WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next US ambassador to Ethiopia pledged on Tuesday to press the government in Addis Ababa to improve human rights, free political prisoners and make upcoming elections fair.
Donald Booth said the United States had "complex interests" in Ethiopia, and that the two nations, while differing in tactics, saw largely eye-to-eye on the need to bring stability and prevent an Islamist takeover of Somalia.
"We need to try to work with Ethiopia across the board, preserving the cooperation where we share interests such as regional security," Booth, a former ambassador to Liberia and Zambia, said at his Senate confirmation hearing.
But he warned that Ethiopia's "limitations on political expression and economic activities as well as shortcomings in respect to basic human rights run counter to American principles and risk becoming the seeds of future instability."
Under questioning by Senator Russ Feingold, who heads the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, Booth pledged to take up the case of prisoners such as Birtukan Mideksa, leader of the largest opposition party.
Ethiopia sentenced Birtukan to life in prison for treason after she alleged that the government rigged 2005 elections. She received a pardon two years later but the life term was re-imposed a month ago.
Booth said the US embassy in Addis Ababa has been seeking access to Birtukan, 36.
"I think we need to find a way to convince them (Ethiopian leaders) that it's in their own interest not to hold people simply because they hold opposing political views," Booth said.
Booth said he would urge Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's government to ensure the fairness of elections due in May, including by allowing opposition candidates to run and have access to the media.
Booth also called for domestic and international observers to monitor the election.
The nominee promised Feingold also to look into allegations of human rights abuses in the southern Ogaden region, where Muslim, ethnic Somali rebels are waging an insurgency for independence.
"Clearly the Ogaden is an area that has created great instability and threats to the security of the Ethiopian state over time," he said.
"We need to work with the Ethiopians ... to try to figure out a way that they can not only protect their territorial integrity but also respect the human rights of all their citizens including the Ogadense," he said.