How Ethiopian Americans changed US policy on their homeland.
An old Ethiopian aphorism propounds, “If spiders could gather up their silk in a single twine, they could tie up a lion.” In other words, many weak and powerless people could band together and defeat a mighty adversary.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, said: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.”
The spiders and fleas today are committed Ethiopian immigrants in the U.S. who teamed up with their House representatives to pass a human rights resolution for Ethiopia on April 10. The bite of the grassroots activists made the regime in Ethiopia so uncomfortable they secured the services of a lobbying firm to fight the resolution at the rate of $150,000 dollars a month. The firm’s recent report shows its lobbyists held “meetings with members of Congress, their staffs, and executive branch officials to broaden government outreach” on behalf of the Ethiopian regime.
H.Res. 128, introduced in February 2017, aims to “support respect for human rights and encourage inclusive governance in Ethiopia.” A floor vote on the resolution scheduled for October 2, 2017 was deferred because the Ethiopian regime “threatened retaliation against the United States should it be passed.”
H.Res. 128 was a David vs. Goliath match-up between an informally organized small grassroots army of committed Ethiopian immigrant human rights advocates, activists and their champions in Congress and big money lobbying.
In February 2018, Reps. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) issued a showdown ultimatum to put the bill to a floor vote unless the Ethiopian regime allowed “independent UN teams access” to investigate human rights abuses. Coffman reported he had a “lot of meetings with Ethiopian government” officials and they were “most opposed about having UN rapporteurs investigate” abuses.
Since 2007, the Ethiopian regime has denied entry to all UN special rapporteurs.
On April 22, 2018, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein visited Ethiopia at the invitation of the regime. On April 26, a jointMemorandum was signed to “strengthen the Regional UN Human Rights Office for East Africa to do human rights work in (Ethiopia) and the region.”
H.Res.128 is only the latest attempt in Congress to improve human rights in Ethiopia. The long time global human rights stalwart Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) introduced HR 5680 following the May 2005 Ethiopian parliamentary election in which hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed or wounded by security forces.
In April 2007, HR 2003, essentially a duplicate of HR 5680, was introduced by the late Representative Donald Payne (R-N.J.) and passed in October 2007, only to die in the Senate supposedly due to a hold by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Inhofe recently urged the House to “reject the strongly worded resolution”.
Coffman not only led the battle on the hill to get H.Res.128 to a floor vote but also negotiated with the Ethiopian regime and arranged negotiationswith the House majority leader’s office to persuade the Ethiopian government to allow “an independent examination of the state of human rights in Ethiopia.”
Coffman, whose district has a sizeable Ethiopian immigrant population, became their warrior on the hill. He identified with their cause and passionately and resolutely articulated their concerns and demands. He said failing to pass the resolution would send a wrong message to the “Ethiopian government that those Ethiopians in the United States have no power … they have no influence on the American government” and embolden the regime to “just continue what (they are) doing.”
In his floor speech, Coffman argued:
“THE (ETHIOPIAN) GOVERNMENT HAS SO OFTEN USED THE WEAPONS THAT WE HAVE PROVIDED THEM NOT TO FIGHT TERRORISM BUT TO TERRORIZE THEIR OWN PEOPLE.”
The Ethiopians managed a smart grassroots campaign. They effectively educated their members of Congress and staffers about human rights abuses in Ethiopia as it affected them personally. They invested time with their representative and made him part of their community. Coffman worked with the Ethiopians for over three years and gradually became acrusader for Ethiopian human rights. Smith called him “an outstandingleader on Ethiopian human rights”.
As Coffman got to know his immigrant constituents better, he called them “part of the fabric of our community in my congressional district.” He spent “weekends going to the Orthodox Church, the evangelical church and the Mosque” of Ethiopians in his district.
Coffman kept faith with his immigrant constituents as they did with him. He refused to submit to subtle pressures of colleagues.
The Ethiopian grassroots activists understood a clenched fist is far more powerful that five fingers on an open palm and dissolved their ethnic differences and advocated in solidarity to improve human rights for all Ethiopians. They also partnered with international human rights organizations and other Ethiopian activists throughout the U.S. They worked fast and furiously to line up the 116 cosponsors to ensure passage of H.Res.128.
Other African immigrant groups interested in congressional advocacy to improve human rights in their home countries may draw a few lessons from the grassroots efforts of the Ethiopian immigrant human rights advocates and activists: Reach out to their members of Congress; they don’t bite. Educate their representatives and their staff with personalized accounts of human rights abuses. Keep their eyes fixed on the human rights prize. That means speak in one voice, present a unified front and avoid enervating ethnic politics in congressional advocacy. Partner with international human rights organizations because they are powerful force multipliers. Use social media to mobilize broader support among Americans.
When the chips are down, grassroots underdogs holding the right cards can sometimes outplay the top dogs on Capitol Hill.
Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, with research interests in African law and human rights. He is a constitutional lawyer and senior editor of theInternational Journal of Ethiopian Studies.