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A resolute US congress

A resolute US congress

The current H.Res., unanimously passed by the US Congress on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, was said to have passed a strongly worded resolution compared to the previous ones tabled before the House. The human rights resolution against the Government of Ethiopia calls for the respect of human rights and inclusive governance in the country. Apparently, this was the same resolution that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its team in Washington DC fought so hard to block. Nevertheless, even after all this time, the passing of the resolution is criticized as having no significant impact on Ethiopia or Ethio-US relations, Writes Yonas Abiye. 

A RESOLUTE US CONGRESS

 

While presenting his ministry’s nine-month performance report before the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) in April 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD) was seen boasting the achievement of his Ministry in terms of improved diplomatic relation with many countries, particularly with the United States of America.

And one of the indicators for this success was the work that the Ministry has done to convince the US legislators, the Congress as well as senators, that Ethiopia is committed to democratization and the two nations share “common concerns on human rights handling in Ethiopia.”

Workneh told MPs, at the time, that the US Congress was on the move to adopt a resolution dubbed H. Res 128 and that his diplomatic team is working to stop it from progressing. The resolution is a written motion which was said to improve Ethiopia’s human rights practices and bring about inclusive governance in the country.

Sponsored by more than five scores of Congress members, the then H. Res 128 demanded the accountability of the Ethiopian government for its alleged violation of human rights mainly on peaceful political dissidents, journalists and rights activists.

Workineh was proud to have won the diplomatic game that stopped the resolution from leaving the floor at Congress and progressing to the Senate.

 “We have been able to lobby key members of congress to abandon the resolution thrice,” Workneh reiterated to the MPs, adding that Ethiopian diplomats in the US were quite vigilant with regards to developments on the floors of the different houses.

Later on, Workneh himself traveled to Washington DC in September where he met representatives from the Congress and discussed the H.Res 128. The fruit of the visit, according to the Minister, was that he was able to create a “clear understanding with the US members of the Congress and reached a common understanding regarding improvements Ethiopia is making to address the raised concerns.”

Now, it seems that the time for understanding has passed and the gathering at the august chambers at Capitol Hill has decided to pass the same resolution that Workneh said to have stopped through diplomacy. At best his diplomatic efforts have delayed the eminent event. And this seems not to please the Ethiopian government while rejoicing government’s critics, on the other hand.

The current H.Res., unanimously passed by the US Congress on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, was said to be a strongly worded resolution compared to the previous ones tabled before the House. The human rights resolution against the Government of Ethiopia calls for the respect of human rights and inclusive governance in the country.

But, what came as a surprise at this time is that it was passed despite huge diplomatic as well lobbying efforts by the Ethiopian government. It was also passed despite pushback led by Senator Jim Inhofe – a senior senator from Oklahoma and a known ally of the Ethiopian government, to get Congress to reject the resolution. But, the motion, according to Congress records, did not even need to be voted upon as it was adopted by voice vote.

The resolution was first planned to be tabled before the Congress in February 2017, which was then pushed to October the same year. But, because of various reasons, it made it to Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018,

The resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously in late July 2017 and was scheduled for a vote by the full members of Congress on October 2 the same year. That vote was, however, postponed allegedly after a protest and an ultimatum by the Ethiopian government to withdraw counter-terrorism cooperation.

Hence, over the period of the two years, the draft resolution has also been modified and re-modified getting wider and stronger from version to version. For instance, the original bill which was scheduled for vote by the House at the 115th Congress 1st Session in February 2017, had incorporated lists of activists, politicians and journalist who had been in prison (some were already prosecuted and some were under police investigation and on trial) on charges of terrorism and other offences. But, the latest resolution removed the lists of those prisoners in light of their release few months before the resolution was brought to the Congress.

After the passing of the resolution, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, still under Workneh, slammed the resolution describing it as “untimely and inappropriate.”

The Ministry called it untimely because Ethiopia is cool breezing with a new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who came to power just a couple of weeks ago, following the resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Dessalegn opting for a solution for the more than three years of protest and violence that rocked the nation from north to south.

“This simple resolution is counterproductive and is against the important partnership between the U.S. and Ethiopia,” MoFA’s statement said adding that member of the Congress who cosponsored the resolution “conspicuously failed to recognize the changing reality on the ground.”

“Indeed, these members of the House merely wanted to please their constituencies,” reads the statement.

It further says; “at this crucial juncture, when the government is working to implement bold reforms, the resolution tries to undermine the new political dynamism and fails to recognize the call by the [new] Prime Minister to create all-inclusive political platforms”.

On April 9, 2018, a day before the voting, Ethiopia’s ambassador to US, Kassa Teklebirhan, wrote a letter to the members of the Congress requesting stoppage of the adoption of the resolution which he also referred to as “counterproductive”.

In his letter, Kassa also highlighted how Ethiopia is an important ally of the US government while the US is also an important partner in Ethiopia’s development, health as well as economic sectors. But, on a brighter note, Kassa even went far to explain what Ethiopia did for the US, even beyond its own interest specifically in regional stability as well as global peacekeeping.

“Ethiopia has been working to advance the interest of regional partners and that of the United States including through contributions to the international peacekeeping, combating radical extremism and other forms of terrorism, joining the UN and African Union operations,” Kassa asserted in his letter.

A summary of the resolution in the official website of the Congress stated that the resolution recognizes Ethiopia’s role, which was also reiterated by the Ambassador’s letter.

“H. Res. 128 recognizes Ethiopia’s efforts to promote regional peace and security, and its partnership with the US to combat terrorism, promote economic growth, and address health challenges,” reads the summary.

However, in addition, the resolution raises concerns about human rights abuses and contracting democratic space, and condemns excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces.

“The resolution calls on the Government of Ethiopia to lift the state of emergency, end the use of excessive force, release wrongfully imprisoned protesters, and improve transparency, while at the same time urging protesters and opposition groups to use peaceful discussion and avoid incitement.”

Similarly, the latest resolution also extends calls for the US Department of State and US Agency for International Development (USAID) to cooperate and strengthen ties with Ethiopia, but “to condemn human rights abuses, and promote accountability.”

One of its authors, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey,  said during the committee meeting that the resolution is like a mirror held up to the government of Ethiopia, and it is intended to encourage them to recognize how others see them and move forward with reforms.

In addition, the resolution from the beginning has had strong backing from right groups most of them based in the US including the Human Right Watch (HRW) and Freedom House and other advocacy groups.

Earlier reports suggest that the right/advocacy groups based in the US have tasked the Congress to vote for the resolution to send a signal to the government to respecting and opening the political space and that it is non-negotiable. Some of the reasons they advanced included: in October 2017, a pro-democracy group, Freedom House, accused Ethiopia of literally blackmailing the US Congress with a threat to withhold counter-terrorism cooperation if the vote went ahead.

Freedom House quoted Congressman Mike Coffman as confirming that Ethiopia’s ambassador in Washington DC has said the country will “stop counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States” if Congress went ahead with a planned vote on a resolution.

Freedom House’s statement dated October 16, 2017, was entitled “US Congress Should Call Ethiopia’s Bluff,” with its Senior Program Officers for Africa, urging Congress to proceed with its efforts and discard the Ethiopian Government’s “bullying tactics.”

“Passing H. Res. 128 would send a powerful message to Addis Ababa to get serious about undertaking reforms, and the Ethiopian government’s bullying tactics should not derail it. Members of Congress should call the bluff, place the resolution back on the House agenda, and approve it,” the statement said.

“Experience shows that Ethiopia would never follow through on the threat to halt security cooperation. The government fully understands who would be the ultimate loser if it did,” Freedom House’s statement reminded.

Apart from movers based in the UN, the two years process of adopting the resolution has also been receiving support from the local political organization. One such prominent organization is Semayawi (Blue) party which is one of the embattled opposition parties in Ethiopia.

“Semayawi Party firmly believes that H.Res.128 will give a tremendous boost in the democratization process, inclusive governance, the respect of Human Rights, and the stability of Ethiopia as well as the Horn of Africa,” the party said in a letter its sent to the US Embassy, the European Union Delegation in Addis Ababa as well as to the H. Res. 128’s team members including Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, Chris Smith, Coffman.

Written on the 2nd April and signed by the chairman, the party further said that the government of Ethiopia has been a staunch ally of the United States, a partner in the war on terrorism, as well as, a contributor to international peacekeeping.

The regime has been enriched with monetary and military aids for its participation in such activities, and unfortunately, the resource received has been diverted to run the abuse of Human Rights and the killing of innocent people, Semayawi said while it pledged its firm belief that the “resolution will bring an end to such abuses.”

The message

When the US Senate or Congress wants to send a stern message, they usually make a point by passing a "sense of" resolution.

Through simple or concurrent resolutions, both houses may express formal opinions about subjects of national interest. Hence, these so-called “sense of” resolutions are officially known as “sense of the House,” “sense of the Senate” or “sense of the Congress” resolutions.

Simple or concurrent resolutions expressing the "sense of" the Senate, the House or Congress merely express the opinion of a majority of the chamber’s members.

Similarly, according to literary evidence, “Sense of” resolutions do not create law, do not require the signature of the country’s President, and are not enforceable. In the US legal system, only regular bills and joint resolutions create laws.

Because they require the approval of only the chamber in which they originate, “Sense of the House” or “Senate” resolutions can be accomplished with a “simple” resolution. On the other hand, “sense of Congress” resolutions must be concurrent resolutions since they must be approved in identical form by both the congress and the Senate.

Joint resolutions are rarely used to express the opinions of Congress because unlike simple or concurrent resolutions, they require the signature of the president.

"Sense of" resolutions are also occasionally included as amendments to regular House or Senate bills.

Even when a “sense of” provision is included as an amendment to a bill that becomes law, they have no formal effect on public policy and are not considered a binding or enforceable part of the parent law.

So what is good is this resolution?

"Sense of" resolutions are typically used for three main issues in what the US government considers as important affairs in its internal affairs and its foreign interest. The first, although "sense of" resolutions have no force in law, foreign governments pay close attention to them as evidence of shifts in US foreign policy priorities.

In addition, the federal government agencies keep an eye on “sense of” resolutions as indications that Congress might be considering passing formal laws that could impact their operations or, more importantly, their share of the federal budget.

Finally, no matter how momentous or threatening the language used in "sense of" resolutions may be, it is a little more than political or diplomatic tactic and can create no laws whatsoever.

Hence, for the US congress, when greater formality is desired, it often adopts non-binding motion -- may be made in the form of a resolution -- which is always submitted in writing.

However, a legislature also uses resolutions to exercise one of its binding powers that aren't a lawmaking power. For example, the United States Congress declares war or proposes constitutional amendments by adopting a joint resolution. A house of a legislature can also use a resolution to exercise its specific powers, as the British House of Commons does to elect its Speaker or as the United States House of Representatives does to impeach an officer of the government.

 

How much would the resolution Affect Ethiopia?

A right-leaning activist who has been lobbying for the passing of this resolution believes that the H. Res. 128 brings Ethiopian government to negotiation and enforce legitimate practices from its repressive and isolating administration.

Semayawi party is delighted to express its acknowledgment and support to your commitment shown us to challenge Ethiopian dictatorship, human rights and encouraging inclusive Governance in Ethiopia. Also, Semayawi Party would like to extend its gratitude to the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, Chairman Chris Smith, and Congressman Coffman, your Colleagues, and human rights activists for their leadership, support, introducing of H.Res.128 and being friendly to the Ethiopian people.

But, some other critics remain that the resolution brings very little impact on the incumbent. According to Endale Nigussie, Diplomacy and International Relation Lecturer at Civil Service University, is one such scholar.

“The resolution cannot be considered as binding low. Rather it is a means of expression interest (of the congress or the legislator). So I don’t see any impact this resolution can bring for the country. I don’t even see that they would keep perusing on this resolution beyond expressing their interest. Looking at the history of the relation between US and Ethiopia, both still need each other,” Endale talks to The Reporter in a phone interview.

These groups rather fear the latest resolution would bring nothing constructive rather it may harm the ongoing reform Ethiopia is entering after the three years uncertainty and apprehension that hit it.

Traditionally, the US has a very strong foreign policy. However, recently this policy is becoming more or less unpredictable, Endale argues. “Just look at the recent developments regards to US relation with Turkey yet both are friendly nation for quite long time,” he says. And it would be misguided to tell people that an accident has happened.

Their concern has already been echoed by the government. Minister Negeri Lencho (PhD) – minister of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) – who said on Wednesday that this resolution could not be constructive as the two countries have enjoyed long-term and deep partnership.

“Our government is striving to address human right related challenges and exerted commitments to ensure rights are respected among our people,” Negeri said, adding that the House legislator should have considered his government’s recent initiatives which indicate its commitment to creating better situations on the ground.

“Since this resolution is non-binding, we don’t see any impact on our country” stood.

In an email exchange on Thursday, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa told The Reporter that “There is no change to our policy or engagement in Ethiopia.”

The US Embassy also tried to ascertain that the relation between the two countries will remain consistent.

“We have long engaged with Ethiopia on ways to promote democratic values and greater inclusivity.  In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Abiy expresses his intent to address these same priorities,” the embassy said.

“We note some promising recent steps such as the release of several prisoners, including journalists, and the restoration of mobile internet access throughout the country. We look forward to working with Dr. Abiy to support further steps in this direction.” The letter read.

The Embassy also added that there are no changes made on the engagements of the US with Ethiopia.

“We believe that our continued partnership is in the interest of both our countries as we support the aspirations of all Ethiopians to build a brighter future,” the embassy told The Reporter.