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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ethiopia - HR2003 revisited

An American law professor, teaching at the Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s Mekelle University in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, had her contract terminated last week by university officials.

The administration claims “incompetence” was the reason for her termination. But Professor Abigail Salisbury claims that her public voicing of alternative views on the U.S. House of Representative’s Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007 (HR2003) got her fired.

After failing to convince the university’s academic commission that her contract should not be terminated, Professor Salisbury is planning to depart Ethiopia. The firing quickly followed an article she published in “The Jurist,” the online University of Pittsburgh law review journal, in which she described candidly her participation in a Mekelle University Law Faculty forum on HR 2003.

Taking one stance, Professor Salisbury writes, “Listening to the Ethiopians talk about the bill’s various points during the discussion forum, I… wonder[ed] if America hadn’t done something foolish…by asserting its right to determine the domestic affairs of a foreign nation.” She also points out that the factual findings section of HR2003 must be updated to reflect current human rights progress in Ethiopia.

But based on the passionate testimonies of her own international human rights law students at Mekelle, conveyed to her within mid-term essays she assigned, Salisbury reached an alternative conclusion – that HR2003 should be seen as an attempt by American foreign policy makers not to threaten Ethiopian sovereignty, but to improve the lives of poor Ethiopians who are truly suffering under a government with a firm grip on freedom of speech.

“I had been very careful in wording my assignment. I asked the students to select a human rights issue in Ethiopia…and find another country dealing with that same situation. They were required to then compare the actions of the two nations,” Salisbury writes. According to her, a number of students wrote that they would never give their real opinions to an Ethiopian professor, for fear of “being turned in to the government and punished.”

According to Professor Salisbury, the terms of her contract make it clear that in the case of premature termination, she should receive three months’ pay. Claiming they have an alternative interpretation, University officials have decided not to honor this clause. But Salisbury is more disappointed by the failure of the university’s professors and officials to honor freedom of speech. “The dean [of Mekelle Law School] told me never to be afraid to write anything,” the young American law professor recalled for SSI.

HR2003 was passed in October 2007 by the US House of Representatives and is now being debated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It proposes to withdraw “nonessential” assistance from Ethiopia until the federal government meets human rights obligations outlined in the Act.