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On government response to human rights reports (part 2)

By Genenew Assefa
Tigrai Onlne - May 06, 2014

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Another case in point which bears out Human Rights Watch’s congenital negative disposition towards Ethiopia is its 2009 report of an exceedingly high rate of human right violations, even by its own standards. Initially the government had serious misgivings that Human Rights Watch would be so daring enough to issue a report of massive allegations without some tangible supporting evidence to go by. To get to the bottom of the puzzle, the government quickly established an internal inquiry committee, charged with the task of conducting an on-site probe into each Human Rights Watch’s allegations.

Genenew Assefa

As a signal that the government meant business, the inquiry team was given full mandate to interrogate local law-enforcement officers and heads of institutions, implicated in Human Rights Watch’s report of grave human rights abuse. After a painstaking investigative work, which included private interviews with groups of persons cited as surviving  victims of  human right violations,  as well as  family members of  those presumed to  have died of  extra-judicial killing, the inquiry committee uncovered a huge discrepancy between Human Rights indicting  report and the reality on the ground. In its final summation, the committee laid bare its grounds for rejecting the 2009 report, by listing the gaps, inconsistencies, hearsays, rumors and downright fabrications contained in it. As a common curtsey, and partly in the hope that it would serve notice to Human Rights Watch that fictitious reporting serves no one, Ethiopia availed the committee’s findings in the form of a declassified public document. Nonetheless, to the government’s dismay, its plea for objectivity fell on deaf ears.  Perhaps in this regard, there is no more a vivid illustration of Human Rights Watch’s disregard to Ethiopia’s than its most recent release, denouncing in strident language to boot, the Extractive Industries Transparency International. EITI’s only sin, as it were, seems to be its unconditional acceptance of Ethiopia’s membership application over the hostile protestations of Human Rights Watch, whose executive  directors saw the decision as yet another  setback to their anti- Ethiopian crusade.

 Alas, a blessing in disguise as they say,  the March 19 vile protest letter  against EITI will hopefully dispel  any  lingering doubt  about the adversarial nature of  Human Rights Watch’s stance towards Ethiopia. In actual fact, a cursory glance at any of the statements that the self-declared guardian angels of human rights regularly churn out in rapid succession lay bare that the true intention is to turn the donor community against Ethiopia. Worse still, every time Human Rights Watch’s mendacious call for hitting Ethiopia with sanctions goes unheeded, its mangers lashes out against those they hold responsible.  As we saw in the most  recent case  of EITI,  the planetary human rights Marshall rails against  donor inaction when, in its considered view, the situation cried out for stern measures against an offending state-party. Top in the list of repeated offenders is, needless to say, Ethiopia.  A country which, according to Human Rights Watch,  not only gets away with murder, but  seems to be somehow rewarded for in the form of more development assistance.

On a more serious note, on the government’s interpretation, the current barrage of negative human rights publication is largely aimed at scuttling the US-Ethiopia Bilateral Dialogue Mechanism. A consultation platform, if you will, through which the two countries exchange ideas of mutual interest, including on the need for improving the existing human rights assessment mechanism in Ethiopia. One would have thought that the State Department would at least welcome a better human rights monitoring system. Or even encourage the current effort of exploring ways of how the US could avail a capacity-building package to upgrade Ethiopia’s human rights practices to a higher level of international standards. Nonetheless, despite noticeable improvements towards reaching this lofty goal, as there is no higher goal than improving the quality of human rights protection, the 2013 State Department Report paints a bleak picture. Though, the background research to such a dismal picture is based on a selective set of second-hand information supplied by dubious informants with an ax to grind. The Report, in fact, dismisses the Ethio American Dialogue Mechanism as unsatisfactory, if not, as a needless waste of time and energy.  Again,  like its bleak  human rights write-ups, the Report makes this sweeping conclusion about the bilateral Dialogue Mechanism on  a flawed  analysis,  short  on hard-evidence and long in preconceived certitude  akin to a self-fulfilling prophesy. The Ethiopian government is, therefore, in characterizing  the  final summation of the Report as yet another instance of willful denial of the progress it is making on the democratization front: Particularly the gains made by the efforts it excreted to meet its human rights obligations to its own people and fulfill Ethiopia’s international commitments to all right-promoting declarations.   

However, in this connection there is a common fallacy which runs like a red thread across the core assumptions of both domestic and external refusnics who view Ethiopia’s human rights performance with jaundiced eye. This stems first and foremost from failure to appreciate that for the Ethiopian government, fidelity to principles of human rights is not a donor-driven commitment, which can be switched on and off depending on external funding.  Few, if any, realize that it is rather out of deep conviction that, cynical incredulity aside, the government tries its level-best to uphold human rights as it does the whole array of democratic liberties enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. Similarly, none of its detractors seem to understand that the government is determined to spare no effort to create the ground for the possibility of a robust human rights environment. Such an environment, in its view, cannot prevail under conditions of recurrent famine, cyclical epidemic, constant bloodletting and permanent disfranchisement.  Unfortunately such were the conditions of in which Ethiopian people were tapped in before the advent of the present government, that brought about drastic improvement in the lives of the people at all levels. And that is also why the government believes that commitment to human rights is inadequate unless paralleled by a firm resolve to first safeguard the safety of ordinary citizens, especially those most at risk both under weak governments with limited reach, and strong arbitrary states of ubiquities presence. Safeguarding public safety, for the government, is tied to commitment to ensuring food security, universal coverage of basic healthcare, primary education, in a word, to providing for the fundamentals of life-sustaining necessities, which in its own right counts as  basic human rights. This is not just rhetoric or red herring by invoking the not so uncommon assertion of the inherent tradeoff between human rights and development. But, a firm conviction attested by the unprecedented expansion of basic social and hard infrastructures without which implementations of human rights is bound to be limited, if not, impossible. Nor can violation of human rights be properly monitored in a logistically and politically closed environment, where citizens lack basic civic education to protect their rights and where there is no access to their physical location. This was the case in Ethiopia before the construction of massive communication networks, which unfortunately means nothing to ivory tower human rights activists.

This is, then, the kind public goods that the government promised and delivered beyond the expectations of the donor community, in partial fulfillment of its human rights obligation. However, blinkered by a narrow neoliberal scope of vision, the present armies of human rights advocates fail to capture the bigger picture of the global human rights agenda.  Most have no appreciation of the important role that construction of social and physical infrastructure play in promoting human rights. Neither do they seem to be willing to understand that such public provisions, which opens up greater possibility for effective implementation of human rights, is only possible through state intervention. To the contrary, the current captains of the burgeoning industry of advocacy are wedded to a fixed monist view of which collective agency de-promotes or promotes human rights.  For instance, they see all developmental states as ontologically antithetical to human rights and basic freedoms in general. This indiscriminate and a priori negative categorization obviously overlooks that there is at least one notable variation to this typology of state organization. This is what scholars and practitioners alike rightly refer to as a democratic development state.

 Though, it might sound as an overstatement, the Ethiopian government can be described as the closest approximation of the archetypal democratic development state. For, unlike the development state in the Asian Tigers, democratic liberties not only predate Ethiopia’s right-based rapid development trajectory, but also undergird its federal democratic political order. Objection to this claim will no doubt be raised as there is still a visible lag in external perceptions between, on the one hand, Ethiopia’s pre-federal condition of abject destitution and autocratic rule. And, on the other, the present constitutional system of governance hallmarked by accelerated social and economic development, which forms the condition of its increased capacity to implement human rights. A word of caution is apt here, since it is not purely due to lack of information that Ethiopia is still cast at times a virtual failed state, and, at other times, as a country ran by an overambitious neo-totalitarian ruling party. One determined to entrench and insulate itself from public scrutiny, by reckless state expenditure on unsustainable white- elephant projects at the expense of the needs and rights of the people. Surely this flies in face of the of the government’s impressive  record in the areas of meeting  the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)  and successive implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP)that qualifies a nation for debt  cancelation.   It bears to keep in mind that while meeting the MGDs has a spin-off effect of enhancing human rights, successful implementation of the PRSPs compounds the effect, as the program is designed with built-in provision of popular participation both at the level of planning and practical application. It is not by accident, then, that in none of its publications has Human Rights Watch anything positive to say about Ethiopia’s effort to build an enabling human rights environment. As its government has, by  launching rapid infrastructural development  paralleled  by  a steady pace of institution-building,  geared to enhance  greater   popular participation  at all levels of  the  decision- making  structure.    

Nor is there any mention in Human Rights Watch’s reports of the initiative taken to mainstream the values human rights across all relevant state institutions.  For instance, under the auspices of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, all law-enforcement officers and prison administrators are required to attend periodic training sessions on human rights values, legislations, declaration and codes of conduct. Attendance is mandatory, since each trainee is held accountable for failure to abide by the laws and instruction manuals framed to guide their activities. Equally important, though invariably ignored by Human Rights Watch, is that it is compulsory in Ethiopia that all relevant state agencies include a human rights component in their annual action plans. Against which success and failures during implantation phase is subject to independent evaluation where, depending on the outcome, appropriate measures are taken by the next higher authority in the chain of government hierarchy. Furthermore, to ensure an even and combined development, every one of these institutions are required to  align their annual action plan with the human rights goals envisioned in the present (2010-15) and subsequent national Growth and Transformation Plans. No doubt this integrated plan is less likely to make any positive impression on Human Rights Watch and International Rivers Network as an innovative and sustainable approach of fostering and deepening the culture of human rights.  In a way, it is naive to expect otherwise since, by virtue of their ideological orientation, the policy elites of the human rights watchers’ and protectors of dam-construction victims are averse to any human rights implementation package that is tied to a government-led socio-economic transformation. Witness the crocodile tears being shed over a non-existent mass population displacement, presumed to be caused by Ethiopia’s hydroelectric projects. The wailing has become even louder in anticipation of an even more frightening scale of population resettlement with the completion of the Great Renaissance Dam, the jewel of the five-year Growth and Transformation Plan.

  Alas, after everything is said and done, all the noise and claptrap about mass uprooting only masks an ideological stance that denies the nexus between human rights and state-driven development. In the Ethiopian context equitable development is unthinkable without effective utilization of the country’s only resources, land, water and labor. Nor can such building an environment where the overwhelming majority of the country’s low-income population can access the goods and services produced by harnessing Ethiopia’s natural and human resources.  Whereas, while Ethiopia has been reproached for failing to provide its citizens the bare minimum, often in human rights language, it is treated in the same vain for mobilizing its resources to meet the basic needs of the people.  Granted, this tension-filled criticism, which cancels itself out, leaves Ethiopia in a difficult catch-22 situation. Be that as it may, from the vantage point of the organizing principles of the Ethiopian government, development and human rights are mutually interdependent as one is a precondition of the other. In fact, the validity of this thinking was upheld at the 1968 first World Conference on Human Rights, convened in Teheran.  The final statement of the conference   asserts that  “the achievement of lasting progress in the implementation of human rights is dependent upon sound and effective national and international policies of economic and social development.”

Human Rights Watch notwithstanding, the EPRDF government believes that without taking a good stock of Ethiopia’s sound polices and the gains made so far, lamenting the lack of international standards of human rights is at best hollow, and at worst self-righteous, if not, downright cynical.  It is indeed disingenuous to suggest that in the Ethiopian context of constitutional government, the people could access these public goods in the absence of measurable respect to human rights.  Human Rights Watch aside, at least in Ethiopia, sustained access to the means of dignified livelihood is only a function of mass political empowerment free from coercion, much less, systematic violation of human rights.

 Paradoxically, accusatory fingers are pointed at the very government that made it all possible through accelerated development marked by popular participation.  On second thought, there may not be a paradox here. Since at bottom it appears that the real issue at stake is not government failure of compliance with human rights conventions per se. Rather, what seems to be on trial is Ethiopia’s approach to human rights which apparently is not to the liking of those who abrogates to themselves the last say on the matter. Obviously there is a discernable distinction between Ethiopia’s development approach to human rights and the dominant paradigm, though in recent years key tenets of the latter have come under fire. This is partly because the mainstream institutionalized human rights thinking starts from first principle of universal value and, argues for its uniform application, regardless of the specific variables of each country. Granted, in the present understanding, it is European Enlightenment thinkers who firs deeply reflected on, and theorized about, human rights.  It is indeed the galaxy of 18th and early 19th century trailblazing Western thinkers who ‘discovered’ that a human being, regardless of nationality, citizenship, gender or creed has a natural right that all European states must respect to qualify as a civilized nation. Never mind that not all Enlightenment thinkers had the courage of their conviction to include Africans in their definition of a  human being, but credit goes to  the continental  Philosophes  for elevating human right to public morality and insisted that  the right merits legal protection.

 Yet, if it is to be a universally shared morality, human rights must not be used as an instrument of leverage on poor states like Ethiopia.  This is to say that every country must be allowed to align and mediate modern principles of human rights through its own historical experience and cultural values by which every society gives meaning to life. To repeat, in its present  full-fledged   configuration human rights is eminently a European construct, but its substrate foundation i.e. considerate empathy with fellow human beings is not the exclusive preserve of the Western tradition. All non-Western societies, let alone those famed for their gift to world civilization, posses rich legacies of human decency, albeit less theorized as a separate domain in its own right. If so, then, each country outside the orbit of the Western tradition can rearticulate its indigenous humane values to match modern concepts and practices of human rights. Arguably such a reflective and nuanced approach is bound to go a long way in terms of mainstreaming human rights across the public spheres and governing institutions of the entire non-Western world, deemed to fall far behind   Western counterpart  where human rights is believed to be embedded in its modern  legal, political, ideological and social  fabric.

The all-knowing Human Rights Watch might not be aware of it, but Ethiopia is one such society with lofty moral tradition whose peoples deeply value rule of law. Tragically Ethiopia’s legacy of popular respect to the innate worth and dignity of human life was stretched to the limit during the 1974-1991 post-revolutionary reign of terror, unleashed by a power-mongering regime of mass murder.  Horrendous as it has been, the seventeen-year long abandonment of legality and abdication of the virtues of human decency must, from the point of view of Ethiopia’s millennial history, be taken as a short-lived aberration.  Though abominable, the experience has, nonetheless, imparted one enduring lesson to the surviving generation and hopefully to posterity. Namely, that henceforth Ethiopia cannot rely on its inherited culture of grassroots civility alone, if it is to avoid another slippage into the abyss of state-directed human rights violation, much less, of genocidal proportion.

 It is against this backdrop, then, that the post-military ruling party played a leading role in Ethiopia’s incorporation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights into its constitution. And subsequently established an independent commission charged with oversight to ensure all-round compliance with the country’s human rights laws. As a party, therefore, which led the struggle to close the chapter arbitrary rue and Ethiopia’s recent history of nightmarish state terror, the EPRDF government needs no lecture or any lesson on what it already knows and knows too well.  Who, in god’s name, can instruct the governing coalition that in an environment of gross human rights violation, neither political stability, nor development is possible? For to do so  is no more redundant than preaching to the convert since, for the Ethiopian  governing party, respect to  human rights is an integral part of its commitment to the wellbeing of its people on whose aggregate consent rests its legitimacy to govern. However, lest there be any misunderstanding, perhaps a declaimer here is in order since the Ethiopian government itself does not lay claim to a flawless human rights record. Yes, there are incidents of human rights violation. Yes, these incidents are cause for concern. But the question is, is human right violation in Ethiopia systemic? The answer is emphatic no, regardless of who says what to the contrary. Apropos, the point that cannot be overstated is that the government does not believe that compliance with human rights conventions can be ensured through punitive external pressure. Nor is blackmailing Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch’s favorite strategy, is likely to yield any positive result.  Such  heavy-handed approach   is, in fact, self-defeating, particularly given the well known fact that the EPRDF government neither responds to arm-twisting tactics, nor shirks from following its own mode of human rights practice.

 This is not to suggest that the government is unappreciative of the assistance it is receiving from its partners. To the contrary! Provided no crippling strings are attached, the government is grateful to every bit of help it receives as it strives to deliver on its promises and live up to the ideals of the Ethiopian constitution. From which the government in turn derives the inspiration to transform Ethiopia into a stable democracy on a solid political-economy of rapid wealth generation and equitable wealth distribution. By the same token, senior policy-makers are open to legitimate criticism of Ethiopia’s “admittedly less than perfect human rights practices’’. What the country’s leading decision-makers resent most, and with good reason one might add, is contrived reports of condemnation that unintentionally or otherwise tarnish Ethiopia’s image under the guise of holding the country accountable to its own international human rights obligations.  Again there is another paradox here, since it is the same forces who, on the one hand, claim to exert appropriate pressure on Ethiopia to be mindful of its duties as a signatory state to global human rights conventions:  And, on the other hand, work tirelessly to have Ethiopia expelled from multilateral organizations charged with promoting best practices at all levels of governance.  Including from international commissions mandated to monitor state compliance with human rights declarations. Such a contradictory intervention, which is often expressed in accusatory human rights reports with no warrant in reality, can hardly produce whatever the intended result might be.

Besides, it boggles the mind how those who claim to expand the frontiers of human rights across the length and breadth of the globe can at the same time seek to curtail Ethiopia’s participation in world forums.  Surely such a severe design on the oldest African state is uncalled for. Especially when it is widely knows that Ethiopia readily avails itself to human rights monitoring missions, and, when conditions permit, submits reports on the progress and challenges it is facing in the process of implementing human rights. Besides, Ethiopia is a founding member of the United Nations and the first to be called on by the Security Council for peacekeeping missions in many war-torn countries of the African continent. This is not to mention that it was in Ethiopia where the founding fathers of African independence, after intense disagreement, agreed to hold the founding conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and chose Addis Ababa as its headquarters. Fittingly, the OAU’s successor, the African Union, ruled by an overwhelming majority vote to retain the now expanded AU office in Ethiopia. This goes to show (if any illustration need be) that Ethiopia is a respected AU member state whose late prime minster, Meles Zenawi,  who  help shape the Union’s new direction urged it member states to speak in one voice.  Meles also served admirably so, let it be underlined, the African Union as its elected spokesman on almost all international forums. These are just recent examples that highlight Ethiopia’s long pedigree as a responsible player in regional and international affairs whose voice carries weight throughout Africa.  More so today than ever since, alone in the region, Ethiopia enjoys   solid peace and stability hallmarked by an inclusive constitutional state arrangement and a dynamic political-economy that, among other things, explains its present high standing in the international community.  It is, then, faire to conclude from the forgoing that Ethiopia’s current place in the world is bound to mitigate the adverse effects of the negative campaign which high-profile international NGOs in cahoots with runway fugitives are waging against its government in the name of human rights.

Nonetheless, there can be no illusion that, coming from the State Department, damming rendition of the state of Human Rights in Ethiopia is likelier to give comfort, if not, encouragement to the fanatical fringe opposition outfits, whose external sponsors openly disdain human rights. For adherence to the principles of human rights means placing limits to the means they can employ in pursuit of their political end. Whereas, their willing domestic pawns, each bent as it is on destabilizing the Ethiopian constitutional order, invoke human rights as a convenient cover to hide their unlawful design. Unfortunately, every one of this year’s human rights reports on Ethiopia is largely based on the testimonies of these hired guns whose main preoccupation is planning for their next terrorist attack on the softest target possible. In any event, none of the human right reports on Ethiopia promise much that the EPRDF government needs to take seriously. As none of it is worth considering as input to the kind corrective measures that policy-makers intend to implement through the National Human Right Action Plan. For what use is there in giving serious thought to blanket indictments that no impartial tribunal would dignify with deliberation. If anything, the countless allegations contend  in these  reports either make the job of the hired anti-Ethiopian lobby in Washington easier, or play into the hands of Ethiopia’s sworn enemies who are determined  to leave no stone unturned to wreck havoc in this country. Who, then, can blame the Ethiopian government for characterizing these so-called research-based reports as “contrary to the spirit of good faith that animates true advocacy for human rights?”  Hence, one can only hope that future human right reports on Ethiopia would be accurate, constructively critical, and forward-looking. For anything less is downright bunk, and of use to no one with deep concern to the cause of human rights.

Read Part 1