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Human Rights Watch still in love with sub-par methodology

By Khalid Taha
Tigrai Online, October 20, 2013

This week, Human Rights Watch produced yet another of its highly sensationalized reports on Ethiopia, this time claiming the federal police mistreats prisoners.

There is no reason to be surprised about this claim. After all, Human Rights Watch has a long history of using yellow journalism techniques, including exaggerated and emotive headlines and phrases designed to attract media or fund-raising attention.

Human Rights Watch still in love with sub-par methodology
The latest report is just one of a series of reports published in the last several years written by Human Rights Watch unsuccessfully trying to attack the policies of the Ethiopian government

For example, its previous lengthy report was titled "Development without Freedom", now it came with another sensational fiction titled –“They Want a Confession. Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station."

The latest report is just one of a series of reports published in the last several years written by Human Rights Watch unsuccessfully trying to attack the policies of the Ethiopian government, opposing villagization and similar programs, demanding the Ethiopian government “to suspend the construction of Gibe III and the associated sugar plantations projects taking place in the Southern Ethiopia", demonizing the Protecting Basic Services program, by promoting the  make-believe stories of the known terrorist organization Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), by calling donors to de-fund the Democratic Institutions Program, by supporting the two Swedish journalists who were found guilty on terrorism charges after they illegally entered Ethiopia, etc. etc..

All these reports have been effectively discredited by the Ethiopian government, the western donors, their embassies in Ethiopia and by NGOs operating in the areas referred to by the allegations.

For instance, in 2011, UK’s Secretary of State for International Development rejected Human Rights Watch’s methodology as “unsound”.

Similarly, in response to an earlier Human Rights Watch allegations, a joint statement of western aid organizations underlined that it did “not concur with the conclusions of the Human Rights Watch report”.

Individual donors and NGOs have repeatedly felt it necessary to disassociate themselves from unfounded and spurious Human Rights Watch allegations.

For all these constant and consistent refutations of its reports, Human Rights Watch had no reply except ignoring the criticisms and pompously claiming that any other evidence, from whatever source, however reputable, should be disregarded unless and except it concurs with Human Rights Watch.

As a result, replying to a Human Rights Watch report is seen by many as a waste of time.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch's reports suffer from critical defect that it is difficult to tell whether they are research reports or a fictional stories.

Due to the methodological flaws on data gathering, compilation and presentation, it is difficult to verify or disprove the allegations.

That is why Minister Sheferaw Teklemariam admonished Human Rights Watch's report, saying:

"In the interest of candor, we shall from the outset begin by pointing out that your report is marred by excessive reliance on questionable and unverifiable testimonies and clear omission of facts and evidences.

Your deliberate neglect of facts on the ground and predetermined conclusion on your presentation strengthen your ideological bias rather than any concern on human rights situation."

Nonetheless, let me point out four main flaws of the latest report, for what it is worth.

The latest report of Human Rights Watch, as usual, is entirely based on hearsay collected from unnamed individuals.

As usual, Human Rights Watch failed to provide details of its interviewees or any details of the alleged misconducts.

This makes it impossible for the government to identify whether the interviews have taken place at all or to inquire any details of when and where alleged incidents occur.

Let's see how the latest report presented its sources.

The pretext given for withelding the names of the interviewees is lame at best. Human Rights Watch claimed:

"Most former detainees interviewed for this research had left Ethiopia, making it easier for them to speak openly about their experience.

However, given the ongoing deep concerns about security of many of those interviewed, all names and identifying information have been removed."

How on earth can a person residing in Europe or America can have "deep concerns about security" for speaking against Ethiopia's government?

This is not Eritrea or North Korea. Relatives of diaspora opposition leaders freely live in Ethiopia.

For example, the father of the terror-convict, Ginbot-7 chairman Berhanu Nega, is a wealthy business man in Addis Ababa.

Perhaps, withholding the names of the sources and the interview techniques could be meant to hide possible errors in sampling and other relevant issues.

In fact, as the report itself discloses at least some of the "interviewees were identified on the recommendation of former detainees" which undoubtedly creates the possibility that a group of people belonging to a certain opposition group, like OLF, might have fed all the stories on the report.

Human Rights Watch's report further made verification entirely impossible by failing to indicate the name of police officers whom it accuses of mistreating prisoners.


The report claims:

We asked former detainees to name and describe those involved in interrogations.

Detainees were often unable to identify individual officials, either because the investigators did not provide their names, or, when detainees heard names they suspected they were false names.

It is not clear how Human Rights Watch could ascertain the veracity of such incomplete information.

But it is certain that it would be impossible for others to check its allegations.

It also makes it difficult if not impossible for the government to investigate, verify or respond to alleged misconducts.

Of-course, this has the very useful effect for Human Rights Watch as it will enable to issue another statement complaining that the Ethiopian government failed to respond.

Intriguingly, Human Rights Watch claims that:

None of the interviewees were offered any form of compensation for agreeing to participate in interviews.

Let's suppose that was true. It is mind-boggling that Human Rights Watch conveniently failed to investigate the political persuasion of its interviewee.

Human Rights Watch didn't consider, deliberately ignored, the possibility that its informants might have political motives or provide information for others to do so.

Again, Human Rights Watch overlooked the possibility that its own informants might have been induced or pressured by opposition groups to which they belong.


The methodological flaws of the report is indisputably demonstrated by Human Rights Watch's admission that:

"Human Rights Watch was not able to visit Maekelawi given the restrictions on independent human rights work, the difficulty of adhering to basic ethical standards on research inside detention facilities in the current environment, and the risk of reprisals against detainees following such a visit."

However, Human Rights Watch never made a request to the government to visit the prison.

Moreover, it was disclosed in the report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission that the prison is accessible to human rights experts and further indicated that:

"Discussions with the selected detainees were held in an area that is free from the presence and influence of prison security personnel in order to allow detainees express their views without any fear."

In sum, Human Rights Watch's report is another sub-par, prejudicial piece of work, intended to reinforce its previously rejected efforts to persuade international donors to stop developmental and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia.

Before concluding this piece, let's take a look at the 2012 report  of Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC), to observe its impeccable methodology and also the reality in Ethiopia's prisons.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC) report on Prison Conditions is an outcome of a wide-ranging thorough review of the prisons by EHRC's monitoring group.

Explaining the methodology the report states that:

"EHRC's monitoring group was divided into seven working teams each of which consisted of 2-4 experts.

Next, 10-15 detainees were selected by the detainees themselves to provide information to the monitors on their behalf. The selected detainees must be representative of the entire detainees and be capable of explaining human rights condition of detainees.

They should be non members of any leadership committees in the detention center. Efforts were made to ensure that the composition of the selected detainees be of a representative nature that takes into account their religious background and detainee status

Discussions with the selected detainees were held in an area that is free from the presence and influence of prison security personnel in order to allow detainees express their views without any fear.

The monitoring covers 114 (95.8%) out of the 119 detention centers in nine regional states and two Federal City Administrations. The monitoring teams made personal visits to all of these prisons."

Following this impeccable sampling methodology, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC) report presented the situation in the prisons.

In a section titled "Major Issues Identified by Monitoring", the report elaborates that:

“Monitoring findings revealed that the rights to life  of all detainees in all the prisons that are covered  by the monitoring are duly respected.

Prisons have been observed offering all possible  assistance to ensure that the right to life of all  detainees is respected.

It was confirmed that  deceased detainees received all possible medical  assistance prior to their death. The findings also revealed that there were some detainees who died of natural causes in prison.

It was also confirmed during the monitoring that  the human rights and freedoms of the majority of  detainees under custody are appropriately  respected. Detainees, however, explained that in  49 prisons there have been cases when fellow  inmates who committed serious offenses have  been subjected to harsh disciplinary measures by  the respective committees. The punitive actions  have been described as harsher than what is  provided for in existing regulations. It was also  explained that there had been cases when  detainees were arbitrarily beaten by some  security personnel.

However, the monitoring  teams tried to find out if there had been any  torture cases in violation of Article 1 of the 1984  UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Findings confirmed that there had been no  violation of that nature."

Let's hope Human Rights Watch will be able and willing to learn this kind of transparent and objective research methods.

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