Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Engaging in constructive diplomacy

The strong-worded reaction of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the rather mild and frankly speaking inoffensive remarks that U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Ambassador Ervin Massinga, made during a “Policy Speech on Human Rights and Dialogue” he gave in the middle of this week has left many perplexed and dismayed. Noting that Ethiopia presently faces internal strife which has led to the extrajudicial killings of civilians, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, conflict-related sexual violence, and other abuses at the hands of a range of actors, the ambassador underscored that these  political actors in Ethiopia “must be addressed with urgency and accountability, such as through a genuine, transparent transitional justice process.” He specifically called on the major protagonists in the ongoing or past conflicts in large swathes of the country—namely the Ethiopian government as well as the self-declared Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), those who he says are waging an insurgency in the Amhara region and call themselves the Fano, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—to resolve the political crisis besetting Ethiopia through an inclusive, transparent, and consultative process.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mince its words in excoriating Ambassador Massinga, accusing him of making statements which “contain allegations and unsolicited advice to the Government of Ethiopia on how best to run the affairs of the country.” It went on to describe his remarks as being ill-advised and contrary to the historic and friendly relations between Ethiopia and the United States. Although the ministry did not explicitly deny the supposed “uninformed assertions” the ambassador made, it obviously took exception to portions of his remarks that partly lay blame for Ethiopia’s political crisis at the door of the government and the steps he said the government needs to take to tackle the crisis. It was also miffed by the ambassador’s mentioning of groups that it said are determined to topple the government through force and “known for blackmailing, kidnapping, and terrorizing civilians.” A preponderance of several facts makes these aspersions hard to accept.

In the first place the state-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and other reputable human rights advocates have well documented the government’s involvement in atrocities, which it has occasionally admitted to and vowed to address. Moreover, it has repeatedly expressed its readiness to engage in a dialogue with the various armed groups operating in Ethiopia and in fact participated in several rounds of talks aimed at ending their insurgency peacefully. Thus, its denunciation of the ambassador, who should rightfully be presumed to have solely good intentions in the absence of any proof to the contrary, for urging all the parties to the incessant conflicts racking Ethiopia to forsake violence as a means to achieve political objectives and commit themselves to end Ethiopians’ suffering through a peaceful means, is quite rich.

The foreign ministry’s blasting of the U.S. ambassador is neither the first nor probably the last time the government lashes out at anyone, even a friend, for voicing even the slightest of criticism against it or suggesting how it should deal with its perceived or real failings. Its chiding of the ambassador’s remarks without rebutting any of the specific facts and recommendations he laid out suggests it is more concerned by bad optics than the substance of the remarks. This raises a justifiable doubt over whether the government is genuinely desirous or committed to the realization of Ethiopians’ long-sought aspiration for peace, democracy and the rule of law. If the government is disinclined to mend the errors of its way and demonstrate open-headedness, the future will not bode well for the country and its people.   

Ethiopia and the U.S. have enjoyed 120 years of diplomatic relations. While the relationship has for the most part been cordial, it was strained at times. Ethiopia’s engagement with the United States, a global superpower, is crucial for a variety of reasons, spanning political, economic, security, and humanitarian concerns. Constructive ties between the two countries can promote sustainable development, address regional challenges, and advance shared interests in areas such as peace and security, human rights, and economic prosperity. The assistance the Ethiopian government seeks to make headway in the initiatives it has embarked on in the areas of the national inclusive dialogue, the implementation of the transitional justice policy, and the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed combatants emphasize the importance of strengthening Ethiopia’s relations with the U.S, albeit without compromising its national interest. If Ethiopia values the friendship of the U.S. it must avoid the kind of defensiveness it displayed by chiding the latter’s ambassador. After all a true ally is someone who gives one an honest opinion, not just tell it what it wants to hear. 

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