Human rights measure resisted in U.S.

November 9th, 2006 Print Print Email Email

By Gus Constantine


November 9, 2006 :-An effort to call Ethiopia to account on its human rights record was side lined in Congress be fore it adjourned for the midterm elections, with some supporters of the bill blaming Dick Armey, a former House majority leader turned lobbyist.The sponsor, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, shepherded the bill through the House International Relations Committee in June, but Speaker J. Dennis Hastert failed to bring it to the floor for a vote by the full House.

Supporters of the bill, including congressional aides, human rights organizations and members of the Ethiopian community in Washington, maintain that the bill was bottled up at the urging of Mr. Armey, who is now a senior policy adviser with the law and lobbying firm DLA Piper.

An aide to Mr. Smith, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Armey visited Mr. Smith to argue against the bill. Other supporters of the bill say Mr. Armey, a Texas Republican, argued on Capitol Hill that Ethiopia’s leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is “on our side” in the war against terrorism and should not be punished with a reduction in aid or the withholding of visas from some of his key officials.

Both Mr. Armey and DLA Piper have registered with the Justice Department as lobbyists under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, listing Ethiopia as a client. Calls to DLA Piper requesting comment from Mr. Armey were not returned.

Soon after the September 11 attacks, Mr. Meles proclaimed himself an ally in the war on terror. Since then, he has worked with neighbors to foment unrest in Sudan, where a fundamentalist Islamic government is in power, and sent troops into Somalia against an Islamist militia that has solidified control over most of that country after 15 years of anarchy and warlordism.

Mr. Smith’s bill would have included an exemption for aid directed to Ethiopia’s counterterrorist or peacekeeping activities. The bill has strong support from the Ethiopian community in Washington, most of whose members support the main opposition party in their homeland and were outraged by the violent suppression of protests after parliamentary elections last year.

The opposition made substantial gains but fell well short of a majority in the elections, which international monitors, including the Atlanta-based Carter Center, found to be generally fair. But dozens of people were killed and many injured when protesters decried what they thought were fraudulent results. Numerous opposition leaders are still on trial facing treason charges.

“Suppression of political and human rights, coupled with failed communist-style economic practices, threaten to destabilize an important U.S. ally and even turn the country into a breeding ground for terrorists,” said Mesfin Mekonen, a leader of the Ethiopian community in Washington.

That warning drips with irony, for Mr. Mekonen appears to turn on its head the argument of Mr. Meles’ government that it is fighting terrorism as an ally of the United States.

Mr. Mekonen has created an Ethiopian-American Council to rally Ethiopians in the United States against Mr. Meles and to press Congress to act against the Ethiopian government. The bill, introduced by Mr. Smith, is called the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006.

Patrick Creamer, communications director for the congressman, said, “The bill calls on the Ethiopian government to end its human rights abuses, including the unlawful detention and prolonged trial of opposition leaders and pro-democracy advocates.”

The bill specifically calls on the Bush administration to limit security assistance to peacekeeping and counterterrorism, and to deny visas to anyone involved in last year’s postelection crackdown and to secure the release of political prisoners.

Late last month, a U.N. report linked Ethiopian security forces to 193 deaths in last year’s crackdown, much higher than the official count publicized at the time.

Mr. Smith subsequently expressed “outrage at the Ethiopian government’s continued silence about the report” and called for immediate passage of his bill.

Sources close to the proposed legislation think it is unlikely the bill will be pushed to the floor in the lame-duck session of Congress this year.

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