The diplomat from 2201 C Street

Upon the request of US Secretary of State John Kerry, President Barack Obama designated Wendy R. Sherman to assume all authorities and responsibilities of the deputy Secretary, effective November 3, 2014. Sherman was sworn in as undersecretary of state for political affairs on September 21, 2011, a position she will retain during the interim period. Prior to this position, Undersecretary Sherman served as vice chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and a member of the Investment Committee of Albright Capital Management, an affiliated investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets. She served as counselor for the State Department from 1997 to 2001, as well as special advisor to President Clinton and policy coordinator on North Korea. From 1993 to 1996, under Secretary of State Warren Christopher, she was assistant secretary for legislative affairs. Ambassador Sherman served as chair of the board of directors of Oxfam America. She also served on the US Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board, a group tasked with providing the secretary of defense with independent, informed advice and opinion concerning matters of defense policy. Sherman attended Smith College, and received a BA from Boston University and a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland. Bruh Yihunbelay of The Reporter sat down with Undersecretary Sherman for an exclusive interview at Dahsen Room inside the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. The undersecretary talks about Ginbot 7 and other political organizations, the upcoming Ethiopian elections and peace and security in the Horn of Africa. Excerpts:

After your meeting with the foreign minister you said, with regards to Ginbot 7, “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 and particularly address these concerns?

Undersecretary Wendy R. 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, 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.

How was your meeting with Ethiopian officials?

We had excellent meetings with the Prime Minister and the  Foreign Minister.  We also had an excellent meeting with General Samora Yenus [Army Chief of Staff] and had an excellent meeting with Bereket Simon [Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister] 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.

Let me take you back to the Ginbot 7 issue. Four years ago, the Ethiopian government had, alongside Ginbot 7, labeled the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as terrorist organizations.  Why did you specifically single out Ginbot 7 during your statements?

I think because that has 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.

Does the United States consider these particular organizations as terrorist groups?

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.  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 United States has been a safe haven for these groups to operate.  Some of them are based in the US while others are based in Europe. What is going to be the fate of Ginbot 7, ONLF and OLF if the United States government takes a stand towards these particular groups?

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.

Let me take you back some 10 years. A press statement by Sean McCormick, spokesperson of the Department of State back in 2005, said and I quote: “The elections have immutably changed Ethiopia’s political landscape and broadened that country’s democratic horizon.”

National Security Council Spokesman Mike Hammer, in the aftermath of the 2010 Ethiopian Elections, said and I quote: In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media.”

You said in your statement yesterday [the interview was conducted on April 17, 2015, a day after the statement] and I quote: “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in Election...Ethiopia is strengthening its democracy and every time there is an election it gets better and better...” Would you care to reconcile these statements since Washington seems to be sending out conflicting messages with regard to its view on democracy in Ethiopia.

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 this 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 who 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 that 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 a meeting with civil society members, have understood that 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.

Talking about the region as a whole, there is the South Sudan crisis, there is Eritrea, and Al-Shabaab. This is like one of the most troubled regions in the world.  What do you think should be the next step for finding a lasting solution in South Sudan and the region as a whole especially with regard to maintaining peace and stability and are there remedies that that are on the table?

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 important to all of us, including the United States, of course, because we were quite instrumental in the birth of South Sudan. Ambassador Donald 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 Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek 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 Da'esh, 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 Da'esh 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. We have a whole range of tactics and tools. We are working with 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 Ethiopian government repeatedly accuses the Eritrean government of instigating trouble in the region. The accusations include supporting Al-Shabaab.  Does the US buy this story?

The US buys the view 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.