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July 30, 2007

Double Standards: The Fight against Terrorism in the Horn of Africa

This evening began with a presentation on the basic situation in Ethiopia and ended with questions about the meaning of the concept of "terrorism" and how it is being used to justify U.S. foreign policy.

Our presenter for the evening, an Ethiopian-American who maintains close ties in Ethiopia, began by showing a map which illustrated the horn of Africa, an area which includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. It is strategically close to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, important routes for the transport of oil and other cargo, and to the Middle East. This location has led to U.S. support of the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi regardless of its shocking human rights record.

The presenter described the so-called "war on terror" as a new Cold War in which the world is viewed in terms of Us (good guys) against Them (bad guys). In the case of Ethiopia, the "war on terror" has been used to justify the U.S.-supported invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia. Ethiopia's use of disproportionate force and its wanton attack on civilian populations has been branded as a probable war crime by the European Union.

On the pretext of pursuing three suspected terrorists connected with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998 alleged to be hiding out in Somalia, at least 4,000 Somalis have been killed and 400,000 displaced. U.S. special forces were deployed in Somalia even before the invasion. American AC-130 Gunship strafed nomadic populations. Ethiopian troops used white phosphorus, a chemical agent that clings to the skin and causes severe burns.

This situation threatens to become Ethiopia's version of Darfur. The terrorists have never been found, but Somalia has been further de-stabilized. Never extremist Islamists in the past, many Somalis are turning to that now.

Ethiopia's brutality at home has thus been exported to Somalia. Its democracy is a show put on for the benefit of foreign donors. In its last election, in 2005, the opposition won by a landslide. However, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency and overturned the results. In the process, 200 protesters were shot and 40,000 arrested, including the top leaders of the opposition.

The response of the Bush administration was to look the other way. This is an example of the double standard in U.S. foreign policy where friends and enemies are made on the basis of convenience. You can be an enemy one day, a friend the next. Zenawi himself was once on the U.S. list of international terrorists. Somali warlords who were involved in the killing of U.S. soldiers in 1993 now receive U.S. support. A dictator like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is condemned while Zenawi commits crimes as bad or worse and is tolerated.

The presenter urged support of HR 2003, the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 which has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressmen Chris Smith and Donald Payne of New Jersey. This bill would cut off military and economic assistance to Ethiopia unless it ends human rights abuses. We were urged to contact Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi who had so far opposed marking up the bill for consideration.

Congressman Smith sees human rights abuses as a root cause of terrorism. He has said: "The war on terror is very, very important; but no regime that terrorizes its own citizens can be a reliable ally in the war on terror. Terrorism isn't just a military issue, it's also a human rights issue. Terrorists come from countries where their governments failed to respect their human rights. In promoting human rights in Ethiopia, we are attacking terrorism at its roots."

Following are some comments and questions in the dialogue that followed the presentation:

  • This happens again and again. How do we get the message out? Americans don't question the version of events they are told by their government and the media. I don't believe the U.S. really cares about democracy for anybody else. It really wants confusion and doesn't really care about a war on terror.
  • The U.S. makes the same mistake over and over in supporting dictators. Anybody who actually fights for democracy can easily be labeled a terrorist. For example, Nelson Mandela, now seen as a hero and almost a saint, could have been so labeled.
  • This reinforces my concern about the power of the media in shaping our thoughts. We don't see the human face of what's going on.
  • A question: The target now seems to be Islam. What percentage of the population of Ethiopia is Muslim? (Answer: about 50% are Muslim and 50% Christian. They have lived in peace for centuries.) A comment: Zenawi was part of a left-wing guerilla movement and recruited by Western intelligence services to change sides.. This happened when Bush Sr. was head of the CIA.
  • How can the people in the U.S. persuade the government to change?
  • Legislation does matter. You can tell they care about this because Ethiopia is spending big bucks to stop this bill -- $50,000 a month to lobbyists like Dick Gebhardt and Richard Armey.
  • I'm interested in the "fear industry." Fear seems to give a license to do anything you want.
  • "War on Terror" is a phony concept just used to distract out attention from everything else that is going on. I wish we would stop using the term.
  • I don't think you can blame the media. There has been responsible reporting on this issue.
  • I was on a trip in the Baltic region and got to meet with Lech Walesa. He said the most important thing for people to do right now is talk to one another.
  • On the Network for Peace though Dialogue brochure, it says "Peace is Possible." This is a profound idea. It's a lot of work but we can't despair. Just think that it was hard to talk about the environment two years ago but today people have a totally different outlook. Al Gore has managed to change the terms of the discussion.

--Peggy Ray


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