments, advocate and monitor policies, encourage grassroots political participation, promote human rights, environmental protection, health, education, etc.), are a relatively new phenomenon in Ethiopia. Article 31 of the “constitution” of the current regime fully embraces such civil society institutions and provides, “Everyone shall have the right to form associations for whatever purpose.”

The importance of civil society institutions in democratizing Ethiopia has been repeatedly acknowledged by the current regime leader. Zenawi has made public statements declaring his intention to facilitate the establishment and strengthening of professional and popular associations and non-governmental organizations in the country’s development efforts and institution of democratic governance: “The participation of self-organized citizens’ associations is not only the foundation of our development, but also of our democracy.” Various official documents of the ruling regime have emphasized the role of civil society institutions in “building a democratic order in Ethiopia”.

So, what is wrong with Draft Proclamation No. 00/20071? Let’s count the ways.

The Proclamation is a preemptive legal strike aimed at neutralizing and abolishing civil society institutions, and diminishing any threats that may be posed by them against the regime.

An analysis of the totality of the Proclamation shows that the regime, in the absence of a united opposition political force in the country, perceives the greatest threat to its dictatorial powers originating in civil society institutions. The apparent fear of such organizations comes from the inherent potential of civil society organizations to create mass awareness of social and political issues, cultivate a more informed citizenry, mobilize people to make informed voting choices and effectively participate in politics, and equip ordinary citizens with the democratic tools to hold government more accountable.

By imposing an extensive scheme of invasive and suffocating licensing, registration, supervision, compliance and enforcement, and draconian penalty provisions, the regime expects and intends to effectively and “legally” eliminate any potential threats that could emanate from current or future civil society institutions. It is for this reason that the Proclamation sweeps under its regulatory claws all “philanthropic and benevolent” organizations and associations established to aid in poverty and disaster relief, promote economic development and agricultural and environmental amelioration, advance the cause of education, health, art, culture science, sports, enhance access and opportunity to the handicapped, and advocate and defend human rights. Even organizations involved in animal welfare are subject to the Proclamation. In sum, the powers created in this Proclamation to “regulate” all “philanthropic and benevolent” civil society institutions is the unchecked and unlimited power to destroy them. (A partial list of civil society organizations that could be affected by this Proclamation is provided herein.2 )

The Proclamation creates powers that can be exercised arbitrarily and capriciously in the regulation of civil society institutions.

The stated objective of the Proclamation is to “maintain public trust, promote compliance and enhance accountability” as well as “strengthen” and provide “full autonomy” in the operation of civil society institutions. But even a cursory reading of the Proclamation shows that there is no rational connection between the provisions of the Proclamation and its stated objectives. The Proclamation sets no discernable standards for civil society licensing, registration, compliance, investigation and enforcement. It merely creates an elaborate bureaucracy with sweeping and unchallengeable regulatory and administrative powers. Application of the Proclamation, and development of any subsequent enforcement regulations and rules, depends entirely on the whims and fancy of the director of the agency, and any directives he may receive from above. In fact, the director of the agency is a political appointee of the prime minister; and he in turn appoints a brigade of deputy directors, registrars and other bureaucrats. He acts cooperatively with a boatload of sector administrators, charities council and others to police and keep a watchful eye on civil society institutions.

The Proclamation grants unbounded discretionary power to the agency director who has quasi-judicial authority, and the director’s decision is not subject to judicial review.

The Proclamation is unabashed in creating an agency with officials whose powers have no legal bounds or limits. The list of extravagant powers conferred upon the agency and its officials is too numerous to enumerate, but a few glaring examples serve to demonstrate the sweeping powers granted to them. For instance, the agency can deny registration to any civil society group if it feels the internal management “rules of the charity are insufficient for proper management and control”. The agency can demand the membership, financial and any other records of a civil society organization at will, and without probable cause of wrongdoing by the organization, its officers or members. The agency can summarily suspend a civil society organization, its members or officers if it suspects “misconduct and mismanagement”.

A civil society organization could be dissolved if the agency determines on its own that the organization is being “used for unlawful purposes”, or is “contrary to public or the national interest”. The agency alone determines what is “unlawful” “or “contrary to the public or national interest.” The agency has the power to determine the “details of the charitable purposes and public benefits” regardless of the stated mission or objectives of the civil society organization. No action of the agency or its director could be challenged in a court of law with independent judges. There is limited administrative review of adverse agency actions, but ultimately, the agency and its director can do whatever they want in the name of “regulating” civil society institutions. In sum, the proclamation grants such sweeping discretionary regulatory powers, the agency and its director become the policeman, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioners of civil society organizations.

The Proclamation is extremely intrusive in the affairs of civil society.

The proclamation is extremely intrusive in the internal management and operations of civil society organizations. Using its sweeping powers, for instance, the agency and its director can appoint, remove, or suspend officers of civil society organizations, manage or freeze their assets, perform intrusive audits without suspicion of wrongdoing, unduly interfere in their internal decision making processes, scrutinize their operations and work plan, review their budget, order changes in their bylaws, and even force testimonial and documentary disclosure with “respect to any matter in question”. Incredibly, a civil society organization is required to return to the agency any money it has collected but has not spent within 2 years.

The Proclamation is so intrusive that it even compels disclosure of civil society membership lists. To closely track financial support for such organizations and identify supporters, it prohibits “anonymous donations” and requires records of donors to be kept for 5 years. None of this excessive intrusiveness can be challenged in court before an independent judge. It is obvious that under such an intrusive scheme of regulation, no civil society organization could feel confident enough to perform its mission. Few individuals would dare join such organizations under these circumstances; and those who do will be forced to endure the uncertainties of potential future persecution for membership in the “wrong” civil society institution.

The Proclamation provides for no judicial or administrative appellate review.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this Proclamation is the complete absence of provisions for judicial or meaningful administrative appellate review. For instance, there is no way to challenge an agency determination of denial of an application to register, order of dissolution, suspension or dismissal of officers in a court of law before independent judges. There is no way for civil society members who are not suspected of wrongdoing to challenge disclosure of their private records or statements to the agency. There is an administrative review process by which the decision of the agency director could be “appealed” to the Justice Minister. But that is like appealing the decision of Tweedle Dee to Tweedle Dum. In sum, the decision of the agency director and justice minister are final in all cases.

The Proclamation micromanages civil society institutions, is extremely burdensome and demands financial accountability and ethical integrity rarely seen or required of public institutions in Ethiopia.

The Proclamation authorizes the agency and its director to micromanage civil society institutions to a point of denying them any autonomy whatsoever. The financial accounting and record keeping requirements are so burdensome, unreasonable and punitive that a civil society organization must spend as much time preparing paperwork for red tape as it must performing its mission. For instance, the Proclamation requires “accounting records” to show “all sums of money received from day to day”. Civil society organizations are prohibited from receiving anonymous donations, so that a person who just wants to make a one time donation without membership affiliation can not make a contribution. Civil society organizations “shall be examined by a certified auditor or internal auditor or an auditor designated by the agency.” Civil society institutions are not allowed to establish a branch or change their name without agency approval. They are not allowed to use an emblem, logo or badge without agency approval. There are few things, if any, that civil society institutions can do without the approval of Big Brother!

The Proclamation has a chilling effect on civil society membership and participation.

No civil society organization could be effective without membership. By definition, civil society organizations depend upon the good will, charity and generosity of ordinary people in the community. Under the intrusive regulations of this Proclamation, few people in the community or society are likely to participate. The fact that government will have ready access to their personal information, role, participation and financial support of these organizations will dissuade many from joining. There is a real possibility of government retaliation if the civil society group is on a disapproved list, or is viewed with suspicion by the regime. Potential civil society members could reasonably fear that their jobs, businesses and private lives could be at risk by the mere fact of their membership. They could be targeted for persecution, harassment or mistreatment. The ironic thing is that ordinary citizens are likely to avoid joining civil society organizations — and thereby forego the legitimate exercise their “constitutional” and human rights to free association — out of fear of government retaliation.

The Proclamation is extremely punitive.

Failure to comply with the provisions of the Proclamation entails imprisonment, fines and administrative sanctions. For instance, administering or membership in an unregistered or “unlawful” civil society organization fetches a 5 year term, and a fine of 10,000 birr. Any person who is a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered civil society organization could be imprisoned for 2 years, and fined 5,000 birr. Anyone who donates to an unregistered civil society organization is liable to jail time and fines as an accomplice. Any person who provides a meeting place for an unregistered organization is liable for a 2 year jail sentence, and a fine of 5,000 birr. Any person who “prints, publishes, displays, transits information by any means in the interest” of an unregistered organization is exposed to the same penalties. The agency also has the power to “at any time stop or restrict” fund raising by civil society organizations. In addition to the criminal penalties, there are untold numbers of unspecified but ominous administrative sanctions and penalties that can be taken against civil society organizations, their officers, board members and regular members.

In Art. 125, the Proclamation criminalizes civil society participation or advocacy of issues considered “politically contentious”. For instance, a civil society organization could be criminally charged under this section if it took a “political position” on poverty. Similarly, a civil society organization which promotes human rights, and its officers could be charged for speaking out on the “politically contentious” issue of political prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions, or torture of citizens. Such a provision is just plainly mindless and absurd.

The Proclamation is manifestly “unconstitutional”. It is also manifestly silly.

Article 131 of the Proclamation makes the following silly declaration: “Any laws and practices contrary to this Proclamation are hereby repealed.” Technical rules of statutory construction (legal interpretation) instruct that “words in a statute are presumed to have their usual and ordinary meaning”. If this provision is taken at face value, the Proclamation trumps and abrogates the Ethiopian “constitution” and all other human rights conventions incorporated by reference in the “constitution”. (Art. 13 (2).)

But there are specific provisions in the Proclamation that are manifestly violative of the regime’s “constitution”. For instance, the agency has the power to “cause the production of documents and search records” of the civil society organization, and “take possession of any books, documents or papers… required as evidence in proceedings for an offense under the Proclamation” (Art. 102), in violation of the right of privacy set forth in Art. 26, inter alia, of the “constitution”. Broad powers granted to the agency to have “full and free access to all buildings, places, books, documents papers of a charity or society” (Arts. 102, 104), are in flagrant violation of Art. 26 as well. Civil society organizations are required to notify the agency of any meetings with a 7 day advance notice (Art. 103), in violation of Arts. 29-32, inter alia, of the “constitution”. The Proclamation authorizes the agency to compel oral testimony from civil society members and officers to obtain “any information which relates to any charity or society” (Art. 102) in violation of the prohibition on coerced statements in Art. 19 (5), inter alia, of the “constitution”. In Art. 125, the Proclamation criminalizes civil society participation or advocacy of issues considered “politically contentious” in violation of Art. 29 (1) (2), inter alia, of the “constitution”. The list goes on and on.

The Proclamation is mean-spirited and discriminatory.

The Proclamation treats civil society organizations, groups and members as enemies of the state, instead of partners in building democracy. It makes no sense to have such a draconian Proclamation in the absence of a demonstrated history of criminality, or convincing proof of abuse of public trust, waste of public funds or fraud in the use of publicly collected funds. In fact, the Proclamation makes no legislative findings whatsoever that civil society institutions in Ethiopia have ever presented law enforcement problems or raised issued of public integrity. In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing by civil society institutions, one can only conclude that the Proclamation in its totality has no rational relationship to the proper objects of governmental regulation, but rather represents a “legal” assault aimed at abolishing civil society institutions.

On the other hand, the Proclamation irrationally discriminates against foreign civil society organizations, and expatriate civil society workers. It prohibits employment of expatriates in domestic civil society organizations unless justified by the nature of the work or qualification of the individual. Failure to comply with this provision will result in jail time. It is also regrettable that the Proclamation appears to have been patterned in material respects after a similar law in Singapore, a country ranked 141st out of 167 by Reporters Without Borders in the Worlwide Press Freedom Index.

A good charity law should be charitable.

A good charity law should create an environment that enables ordinary citizens to participate in collective activities in their society, and not to fear and avoid civic engagement. Draconian regulatory constraints such as the ones in the Proclamation should only be used preventively if there is a history of criminality, fraud, waste and abuse in civil society organizations. Government should encourage and support citizens who seek to exercise their constitutional rights through organized and active civil society institutions. It is unnecessary and harmful to legislatively presume that ordinary citizens who seek to establish and participate in civil society organizations are criminals intent on defrauding the public. Rather, the presumption should be well-intentioned ordinary citizens who seek to help themselves and others deserve the benefit of the doubt and governmental cooperation through a simple and easy to follow regulatory regime.

An Alternative: The Daniel Bekele Group proposal

The Daniel Bekele Proposal is a compellingly viable alternative to the Proclamation.

There is a viable alternative to the current Proclamation which facilitates “self-organized citizens” to be involved in “development and democracy.”3 It is a proposal that harmonizes constitutional and human rights with the need for accountability and transparency in the operation and management of civil society organizations. This proposal was advanced by the young and dynamic anti-poverty civil society activist Daniel Bekele (who is currently in Kality prison despite a court order to release him and his colleague Netsanet Demessie), and his NGO/CSO Legal Framework Consultative Task Force. A careful analysis of this Proposal shows that it is possible to achieve both civic engagement and effective regulatory regime of civil society organizations in a framework of partnership.

The Bekele Proposal offers numerous advantages over the Proclamation. It provides for a simple registration process unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape. There is no charge for registration, and once registration is obtained it will remain valid for an indefinite time unless good cause exists for revocation. This Proposal does not allow for excessive official interference in the daily management and operation of civil society organizations. It relies on existing Civil Code provisions for reporting and supervision. Civil society organizations will be required to file annual reports, and external audits will be ordered only if there is evidence or good cause to suspect criminal wrongdoing.

Under the Bekele Proposal, if civil society organization are to be suspended or dissolved, such actions will be taken in accordance with the bylaws of the organization, or by court order after a full hearing on the merits. Foreign civil society organizations and expatriates who seek to work in Ethiopia will not be discriminated. Rather, they will be treated equally with domestic groups with respect to rights and obligations. The Bekele proposal also provides for changes in the organization of civil society institution, allowing for expedited mergers, splits and changes from foreign to domestic groups. There are no draconian penalties for violation of the regulations. Any penalties under the Proposal are to be imposed in the sound discretion of independent judges, not political appointees who have an axe to grind. Most importantly, the Bekele Proposal provides for full administrative and judicial appellate review. (The reader can make an independent comparative analysis of the Proclamation and the Bekele Proposal in footnote 3, supra.)

In studying the Proclamation one is reminded of Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle in charge of charity, the workhouse and orphanage in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” Mr. Bumble replied, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot’. Even Mr. Bumble knows a rotten law when he sees one.


1. The Proclamation in four parts is available at:


3. The Bekele Legislative Proposal is available at:;
see also fn. 1 supra.)

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Alemayehu G. Mariam
February 4, 2008

Academic Unfreedom in Ethiopian Universities
Universities in democratic societies crank out legions of technorati, digerati and literati every year. But what do universities in police states produce? Hordes of ignorati?

Welcome to higher education in the Land of Absurd-istan! In an incisive article posted on the web-based legal research service, Jurist, Abigail Salisbury, a law professor at Mekelle University recently painted a chilling and naked portrait of a university in a police state.[1] She courageously described a dizzying state of intellectual absurdity and moral bankruptcy in the Ethiopian higher educational system, and one of its premier universities. She gave a vividly surreal account of fear and loathing in the classroom and on campus: Students plead with their professors not to snitch on them to the authorities on their studies and class work. Students solicit their professors to distribute their academic papers abroad because they are scared they will be punished or persecuted if they were to do so did so locally. Students starving for knowledge are literally deprived of their daily bread because they dared to voice a complaint. Students scramble to learn in an arid intellectual wasteland where the walls have ears and the light fixtures can talk. And professors are afraid to teach because they have signed loyalty oaths disguised as a contractual terms of employment, which prohibits them from ever saying a single word of criticism against the regime. In her penetrating analysis, Prof. Salisbury depicted a nightmarish educational environment where professors labor under a gag order, and students are paralyzed by the omnipresent threat of academic harassment, or worse.

No one could mistake Prof. Salisbury’s acute resentment and tacit embarrassment over her manifest lack of academic freedom to teach and speak her mind as a law professor, and her heartache over her students’ intellectual desolation and decay. Reading between the lines, one quickly develops empathy for the young American professor and her young Ethiopian students who find themselves trapped in an intellectual wasteland where thought is policed, the very act of thinking criminalized, student complaints punished by deprivation of food for weeks, and intellectual inquisitiveness made a capital offense. In her courageously critical piece, Prof. Salisbury offered a devastating indictment of a higher educational system where professors and students fear their own shadows, and are forced to make an anguished daily choice between the roles of hypocrite to their own education and teaching on the one hand, and professing their faith as true believers in a regime that is determined to keep them in a perpetual state of intellectual trepidation and despair.

But no amount of paraphrasing can capture the sheer intensity and disarming candor of Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of intellectual corruption and enforced political orthodoxy:
…. I sat down to read and grade the mid-term essays of the students in my International Human Rights Law classes. Because all of the instructors at Ethiopian universities are made to sign a contract that we will never say anything against the government or ruling party, I had been very careful in wording my assignment. I asked the students to select a human rights issue in Ethiopia (making sure not to imply that there are any actual problems, just issues) and find another country dealing with that same situation. They were required to then compare the actions of the two nations, discussing them in light of various international human rights instruments which have been covered in class. Then, they were to propose some potential methods they might use to deal with this “issue” they selected. Thinking that this was a sufficiently non-inflammatory prompt, I assumed I would get some rather dry responses, especially given the comments from the H.R. 2003 discussion forum, which all seemed to assert that Ethiopia is doing just fine on the human rights front.

I was absolutely shocked, then, when I started reading my students’ work. Out of the hundred third-year students I teach, probably forty of them had inserted a special section, right after the cover page, warning me of what might happen to them were their paper to leave my hands. A number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor because they fear being turned in to the government and punished. Others begged me to take their work back to America with me so that people would know what was going on. Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening.

After my initial shock, I began to wonder if the students weren’t just making exaggerated claims in hopes of getting better grades. I kept trying to figure out whether they were writing these warnings because they were genuine or because they wanted to make me think that they were really putting themselves on the line for this assignment. As I read the papers which had been submitted without the notes about fears, however, I got the sense that the students were just writing in as safe a fashion as possible. They put in long recitations of facts and laws and strove to make the “issue” seem as insignificant as possible within the larger context of Ethiopian government. They were holding back. Their work lacked the color, honesty, and intensity of the writing of the students who had asked me not to show their papers to anyone.

To be fair, I can understand how the students might be afraid to speak their minds, because there have been a number of student protests which have been put down with violence recently, some journalists have been imprisoned, and much of the media is censored. At dinner, some university graduates from Addis Ababa mentioned that they had been without food for weeks at a time on campus but were forbidden by the administrators to ever voice a complaint. My friend tried to learn more about the conditions, but the Ethiopians had quickly changed the subject, telling her that they should not be overheard discussing such things. I even know some expatriate workers here who are hesitant to say anything negative about the country in their e-mails to friends and family at home, because they know that everything goes through a central server and could be read, with possible negative repercussions.
Prof. Salisbury’s analysis of university life in Ethiopia is not the first of its kind. Its importance lies in the fact that it offers solid anecdotal evidence of a long and continuing pattern of political interference in academic freedom in the country’s universities. The 2006 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices[2] plainly stated:

The [Ethiopian] government restricted academic freedom during the year, maintaining that professors could not espouse political sentiments. Authorities did not permit teachers at any level to deviate from official lesson plans and discouraged political activity and association of any kind on university campuses. Reports continued throughout the year of both uniformed and plainclothes police officers being present on and around university and high school campuses. The government arrested students and teachers during the year. Professors and students were discouraged from taking positions not in accordance with government beliefs or practices. There was a lack of transparency in academic decisions, with numerous complaints from individuals in the academic community of bias based on ethnicity and/or religion. The freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly were frequently restricted on university and high school campuses.
Academic Unfreedom in the “Good Ole Days”
The recent history of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry in Ethiopian higher education is deeply scarred by political interference, political correctness, arbitrary purges of professors, harassment and persecution of faculty and students, and general intellectual repression. It is a history that makes one think of the “good old days”. The respected and well-known scholar on Ethiopia, Prof. Donald Levine of the University of Chicago, made a poignant observation on academic freedom during the infancy of Ethiopian higher education when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Addis Ababa University on July 24, 2004.[3] He said:

Under the regime of the Derg, the great gains for Ethiopian education which they produced suffered a series of terrible blows from which Ethiopia has not yet fully recovered. When the Derg took power in September 1974, their first act was to impose a rigid ban on freedom of speech, in the form of proclamation forbidding groups of more than five people to assemble anywhere. What was worse, they closed down the university and also the feeder junior and senior grades of secondary schools for two full years. To make matters worse, when the University at last reopened, they subjected faculty and curriculum to severe ideological restraints. They based admissions on criteria of ethnic quotas rather than merit; they tied appointments to political loyalty instead of academic qualifications; they subjected curricular content to ideological scrutiny rather than to defensible educational principles; and they isolated Ethiopian faculty from the international academic community.

With the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopians inside and outside the university enjoyed a marked increase of freedom of speech and publication. Even so, the pattern of unwarranted governmental intrusion into the university was matched by such destructive actions as the abrupt dismissal of some forty of the most experienced and accomplished members of the University faculty. It has remained difficult to uphold standards of admissions and to hold faculty performance to international academic standards. The government has failed to realize how delicate and vulnerable a university of high quality is.
It is painfully ironic to learn that there was much more academic freedom during the reign of Atse Haile Selassie than at any time in the modern history of Ethiopia! Such irony was evident in Prof. Levine’s remarks on an incident in Ethiopia in 1958 when he served as assistant to the acting vice president of Haile Selassie University, Harold Bentley:

Before the project [Haile Selassie University] had a chance to break ground, however, Addis Ababa was racked by an attempted coup d'etat against the late Emperor. As a friend of one of the coup leaders, Girmame Neway, I was one of the last persons to talk with him before he was captured and killed. Girmame's parting words riveted me: “Don, please tell our story to the world. Even if we are defeated and killed, at least a word of truth will have been spoken in this land of deception.” A few months later, I published an article in accord with Girmame's testament, an article which the Emperor found so offensive that he wanted the U.S. Government to put me in prison. But then, Acting Vice-President Bentley dissuaded him with this memorable argument. “Your Majesty,” he pleaded, “think of yourself for a moment not as head of the Ethiopian State, but as Chancellor of this new University. You want it to be internationally respected. For that, it must be able to guarantee academic freedom. What better proof of your intent could you demonstrate than to invite Dr. Levine to return to help build it?”

The rhetoric worked. Despite the fact that I had written an article that was terribly critical and threatening to him, the Emperor understood that for this university to be a first-class, internationally respected university, it had to guarantee freedom of inquiry, speech, and publication; and so, with grace and generosity, His Majesty approved the idea of inviting me to return…

As I have pondered this episode over the years, I have come to interpret the actions of Girmame Neway and His Majesty in a new light…. [F]or all his upholding of tradition, the Emperor was taking a large step forward by embracing Dr. Bentley's differentiation between the values of political authority and the values of the university. Although my critique of him had upset His Majesty greatly, he apparently glimpsed the significance of that distinction and embraced it. He understood that the university and the state were governed by different norms and pursued different missions, even when reversing his decision about my return on grounds that consideration of State overrode considerations of academic autonomy. And does that reversal not reinforce the point-that university autonomy requires the management of a university to be fully independent of external political authorities? (Italics added.)

Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here….

Strictly for Those Who Have Never Experienced Academic Freedom: What is a University and What do Professors and Students Really Do There Anyway?
Contrary to some silly misconceptions, the university is not an “ivory tower” that is disconnected from “the real world”. Universities are not populated by absent-minded professors and wild-eyed radical students. And what happens in the university is not just of “academic interest”. The university is the intellectual engine of society, that is a democratic society. The greatest inventions in modern science came out of university laboratories. The vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in all areas of knowledge are university professors, scientists and researchers.

The university is a special institution in which an enlightened community of scholars, scientists, researchers and students use their intellect in the search for “Truth”. This pursuit of truth takes place in an environment of “academic freedom” where learning, teaching, research and scholarship are done without political or bureaucratic interference and intrusion. As Albert Einstein explained, academic freedom is “the right to search for the truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom serves to restrain the dissemination of knowledge, thereby impeding rational judgment and action.” In short, academic freedom is to a university what justice is to an independent court system. No academic freedom, no university! No independent court, no justice!

There are some simple ideas underlying the general principle of academic freedom. First, the university is a place of learning, not a place for political indoctrination. In the university setting, there is no such thing as a “false idea” or an “officially approved idea”, or “The Truth”. Acceptance of an idea at a university does not depend on the approval of politicians or party hacks. Acceptance or rejection occurs in a competitive marketplace of ideas where scholars, scientists, researchers, students and others test and debate the validity of ideas that are presented. The method of “Truth” discovery is different in the various academic fields. The physical sciences rely on equations and experiments to determine the “right” answer. In the social sciences, humanities and the law, the concept of truth is normative, and infinitely more elusive. Thus, there is a much greater need for a robust and wide-open debate in the search for truth.

There are a great many social benefits arising from stimulating academic freedom in a university. One major benefit is intellectual diversity which promotes not only the discovery of new knowledge, but is also essential in cultivating young minds to become creative, knowledgeable and productive citizens. Where academic freedom is maximized, students develop the habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry, which is instrumental in their own transformation as enlightened citizens compassionate public servants and professionals. Shielded by the principle of academic freedom, university professors help their students explore not only the outer limits of science and technology but also challenge the core principles of politics, culture and society.

Political Dissent and the University
There is a very important aspect of academic freedom that does not necessarily implicate formal classroom learning, research or laboratory experiments. It has to do with expression of political dissent and divergent viewpoints on campus. There is no question that a university is a proper venue to challenge and test the credibility of official government rhetoric and ideology, question the legitimacy of a political party, leader or regime, and openly discuss and criticize official corruption, abuse of power and violations of civil liberties and human rights. As experiences in democratic societies show, the professorait and students are often the tip of the intellectual spear in society not only in the search for truth, but also in demanding change and official accountability. More broadly, universities are the proper venue for all types of dissenting ideas and views and serve as forums for robust debate on issues affecting society. There are few alternatives to a university where such intense intellectual debates can take place in society. When academic freedom is restricted, and students and faculty recoil with fear and horror because they believe telling the truth will expose them to punishment, then the larger society is condemned to suffer in silence.

There is ample evidence to show the dynamic role of universities and dissenting voices in bringing about far reaching social change. In the mid-1960s America, for instance, opposition to the war in Vietnam began at the University of California, Berkeley. The anti-war movement soon evolved into a Free Speech Movement which transformed American universities and the society at large in the decades that followed. Academic freedom in American universities contributed significantly to the debate and policy formulation in civil rights, civil liberties and social justice issues. The Freedom Riders and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s introduced the strategies of nonviolence directly challenging Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the American South. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, American campuses were the epicenters of the debate over terrorism, its causes and cures. In this debate, even those who expressed anti-American and unpatriotic views were tolerated and engaged, and none were censored or denied their right to disagree or dissent with the majority.

Academic freedom is the right of faculty, and to a lesser extent the right of students. Politicians, party leaders or bureaucrats their should understand that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified by expertise and training to establish such standards, and not by loyalty oaths, contractual agreements, intimidation and harassment.

Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry as a Human Right
Article 29 of the “Ethiopian Constitution” provides “1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without any interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression without interference. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his choice.” Evidently, this article does not apply to professors and students in Ethiopian universities.

Regardless of Art. 29, academic freedom is a question of human rights.[4] Academic persecution is quintessentially political persecution. Abusing, harassing and imprisoning those faculty and students who do not tow the party line or support the official ideology, censoring what they teach and learn and enforcing silence on dissident voices in the university is as serious a human rights violation as imprisoning journalists, civil society leaders and human rights defenders.

There are various efforts underway to protect academic freedom internationally. Human Rights Watch has formed an Academic Freedom Committee to “monitor, expose, and mobilize concerted action to challenge threats to academic freedom worldwide, and to foster greater scholarly and media attention to the critical role played by institutions of higher education in the promotion of human rights and the development and preservation of civil society.” Others have issued declarations and passed resolutions defending academic freedom. For instance, the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education[5] states:
3. Academic freedom is an essential pre-condition for those education, research, administrative and service functions with which universities and other institutions of higher education are entrusted. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other source.
The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics similarly provides1:
14. All members of the academic community have the right to fulfill their functions of teaching, researching, writing, learning, exchanging and disseminating information and providing services without fear of interference or repression from the State or any other public authority.
The Earth is Flat, and H.R. 2003 is Bad for the People of Ethiopia?
The university is not a place to tell Platonic “noble lies” (the idea of telling the masses lies to keep them confused and under control). In the university, we do not punish, dismiss or impose a gag order on a professor who may claim that the Earth is flat and is carried through space on the back of a giant beetle. We put his dubious terrestrial claim to an empirical test. By demonstrating that the earth is indeed round in an open forum, we prove the falsity of his idea. Similarly, we should not deprive students of their daily bread or threaten them with expulsion, and intimidate their professors into submission just because they believe H.R. 2003 is a good thing for Ethiopia. We show them (or we let them they show us) the error of their ways by encouraging them to openly and robustly debate the provisions of the bill without fear of retaliation and retribution. In the final analysis the fate of H.R. 2003 should rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas in the universities, (and indeed in the broader society), and not struck down by the heavy hand of untutored and ignorant politicians and bureaucrats.

Professors, Students and Inconvenient Truths
Prof. Salisbury has revealed to us that when university faculty and students in Ethiopia attempt to teach, learn or communicate ideas or facts that are inconvenient to the regime, they will likely find themselves targeted for public vilification, job loss, harassment or even worse. Prof. Salisbury herself was once forced to suppress her natural instincts for academic freedom and tiptoe around the subject matter of her course, human rights. But in writing her article for Jurist she asserted her academic freedom, in much the same way as any freedom-loving American would, and told those who had inflicted an affront to her intellectual dignity, “Take your job and… ! I ain’t gonna take it no more!” We owe her a great debt of gratitude for marshaling the courage to stand for her students, her colleagues and herself against her contractual obligations and potential risk of dismissal from her position. We should applaud her for standing up for academic freedom in Ethiopian universities.

No doubt, some may argue that the kind of academic freedom defended in the foregoing discussion will not work in Ethiopian universities. Neither Ethiopian university students nor their professors are ready to enjoy such freedom. I say poppycock! If students and faculty can enjoy full academic freedom at Harvard, Berkeley or Minnesota, there is no reason why faculty and students at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma can not enjoy the same scope of academic freedom. In fact, I shall argue that those at Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Jimma universities need much more academic freedom because they are tiny islands of scholarly fellowship in a sea of censorship and repression.

Professor Salisbury is right when she said “Of those who wrote such notes, almost all said that I would probably be surprised to find that many of the students had been afraid to express their true feelings at the H.R. 2003 discussion forum because you never know who is listening. Prof. Levine is also right when he said, “Commitment to the values of academic freedom and excellence animated the generation of remarkable young Ethiopians who struggled to establish a first-rate institution of higher learning here….” Time will tell if a new generation of remarkable young Ethiopians will rise once again and help establish first-rate institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia where courses, including those on human rights, will be taught freely and without political interference, harassment and intimidation.
[1] [2] [3] .html [4] [5] (The Sixty-Eighth General Assembly of WORLD UNIVERSITY SERVICE, meeting in Lima from 6 to 10 September 1988, the year of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) [6] The Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics,

Monday, January 21, 2008

Long Live the King! Long Live the Dream! Long Live H.R. 2003!

What Would Dr. King Say?
Recently, there was a “tempest in a teapot” between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama over Dr. Martin Luther King’s role and contributions in the civil rights movement. Hilary said, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a President to get it done.” Her husband Bill views Barack Obama as a gadfly, and an interloper. The upstart Obama has unexpectedly become a major stumbling block to Hilary’s coronation. Bill told talk show host Charlie Rose that his irritation with Obama has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the fact that his wife has paid her dues. Obama has not. He is just a young pretty face. He must wait his turn, as Bill himself did back in 1988. Bill also said the the American people must vote for “the best agent for change”, not merely a “symbol for change… symbol is not as important as substance.” These were fighting words to say the least; and very surprising coming from the “first (former) black president” and his wife, the “first black (former) first lady??).

Many African Americans were troubled, and some even offended, by the apparently patronizing, insensitive and condescending tone of the Clintons’ tag team verbal onslaught against Obama. Was Hilary underrating Dr. King’s long and arduous struggle for equality and justice by giving President Johnson the ultimate credit for the success of the civil rights movement? Was she implying that it took a white president and a white Congress to bring long overdue legal equality to African Americans, and that Dr. King was merely leading the black cheering section? Was Hilary implicitly equating herself with Johnson as the “second great emancipator”, and offering herself as the “third great emancipator”, while Obama like Dr. King plays a stage role as a young dreamer? Do the Clintons really believe that African American leaders including Dr. King and Obama are merely “symbolic” leaders to be manipulated as puppets by liberal white leaders?

Perhaps the brouhaha is just overblown election year political rhetoric. Perhaps not. But there is enough historic precedent to be concerned about the Clintons’ jarring message to Obama. Dr. King was also told to “wait”. He was just rushing things too much. It’s not just time. He must “wait”, just a little longer. That was the reason he issued his monumental “Letter From Birmingham Jail” back in 1963 to tell his critics that he can no longer wait. Dr. King explained:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;… when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…. when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (Italics added.)

Had Dr. King “waited” for someone to bring freedom and civil rights to him, he might still be waiting. For Bill and Hilary, and whoever else offers a promise of freedom. Thank God Almighty, he did not. Were he alive today, he would have probably said, “I hope, Hilary and Bill, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Martin Luther King as One of the Greatest Human Rights Leaders of the 20th Century
Dr. King is often referred to as a “great black civil rights leader.” But he was really much, much more than that. He was one of the greatest human rights leaders of the 20th Century. A civil rights leader is concerned with the restoration of legal rights to those who are deprived of it. It is true Dr. King sought restoration of civil rights to African Americans who had endured for too long the dehumanizing effects of segregation and discrimination in America. He wanted laws to insure that African Americans were treated fairly and justly, and accorded equal opportunity in American society. But he NEVER asked for special rights or privileges for black people. He never asked for preferential treatment for them. He just wanted African Americans to have the same rights that other Americans enjoyed. Nothing more. Nothing less. And he keenly understood the limitation of the law. He said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” He wanted the law to make sure African Americans were not lynched, discriminated or segregated because of their race and skin color. He wanted African Americans to have what any other ordinary American was guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Dr. King was concerned with more than remedial civil rights legislation. He understood that civil rights laws in and of themselves were hollow unless they were fortified with human rights that included guarantees of basic economic security to every citizen. He knew the problem of poverty and economic security was not a unique problem to African Americans. The majority of the people in his time who were under the poverty line were white, not black. He saw the income inequality in the richest country in the world not through racial or ethnic lenses, but through the lens of structural reform of an uncompassionate economic system that created huge disparities between the rich and the poor. He said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Until his last day, Dr. King was a drum major for poor people. He led the Poor People’s Campaign and traveled the country with people of all races engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. He called for an investment in people by creating government employment programs to rebuild America’s cities and schools and communities. He criticized Congress for appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

Dr. King also understood that the “edifice which produces beggars” also produced untold misery and violence throughout the world. In 1967, Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” It was a great moral indictment against leaders of a nation that had committed large numbers of its youth and vast resources to wreak havoc on other societies. He said America was “on the wrong side of a world revolution”, and questioned why America had created an “alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and why it was helping suppress revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” from Vietnam to Africa to Latin America. He saw great injustice in the actions of “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”

Dr. King’s Message
Dr. King’s greatness as a leader comes not from his work to get civil rights legislation passed to eliminate lynchings, segregation and discrimination. Rather his universal appeal comes from his message of Love regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality. For this reason, it is important to remember that when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday of January, we are not celebrating a “black” holiday or a “black civil rights leader”. We are celebrating the timeless message of one of the greatest defenders of human rights in the 20th Century.

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King was profoundly concerned about the human race, not just the black or brown race. He loved humanity as children of God, not as races, nationalities, ethnicities or gender types. His cause was freedom, justice and equality in America, in Africa, in Vietnam or anywhere else in the world because he deeply understood that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He set out to change America and the world by changing hearts and minds through love, compassion, understanding and knowledge.

Dr. King’s message was that it is possible to change the world without the use of violence. As a Christian minister, he believed in the Christian idea of love. He combined this idea with Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (truth force, love force). The result was a method of nonviolence that could be an effective tool in the struggle for freedom, equality and human rights in America, or anywhere else. Dr. King initially thought the whole idea of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience was somewhat impractical and counterintuitive. He realized its potential when he used it in the Montgomery bus boycott and successfully desegregated that city’s public transportation system in 1956.

Dr. King learned an essential lesson from the Montgomery boycott experience: Nonviolence and non-cooperation in repressive systems could be important tools of social change. His basic ideas on the use of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were simple. He categorically rejected violence as a method of change. He cautioned, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. It seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”
Dr. King was interested in building and constructing a just society, and in redemption; he was not interested in poking out the eyes of evil doers and piling up the body count of blind people in the community. For this reason, his teachings and message are easily understood. He taught nonviolence is actually a way of life for courageous people, that is, for people who have the courage of their convictions and have a commitment to truth and justice. Practitioners of nonviolent resistance are not interested in vanquishing their enemies; they are interested in converting them to the cause of righteousness. It is necessary to separate those who do evil from the evil they do. They are victims of evil themselves; they need salvation, not destruction. Suffering transforms and instructs the individual. Though suffering it is possible to convert the enemy. One must accept suffering, but never inflict it. Nonviolence avoids hate and upholds love; and one must never sink to the level of the hater. Love is a weapon not only to resist injustice but also restore community. The nonviolent resister always believes the universe and God are on the side of justice. In the end, justice and truth will always prevail. This is the sum and substance of Dr. King’s message.

Dr. King and His Dream of Human Rights
Dr. King’s dream was fundamentally a dream for human rights anchored in the very body and soul of the American credo of freedom, justice and equality so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence. In 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., Dr. King proclaimed his Dream to the world. He said:
“[E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope….”

An Impossible Dream?: Carving Out a Stone of Hope From a Mountain of Despair
Nearly 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and 44 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dr. King’s dream of human rights still remains unfulfilled. Far too many African Americans are trapped and stranded on the “mountain of despair”, poverty and prison. Young African Americans suffer the brunt of that despair. The statistics are shocking, but not unfamiliar.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are approximately 5 million black men in America between the ages of 20 and 39. But the fate of these young people in American society is bleak. A young black man today has a greater chance of being shot or victimized by violence than going to college. The incarceration rate among black males is mind boggling. Nearly one out of four black males is either in state prison, county jail, on parole, probation or is being sought by law enforcement authorities. Nearly 16 percent of black men between the ages of 20-30 who are not college students are in some form of custodial supervision. Nearly 60 percent of black male high school dropouts in the 20-39 age range have done prison or jail time. African Americans are seven times more likely to go to prison or jail than whites; and the incarceration rate for young black males has continued to rise for the past two decades. There does not seem to be an end to the exodus of young black men to correctional institutions. Even sociologists have invented a new theory to explain the “internal migration” of young urban black males from their communities to prison. The sad truth is that the United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world; and a disproportionate percentage of these inmates are black men.

Economically, African Americans as a group earn less today than they did fifteen years ago. The jobless rate among black men has remained the highest among all groups in the U.S., and continues to increase. In 2000, approximately 65 percent of black male high school dropouts had no jobs; by 2004, that number had increased to 72 percent. Young African Americans with no criminal records do not seem to do much better in the job market. They have as much chance of getting employed as a white job seeker fresh out of jail. Such is the sad, sad story of young African American males; and it is widely documented in all of the major studies done at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia over the past 2 years.

But there is a human side that some of us see in the trenches. There are real faces behind these statistics. We know them as clients in the state and federal prisons, and county jails. We do our best to defend them in the courtrooms and hearing rooms while they are chained like dangerous wild animals. We listen in muted anger as they are dehumanized and referred to as “bodies”. We are told, “There is one body waiting for you to talk.” Every day we read the same stories written on the faces of these young black men in invisible ink. It is a story of gangs, drugs, poverty and violence. It is a familiar and numbing story. But we have heard it all before. And the criminal justice system has a well-oiled revolving door that spits out young African Americans like widgets in a factory assembly line. From incarceration to parole and probation, and back to incarceration. It is the same story every time.

We also see them, just a very few of them, in the college classrooms. Often we see them for a fleeting moment. A few days, and they are not around anymore. And we wonder. But rarely do we wonder if they had fallen ill or gotten into an accident. No, we worry, and often are resigned to the fact that perhaps they got arrested. It is very sad. Every year, we hope there will be more young African American men in our classes because tens of thousands of them graduate from the high schools all over the State of California; and every year we are disappointed. They don’t come.

In 2006, in Los Angeles County alone 10,487 African American students graduated from high school. Only 210 (2%) were admitted at UCLA! In the same year, the University of California (UC) System admitted 55,242 students. Only 1880 (3.4%) were African American. In 2006, in the California State University System (CSU), there were only 20,000 African American students out of more than 400,000, representing only 6% of the student population system wide. But the admissions percentages are terribly misleading. Among those African Americans admitted, a little over 50 percent actually graduate within 6 years. Among those admitted and graduating, a significant percentage of them are African American women. Imagine: What are the odds of having an African American student in a given course on a UC or CSU campus? An African American male?

MLK’s Human Rights Legacy: Barack Obama Can Lead the People From the Mountain of Despair to the Valley of Hope!
Senator Obama seems ready to pick up Dr. King’s mantle. He uses language that unifies America, not divide it. He appeals to principles of justice, freedom and equality, not to whites or blacks or other races. He declared, “There is no black America. There is no White America. Only the United States of America.” That is in the same spirit of Dr. King’s dream, “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ‘that all men are created equal.’” It is the same aspiration.

Obama’s message is resonating with people of all races, as did Dr. King’s. Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others are coming out to vote for him in record numbers. He is revitalizing American democracy, and awakening a new spirit of political participation and involvement among the young. He has struck a chord in the American imagination and spirit. He sounds just like Dr. King when he says, “I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.” He talks about finding our way out of the wilderness. “That is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words — words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white, not just the Gentile but also the Jew, not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.”

Whether Barack Obama becomes president is an important fact. His candidacy and the public support he has generated to date marks a historic milestone in American history. But to many of us, whether he can carry the mantle of Dr. King is equally important. Can he pick up where Dr. King left off? Many of Dr. King’s people are stranded on a mountain of despair. They need someone to lead them out of the wilderness to the valley of hope? Can Obama become the moral conscience and compass for America? He can, if he chooses to become Dr. King’s messenger!

Dr. King Would Have Wholeheartedly Supported Ethiopian Human Rights
Dr. King would have supported H.R. 2003 wholeheartedly. We know this from the fact that he opposed racist violence in Alabama and Mississippi that caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent protesters and imprisonment of thousands more; and from his unflinching opposition to apartheid in South Africa, dictatorships in Latin America and Africa, and in his outrage wherever “injustice threatened justice.” We can still hear the echoes of Dr. King’s words from nearly a half century ago. Back then he spoke out against U.S. support of tyrannical and dictatorial regimes that trampled on human rights in Latin America, Asia and Africa. If he were alive today, he would asked President Bush why America is on the “wrong side” of the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia? Why has America created an “alliance” with a corrupt and dictatorial regime in Ethiopia that tramples on the basic human rights of its citizens? Why is America helping to suppress the freedom aspirations “of the shirtless and barefoot people” of Ethiopia? Why is it that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world is not leading the human rights revolution in the world?”

But he would have had a few words for us too. He would have reminded us our obligations: “Every man (and woman) of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his (her) convictions, but we must all protest.” Yes, we must protest against human rights violations. And against tyranny and dictatorships. We must have our voices heard in support of the rule of law, freedom, justice, human rights and democracy. And he would have also taught us the truth about the consequences of our inaction and indifference: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

So today we wish Dr. King a happy birthday! Today we celebrate his message and teachings. Today we recommit ourselves to the cause of truth, justice, freedom, human rights and democracy. Today we join Dr. King in reciting one of his favorite poems written by James Russell Lowell:

Truth forever on the scaffold.
Wrong forever on the throne.
With that scaffold sways the future.
Behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.

Long Live the King! Long Live the Dream! Long Live H. R. 2003!

Monday, January 07, 2008

H.R. Stands for Human Rights: Let's Stand Up for H.R. 2003 in 2008

H.R. Here, H.R. There, H.R. Everywhere in Ethiopia!The truth is finally out! The H.R. in H.R. 2003 stands for Human Rights! H.R. has become the special code for the Ethiopian people whenever they want to talk about the rule of law and due process and freedom of expression and association. It has become their special lingo to talk about the need for an independent press and an independent judiciary and for clean elections and the rest of it. And human rights were the rage in Ethiopia in the third quarter of 2007. From the barstools of the Sheraton and Hilton hotels to the tattered wooden benches of the tej, tella and katikalla bets, the talk was H.R. Farmers, day laborers and even listros (shoeshiners) wistfully talked about H.R. "This H.R. We need her! If only we had HeR…" they'd pine away.

From the universities to the school yard, it was all about H.R. The mantra of the Grant Run was H.R. "We want H.R. Pass H.R. now!", the multitudes chanted in unison as they pounded the pavement. Sinecured politicians and bureaucrats, and sycophants lined up to condemn H.R. On regime-controlled radio, television and in the "newspapers", it was H.R. H.R. H.R. H.R.!!!! The Ethiopian Diaspora basked in the sunlight of H.R., fresh from a unanimous House vote. In the United States, the epicenter of the H.R. phenomenon, and in Canada, Europe and Australia, and in the Middle East and Africa, they sang the H.R. song. Just like Harry Belafonte sang his freedom song: "If I had a hammer". If we had H.R., we too would hammer for justice, and ring the bell of freedom all over the land. Ah! If we only had H.R…

Let's Thank Our Adversaries!Passage of H.R. 2003 in the U.S. House of Representatives in October, 2007 "rocked their world". They could not believe they would be thumped so decisively so well protected by the Armey of D.L.A. Piper. They frothed at the mouth. They recoiled in cold sweat. They cried foul. But all to no avail. H.R. had captivated the imagination of all Ethiopians. It was embedded deep in their psyche. H.R. had become the symbol of hope for millions who have been forced to endure hopelessness. The very acronym, H.R., had a magical quality of deliverance to it. It was empowering, and inspiring. Every time Ethiopians uttered the H.R. acronym, it was at once an act of defiance and of civil disobedience; and also a muted cry for help, an S.O.S. to America and the world for dignity, for democracy and for the rule of law.

How did H.R. 2003 become a symbol of hope and redemption, and an envelope for the hopes and desires of 76 million people? Well, we must give due credit to our adversaries for this singular achievement. They helped spread the gospel of human rights far and wide in Ethiopia. We could not have done it with them!

Of course, they did not intend to spread our human rights message. They were just victims of the law of unintended consequences. Their sole aim was to disparage and caricature H.R. 2003 and inflame public passions by fabricating nonsensical arguments about the bill. In fact, they pulled out all the stops to malign and distort the simple and unmistakable message of H.R. 2003. The litany of falsehoods and distortions about the bill changed and became more absurd by the day. They said H.R. 2003 will bring "slavery" and "colonialism" to Ethiopia. The people laughed. "The mighty Italian army with its tanks, planes and mustard gas could not enslave and colonize Ethiopia. Could America with a stroke of the legislative pen?"

They even resurrected the Ghost of Wuchale to support the fallacious argument that H.R. 2003 destroys Ethiopian sovereignty and usurps the legislative functions of the Ethiopian "parliament". In the Wuchale Treaty, Menelik supposedly gave Eritrea to the Italians and agreed to have the Italians prosecute Ethiopian foreign policy. But did he really? No doubt, those who now trumpet their unabashed pride in liberating Eritrea could answer that question definitively. Only "parliament" can pass human rights laws, they said. The people chuckled, "Save parliament's time. Just respect, follow and apply your constitution." But why can't they respect and follow their own constitution?

They said H.R. 2003 will undermine the current effort to build democracy in Ethiopia. They forgot they had told everyone for the last 17 years that Ethiopia was a democracy and a republic. Apparently, not. But if they are indeed building democracy now, it must be a democracy without foundation. There is no evidence of the rule of law as a cornerstone of this supposed democratic edifice. No independent press or independent judiciary as a support beam. No due process of law and no clean elections to make this vacant building a home for the people. They said H.R. 2003 is the only one of its kind stirred up by vindictive Diasporans who seek to harm Ethiopia. They seemed to be willfully ignorant of similar bills that are currently pending in Congress for North Korea, Iran and Vietnam, or others that have been recently enacted against Burma and the Sudan, among others. They tried to smear pro-democracy forces who support H.R. 2003. They threatened dire diplomatic consequences should the bill be enacted into law: "America will not have an ally in the war against terror in the Horn of Africa." Sure, everyone knows what happened to the dog that bit the hand that fed it.

For months, our adversaries worked themselves into a frenzy rolling out one lie after another in a futile attempt to discredit H.R. 2003and take the peoples' eyes off the prize. But no amount of propaganda and disinformation could convince the people that H.R. 2003 is a bad thing for them, or for Ethiopia.

The people remained spellbound by the almost magical quality of H.R. 2003, and its promise to promote the rule of law, accountability, democracy and freedom in Ethiopia.
Our adversaries did more to teach the people of Ethiopia about human rights than we ever could in the Diaspora. The more lies they told about H.R. 2003, the more people became convinced of the righteousness of H.R. 2003 and the urgent need for the defense of their human rights. Every word of condemnation and censure of H.R. 2003 became a blessing in disguise to the cause of human rights in Ethiopia. People knew what they knew. They could not speak the truth out loud because the fox is guarding the henhouse. But that does not mean the chickens do not know the truth about the treacherous fox, or that the fox has convinced them into believing that it is necessary to violate their human rights to preserve it for them. Ultimately, H.R. 2003 proved to be a small bill that gave great hope to the Ethiopian people.

But despite the massive official campaign against H.R. 2003, the people did not rise up with righteous indignation and burn the American flag in the streets of Addis or any other city. They did not burn George Bush in effigy. They did not carry placards that said "Yankee go home!". Not a single person said a critical word against H.R. 2003 during the Great Run of 2007. So we must sincerely thank our adversaries for what they have done to spread the message of human rights in Ethiopia, and encourage them to continue to malign, distort and criticize H.R. 2003.

H.R. 2003 in the U.S. Senate and in the American Political Process
The defeat of H.R. 2003 in the Senate has been trumpeted over the past months. Regime leaders and their minions have confidently proclaimed that H.R. 2003 will not be enacted into law because it will not pass the Senate. They arrogantly declared that even if the Senate were to pass it, Bush will certainly veto it since he understands the "bill is wrong and that Ethiopia is a poor country, not a poor dog." But even if Bush were to sign the bill into law, they said "we would reject it" because "our constitution would not allow it as it represents a violation of our sovereignty, and the only people who could make laws are sitting in this parliament." They even threatened American policy makers: "Ethiopian American cooperation will stop if they seek to implement the law". They managed to enlist the huckster Jim Inhofe in the Senate to stonewall H.R. 2003. He obligingly vowed to defeat the bill. All indications are Inhofe will place a "hold" (delay floor action on the bill as much as possible) on the bill, and possibly even filibuster (a special senate procedure that requires the vote of 60 other members to bring a bill to a floor vote) it should it proceed to the Senate floor.

But we should not be discouraged by all the bluster and swagger. The forces of evil will do what they will. It is up to the forces of good to rise up and challenge them by doing good. We did good, damn good, just this past year. Who will forget the dark days of November, 2006, when Speaker Hastert snuffed the lights out of H.R. 5680? True, evil prevailed that November, but not for long. We came back in April; and on the exact anniversary of the defeat of H.R. 5680, we got H.R. 2003 passed in the House, unanimously. We persisted, therefore we prevailed! We prevailed because we learned the same lesson Winston Churchill learned when confronted by the overwhelming might of the Nazi war machine: "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." We must persist, again!

The struggle in the Senate will not be an easy one. We face many obstacles — procedural, structural and the adverse effects of partisan bickering from the campaign trail. Senate procedures make it possible for a single senator to obstruct the flow of legislation. "Holds", "filibusters", "unanimous consent" and other arcane senate procedures and traditions afford individual senators extraordinary powers to thwart speedy consideration and action on legislation. Committee hearings, legislative schedules and debates take place at the Senate's (snail's) pace. In the first half of 2008, the Senate will have a full plate. The war in Iraq will remain a contentious issue as will immigration and efforts to mitigate the predicted recessionary effects of the massive mortgage crises. The Senate itself is in a logjam with the balance of power evenly divided between 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans and 2 Independents. The run up to the November 2008 elections will have its own special effect on the Senate agenda, as both parties try to curry support from voters.

Despite the vicissitudes of election year politics and intricate legislative procedures, we can and we will prevail in the Senate. But we must redouble our efforts. There are many things going in our favor. Tectonic transformations are looming in the American political landscape. Americans want change, desperately and now. Who would have thought just a few weeks ago that a black man could sweep the Iowa caucuses in a rural state with a predominantly "white" population? But race did not matter to Iowans. Change did. Even in New Hampshire, Obama is in dead heat with Clinton. Republican Mike Huckabee, a relative unknown from one of the poorest states in America, trounced multimillionaire Mitt Romney, from one of the richest states in America, who outspent him in Iowa by more than six to one. The bottom line is that Americans are fed up with lies, liars, war mongers, and incompetents running their government and foreign policy.

There is no question that Americans are deeply concerned and are very unhappy about their country's image, role and presence in the international community. They don't want America to be the policeman of the world. They understand that the war on terrorism can not be won simply by bombing and breaking the bones of the enemies of democracy and freedom. They know it is essential to also reach the hearts and minds of those who oppose America. Americans want their troops back from Iraq, and they want an end to the reckless global military adventurism that wastes their hard earned tax dollars. They realize the best weapon to ensure American primacy in woirld affairs is a foreign policy genuinely based on promoting human rights, the rule of law, democratic institutions, independent judiciaries and independent free press isntitutions, among others. Even the republican presidential candidates are now earnestly talking about the vital need to promote human rights in the Islamic world and wherever else dictators dictate. Even the bought-and-paid-for politicians now understand that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Change in American foreign policy means changing the image of the "ugly American" who wants to dominate the world by brute military force. Change means a recognition of the stark fact that America can reclaim its honored role in the world by upholding its founding principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Americans want a foreign policy that is humane and compassionate, not one that thrives on rabid militarism and the spectre of terrorism. Therein lies our hope and inevitable ultimate victory, despite temporary setbacks, the machinations of hucksters and fat cat lobbyists. Our cause is on the same side of the cause of the American people.

Beware the Ruse of the Adversary
Our adversaries would have you believe that the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia rises or falls with H.R. 2003. If the bill does not pass, they would like to have us believe, we have lost. The cause of human rights in Ethiopia is defeated and lost forever. We should beware the demoralizing propaganda and disinformation campaign of the adversary. We have no illusions about H.R. 2003. We believe it to be an important strategic tool in the struggle for human rights, but none of us believe it to be a cure-all for all human rights violations in Ethiopia. Anyone who has read the bill knows that the certification requirements give the president of the United States considerable discretion in determining statutory compliance. For instance, the president could refuse to apply the law if s/he felt applying it would compromise American national interest. So there are limitations to the bill even if it were enacted into law.

What we should clearly understand is the fact that H.R. 2003 is just one mile marker on the long walk to a free and democratic Ethiopia. That road neither begins nor ends in the U.S. Congress. That journey takes entirely in the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. We have always said that we shall win the struggle for human rights by winning hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters, not by breaking their bones and hearts. And how we win hearts and minds is no secret. We tell the truth. Nothing but the truth. So help us God! Of course, we have no choice but to speak truth to power, because as Scripture teaches, the "truth shall set us free."

It is in the nature of human beings to yearn to be free; to be treated with dignity and respect; to be treated fairly and equally before the law. This yearning is the same for the filthy rich as it is for the dirt poor; the same for the young as it is for the old; for men as it is for women; for the educated and the illiterate alike. Human rights are to the human spirit of freedom as religion is to the immortal soul and bread to the mortal body. Man and woman need to be protected from political predators who derive their thrills from oppressing and persecuting the powerless. Humans need their fundamental rights protected and respected, by law. This Truth we must proclaim till Kingdom come!

The Task Ahead: Let's Pass H.R. 2003 in the Senate!H.R. 2003 now sits in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It needs to get committee action and get to the floor for a vote. It can be done, but it requires unceasing effort and unflinching commitment. We must keep doing what we have been doing, but we must do some of it differently. We must be better organized. We must do less freelancing and more concerted and coordinated grassroots action. We must intensify our efforts with individual senators from our respective states. We must educate and develop working relationships with their staffers. We must share with them the truth about human rights abuses on a regular basis. We must win the hearts and minds of our Senators with the Truth if we are to ultimately win.

Above all, we must resolve to stay with H.R. 2003 for the long haul. In the battle between good and evil, evil wins many skirmishes. But good wins in the end, always! That is the history of all dictatorships from time immemorial. They win for a time, but not for all time. Even the soulless tyrant knows he can not oppress forever. But Congress is not the only place we can plead our human rights cause. There is a much higher court than Congress to which we can appeal. It is a court called the Conscience of the American People. There we must plead our cause passionately and relentlessly. In the state legislatures. Before civic and professional organizations. In the churches, and universities and schools, and wherever else we can be heard. We must create awareness among our American friends, neighbors and coworkers. As others enlist hucksters, we must enlist the help of Average Joe American. We must make the American people our natural allies. We must tell them the truth about the massacre of 193 innocent people, and the thousands of nameless souls that have perished at the hands of a ruthless regime. And the thousands more that languish in subhuman jails today. We must speak up about those who abuse their powers and inflict great pain and suffering on their people. We must expose their evil deeds and evil ways. In all we do we must maintain unflagging fidelity to the Truth. And we must "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." Let's join hands and pass H.R. 2003 in 2008.