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HRW skeptical as Obama visits Ethiopia

Isaac MugabiJuly 27, 2015

After talks with US President Barack Obama, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has insisted the government's commitment to democracy is real. But the facts speak for themselves, says HRW's Leslie Lefkow.

Barack Obama speaks at a press conference with Hailemariam Desalegn. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb

Ethiopia's prime minister defended his country's commitment to democracy. And, of course, his country has often been 'misrepresented' by your organization, among others. What do you make of the prime minister's position?

Many of the facts in Ethiopia speak for themselves; there are scores of people in jail who should not be. There are journalists and activists and people whose only offense has been to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, who are in prison and who should not be in prison. So I think that this is not a question of misrepresentation; this is a question of Ethiopia's government trying to justify serious violations of human rights, which are condemned not just when they happen in Ethiopia but in every country in the world.

Ethiopia's leaders often claim they are being singled out in some way. I would urge them to look at our website and websites of other human rights groups and see that we condemn these serious violations of human rights globally.

I think what's particularly troubling in terms of Ethiopia's human rights situation is that the scale of this repression is massive and very alarming. The only other country in sub-Saharan Africa that has jailed as many journalists as Ethiopia is Eritrea. So this is a very bad leadership indicator for a government and a country like Ethiopia.

I think another major concern is that Ethiopia's use of very repressive laws to justify these prosecutions and detentions has a broader chilling effect in the country. It sends a massage of fear to ordinary people as well as journalists and activists.

Portrait of Leslie Lefkow. Copyright: HRW
Leslie Lefkow sees the counterterrorism partnership with Ethiopia as a major reason why criticism of the country's human rights record has been muted.Image: Human Rights Watch

For many reasons these kinds of patterns of abuses, which will be condemned very strongly if they happen almost anywhere else, tend to be somewhat ignored by many of Ethiopia's international partners.

Yes, there is an occasional statement by the US or others on a particular case, but we don't see them really putting these human rights concerns at the forefront of the relationship in the way that we would hope.

President Obama defended his decision to travel to Ethiopia by comparing it to US engagement with China, another nation with a poor human rights record. Are you disappointed that he ignored your calls?

We never said he shouldn't travel to Ethiopia. I think the president has a point that engagement with governments around the world, whether they are repressive or not, can be extremely constructive and important.

But what we have been saying is that if President Obama is going to Ethiopia, then he needs to be sending a message very clearly that these human rights abuses are not justifiable, that they are not acceptable and that Ethiopia - particularly if it wants to be a leader in the region, around the continent and globally - needs to address these serious human rights concerns.

The other thing we would expect from President Obama's visit is to really see some outcome, some positive result. Quiet diplomacy with the Ethiopian government has not been very effective. We have seen that over the last ten years, the situation has simply gotten worse. So what kind of outcome will there be to his visit? Will we see a commitment from government to change and revise some of these terrible laws that they are using to imprison people?

You just mentioned that quiet diplomacy has never changed anything there; now the US will be sharing intelligence with Ethiopia in a bid to end threats posed by al-Shabab. What do you make of this development? Don't you think this could give Ethiopia leeway to further suppress free speech under the pretext of maintaining regional stability?

Well, I think that argument has been there for some time. I mean, I am sure Ethiopia and the US have had a multifaceted cooperation and relationship on security matters for years. So am not sure there is any new, significant development there. And, of course, the security and counterterrorism partnership is, I think, one of the major reasons why the US and other partners have been less robust on some of the human rights concerns.

Leslie Lefkow is deputy director for Africa at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Interview: Isaac Mugabi