President Obama made a historic speech to Turkish lawmakers last week, but his message was global in scope and contained nuggets of his foreign policy yet to unfold. The first chords of Pax Obama (Obama’s offer of peace to the word) restore not only much needed sanity to U.S. foreign policy, but also erect new pillars that will support America’s future engagement with the rest of the world: Respect for American democratic values, respect for Muslims and the Islamic faith, respect for human rights and the rule of law, mutually shared respect among friends, and even respectful agreement to disagree with foes.
The speech was vintage Obama– sincere, uplifting, full of symbolism, hope and promise. It was particularly inspiring to defenders of freedom, democracy and human rights. The President charted the general course of U.S. foreign policy and framed the contemporary global challenges and humankind’s options in stark terms: “The choices that we make in the coming years will determine whether the future will be shaped by fear or by freedom; by poverty or by prosperity; by strife or by a just, secure and lasting peace.” The Turks, he said, have made the right choices because they have “pursued difficult political reforms” which have resulted in the “abolition of state-security courts and expanded the right to counsel, reformed the penal code, and strengthened laws that govern the freedom of the press and assembly.” He urged them to maintain their momentum: “For democracies cannot be static – they must move forward. Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society…. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”
The President Against “All Genocides” and For Human Rights
Obama could not have made his stand on human rights more clear. He said there is no justification for human rights violations. He declared it is un-American to engage in torture, denial of fundamental due process to those accused of crimes, or to engage in arbitrary actions that defy international law and human rights conventions. “Every challenge that we face is more easily met if we tend to our own democratic foundation. This work is never over. That is why, in the United States, we recently ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and prohibited – without exception or equivocation – any use of torture.” He openly acknowledged America’s own burdensome legacy of slavery and injustice: “The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods… And our country still struggles with the legacy of our past treatment of Native Americans [and slavery]”. Earlier in his campaign, he had promised to be a steadfast voice against genocide: “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president.”
Obama’s vision — his dream — of the future is based on giving a higher priority to human need than slavishly promoting corporate greed: “We want to help more children get the education that they need to succeed. We want to promote health care in places where people are vulnerable. We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people.” He said, “In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes, and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship.”
Clenched Fist of Dictatorship and the Open Hand of Friendship
Last Summer, we announced the imminent arrival of a new “sheriff” in town.1 We offered the following admonition:
It seems we read the tea leaves just right.
The days of “If you’re not with us, you’re our enemy; if you’re with us, even if you have blood on your hands, you’re our friend” are gone. Obama’s message is: “We will offer you a hand of friendship; but if you clench your fist to hide the blood that soaks your hands, you are not America’s friend.” Obama aims to put America front and center in leading a global human rights revolution. It promises to be a new day — a new era– for freedom, democracy and human rights throughout the world.
What is Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander!
Will a president who emphatically opposes torture, arbitrary denial of due process and reaches back in history to criticize the injustices inflicted on the slaves and Native Americans lend a hand of friendship to support torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Ethiopia?
Will a president who zealously condemned genocide committed nearly a century ago in Armenia condone the genocide committed in Gambella, the Ogaden and Amhara regions in Ethiopia just a few years ago?
Will a president who shutdown Guantanamo and a network of CIA “security” prisons supply hard-earned American tax dollars to keep open the stinking dungeons (which the U.S. State Department in 2008 described as “harsh, life-threatening and overcrowded”) that warehouse hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia?
Will a president who benchmarks democratic progress in terms of the “abolition of state-security courts and expanded the right to counsel, reformation of the penal code, and strengthening laws that govern the freedom of the press and assembly” coddle outlaws who have managed to criminalize civic society institutions and NGO’s, and jail, persecute and exile journalists?
Will a president – a former civil rights lawyer and constitutional scholar – who declares his “enduring commitment to the rule of law” embrace a malignant dictatorship that uses “courts” and the “law” as weapons of persecution and oppression? We say, “HELL, NO!”
It all boils down to a simple proposition: What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the rule of law and protection of human rights are good for America, Turkey and the rest of the world, we say they are good for Ethiopia too. If genocide, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, secret security courts and prisons are bad for America, Turkey and the rest of the world, we say they are bad for Ethiopia too. We ask for nothing more or less than what all civilized societies are entitled to have: A government that is freely elected by the people (and elections are not stolen) and governs by respecting the human rights and liberties of its citizens; a government that is accountable to the people for all of its official actions and omissions; a government free of corruption and jealously guards the public treasury from fraud, abuse and waste; a government that respects the sovereignty of its neighbors and refrains from naked aggression, displacement of the civilian population and commission of war crimes; a society that is founded on the rule of law where no man or woman has the right or opportunity to seize the law for political and/or private economic advantage; a society where courts serve the interests of justice and not the interests of crooked and corrupt official profiteers; a justice system that relentlessly pursues known and suspected human rights violators, war criminals and others who have committed crimes against humanity, and leaves no stones unturned to free innocent individuals, opposition leaders and dissidents who have been locked up for years because they oppose dictatorship.
Putting Out Fires With Flames
President Obama hearkened to an old Turkish proverb in his speech: “You cannot put out fire with flames.” Of course, the President knows only too well that you can put out the fire when you let “justice rush down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. But when your house is on fire, you don’t need flames to put it out. You need firefighters. In Ethiopia we need strong firemen and firewomen to put out the wildfires of ethnic divisions, and now stoked-up and smoldering religious antagonisms. President Obama is right. These fires can not be put out with flames of anger, hatred, and revenge. But they can be put out by flames of justice that sear the consciences of good men and women; they can be doused by the righteous indignation of patriotic men and women who commit to the defense of their motherland against mercenary soldiers of fortune. To paraphrase the lyrics of Billy Joel: “We didn’t start the fire/ No we didn’t light it/ But we got to fight it.” That is exactly what we said two years ago2:
The dictators in Ethiopia know the GAME IS OVER! They are out of lies, out of cash, out of gas, out of ideas, out of hope, out of order, out of control, out of the shadows, out of luck and out of time! They are out of their freaking minds because they are OUT OF BUSINESS! A verse of advice:
Saddle up tin-pot dictators,
‘Tis time to ride out before the big roundup.
The new sheriff and posse are in town,
You better scram before sundown!
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org