–human rights is indivisible: cherry picking is exclusionary —
by Aklog Birara (Dr)
“The rights of every man are diminished when the right of one man is threatened”
John F. Kennedy
I decided to start this commentary with a personal testimony. I came to the United States three years after a crazy person assassinated President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The President who I admire initiated the Peace Corps program from which thousands of Ethiopians benefitted. I am among the lead beneficiaries. My high esteem for President Kenney emanates from his commitment to human dignity and worth.
My Peace Corps English teacher at the Comprehensive High School in Gondar encouraged me to read and then to write “The Challenges My Country Faces in Today’s World” and compete. It is this endeavor that earned me entry into the USA. The Herald Tribune World Youth Forum that sponsored more than thirty young people across the globe chose the essay. In turn, this enabled me to sojourn from the small town of Gondar to New York City.
I was fortunate enough to be supported by American youth at George School, New Town, Pennsylvania, where I completed my high school education, by American families and friends who hosted me and later sponsored my wife; by generous merit-based scholarships at Earlham College and Johns Hopkins University; and by part time jobs at TransCentury Corporation in Washington DC; and an internship at the World Bank. My connection with the Bank began.
My goal throughout this remarkable journey was to complete my studies; return to Ethiopia and serve my country. I was fortunate enough to do just that. I returned to the USA in 1977 and have not returned to Ethiopia since.
I admit there is a lot I do not know about the Ethiopia I left more than forty years ago. However, the “Challenges” my home country faced when I was growing up continues unabetted. I returned to the USA that granted me citizenship as well as immense opportunities. My sponsoring country became my new home country. I am an Etjhiopian American. I admire the American people, especially their sense of fairness, their proclivity to do good and their generosity. Vested in America as our new country, my family and I traveled throughout this enormous and beautiful country.
I believe that America’s relations with my ancestral home, Ethiopia, must be encouraged; nurtured and supported by the Government of the United States as well as by the Government of Ethiopia. The mutual benefits to both are huge.
Ethiopia today faces intractable constitutional, institutional, governance, structural and administrative hurdles that pit one ethnic or faith group against another. The TPLF, OLF and other ethnic parties encouraged, promoted, and institutionalized identity and differentiation encouraged and institutionalized post 1991. These divide and rule values are deeply rooted in the political psyche and culture. This condition allows external agencies, including human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to take sides that in turn perpetuate a cycle of human insecurity, instability, and gross violations of human rights. The lack of impartiality in diagnosis and policy prescriptions undermines President Kennedy’s eternal guide that “The rights of every man are diminished when the right of one man is threatened.” A violation of the right of one Ethiopian is an affront to each Ethiopian. It is this value we fail to accept and entertain.
Today, Ethiopians at home and abroad claim rightly or wrongly that they are victims of civil conflict, targeted killing, ethnic cleansing, massive displacements, land grab, bribery and corruption, maladministration, and other forms of human degradation. These are all true. There are differences in scope, degree, and intensity though. The viability and relevance of our assessment of human rights violations depend on whether we are inclusive or exclusive. Whether we are bold and truthful enough to identify patterns of human degradation based on ethnicity and faith. Is there a pattern?
The difference in human mistreatment comes when one scrutinizes the pattern, intensity, and duration over time of ethnicity and faith-based victimization. On these criteria, the plethora of evidence available and yet to be unearthed shows that the Amhara people suffers most because of their ethnicity and their faith. I repeat, this does not mean that other ethnic or faith groups are not victims. They are.
Irrespective of atrocities and human rights violations past, present and ongoing, the killing of innocent civilians and the degradation of human dignity and rights in Ethiopia diminishes each of us. It makes Ethiopia vulnerable to external threats. It impoverishes the Ethiopian people. It makes them perpetual dependents on the good will of donors and on “good Samaritans.” It diminishes reslienccy. The cardinal question is “What is the way out of this man-made vicious cycle that causes mayhem?”
The “Challenges” my ancestral home faces today
Ethiopia’s political elites, academics and scholars have not given sufficient weight and attention to the dearth of mutual trust and confidence, our inability to focus on the larger picture of commonality, nation building, the unwillingness to change and depoliticize and de-ethinicize Ethiopian politics and the tendency to weaken national institutions. Elites prefer a weaker Ethiopian center. This mindset is costly.
We continue to reinforce and incentivize Ethiopia’s macho and the TPLF ethnic mantra of “my turn to eat” political, economic, and financial culture. In turn, this mindset against a strong national center that will hold the country together is absent in Ethiopia today. Components and tools include undervaluing national character, diluting or diminishing institutional capacity and the notion that Ethiopian society consists of a hybrid population (Ammara intermarried with Oromo etc.) that matter the most.
Foreign agencies and leaders know this gap. An Executive working for an influential American Senator said this. “We are flooded with requests from Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, and others. We are confused who represents Ethiopia.” We must face this huge national gap head on and close the sieve that allows external forces to divide Ethiopians.
Corporate media, think tanks, policy and decision makers and human rights organizations exploit these weaknesses. Journalist Ann Garrison, Contributing Editor of the Black Agenda Report (BAR) is one of the few exceptions. In Part II of her journal on a trip to Ethiopia, she depicts two contradictory landscapes: one of peace and the other of war and human atrocities.
“To be in Addis, you would not think there was a war going unless you were watching television. I was invited onto several local television stations to talk about what I had seen in IDP camps near the front lines in the north, US strategies for toppling the government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the pernicious sanctions legislation on the floors of both House and Senate, H.R. 6600 and S.B. 3199.”
Why are Western journalists not covering Ethiopia?
Garrison reports this. “I count ten foreign journalists, including two Canadians, one Russian, and one New Zealander based in Paris, who oppose the divide-and-conquer imperial pressures coming from the US and its allies. We are so few that we are asked to interview on Ethiopian outlets whenever any of us come here, and via Zoom from wherever we live. We all write for dissident press, and these Ethiopians outlets, most of them state outlets, found us on social media. They commonly introduce me as a print, radio, and social media journalist. Last night I met a Le Monde Diplomatique reporter who had of course never heard of any outlets I write or produce radio for but knew me on Twitter.”
So, how is it possible for the BBC, CNN, New York Times, the Washington Post, and others to report and opine on the Ethiopian situation without witnessing what is happening on the ground? How is possible for members of the US Senate and House to sponsor draconian and punitive legislation—HR 6600 and S-3199– without the benefit of interfacing with ordinary Ethiopians? Who do they cite as legitimate sources?
Is it plausible the reason they do not cover Ethiopia on the ground is because of self-censorship or something else? Are they not covering the war between Russia and Ukraine daily? I subscribe to Garrison who opines “These connections made via social media explain the establishment’s desperate determination to control the narrative by controlling social media, as proposed in House Resolution 6600, the brutal sanctions bill absurdly named the “Ethiopia Stabilization, Peace, and Democracy Act.”
This legislation, now on the House floor, resolves that, “The Secretary of State, in coordination with the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the heads of other relevant federal departments and agencies” develop a strategy to “combat hate speech and disinformation in Ethiopia, including efforts to coordinate with social media companies to mitigate the effects of social media content generated outside of the United States focused on perpetuating the civil war and other conflicts in Ethiopia, including through hate speech and language inciting violence.”
It is these kinds of opaque, restricted, socially, and politically engineered media and human rights reports generated and propagated by Western institutions that underpin policy that I find dangerous, immoral, undemocratic, and unethical. It is unAmerican. Twitter removes the names and accounts of Ethiopians and Eritreans who offer counter views, while permitting pro-TPLF activists to parade fake news. This is political. Powerful external forces muzzled the Ethiopian “NORMORE” movement. This is political.
The bottom line is this. Ethiopians are on their own. Their country’s survival depends entirely on their resolve to set aside non-strategic differences and to unite. It depends on their unity of national purpose. Killing one another; disempowering one another, demeaning one another; expelling one another and so on and on will result into two avoidable outcomes: a Rwanda like genocide; and the Balkanization of Ethiopia. If one of Africa’s celebrated leaders, Nelson Mandela managed to make amends with his mortal enemies; why in heaven’s name do Ethiopians fail to learn and change?
It is not surprising that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had the audacity to conduct research for one year without involving Ethiopian human rights organizations and without interviewing a cross-section of Ethiopians affected by the TPLF initiated civil war. They exploited a void Ethiopians created.
This takes me to a cardinal question that Ethiopian political and social elites, academics, civil society and faith leaders, activists, youth groups and media must ask now. Can Ethiopia’s center hold the country together? Are Ethiopian institutions strong enough to do that? Despite the temptation to speculate, I have decided to let the reader reflect and answer this question.
My argument here is that regardless of ethnicity or faith or class or political viewpoint, Ethiopians must not allow foreign institutions, government agencies, leaders, corporate media, and human rights groups to dictate Ethiopia’s agenda. To do that they themselves must change first.
I am fully cognizant of the notion that regardless of how loud I shout or how persuasively I write, Western corporate media, think tanks, human rights agencies, policy, and decision-makers are unlikely to change their minds. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch do not operate in isolation from the intense international geopolitical tension and competition that affects countries such as Ethiopia.
In my assessment, exalted Western core values, human rights standards, the rule of law, democratic governance and other parameters propagated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would have been hugely important and valuable to Ethiopia’s 120 million people with ripple effect on the rest of Black Africa if these standards they push so hard were based solely on impartial inquiry and hard and credible evidence. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch did not do this in the case of “Western Tigray.”
When I read their report, I say to myself the TPLF or its lobbyists must have authored this report. The difference is style and not substance.
Below are ten reasons why I continue to challenge Amnesty and Human Rights Watch:
- I do not dispute the assertion that Tigrean Ethiopians in the so-called “Western Tigray” are also harmed by a civil war that the TPLF initiated. The war forced thousands to flee to Sudan or Tigray proper. However, the findings are make-believe, partisan and biased. I did not find any credible fact checker or vetting agent or validator. This is because the institutions chose a narrow period (after the war of November 2020); pre-identified, preselected and interviewed those who fled the scene of fighting including Samri, a youth wing of the TPLF that massacred innocent Amhara civilians and day laborers in Mai Kadra. They sanctioned the term “Western Tigray” propagated by the TPLF and echoed repeatedly by the US Department of State and other Western entities and personalities.
In brief, I did not identity a sole case of impartiality or judicious balance in the findings and or conclusion by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. This is the core problem. If you, preselect, design what you wish to do to arrive at a desired conclusion, doctor data and manipulate inputs, the outcome is inevitably jaded.
- The agencies failed to conduct background research concerning the forcible annexation of and repopulation that resulted in massive demographic change and incorporation into Greater Tigray of Wolkait, Tegede and Telemt during the 1970s, giving the claim legitimacy once the TPLF took political power in 1991. Forcible annexation is part but not the whole problem. Ignored or neglected is the material and unreported fact that the TPLF forced indigenous Amhara to snactch not only their properties but also to abandon their identity.
- Research, interviews, and other narratives contained in the Amnesty and HR Watch report do not meet the ethical, intellectual rigor and other standards that underpin conclusions and recommendations from any serious and credible report of this scope. This is the reason I argue that the motivation is political. The politics of human rights with bias are nothing new. They happen in the Middle East, East and South Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Angel R. Oquendo’s writings show the flaws of politically motivated analysis in Latin America. Ethiopia is now a victim of such make-believe vitriol. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are unabashed in making the Amhara a sacrificial lamb (disarm Amhara militia, Fano and hold Amhara administrators accountable.) If this is not political, I do not know what is?
- The agencies disregarded to pose the rightful question of what ever happened to the identity of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Amhara before TPLF annexation and depopulation. What happened to them? Where did they go? Were they summarily executed? If so, by whom? Where are they today if they are alive? If not alive, who killed them and why?
- The agencies did not interview Amhara academics, civil society and religious leaders, the elderly and relevant others. Why did Amnesty and HR Watch decide that non-Tigreans do not merit to be heard?
- The agencies proved to be clueless that the TPLF had declared in its core manifesto of 1976 that the “Amhara are mortal enemies of Tigreans.” The TPLF declared a people’s war. In such a war, combatants include ordinary citizens. It is therefore not surprising that Tigreans left occupied territories in droves after causing incalculable damages. What are they going to tell the interviewers hired by Amnesty and HR Watch but confirm?
- The agencies know that the TPLF started the war in November 2020. The TPLF committed treason. It slaughtered non-Tigrean military personnel. They know that the TPLF refused to accept ceasefire declared by the Government of Ethiopia in June 2021. Instead, the TPLF bombarded the Amhara and Afar regions. At one point, observers feared that that the TPLF will take power again. More important, the agencies know that TPLF continues to bombard, kill, maim, displace, and impoverish the Afar population. The Afar region occupies a strategic stretch of land that serves as Ethiopia’s lifeline. Tragically, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch ignored, neglected, or disregarded one of the worst atrocities in Ethiopian history, namely, atrocities committed by the TPLF on the Afar population. The report is political.
- The agencies gave a free ride to the TPLF. They refrained from holding the TPLF accountable for war crimes, rapes, massive killings of innocent Amhara and Afar civilians and when in power for the massacre of hundreds of Annuak in Gambella. Experts estimate that the cost of this civil war exceeds $10 billion or almost 10 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP. I am delighted to learn that the World Bank (IDA) and USAID pledged more than $600 million in support of war victims in Northern Ethiopia. Neither the TPLF nor the Government of Ethiopia can afford to squander this huge support.
- The agencies were quick and ready to hold the victims: Amhara militia, Fano and administrators of the newly liberated regions of Wolkait, Tegede and Telemt accountable for crimes. They went further demanding that Amhara militia and Fano whose sole role is to defend the lives of indigenous Amhara disarm. How fair and just is it for Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to demand the above while refusing to even propose that the TPLF abandon its insurgency, disarm, withdraw from Afar and Amhara and negotiate in good faith? A call for disarmament of all non-regular combatants such as special forces in each regional state in Ethiopia would have made make sense. This must happen sooner rather than later.
- The two human rights advocates proposed an Africa-Union sponsored peacekeeping force for Ethiopia. They ignored the history and relevance of international peacekeeping. Ethiopian soldiers participated in peacekeeping operations in Korea fighting side by side with Americans. Ethiopia is one of the most significant and steadfast contributors to peacekeeping in Africa. The proposal for peacekeeping operations in Ethiopia undermines Ethiopia’s sovereignty. The real motive and intent are not to restore peace and stability. Rather, it is to create a safe corridor for the TPLF to operate and reoccupy and repopulate “Western Tigray.” The further ploy is for foreign powers to intervene directly in the domestic affairs of one of the most ancient countries in the world, and the only independent African country.
Let me conclude Part II with an urgent plea. I urge Ethiopian political, social, academic, and civic elites to cease and desist from propagating and glorifying minor and non-strategic differences that pain Ethiopian society. I urge them to build on commonalities rather than on differences.
Finally, I plead with elites and Ethiopia’s foreign friends to remember two wise advises:
- “The rights of every man are diminished when the right of one man is threatened”
John F. Kennedy
- “Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”
My wish at this time in Ethiopian history is to witness a post war torn, post conflict and post hate mongering Ethiopia that forges ahead towards an all-inclusive and sustainable development in my lifetime.
In a few days I shall post Part III and then take a three-month sabbatical to reflect
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