By Tesfaye Demmellash
Until recently, a rogue regional state, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), ever at odds with Ethiopian national unity, may have been summarily defeated at war. But a loose web of actors in Western media, academia, and government and international NGO circles seems to have been intent on reversing the war’s outcome. It has enabled the TPLF’s remnants to snatch a propaganda victory from the jaws of actual defeat, deploying the human rights issue in Tigray as a political weapon against the Ethiopian government, such as it is these days.
The intensity of the one-sided Western reaction to the recent hostilities in northern Ethiopia appears to have cooled down somewhat. But there remain underlying issues in the West’s utilization of notions such as “human rights” and their “violation” as power tactics used to create, maintain, or change foreign policy outcomes in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. President Biden’s recent declaration that the massacre of well over a million Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Turkey was a “genocide” is a case in point. Allied with Turkey within NATO, U.S administrations had long declined to recognize the slaughter. Today, under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s Russian ties are growing.
For decades, the Western-centered global regime of human rights has ignored operative meaning and principle, indulging itself more in facilitating and supporting powerful states’ strategic priorities and maneuvers in international politics. The purpose of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to stabilize Cold War rivalries and conflicts, not establish operative human rights principles or philosophical grounding.
From Hegemony to Bare Power Politics
During the Cold War decades, the West, led by the U.S, sought to project moral, ideological, and political leadership in Ethiopia through a concerted rhetorical infusion of liberal-democratic ideas, such as freedom, individual and human rights, democracy, and national unity. As a hegemonic framework of values or symbols, America pushed “progressivist” foreign policy and strategy towards African governments and national citizens in a broadly persuasive manner Soviet or Chinese communist political ideology and practice could not.
But lately, as the Ethiopian case illustrates, something seems to have happened to American hegemony: ideology or broader strategic thought has all but disappeared from U.S foreign policy, or else policymakers have willfully blotted it out. Traditionally viewed as a regional power and a significant American ally in the Horn of Africa in the fight against terrorism, Ethiopia has suddenly become the Biden Administration’s favorite target of economic sanctions and other punitive measures.
Ironically, the Administration hastily took these actions against the Ethiopian government in support of the TPLF, long known to sponsor terrorist activities in Tigray and Ethiopia broadly. The U.S Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, seems to glory in a strange separation of the Tigray region’s human rights issues from everything Ethiopian in and around the area, as if Tigray is its own country. Supposedly America’s top diplomat, Blinken, has made no pretense of tactfully mediating the internal conflict between the former secessionist regional regime and the Ethiopian state. Instead, he is explicitly partial toward the TPLF after its quick collapse in the recent war.
I see the Secretary of State’s imperious demand that Amhara militia groups vacate “western” Tigray in the context of the U. S’s impolitic intervention in Ethiopia’s Tigray problem. The Amhara fighters are not a foreign occupying militia but auxiliary units operating in their own country with the Ethiopian Defense Forces. As such, the Ethiopian government may deploy them anywhere in Ethiopia it sees fit. Besides, the so-called western Tigray was formerly part of the Amhara region of northern Gondar. Amharas and Tigres had inhabited it peaceably before the TPLF military annexed the area to Tigray and brutally depopulated its Amhara residents.
The U. S’s projection of nakedly punitive power towards Ethiopia today may be related to China’s increasing presence and influence in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially geopolitically crucial the Horn of Africa. China today is a peer competitor of the U.S in the Horn, not only economically but also as a rising sovereign superpower. The influence is much less ideological than economic, developmental, and strategic.
The Chinese government may be communist, but communism is no longer a foil or contrary worldview and system of ideas against which American, and more broadly Western, liberal-democratic hegemony could energize and project itself on the world stage. China’s influence in Ethiopia has become pressing through its growing material presence and sway in the country. In the context of this urgency, it may be unsurprising that U.S foreign policy towards Ethiopia has taken the unusually boldfaced, reactionary form that it has.
Moreover, especially in the post-Trump era, the erosion of American democratic values and practices domestically explains the deterioration of the nation’s traditionally ideas-based, pro-active foreign policy orientation. With progressive norms in significant decline at home, thanks to ongoing, concerted authoritarian Republican assault, the U.S government appears disinclined to conduct foreign policy according to hegemonic beliefs and ideas passed down from the past to the present. As evidenced by the Biden Administration’s hardened posture toward China and Ethiopia, it doesn’t seem to matter which one of the two dominant parties is in power.
Western “Human Rights” Against Ethiopia: A Critique
At their most serious, Western human rights reports and advocacy efforts in Ethiopia draw attention to political-tribal conflicts and crises in the country that recurrently result in massive social dislocation and disorder. Accounts of people’s suffering fill the pages of newspapers and magazines, as they should. Television and social media graphically expose the faces of a growing number of internally displaced Ethiopian refugees in shock and anguish over their massive losses – of loved ones, homes, livelihoods, farms, and businesses. We don’t have to strain our sight to see gross human rights violations in Ethiopia.
Nonetheless, the news coverage and advocacy are often selective and not innocent of knowing or unwitting political bias. For example, scores of Amharas who were brutally massacred in Maikadra by a fleeing horde of Tigre militia and collaborating civilians didn’t get the publicity they deserved in Western liberal media. Generally, repeated mass killings of Amhara individuals and entire families in the Oromo and Benishangul regions go virtually unreported by American and European news establishments like CNN, the BBC, the NYT, and the Guardian. And global NGOs, like Amnesty International, turn a blind eye to the mass atrocities. It appears that Amhara lives don’t matter much to such media outfits and NGOs.
In this bias against Amharas (and Ethiopia broadly), the present web of Western governmental and non-governmental actors resembles the European colonial states’ loose network of the 19th and 20th centuries, whose post-colonial heir it is. In the early 20th Century, Paron Roman Prochazka, an Austrian fascist, wrote a book (The Powder Barrel) equating Ethiopia, the only independent black African nation-state, with Amhara domination of non-Amhara tribes, nothing more or different. In his book’s Italian translation in 1935, a year before Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, he reminded European imperialist powers that an effective strategy for subduing Ethiopia was to undermine the national influence of Amharas.
The U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent demand that Amhara militia groups withdraw from a region of their own country was, in effect, a contemporary reminder of a longstanding Western attitude toward Ethiopia generally and Amharas in particular.
Unique in Africa in its abiding national civilization and its fierce resistance against European colonial encroachment, modern Ethiopia can become a much more significant, independent regional power in Africa. The colonial and post-colonial West’s concern for decades has been to constrain Ethiopian development, even while relying on the country as a strategic ally in the Horn of Africa.
The global human rights group’s neglect of Amharas, whose independent sense of cultural community and humanity uniquely transcends ethnicity, is related to this perennial Western concern and worry. Not simply one of many other tribal groups in the country, the Amhara people have been at the core of the trans-ethnic Ethiopian national tradition and a leading force of its modern transformation. And the West knows it.
So do tribal parties and groups in the country Westerners (missionaries, researchers, colonial regimes, and other entities) have historically sought to ally themselves with in pursuing their interests in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa more broadly. Consumed by over-politicized ethnic identity and difference, these parties seem incapable of human concern or national and political thought beyond the narrow horizon of tribal self-presentation. Still, the TPLF has been good at enlisting Western media groups, NGOs, and governments to advance its separatist political project. The project has essentially failed, but residual TPLF bosses, cadres, and partisans can, and do, play victim to American and European constituencies and are adept at extracting sympathy and support for their die-hard sectarian cause.
And the West has been all too eager to be “played” by the TPLF regime. A few years ago, when the regime had a tight dictatorial grip on Ethiopian state power, the Obama-Biden Administration, spearheaded by the ruling Front’s darling, Susan Rice, perversely declared it a democratically elected government. That declaration was a bald-faced lie of Trumpian proportions. The Obama Administration, too, was playing – with the idea of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, thereby creating a knowing, willful distortion that favored the TPLF.
From its inception in the 1970s, expressly as an anti-Amhara communist outfit through its massively corrupt, Apartheid-like dictatorial rule over Ethiopia, the TPLF has never befriended human rights, democracy, or national unity. But it has been clever in transposing itself in the proverbial Orwellian fashion from oppressor to oppressed, victimizer to the victim.
So, it is not surprising that contemporary western narratives of human rights violations in Ethiopia abound with questionable accounts of the mass killings of innocents in Tigray even as they document actual social dislocation and human misery caused by the recent war. Some of these stories have been just that, stories fabricated from whole cloth or unreliable self-serving sources and exaggerated for crass propaganda purposes and Western support.
Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora forcefully expressed their disbelief in the distorted message. Still, we were taken aback by the global forces that spread the TPLF propaganda far and wide. We were skeptical, even dismissive, of reports of the “Tigray genocide” allegedly committed by the Ethiopian military. Yet, we were surprised and unsettled by the sheer extent of media space the doubtful accounts took.
But, regardless of their evident bias and dubious journalistic quality, or untrustworthiness, the accounts have a strategic significance for the West: they help the worldwide white, liberal human rights regime, and U.S and EU governments to assume a dominant position in their relations with Ethiopia, to intervene in a black African nation’s internal affairs and occupy on its territory a ‘moral high ground.’ They give the global web of state and para-state actors, including academic advocates for the TPLF, license to speak down to Ethiopians from the top, leveling criticism, disapproval, and indictment against the Ethiopian government, imposing sanctions against it, and demanding that it make policy changes.
Nothing more typifies Western-dominated global human rights activism in Ethiopia today than its progressivist conceit – its tendency to discount or disregard historically specific, indigenous values and contexts of humanity in favor of a generic, supposedly enlightened, liberal-ideal model. The model takes individually and nationally experienced Ethiopian lives, rocked today by more disorder and chaos than ever, and reduces them to bearers of abstract “human rights.”
Paradoxically, global activists highlight human rights free of actual, diverse human content or presence while tactically valuing Tigre tribal identity. They seize the human category in weird isolation from everything substantive in and around it – whether cultural, political, socio-economic, or national. They privilege generic, ideal individuality over actual, culturally specific human beings and see individuals’ moral claims to human entitlements as grist for the Western strategic mill instead of having intrinsic value.
The West may pursue its global interests in Ethiopia, projecting an ahistorical humanist ideal and imagining the country as a plain, random African ‘territory’ inhabited by disparate individuals or tribes. It may pay scant attention to Ethiopian national culture and solidarity. But, in actuality, in Ethiopia, human beings identify themselves not so much as abstract persons bearing universal rights but individuals and communities shaped by their common and distinctive histories, cultures, and values of humanity.
Not a passive territory created yesterday by European colonial powers, the Ethiopian national landscape is a vital, profoundly historical ground inflected by flows of patriotic forces and struggles and the passage of the past into the present. The country is undoubtedly in an acute crisis, but we should not exaggerate the fear of its imminent break-up, a la Yugoslavia or Syria.
In pushing human rights as entitlements to which Ethiopians have moral and political claims, the global NGOs have little concern for values and norms of humanity indigenous to the Ethiopian people. Their interest is to displace these by the Western model as if the imperious model is immediately valid or workable on-site. Content primarily to talk with each other and their indigenous field hands, American and European human rights advocates rarely engage Ethiopians – patriots, spiritual leaders, intellectuals, political figures, and citizens – to exchange ideas and values of humanity.
Nor do Western activists approach sufferers of human rights violations they claim to defend, in this case, Tigres, much differently. Handling them from a distance, the activists flatten the regional characteristics and deeply Ethiopian content of Tigray by stereotyping its inhabitants as little more than unfortunate victims lacking agency over their lives.
Though they treat the Tigray people as aggrieved and claim universal human rights on their behalf, the activists further ghettoize the people in narrow tribal grievance and authoritarian identity politics. Western human rights advocacy thereby separates Tigres from their rich, trans-ethnic national (i.e., Ethiopian) heritage. What looks like support for the “self-determination” and security of the Tigray people has had the effect of reinforcing their sectarian isolation and insecurity. The more the people endure separatist rule by a nationally alienating tribal regime like the TPLF’s, the more isolated and insecure they become.
In sum, in the hands of American and European human rights advocates, Ethiopians for whom the activists claim the rights tend to see themselves less as self-reliant African individuals and communities with shared national culture and agency than ciphers or focal points for Western global power, intervention, and aid.
“Violation” of Human Rights?
Typically, the Western-led worldwide human rights regime singles out transgression of such rights as a focus of report and criticism. Third World leaders or ruling groups that run afoul of U.S and EU foreign policy interests take their lumps for infringing on the rights, actual or imagined. The criticisms and indictments rarely go beyond highlighting readily observable, brutal violations, such as the slaughter of innocent citizens and other grossly repressive actions that state and non-state actors take with impunity.
But, more broadly and deeply, does an operative universal concept or value of human rights exist to be violated at all in an underdeveloped country like Ethiopia? Or, under the TPLF’s nearly thirty-year tribal dictatorship, what has been there of the principle of individual or democratic rights to transgress in the first place? The question may be counter-intuitive or startling to some.
I raise it based on a couple of assumptions that apply to Ethiopia and other African countries: First, distinct from episodic, at times dramatic, rights infringements, such as bouts of violent ethnic cleansing that arise from political and social disorder, there are abiding dull human privations. The Western-dominated web of global media, academia, NGO, and government entities does not address the latter in human rights terms. The network is unconcerned about the banality of human suffering Ethiopians, especially Amharas, have quietly endured for decades now.
The pain and misery are born of state-sponsored institutional or systemic tribalism. We may not speak of them as “violations” of Ethiopians’ just moral claims to human entitlements; the suffering effectively constitutes the norm. The people experience it every day in crushing structural poverty, in woefully unmet basic human needs for adequate food, shelter, health, and personal and social security.
Second, the Western human rights regime’s appeal to an abstract notion of “rights” that all people ostensibly have as human beings is problematic. It is one thing to aspire to a universal ideal of human rights, but quite another to naturalize the rights as if they are inherent in our biology. They are not.
The challenge, fundamentally, is not undoing or preventing violation of universal rights presumed to exist, already formed, and operative on-site. Instead, it is articulating in the Ethiopian national context a lasting complex of democratic ideals, values, entitlements, and institutional practices which function across ethnic lines with relative regularity, stability, and effectiveness. Only then can individuals and collectives significantly bear human rights and press rights-violation claims meaningfully against offending state and non-state actors.
But the ritual foreign fixation on abstract human rights and domestic over-politicization of ethnicity preclude creating durable multicultural national order in Ethiopia that benefits all citizens regardless of tribal identity. The West’s current one-sided intervention in Ethiopian affairs, partial to Tigre secessionist interests, is strategically too impatient for enduring Ethiopian stabilization and reconstruction. It keeps its eye too narrowly on tactical issues and misconceived punitive measures. And the ever-separatist, nationally divisive TPLF remnants that have gained more Western favor lately remain neither willing nor able to support in good faith Ethiopia’s integral democratic development.
Lasting national change is a complex undertaking for Ethiopia or any historic nation. It is challenging even in the best of times, let alone today, when hostile foreign forces encircle our country, which is internally buffeted as never before by a scary confluence of socio-economic, cultural, and governmental disorder. The task involves more than domestic and foreign actors’ strategies and actions. In Ethiopia, as elsewhere, it is performed under definite historical and structural conditions that present possibilities, not just problems, of national transformation and renewal.
Ethiopia shall rise and renew itself!
By same author : Ethnocentrism, Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Experience
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