Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman Interview with The Reporter

Interview with
The Reporter
Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Addis Ababa
April 17, 2015

The Reporter:  Thank you, Ms. Sherman, for having this interview with The Reporter.  It is a pleasure.

So, I will just go directly to the questions. Let me start by speaking with you about your statement after your meeting with the Foreign Minister.  [Inaudible].  Regarding Ginbot 7, and I quote, “No group, including Ginbot 7 should attempt to overthrow or speak about overthrowing a democratically elected government and we look forward to continuing our work with the Ethiopian government to address these concerns.”

Would you care to elaborate on that point particularly “address these concerns?”

Under Secretary Sherman:  Well, we have an ongoing dialogue with Ethiopia, as we do with many governments.  A sharing of information, understanding each other better, and that dialogue will continue.  We have a very deep and broad relationship with the government of Ethiopia and we expect that to only get deeper and broader as time goes on.

We all want to make sure that we continue to work on three pillars of our relationship, working to support the government and the economic development of Ethiopia.  Ethiopia has made enormous strides in helping people to move out of poverty, to get educated, to increase their health benefits, and to really move forward the development of the country, finding more investors to come here.  People’s income has improved.

The second pillar has been around security, to make sure that people’s day to day lives are secure.  They are free from crime and corruption and can go about their daily lives.  So we’ve worked very hard to offer what support we can in our own experience and those of others.

The third pillar is democracy and human rights.  We have an ongoing human rights dialogue with Ethiopia.  We know you’re about to have an election.  We hope everyone goes out and votes.  This is a young democracy.  The election we hope will be free, fair and credible.  We think that Ethiopia has improved its election process, [it] still has a ways to go, but young democracies do to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard, that even groups who are in opposition have a fair chance to be elected.  So we discussed all of those issues while we have been here as well.

The Reporter:  You also met with the Prime Minister…

Under Secretary Sherman:  With the Prime Minister.  We also had an excellent meeting with General Samora and had an excellent meeting with former Minister Bereket and also with civil society, because we want to hear everybody’s voices and we know that some people believe their voices are not heard and we want to make sure that we have listened and we have encouraged the government to listen to those voices as well.

The Reporter:  Let me take you back to the Ginbot 7 issue.  The Ethiopian government alongside Ginbot 7 have labeled the Oromo Liberation Front, the OLF and the ONLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front as terrorist organizations four years ago.  And why did you specifically think about Ginbot 7 during your statements yesterday?

Under Secretary Sherman:  I think because that’s been a concern.  We also understand that the government of Ethiopia has named OLF and ONLF as terrorist organizations.  In the United States we have a different legal system and different thresholds for doing such things and groups have to be a direct threat to the United States security for us to do so, but there are also a lot of evidentiary standards in our government.

But we want to acknowledge that the government of Ethiopia has done so for all three of these groups, that they have concerns about them.  We want to, as we do with governments around the world, understand those concerns, share information where we have it, and make sure that indeed the process goes forward in an appropriate way.

The Reporter:  Maybe a last point regarding Ginbot 7.  The statement you made yesterday, is it something that leads to saying that the United States might consider these particular organizations as terrorist groups?

Under Secretary Sherman:  As I said, we do not have the evidentiary basis for doing that now, and I think that Ethiopia wants to make sure that we understand how Ethiopia sees these groups.  And we do.  What they want to make sure of is that we share information in law enforcement, in intelligence, in our diplomatic engagements, that we understand Ethiopia’s point of view.

And it’s always important in diplomatic relationships to understand where the other person is on the other side of the table.  And we are partners in so many things, we certainly appreciate the concern that the Ethiopian government has presented to us and we look forward to a continuing dialogue on all of those subjects and all of the other things we’ve discussed from human rights, from development of democracy, to what’s happening in the region.  We’ve had good discussions on South Sudan and Yemen and Somalia, and all of the concerns that the international community has.  It has been a very broad and very deep set of discussions over these two days.

The Reporter:  One last thing, I can say that the United States has been a safe haven for these groups to operate.  Some of them are based in the U.S. while others are based in Europe.  What is going to be the fate of these groups, like the Ginbot 7 and ONLF and OLF?  I mean if the United States government – does it take a stand towards these particular groups?

Under Secretary Sherman:  We haven’t taken a particular stand.  We know there are individuals who are associated with Ginbot 7 who live in the United States, and we will certainly address through appropriate channels all of the concerns that the government of Ethiopia has raised with us.  We will move them through our own systems and our own approach to these issues and we will share, as appropriate, through the appropriate channels, information that we’re aware of and information that the Ethiopian government shares with us and asks us to pursue.

So we will make whatever decisions and commitments are appropriate in those discussions.

The Reporter:  So let me take you to elections.

Under Secretary Sherman:  Sure.

The Reporter:  Let me take you back some 10 years ago and refer to a few quotes from: Sean McCormick, Spokesperson of the Department of State back then.  That was in 2005.  He said, I quote, “The elections have [inaudible] changed Ethiopia’s political landscape and that country’s democratic [inaudible].”

Then, after five years the National Security Council spokesperson, Mike Hammer, in the aftermath of the 2010 elections, said “in recent years the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment.  Heightened its control over civil society and curtailed the activities of independent media.” End of quote.

You, in your statement yesterday said “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward. In election, Ethiopia is strengthening its democracy, and every time they have an election it gets better and better.”

Now my question here is there seems to be some confusing remarks made by people from Washington that seems to be sending conflicting messages.  At some point it is okay, at some point it’s not fine.

Under Secretary Sherman:  I think actually you didn’t literally quote me from yesterday.  And what I was trying to convey is that in every election one hopes it gets better and better.  It doesn’t always.  The United States has had its own hiccups.  We have had presidential elections that have gone very well, and then we’ve had presidential elections that have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, even after more than 200 years of our democracy.  So it’s not a straight line in democracy.  And here in Ethiopia I think that in 2005 many people thought it was a new day and it was going to be a straight line and only get better and better and better.  Well, there have been some hiccups in Ethiopia as well.

There are concerns that remain about whether the election will be free and fair and credible.  We hope that it is.  We hope every Ethiopian votes.  We hope that it will be free and fair and credible and it remains to be seen.

We know that there are concerns within Ethiopian society about whether everybody’s voices are heard.  There are many concerns raised in my country about the number of journalists that are in jail that are going through your legal system.  We understand that every country has its own legal system and we appreciate and respect that, but nonetheless, there are more journalists in jail in Ethiopia than in any other country in Africa.

We’ve heard the reasons for that, but nonetheless it has raised a great deal of concern.

Similarly, concerns have been raised about whether opposition parties really have the space to be a real opposition party.  We are glad to know there are 75 opposition parties.  On the one hand, that’s a lot of voices.  On the other hand, is there a consolidated serious opposition?  But you’re a young country in terms of democracy and over time we hope that the political party system matures in a way that provides real choices for the people of Ethiopia.

So I think you’re not hearing mixed messages.  You’re hearing that there is a progression.  But sometimes it’s two steps forward and then a step backwards and then another step forward.  And many groups in the United States, many of us in the United States have expressed concern about where Ethiopia is.  But we also have great hopes for Ethiopia.  And I in meeting with civil society members today, there’s tremendous leadership in your civil society.  People who have a great deal of courage, people who want to make sure their voices are heard, solve problems.  They’re not about overthrowing governments, they’re about solving problems and being advocates for people who don’t believe they have a voice.  This is the strength of a democracy and we hope that those voices grow to be an even more institutional part of Ethiopian society.

The Reporter:  Talking about the region as a whole, I mean, we have South Sudan on the west, we have Eritrea on the north, we have Al-Shabaab on the east, and this is like one of the most troubled regions in the world.  What is the U.S. like going to do, for instance, in South Sudan?  I mean you’re part of the Troika and engaged in the South Sudanese peace process for quite some time.  There is the UN [inaudible] group on Eritrea and Somalia and the reports are coming out.  So what is your government going to do with regards to maintaining peace and stability?  Just forming allies with the Ethiopian government and probably the Kenyan government and the AU, or are there other remedies that are planning, that are on the table?

Under Secretary Sherman:  I think strength always comes through partnerships.  We are very grateful for the leadership that Prime Minister Hailemariam has provided through IGAD, through trying to resolve South Sudan.  This is an issue of great importance to all of us, including the United States of course, because we were quite instrumental in the birth of South Sudan.  Ambassador Don Booth, who is our Special Envoy, has worked very closely with the Troika, very closely with IGAD, very closely with all of the countries in the region and in the world who want to see South Sudan end the conflict and get back on a path to a strong democracy.

We still have quite a ways to go.  We call on both President Kiir and former Vice President Machar to put the people of South Sudan first, to come back to the negotiating table and come to resolution.  IGAD has put on the table a way to do that.  We’ve been very supportive of that process.  It’s part of the Troika, and we very much hope that that resolution will come soon.

The United States will use whatever tools we have at our disposal to encourage the parties to do just that, as we do for all of the other issues and concerns in the region.

We work with all the leaders in the region to try to resolve this situation.

I would say the same thing about the threat of terror around the world.  We are all quite concerned not only about Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, but al-Qaeda and Daish, and the other terror threat to this region or any other region.  The United States has put together a huge coalition of over 60 countries to work against Daish and to bring all of our tools to bear from all over the world from military action, which is actually just a small part, to putting laws on the books, to dealing with border security, foreign fighters returning home and creating havoc, countering violent extremism through social media.  A whole range of tactics and tools.  We are working with Ethiopia and other partners in the region to use those same tools where other terrorist threats are concerned in this region.  We have taken an active role in supporting AMISOM in Somalia and supporting the Somali government on both the civilian side and military side, working in partnership with Ethiopia and many other countries, and we will continue to do all of these things.

The Reporter:  That’s probably what the U.S. government is doing. But another question, the European government repeatedly accuses the Eritrean government of like instigating trouble in the region, like supporting al-Shabaab and things like that.  Does the U.S. buy this story, if it’s actually true or not?  What you have to say about that?

Under Secretary Sherman:  The U.S. buys that Ethiopia and Eritrea have to work out their relationship with each other.  And we try to be a neutral force in that regard and hope that they continue to work on problems of disagreement that I understand are of great concern.  So the United States wants to be supportive in the resolution of those issues.

The Reporter:  I think that’s about it.  Thank you very much.

Under Secretary Sherman:  Thank you very much.