AURORA | The Ethiopian community in Aurora — the largest foreign born population in the city — is praising Congressman Mike Coffman for his work to ensure the Ethiopian government improves its human rights record.
“We hear about these violations on a daily basis now,” said Yoseph Tafari, chairman and co-founder of the Ethiopian American Civil Council. Tafari said of the more recent troubling incidents was in late January where at least seven people were gunned down by government forces for anti-government chants outside a religious celebration in the northern region of the country.
Last week, Coffman invited Tafari and the Ethiopian delegation from Aurora to Washington for a round of negotiations, which Tafari said was successful, especially as the Ethiopian government paid a lobbyist a monthly salary of $150,000 for a year to ultimately defeat a resolution Coffman is carrying that condemns the Ethiopian government for its human rights record.
Coffman is an original co-sponsor of the resolution, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ.
“The Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported 102 deaths by April 2016 and Human Rights Watch subsequently reported that the Ethiopian security forces had killed between 500 and 800 peaceful protesters in the Oromia and Amhara regions by November 2016, and the number is likely higher,” the resolution said.
The resolution, which now has 77 co-sponsors in the House, has been temporarily put on hold as the Ethiopian government has until Feb. 28 to decide whether to let observers from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights into the country.
If the government decides against the option, the resolution will move onto the House floor. It was scheduled for a vote in October, but was delayed after the Ethiopian government threatened to end security cooperation with the U.S. if the resolution was heard on the House floor.
“In a sign of willingness to work with the Ethiopian government and to get the Ethiopian government to release political prisoners, the Majority Leader cancelled the already scheduled vote,” said a news release from Coffman’s office last fall.
The resolution calls on the Ethiopian government to “end the use of excessive force by security forces,” conduct an investigation into killings and excessive force, release political prisoners, guarantee the freedom of the press, and allow the UN to do its own investigation.
Tafari said he felt it was a major indicator that Ethiopia is afraid of the U.S. taking action against the country after hiring a lobbyist to handle the resolution. According to justice department documents, the lobbyist was paid $1.8 million for a year’s worth of work in Washington.
“We need to deal with this one way or another,” Tafari said. “In one sense here is a government that has a sector of the population that doesn’t even have food, but they’re spending $2 million to prevent a resolution from passing through the U.S. Congress. And it’s the taxpayers’ money. They’re clinging to U.S. money (for aide).”
While Coffman is urging the Ethiopian government to do more, there has been some positive progress recently.
“While (the) Ethiopian government’s announcement that it’s releasing political prisoners and closing down one of its torture camps, is a step in the right direction— all human rights violations by the Ethiopian government must come to an end,” Coffman said last month. “The Ethiopian government has engaged in terrorists acts against its own people and such behavior is unacceptable and I will continue, as I have, to make sure that the United States holds the Ethiopian government responsible for all of its promises in respecting the human rights of all of the Ethiopian people.”
Nearly 3,000 Ethiopians call Aurora home, according to the city. And they’ve been paying special attention to the resolution.
“This has pretty much elevated Congressman Coffman to hero status,” said Neb Asfaw, an organizer for the Ethiopian community.
Tafari echoed Asfaw’s comment, saying that for a Democratic-leaning group the Ethiopian community is very fond of Coffman, particularly for how he’s approached issues important to the community, such as the human rights of their home country.
Asfaw said it’s a common conversation throughout the Ethiopian community that if the GOP as a whole approached minorities the way Coffman has, they’d have even more success and support from those communities.
For Asfaw, whatever happens on the resolution —the Ethiopian government allowing for the UN to observe or the resolution reaching the floor — is progress.
“It is extremely positive, the fact that the government drew a line in the sand to make sure that the bill would not pass majority leader’s office and go to to the floor for a vote (is substantial),” he said. “It’s a small step forward either way, we’ve been waiting for a long time. For Congress to look at this and make a demand for better human rights when they (Ethiopia) is considered an ally is a major shift of policy and it’s welcome by many Ethiopians from Aurora and across the country.”