On Passing H Res 128
April 10, 2018 in the US House of Representatives chamber was a historic moment and a significant victory for constituents and advocates of House Resolution 128 on Ethiopia. It was a battle to the end. A flurry of letters and appeals sent at the last minute from a handful of opponents – to try to pull the resolution from the calendar and then to persuade Members to vote against it – turned out to be high-profile bluster. In the end, when it really counted, not one single person showed up on the House floor to speak in opposition. Consequently, the measure did not receive any “no” votes. The presiding officer declared that in the opinion of the Chair, the resolution passed with a 2/3rds majority. So, the US House of Representatives is on the record calling for “respecting human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia” and endorsing actions that demand reform. We are very pleased with this outcome.
On the Coalition that Worked for Passage
It was a long time coming, but the process of getting to this point has already harvested rewards. A coalition of human rights organizations, diaspora-based constituent groups and community stakeholders has been created by working together persistently for over two years to see this resolution – and its predecessor resolution – pass in the House. The United States Congress is on record criticizing the Ethiopian government and calling for reforms. Constituents’ efforts have been rewarded with winning over such champions as Representatives Chris Smith of New Jersey, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, along with many others who have become aware of conditions in Ethiopia and have pushed against formidable resistance to ensure passage of this resolution.
On Honoring the Protesters in the Face of Strong Opposition
The impetus for the surge of political engagement among diaspora groups in the US was grounded in support for the protesters who peacefully and sacrificially resisted oppressive conditions in the country. This long overdue condemnation and set of recommendations by the United States government comes three-years after protests erupted in the Oromia region. The Ethiopian government responded to peaceful demonstrations with unprecedented brutality, killing well over a thousand people, detaining tens of thousands and displacing nearly a million Oromos from eastern Oromia. Since, the Ethiopian government has to date refused to allow independent investigations into the protests and the state response to them, the magnitude of the violence in Oromia remains underreported or fully understood. While brutally stifling peaceful dissent at home, the Ethiopian government enlisted the help of a lobbying firm, SGR, known for expertise in rehabilitating the image of authoritarian regimes, to stop the progress of the resolution.
What About the Senate Resolution?
The Senate version of the resolution is blocked by a “hold” by one Senator. But that does not need pass for the H Res 128 provision to have their effect. The work that the diaspora groups have done in coalition provides awareness, momentum and considerable support for “binding” legislation (a bill), to pass in the Congress. For such a bill to become law, the Senate must be on board. At that time, the work we have all done in the Senate to get 26 co-sponsors, will result in support for a bill next year. One Senator cannot block a bill. We have made important headway by having the conversations in both House and Senate. This House vote sets the stage for new direction for the US with regard to the once-untouchable Ethiopian government. Ethiopia should not have treated this legislative battle as a zero-sum game (i.e., “If you win anything, I lose everything”). It is not too late for the Ethiopian government to introduce real reforms.
A resolution is technically “non-binding.” However, it is a moral statement whose value is to influence the direction of US policy with regard to Ethiopia. Even though it has no “teeth,” it has several specific action items that can move forward through different US and UN agencies. And it puts the US Congress on record for expressing dissatisfaction with Ethiopia’s current policies. It gives a green light for US agencies to take the recommended actions, such as activating US Treasury provisions for the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to come into play, seizing the US assets of Ethiopian billionaires and placing other restrictions on known human rights violators in Ethiopia. There is no way to “force” these actions. But if the actions are not taken, the Congress has the option of passing binding legislation to enforce what are now merely “resolved” clauses. With such strong support for the resolution (final count was 114 co-sponsors plus original sponsors) passing a bill would now be a much easier next step. The Ethiopian government should take note.
Lifting the State of Emergency, releasing remaining political prisoners, allowing the UN Special Rapporteur unfettered access to investigate abuses, loosening of democratic space and other reforms is a better option for Ethiopia right now. The pressure on the Ethiopian government to reform and stop its abusive practices should continue until significant reforms are instituted in the country. Passage of H Res 128 demonstrates the power of collaborative work among Diaspora constituents and human rights groups. Similar cooperation and collaboration is needed to continue to press the United States to hold its ally, the Ethiopian government, accountable in accordance with its own values. It is the only way that the stability of the country and the entire region can be ensured.