By Debebe S. Abebe, New York
Since the war broke out in Ethiopia on November 4 , 2020, there has been a flood of reports that have been released by journalists, governments, aid agencies, multilateral organizations, individuals, and human rights organizations around the world. While each has its own reasons and motivations, for us -Ethiopians, it is about the survival of our nation; it is not just another bad news anymore. The objective of this commentary is to highlight the flawed nature of some of these careless and potentially nation disintegrating messages and to urge the readers to take such reports with a grain of salt. We need to sift the grain from the chaff. We need facts!
I would like to start with what we know without a doubt and what we don’t know about the conflict in Tigray. We know that the war started on November 4, 2020 by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) attacking the Ethiopian National Defense Force, stationed in the Tigray region (as reported by TPLF’s high profile member and the Trump department of state). We also know that, in response, Prime Minister Abiy’s government declared a law and order restoration campaign. Other than these, the myriads of allegations that have been release from the two warring factions (The Ethiopian Government and the TPLF) beg for independent investigation. A well researched and unbiased investigation is needed. So far we have not seen such a finding that answers questions about alleged crimes and human rights violations that substantiate the claims by each side.
It is understandable to hear each side to blame the other; for that matter they have/had been in a war for months now. That is not surprising! What is troubling is 1) The so called “investigative reporting” by organizations like CNN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that violated all the ethics of acceptable research practices, and 2) Irresponsible actors /individuals who use their position of influence to mislead the world.
I am a researcher and my views here are not that of a political analyst; I am writing this to show the flawed nature of these investigations and to help policy makers and all interested from reaching to erroneous conclusions and consequently to wrong decisions. Below are some of the basic problems I observed that have been fueling the issue rather than providing objective findings and directing towards sustainable peace.
The first problem I observed is what is commonly known as Selection Bias. For any investigation to be objective, the manner in which respondents (such as interviewees) are selected is critical. Selection of respondents should follow a process that clearly shows due diligence that assures unbiased investigation. The recent CNN’s massacre reporting , Amnesty international’s “Massacre in Axum” report, and the Human Rights Watch’s “report of massacre” , are all based on mainly on interviews collected from Ethiopian refugees in Sudan and phone interviews of Axum residents. For the starter, many of the refugees in Sudan have been accused by the Ethiopian government of taking part in the Mai Kadra masssacre. There is no clear criteria that these investigators used to exclude such individuals from the interview. There is also no clear and careful selection criteria on those interviewed via phone from Axum, if they are credible sources or not. Those of us who have been watching the pro TPLF social media and news reports in the local languages have been hearing all the misinformation and disinformation that are being spread. In all honesty, the reports of CNN, Amnesty international, and Human rights Watch have been similar to the Anti- Abiy campaign talking points of the pro TPLF side. I presume the interviewees selection bias played a role in such questionable findings. Any agency be it international news agency or human right group should assign the best of its human resource, who at least understand the basics of scientific research, when it comes to particularly matters that involve human lives, whether in Africa or anywhere else. It may be ok to assign any journalist to report about matters that has no consequence (such as interviewing people on the street about their favorite sport teams); however, assigning journalists and investigators about an alleged “ possible war crime” deserves the seriousness the matter requires. Such poor and careless reporting , as if there is no or little consequence, is troubling and unconscionable.
The second problem is questions about the credibility of Evidences /Artifacts. I observed two types of evidences that lack credibility. One of them is Amnesty International’s evidences of satellite image of “disturbed earth “ which shows 2 burial sites (one of which is indicated as new). The very presence of a new burial site doesn’t tell anything other than showing someone was buried, unless there is another evidence that corroborates to conclude that the killings were deliberate actions and the dead were not fighters who died fighting in the war. The other troubling evidences are the video clips of the Human Rights Watch report that tell literally nothing other than showing that : they were recorded in Axum, there were audible gunshots, some properties were damaged, there were pillage of health centers, there was a body, and there were some unarmed individuals wandering in the town. All of which are common in war situations and none of them show who did what (which is a key information needed in an investigation of this nature). The report didn’t substantiate these videos other than adding “one witness said this” and “ another witness said that “ type of analysis. This adds to the questionable nature of the data collection and analysis conducted by the investigators. I urge the so called investigators to visit the said places and do actual, in person investigation, since the areas of interest are now open to investigators. We all want to know the truth; do us a favor!
The third problem is the involvement of entities who may have a possible Conflict of Interest. One of the hallmarks of scientific investigation is making sure the study is not influenced by a conflict of interest. There have been some aid agencies whose involvement and even opinions threaten the integrity of the investigation due to a obvious conflict of interest. Meaning, aid agencies exist only as long as disaster happens; while we appreciate their help in delivering aid to those who need it, their involvement or view about any disaster investigation is a pure conflict of interest. Therefore they should be neutral.
The fourth problem is the involvement of Non-neutral Actors. Political heavy weights who have time and again shown unreserved support to one side should distance their opinions from contaminating the objectivity of an investigation of this type. For decades, the TPLF has cultivated friendship with individuals like Susan Rice whose allegiance is to the TPLF’s leadership as opposed to Ethiopia as a country. For many Ethiopians she is the embodiment of hypocrisy, especially following her utter disrespect to Ethiopians following a disputed election where the then ruling party, EPRDF, declared it won 100% of the vote . Supporters of the current government in Ethiopia (even in those in the opposition) are not at ease with Susan Rice’s very first tweet and re-tweet about the current situation in Ethiopia which accused the Ethiopian Military of possible “war crime”, even before any credible evidence was reported. It is unfortunate that her influence in the Biden administration and the reports and tweets that come from the current state department shows her direct or indirect influence.
The fifth problem is what is known as Selective Reporting. One of the ethical expectations of scientific investigation is to report significant findings without withholding critical facts. It is unfortunate that the Mai Kadra massacre, that the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council concluded to have been committed by a youth group organized by TPLF, has been largely ignored by the major western media outlets. This raises a question about the impartiality of the investigators.
The sixth problem is Rushed Conclusion. Investigation by nature takes time. The rush by some governments and international organizations to accuse that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces of alleged “war crimes” is premature. While those like Antony Blinken have already concluded Abiy’s government is at fault, as early as in November ,even before the above poorly investigative reporting surfaced; other governments and agencies may have been misled by these biased investigations and may be contemplating knee-jerk reactions.
In conclusion, all who genuinely seek the truth should hold on and allow facts and objectivity dictate the investigation. An independent and credible investigation is needed. Erroneous investigative process supported by unreliable sources definitely leads to a wrong conclusion.
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