Secretary of State Kerry embarks today on a trip to Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. The trip offers a key opportunity to refocus U.S. leadership on the deteriorating respect for human rights by the ruling governments in Addis Ababa and Luanda and on the need for more leadership on good governance by the government of President Kabila in Kinshasa.
In Ethiopia, the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has continued an assault on civil society and the independent media initiated by the late Meles Zenawi.
On April 25, six members of an independent blogger and activist group and a freelance journalist were arrested. There is concern that an additional two may have also been detained.
These individuals join other journalists such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, who remain in jail on questionable charges. Thousands of other individuals have been disappeared in Ethiopia’s penal system, many of whom could be political prisoners.
In addition to the media crackdown, 20 members of the political opposition Semayawi (Blue) party have been arrested since April 24.
This appears to be an effort by the Ethiopian government to round up opposition and independent voices in the lead up to the election next year and a continuation of draconian restrictions of freedom assembly, association and expression.
When Secretary Kerry meets with Prime Minister Hailemariam, he must forcefully call upon the government to live up to its obligations to release all prisoners of conscience and protect the rights of everyone in Ethiopia, as required under international and regional human rights standards.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has suffered almost two decades of conflict, resulting in egregious human rights abuses including unlawful killings, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of torture and sexual violence. The abuses have been committed with impunity by national and foreign armies, armed groups and militias.
When Secretary Kerry meets President Joseph Kabila, he will have the opportunity to underscore the United States’ commitment to ending gender based violence and to press President Kabila to bring perpetrators to justice and take other measures to help end the cycle of violence.
Secretary Kerry’s visit to Luanda will also be an opportunity to press the government of President Dos Santos to investigate and end arbitrary arrests, detentions and torture committed by the police and security forces and special units known as “Kaenches” and also to improve the government’s respect for freedom of association and assembly, which are under continuous assault.
Last year, police threatened, assaulted and detained journalists including Rafael Marques, Coque Mukuta and Alexandre Solombe, who were attempting to interview demonstrators. All three of them were detained, beaten and stamped on by police before being released four hours later.
The government also uses criminal defamation laws to restrict the right to freedom of expression, charging journalists with defamation of public officials. The Angolan security forces also consistently violently assault participants of peaceful demonstrations with impunity
President Dos Santos must protect freedom of speech and press in Angola. Journalists and human rights defenders continue to face harassment, intimidation, and often arbitrary arrest by Angolan officials despite constitutional guarantees and international human rights standards that require Angola to protect them.
Secretary Kerry has a rare opportunity to speak both to the governments of these three countries and to members of civil society and the media during the next 6 days and to reiterate that human rights and good governance are priorities for the United States and to ask for meaningful reforms by these governments. With a summit with African heads of state and President Obama scheduled for August, where the issue of good governance, the rule of law and human rights will come up again, now is the time to reaffirm clear benchmarks for leadership and accountability.