Donald Payne: A Drum Major for Democracy and Human Rights By Alemayehu G Mariam
Grassroots Ethiopian human rights groups and activists have been stunned by the death last week of Donald Payne, our strongest ally and advocate in the U.S. Congress. His passing marks a major setback to the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia and Africa. But Don Payne has left us a rich legacy of human rights advocacy and legislative action spanning over two decades. It is now our burden — indeed our moral duty — to build, to expand and to deliver on that legacy.
Over the past week, many Ethiopians who have worked with Don Payne and followed his labor of love in Ethiopia and Africa over the years have been asking what Diaspora Ethiopians could do individually or as a community to honor his memory and legacy. They all have great ideas: We should set up a scholarship fund in his name at his alma mater. We should sponsor a human rights conference in his name. We should contribute money in his name to his favorite charity. We should have a special occasion named in his honor. We should have a special memorial church service for him and so on.
These are commendable things to do in his memory; but I believe the greatest honor we can bestow upon our friend Donald Payne is to deliver on his rich legacy with steely resolve. Don Payne’s legacy is the active promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa. His singular legacy in Ethiopia is his unrelenting effort to link human rights to such core American values as the rule of law, accountability and transparency.
Donald Payne lived a life of public service both in his congressional district in New Jersey and in his larger “continental district” of Africa. He crisscrossed the continent to stand up and speak up for Africa’s voiceless, faceless and nameless who continue to suffer in quiet desperation under ruthless dictatorships. He never sought public recognition or accolade for what he did for Africans and in Africa. He never compalined about the hardships and risks he faced, and patiently deflected the slings and arrows of African dictators who never missed an opportunity to vilify and denounce him for his unwavering stand on democracy and human rights.
Don Payne was a person Dr. Martin Luther King would have described as a drum major for justice, for peace and for righteousness. We know him to be a drum major (leader) for democracy, human rights and freedom in Africa. He was a drum major for free and fair elections in Ethiopia. He was a drum major for an independent judiciary and for press freedom. He was a drum major for the unconditional release of all Ethiopian political prisoners from secret and regular prisons. He was a drum major for stability, democracy, and economic development in the Horn of Africa. He was a drum major for humanitarian assistance and economic development of Africa. He was a drum major for strengthening Ethio-American relations and collaboration in the war on terror. Donald Payne was a drum major for democracy and accountability in Ethiopia.
Delivering on Don Payne’s Legacy
Delivering on Don Payne’s legacy is delivering on America’s human rights promises in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia. In December 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton clearly set out the foundations of American human rights policy. She said “the idea of human rights and freedoms” is not a “slogan mocked by half the world” and “it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith.” Human rights are universal values. There are no Ethiopian, African, European, American or other national forms of human rights. “Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” Secretary Clinton urged that the “basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights.” Those rights “are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment.” These rights are the bedrock principles of human existence anywhere. “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly–these are not just abstract ideals to us; they are tools with which we create a way of life, a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom.”
The key to democracy is the opportunity for people to make a free choice about their system of governance. Secretary Clinton said, “ The final expression of the opinion of the people with us is through free and honest elections, with valid choices on basic issues and candidates.” These principles are not mere platitudes; they are principles to be preserved, promoted and defended. In countries whose “governments are able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve”, Secretary Clinton said, America “must vigorously press leaders to end repression, while supporting those within societies who are working for change… and support those courageous individuals and organizations who try to protect people and who battle against the odds to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future.” She proclaimed that there are four pillars that support the Obama Administration’s human rights policy:
First, a commitment to human rights starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves…. Second, we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda, not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real…. When we run up against a wall we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve to find another way to effect change and improve people’s lives…. Third, we support change driven by citizens and their communities. The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just a project for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations—within communities and across borders—who are committed to securing lives of dignity for all who share the bonds of humanity…. Fourth, we will not forget that positive change must be reinforced and strengthened where hope is on the rise and… where human lives hang in the balance we must do what we can to tilt that balance toward a better future.
Holding the Obama Administration Accountable for Human Rights
Secretary Clinton said that human rights accountability begins at home with “ourselves”. What has the Obama Administration done to preserve, protect and promote human rights in Africa in general and particularly Ethiopia? What did the U.S. do when Meles Zenawi claimed electoral victory of 99.6 percent in May 2010? Has the U.S. “vigorously pressed” Zenawi to hold free and fair elections? HAs the U.S. sought the release the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Zenawi’s secret and regular prisons? What did the U.S. do when Zenawi decimated the independent press in Ethiopia one by one and electronically jammed the Amharic broadcasts of the Voice of America to Ethiopia?
Responding With Strategic Resolve
Secretary Clinton said that “when we run up against a wall” of repression and see human rights trashed, “we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve” to help victims of abuse. In his Statement celebrating World Press Freedom Day (May 2010), President Obama said, “Last year was a bad one for the freedom of the press worldwide. While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like Ethiopia… curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies.” Today, Zenawi’s regime has gone beyond limiting access to “connective technologies” to shuttering newspapers and disconnecting broadcasts of the Voice of America from the people of Ethiopia. Has the U.S. responded with “strategic resolve” when it ran smack against Zenawi’s stonewall of press repression and free expression in Ethiopia?
Supporting Change Driven by Citizens and Their Communities
Secretary Clinton said that “human rights” cannot become “a human reality” unless it is possible for “individuals and organizations within communities and across borders” to work cooperatively in the cause of human rights. In February 2010, U.S. Undersecretary of State Maria Otero raised concerns with Zenawi over the so-called civil society organization law which Otero asserted “threatened the role of civil society” in Ethiopia. According to one report, as a result of this “law”, the “the number of CSOs [civil society organizations] has been reduced from about 4600 to about 1400 in a period of three months in early 2010. Staff members have been reduced by 90% or more among many of those organizations that survive according to my informants.” What has the U.S. done to “support citizen driven change” in Ethiopia as CSOs are wiped out? What has the U.S. done to support “courageous individuals and organizations” in Ethiopia, including civic society and human rights organizations, “who try to protect people”?
Tilting the Balance Toward a Better Future
Secretary Clinton said the U.S. will weigh in and work towards a better future “where hope is on the rise and human lives hang in the balance”. In the May 2010 election, the U.S. had an opportunity to help steer Ethiopia towards a better future. Immediately after the election, the U.S. issued a strong statement:
We have a broad and comprehensive relationship with Ethiopia, but we have expressed our concerns on democracy and governance directly to the government… Measures the Ethiopian government take following these elections will influence the future direction of US-Ethiopian relations… To the extent that Ethiopia values the relationship with the United States, then we think they should heed this very direct and strong message… We will continue to engage this government, but we will make clear that there are steps that it needs to take to improve democratic institutions.
Nearly two years after that election, countless numbers of individuals have been detained under a so-called anti-terrorism law, the independent press has been stamped out and a full-fledged police state established. Is the U.S. tilting the balance in Ethiopia toward a better future or bending it backwards to perpetuate a vicious cycle of the past into the present?
H.R. 2003- Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act Redux
Long before Secretary Clinton eloquently articulated America’s human rights policy, Donald Payne, and before him another New Jersey Congressman, Christopher Smith, were toiling away to make it a reality. In fact, H.R. 2003 (passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2007) neatly and effortlessly combined all four pillars of the Obama Administration’s human rights policy. It is precisely the type of legislative action that could give real teeth to the lofty words of Secretary Clinton.
We can best honor Don Payne’s life and his legacy of human rights by re-committing ourselves to the re-introduction and passage of a bill that incorporates all of the elements of H.R. 2003. What was in H.R. 2003? The Congressional Research Service, a well-respected nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, summarized that the bill is intended to
(1) support human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; (2) collaborate with Ethiopia in the Global War on Terror; (3) seek the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia; (4) foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the region; (5) support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; and (6) strengthen U.S.-Ethiopian relations.
Human rights accountability legislation for Ethiopia began in earnest in the U.S. Congress following the officially documented massacre of at least 193 victims and wounding of 763 others in the afteramth of the May 2005 elections. In November 2005, Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, then-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, introduced H.R. 4423 (“Ethiopia Consolidation Act of 2005”). That bill focused on, among other things, the use of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and provision of resources to Ethiopia to support civil society institutions, independent human rights monitoring and democratic capacity building for political parties, police and security personnel, development assistance for the construction of dams and irrigation systems and suspension of joint security activities until certification is made that Ethiopia is observing international human rights standards. H.R. 4423 morphed into H.R. 5680 (“Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006”). In 2007 when Congressman Payne chaired the Africa Subcommittee, the bill was renumbered to H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”) and passed the House in October. It is manifest that the legislative language and provisions in H.R. 2003 offer the perfect vehicle for effective implementation of all four pillars of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.
In concluding her human rights policy speech, Secretary Clinton described the work that is required to protect human rights with special poingancy:
In the end, this isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. And we cannot be the people we are — people who believe in human rights—if we opt out of this fight. Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action. When we sign up for the promise of rights that apply everywhere, to everyone, the promise of rights that protect and enable human dignity, we also sign up for the hard work of making that promise a reality.
Upon the death of Congressman Payne, we can rekindle life in H.R. 2003 and finally transform lofty words into practical and concrete actions that will advance American human rights policy in Ethiopia and Africa. We can certainly “opt out of the fight” for human rights in Ethiopia, but then we cannot pretend to believe in human rights. Or we can “sign up” to continue the fight for human rights and human dignity in Ethiopia.
Fighting for a bill patterend after H.R. 2003 will not be an easy task or a fair fight. It will be a steep uphill battle for us as the commanding heights are controlled by some of the mightiest lobbyists in the world who will defend any tinpot dictator for $50,000 a month. Fighting against a formidable invisible army of highly paid lobbyists from “K” Street who lurk and silently creep on the granite floors of Congress to peddle their influence will be very hard. But we faced off that Army last time on Capitol Hill; and against all odds, we managed to win approval of H.R. 2003 in the House.But fighting in the cause of justice and righteousness has never been easy. It is always hard, very hard. So now Ethiopians, particularly those in the U.S., face a simple choice: sign up for the hard work — to do the heavy lifting — to make Donald Payne’s dream of an Ethiopia democracy and accountability act a reality; or “opt out of the fight” by cutting and running.