To Daniel Bekele, Commissioner, Ethiopian Human Rights Commission
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
March 18, 2021
Subject: concerns about the impartiality and independence of the EHRC
It was a real dilemma to pen and send this letter to you. It took me more than 6 months to question the integrity and impartiality of a renowned Ethiopian human rights expert, who previously worked for Human Rights Watch. Even after witnessing the trail of biased reports and public statements by the Commission. I tried to ignore the ominous bias and lack of integrity in those reports and statements assuming that the Commission lacks expertise and experience to articulate findings of human rights violations given the complex political context in which it is operating.
I was undecided to make my mind even after your statement at the Geneva press Club in January 2021 at the Geneva Press Club, which, I know retrospectively understood, should have been a clear testimony to the follies of you and the Commission that boils down to integrity and independence. During the press briefing organized by the Ethiopian Embassy in Geneva and attended by the Ethiopian Attorney General, you categorically downplayed the magnitude of human rights violations taking place in Tigray. That is a mind blowing statement for a human rights advocate, as we don’t diminish the sufferings of victims by comparing them with benchmarks, whether those benchmarks are assumptions or concrete cases.
In fact, that damning statement in a public space was incorrect factually. In the days preceding the press briefing and your statement, a team of investigators from the Commission were traversing cities in Tigray documenting widespread cases of rape, extrajudicial killing, and other grave human rights violations. Based on my private conversation with the members of the team, you were receiving daily briefs about the daily findings of the investigation including rape, looting, destruction of property, and extrajudicial killings in Axum. Yet you chose to ignore those findings and towed the government line.
Your human rights reporting and documentation of the May Cadera massacre are also full of gaping holes, which is additional evidence of your lack of impartiality and independence. You might recall that the May Cadera massacre was highly contested between the Amhara and the Tigray ethnic groups. Amnesty published a statement about the massacre that happened between 9-10 November. The Amnesty findings were later contradicted by harrowing stories of Tigray refugees in Sudan. The Commission was able to deploy a team of investigators to the area a week after the massacre happened. Astoundingly, your preliminary report on the Mai-Kadra massacre was one sided with exaggerations that favor one side (the Amhara) and suppressed or ignored the stories of the Tigray residents of the town.
As someone who had years of experience at the Human Rights Watch, it is unconscionable that you will miss the basic rules of human rights research, which is about ensuring diversity of sources while investigating human rights violations that took place in ethnically charged conflict. Instead, you opted to make condescending comments about the credibility of the refugees in Sudan claiming that they fled because they were perpetrators of human rights violations. Victim blaming is the least we expect from someone who is at the helm of a national human rights watchdog institution.
Let me also remind you about the gross manipulation of law and evidence in the Commission’s report about the violence that broke out after the killing of Artist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020. I have a good reason to believe that the Commission report is visible tilted in favor of the government in its attempt to demonize the Oromo youth groups and to downplay violations by government security forces. According to the report, around 40 of the deaths due to the violence were by Oromo youth groups while the killings by security forces accounted for close to 70 deaths. Yet the report found it easy to conclude that the killings by the communal youth groups amount to crimes against humanity and atrocity crimes, while it rarely analyzed the circumstances of killings by government security forces that account for more than two third of the deaths. Let me also remind you that a human rights institution does not make a definite determination of crime because it is not a court of law.
The gaping bias and the glaring manipulation of evidence in the same report are evident when you notice that the Commission’s report used government officials, mainly local police and security heads, as authoritative sources for human rights investigation. In disregard to the cardinal rule of human rights investigation which requires collection of testimonies primarily from victims and eye witnesses, the report was mainly informed by government officials who have political and self interest in providing incorrect testimony. I hope you won’t tell me that you worked for HRW for more than a decade without knowing this cardinal rule of human rights investigation.
Manipulation of evidence to fit pre-determined conclusions is also evident in the report. In pursuit of this objective, the report has left out the incidents of killings, looting, and property destruction in localities called Ogolcha and Munissa. I have confirmed that the staff of the Commission visited the two localities and documented the human rights violations that took place in the two places following the death of Hachalu. In Munissa village, at least 7 Oromo and Amahara residents were killed within two hours of the death of Hachalu. This brutal event in Munissa did not make it to the report because it didn’t fit the Commission’s conclusion that the violence was pre-meditated and constitutes crimes against humanity.
Similarly, the Report willfully omitted the killing of 3 Tigray residents, after they were tagged as Woyane by violent youth in Ogolcha town. This instance of violence did not appear in the report allegedly because it does not fit into your framing of the report that violent Oromo youth targeted Amharas/Neftegna.
Before I conclude, let me also bring to your attention the comments you made on the media about human rights reports by the international human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International. It is unethical and unprofessional for human rights bodies to criticize the human rights work of another institution. Of course, it is possible to break this rule, in exceptional circumstances where there is compelling ground and objective reason. Yet, it was tragic to see that you publicly criticized the Amnesty International report entitled Beyond law enforcement on subjective grounds such as framing, context, or the cover page of the report.
I am certain that you are aware of the reasons for the general practice to avoid public criticism of the works of other human rights institutions, as it is not a gag rule based on collegiality. Instead, it is primarily informed by risks of deterring justice for victims and survivors. Even in cases of credible concerns, human rights organizations usually use private channels to relay their concerns in a manner that enables constructive dialogue. Your disregard for the professional ethos is a clear indication of your disregard for victims of human rights violations.
If you were honest, you could have appreciated that institutions like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch were able to compile and report while working remotely due to lack of access and with limited man power. As someone who is privy to the research methodologies and standards of these institutions, the least you could was to avoid publicly commenting on their reports. However, you were not able to resist the temptation to insert insidious comments even on Amnesty’s report on the Axum massacre in February ‘we recognize the limitations of remote research”.
This is without forgetting your shameful recent comment that literally justified the arbitrary arrest of media workers in Mekelle citing risks of disinformation.
Currently, Ethiopia is at a critical crossroad punctuated by atrocious human rights violations. The last thing the current context needs is a human rights watch dog that is willing to disregard the sufferings of victims for personal or tribal interests. To the contrary, the Ethiopian officials are using you and the institution you lead, in the name of joint investigation, to avoid UN investigation. In effect, you and your institution have become tools of repression. Hence this is time for you to resign instead of abetting a repressive regime.
Debebe Hailemariam (Ph.D)