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Politics of Fear: Crisis in Ethiopia and the Role of the International Community

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa CREDIT: REUTERS

Politics of Fear: Crisis in Ethiopia and the Role of the International Community
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion
8 August 2016

Dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed and arrested by government authorities amid ongoing unrest in Ethiopia. For months, hundreds of thousands of protestors from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups have rallied to protest political marginalization and systematic persecution by the government. In June, a 61-page human rights report was released by Human Rights Watch, condemning the Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed response to the protests. According to the report, Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests, during the widespread protests, largely arising within Oromia (but now extending to other regions), Ethiopian security forces have resorted to excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, engaged in the harsh, ruthless mistreatment of those in detention, and restricted access to information. Estimates suggest that over 400 protesters or others had been killed by security forces, while tens of thousands more have been arrested, figures that will now have risen significantly.

Corruption and poor governance remain deeply embedded within Ethiopia’s socio-political structure, and the country consistently scores extremely poorly on a range of international governance indicators. The Ethiopian government has been consistently criticized by an array of international rights groups for its broad range of human rights abuses including its harsh repression of minorities and journalists, press censorship, draconian anti-terror laws that are utilized to silence all forms of dissent, and brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protestors.

Although the ongoing crisis encapsulates the government’s utter contempt for basic human rights and the overwhelming “politics of fear” that pervades the country’s socio-political landscape, it also reveals, in crystal clear detail, the highly troubling role played by much of the international community, led by the US and the West. Specifically, while the government’s brutal crackdown warrants a strong rebuke and condemnation, there has been a severely muted international response, with many of Ethiopia’s foreign supporters remaining silent.

Rather than condemn and censure Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown, the international community has turned a blind eye, abdicated its responsibility, and instead been acquiescent to Ethiopia’s persistent violations and repression. Last year, both US President, Barack Obama, and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, granted legitimacy to the Ethiopian government by praising its “democracy” – even though the country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Ruling Democratic Front (EPRDF), swept the national elections by winning 100 percent of the parliamentary seats.

When the French statesman, Talleyrand, was told by an aide of the murder of a political opponent, the aide said, “It’s a terrible crime, Sir.” In response, Talleyrand answered, “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” Likewise is the West’s propping up of the Ethiopian government. Unwavering support for and appeasement of Ethiopia are part of a policy approach based upon the misguided belief, dating back to the immediate post-World War 2 period but rearticulated more recently in terms of regional “anchor states” designations, that Ethiopia is vital to protecting US and Western geostrategic interests and foreign policy aims. However, not only is this approach morally reprehensible, with the US and West being directly complicit in the mass crimes, transgressions, and reign of terror perpetrated by the Ethiopian government, the misguided policy approach has largely failed to achieve its objectives, to even a minor degree, and instead only served to stunt regional development and destabilize both Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa region.

In seeking to address Ethiopia’s flagrant dismissal of international norms and blatant disregard for human rights, a number of measures could be undertaken (e.g. sanctions). However, the first, and possibly most far-reaching and effective, response by the international community should be to withdraw its unwavering support for the repressive Ethiopian government.

George Galloway, respected British politician, broadcaster, and writer, has frequently voiced concern of how the West’s support for dictatorial, tyrannical regimes in the name of security only results in “blowback” and harming the populations of those countries. Regarding Ethiopia, Galloway has decried how the UK and US policy of encouraging, arming, training, financing, and facilitating the Ethiopian government’s “reign of terror” is “morally vacuous.” Similarly, respected international economist, William Easterly, has recommended that the international community “stop financing tyranny and repression” in Ethiopia.

For decades, Ethiopia has been highly dependent on external economic assistance. In 2012, it was the world’s seventh largest recipient of official humanitarian aid and received $3.2B in total assistance, the latter figure representing between 50-60 percent of its total budget, while its 2011 share of total official development assistance – approximately 4 percent – placed it behind only Afghanistan. Problematically, however, even while it is one of the world’s leading recipients of foreign aid, and is currently requesting even greater financial support, the Ethiopian government also annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons and arms – which are now being used against its own civilians.

With such a critical dependency on foreign aid, threats to “turn off the tap” unless Ethiopia changes course may be a viable step toward improving the country’s rights record. Alternatively, rather than providing aid directly to the Ethiopian regime, which has a long track record of corruption and misappropriation, the international community should consider directly supporting local human rights and democracy groups (although this may be difficult due to Ethiopia’s draconian laws on civil society and NGOs).

An indication of the possible far-reaching effects of removing external support from a harsh, brutal regime can be seen in the example of Indonesia. Noam Chomsky, internationally renowned professor and activist, has written and spoken extensively on how US and Western support for the despotic regime in Indonesia played an indirect, yet extremely harmful, role in the carnage and deaths of hundreds of thousands in East Timor. However, in 1999, after much pressure, the US finally “pulled the plug” on its support for the Suharto regime, quickly leading to the end of Indonesia’s brutal campaign. Specifically,

“[f]or 25 years, the United States strongly supported the
vicious Indonesian invasion and massacre, a virtual
genocide. It was happening right through 1999, as the
Indonesian atrocities increased and escalated, after Dili
the capital city was practically evacuated. After Indonesian
attacks, the US was still supporting it. Finally, in mid-September
1999, under considerable international and also domestic
pressure, Clinton quietly told the Indonesian generals ‘It’s
finished.’ And they had said they’d never leave, they said
“this is our territory.” They pulled out within days, and allowed a
UN peacekeeping force to enter without Indonesian military resistance.
Well, you know, that’s a dramatic indication of what can be done.”

While the socio-political dynamics and historical contexts of Indonesia and Ethiopia are admittedly quite different, the comparison also offers relevant and striking similarities. Both regimes received decades-worth of external economic, military, and political support (particularly from the US). Additionally, both regimes systematically and persistently violated human rights, transgressed various international laws (such as through military occupation), and engaged in large-scale campaigns described as “genocidal.”

With Ethiopia continuing to overlook basic international norms, standards, and laws in its brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protestors, the international community must end its complicity in and indirect support for the government’s various transgressions. As Clinton relayed to Indonesia’s leadership, the international community must tell Ethiopia, “It’s finished.”

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