Will Human Rights Take a Front Seat During John Kerry’s Africa Visit?

John  Kerry is in Ethiopia today, kicking off his most recent trip to Africa as US Secretary of State. The purpose of his trip, according to the State Department, is to “encourage democratic development, promote respect for human rights, advance peace and security, engage with civil society and young African leaders who will shape the continent’s future, and promote trade, investment and development partnerships in Africa.”

But in at least in one stop on his visit, he will face tough questions about the right balance between security interests and human rights.

Just as this trip was made public late last week, the protection of free speech in Ethiopia took a hit – six bloggers and three journalists were arrested and charged with inciting violence on April 25-26 and held without access to a lawyer or their families since. While this was not the first time Ethiopia attempted to silence dissident voices by jailing individuals perceived as a threat to stability, with the timing of the arrests coinciding with Kerry’s visit, advocacy groups are calling on the Secretary of State to raise this issue with his hosts and help have them freed, in the name of respect for human rights and free speech.

Yesterday, New York Times journalist Nick Kristof pressed the Secretary of State on Twitter, asking John Kerry to “speak out strongly.” In response, he got a fairly non-committal answer from Kerry:

kerry kristof

The relationship between the US and Ethiopia is primarily founded upon their shared security interests in the region; interests that trump other concerns, such as the flourishing of a democratic society. The shared objective of defusing the threat of Islamic extremism in the region fuels the bilateral relationship, and Ethiopia has been a key ally for the US in the region for many years.

In 2006/2007, for example, the USA supported Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, an attempt to root out the Islamic leadership in Mogadishu. In Ethiopia, similarly to other key strategic partnerships, the US is willing to overlook repression and undemocratic behavior. It’s doubtful that Secretary Kerry will do any more for the release of the jailed bloggers and journalists than raise the issue in a more general context of promoting democracy in the region, lest he upset his hosts by pointing out the egregious abuse of power and lack of respect for free speech.

The six arrested bloggers belong to a group called Zone 9, a blog that is blocked by the Ethiopian government and not accessible from within Ethiopia. The group recently announced their intent to resume writing and advocating, following what appears to have been a period of surveillance and intimidation by the  government. The arrested journalists and bloggers are charged under a 2009 anti-terrorism law that gives the executive branch sweeping powers to imprison for as long as 20 years “whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicizes, disseminates” statements deemed “encouraging, supporting, or advancing” terrorist acts.  As noted by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2011, “this statute effectively institutionalizes censorship of reporting the government deems favorable to groups and causes it labels as ‘terrorist.'”

As Todd Moss notes in his analysis of Kerry’s trip to Africa, the agenda is security-heavy, and is meant to support the upcoming US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in August. Given the strategic interests at play – including ensuring that the Obama administration maintain strong relations with African partners – it is unlikely that the issue of the imprisoned journalists will be a hot button issue during Kerry’s stop-over in Addis Abbaba.


Image credit: UNAMID, Via Flickr