Diplomats' Note, Peace & Security

Human Rights Watch encourages opposition violence in Ethiopia – Article

Human Rights Watch encourages opposition violence in Ethiopia

We noted last week that Felix Horne, Human Rights Watch’s Ethiopia researcher, has recently been making considerable efforts to push the European Union to use its role as Ethiopia’s main development cooperation partner to force Ethiopia to accept an international investigation into the way the government had responded to recent protests. He has been writing articles on the subject, giving interviews to Reuters and, last week, addressing the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. In all of these, in order to support his demands, he has deliberately given impressions and made claims he knows to be false about recent events, notably the Ireecha tragedy on October 2.

During his briefing to the EU Parliament subcommittee, Mr. Horne said a “an unknown number of people, possibly hundreds, died during a stampede after security forces used teargas and gunfire to control a tense crowd at the annual Ireecha festival. Ireecha is an important cultural event for the Oromo ethnic group and draws millions of people each year to the sacred site at the town of Bishoftu. The deaths have exacerbated pre-existing anger and frustrations throughout Oromia. Since that terrible day, there have been more anti-government protests and destruction of government buildings and properties.” In his earlier interview with Reuters, Mr. Horne carefully ignoring much of the actual evidence that is available (including videos of the event) also suggested that the numbers who died in the tragedy on October 2 were far higher than the official figures, that the stampede which led to the deaths was purely the result of over-reaction by armed security forces to a few protestors shouting anti-government slogans, He added that the government had from the outset been trying to interfere in the organization of the festival.

There is, in fact, no evidence (though there are a multitude of allegations made over social media) of any more deaths than the official figures of 55 who died, all from being tragically drowned or crushed in the stampede. None of those who died were killed by gunshots, despite Mr. Horne’s claims, as has been confirmed by reports from the hospitals in Bishoftu. Mr. Horne claims Human Rights Watch spoke to hospital staff and “it is clear that the number of dead is much higher than government estimates.” No it isn’t. That is merely Mr. Horne’s allegation. He clearly wanted the number to be higher to fit in with his preconceived ideas that hundreds must have been killed, as Human Rights Watch claims, equally arbitrarily, there have been in other protests around the country in recent months. It is worth noting that, despite Mr. Horne’s attempts to hint to the contrary by throwing doubt on the comments of doctors and nurses on duty at the town’s hospitals, that all of those who died suffered from being crushed or drowned in ditches and shallow water. No one was shot. Indeed, it is quite clear from the videos that there was no shooting and the police were unarmed.

It is also quite clear from the videos of the event that one protestor, shouting anti-government slogans, aggressively forced his way onto the stage, followed by others, driving away the Aba Gadaa and other community elders, violently trying to take over the Ireecha, the most notable celebration in the Oromo calendar. As can be seen in all the videos of the occasion, the unarmed police showed extraordinary patience as they were pushed and jostled by a huge and threatening crowd.

Mr. Horne’s technique is clear. He carefully chooses words calculated to mislead. In his interview with Reuters, he says “eventually, a man went on stage and led the crowd in anti-government chants, the crowd grew more restless, more people went on stage, and then security forces fired teargas and people heard gunshots.” Since in fact there were no gunshots, Mr. Horne, in order to substantiate this allegation, immediately adds: “the security forces have used live ammunition while confronting and attempting to disperse numerous public gatherings in Oromia for almost a year. As Human Rights Watch has documented in many of those protests, teargas preceded live ammunition, so when the pattern seemed to be repeating itself at Ireecha, panic very quickly set in.”  The police at the Ireecha were not armed. Whatever Human Rights Watch claims happened elsewhere is hardly relevant. Exactly why the panic started is still uncertain, and the government has already launched an independent investigation, but one reason for the panic, of course, might very well be people’s awareness of the scare stories Human Rights Watch has so assiduously propagated over the last few months.

The suggestion that there were hundreds killed originally came from members of opposition groups in the Diaspora who even claimed that hundreds were shot by helicopter gunships. This was a palpable invention, but Human Rights Watch was quick to claim: “an unknown number of people, possibly hundreds, died during a stampede after security forces used teargas and gunfire.” One result of this, and similarly invented claims immediately after the tragedy, was an outburst of further demonstrations and attacks on property as well as a number of deaths in various parts of the Oromo regional state. It is very clear this happened because of the statements of Human Rights Watch and of the Diaspora opposition encouraging and feeding rumors.

In fact, it appears, Human Rights Watch has a lot to answer for. It should be deeply embarrassed by its behavior. As usual with Human Rights Watch comments on Ethiopia it is clear that Mr. Horn, who was not in Ethiopia at the time, made no effort to check the political affiliations of his informants. He appears to have spoken exclusively to people whose stories agreed with his own previously established anti-government views, of which he has indeed made no secret. He, therefore, viewed everything through his prism of condemnation of the government.  He made, for example, no mention of the fact that this year’s Ireecha, the culmination of Ethiopia’s New Year festivals, following the celebrations of Inqutatash and Meskel, was intended to be a showcase to persuade UNESCO to gazette the Ireecha as a World Heritage festival. This had been the subject of Government’s discussions with the Abba Gadaas, the council of Oromo traditional leaders and Oromo community elders.

Mr. Horne told the EU Parliamentary subcommittee: “As protests have unfolded, Human Rights Watch interviewed several hundred individuals from more than 80 locations across Ethiopia. We were able to document how security forces used excessive and unnecessary lethal force and killed at least 500 protesters, and detained tens of thousands, often without charge. Released detainees told us of widespread mistreatment and torture.” This statement, as so often with Human Rights Watch, raises very serious concern about its accuracy. Human Rights Watch has not been present at all in Ethiopia during this period. There is no way to evaluate where or when it was able to “document” these allegations, who it might have talked to or how many people, if any at all. Human Rights Watch always refuses to give any details of who, where or when it talks to people in Ethiopia. It claims that it cannot release any details for the safety of the people concerned. This is of course very convenient as it makes it impossible to check any of the details or indeed any of the allegations made. Since Human Rights Watch methodology includes never bothering to question the political affiliations or interests of the people it talks to, this is of some relevance. Human Right Watch’s arrogant view is that everyone else should automatically acknowledge everything it says without question.

This is particularly difficult to accept in the light of well-authenticated errors that have peppered Human Rights Watch reports in the past, mistakes, whether deliberate or accidental, that it has never bothered to respond to or consistently refuses to own up to. It remains locked into its own high-handed certainty, disdainfully refusing to accept any other views except its own. Human Rights Watch’s investigation into alleged abuses by the Ethiopian army in the Somali Regional State, some years ago, is a perfect example of the way it operates. The report made a whole series of claims of abuses committed, drawing exclusively on sources outside Ethiopia and making no effort to investigate the political interests or affiliations of its informants, or to investigate on the ground.  When in turn, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned an independent investigation into Human Rights Watch’s claims, this found, inter alia, a number of villages that Human Rights Watch claimed had been burnt to the ground had been untouched, and people whom it claimed had been tortured to death were unharmed, alive and well. Indeed, it turned out almost all the claims made by Human Rights Watch were either unfounded or could not be substantiated, not least because it consistently failed to provide sufficient detail to allow the incidents to be identified, claiming, as usual, this vagueness is necessary for the security of their informants. As mentioned this does mean Human Rights Watch’s claims cannot be investigated or checked!

Mr. Horne’s view is apparently that since there is a difference between his allegations and the reports on the ground then there must be an independent international investigation. He ignores the fact that an investigation into the Ireecha tragedy has already begun. Mr. Horne is, of course, already discounting this as it hasn’t been approved as independent by Human Rights Watch. He says, “Ideally the Ethiopian government should investigate, but in the past, it has conducted investigations into alleged abuses by security forces that were neither impartial nor credible.” That is an allegation that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly made and it’s based on the fact that other investigations never seem to agree with Human Rights Watch’s claims. An investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into possible abuses committed by the security forces during the earlier demonstrations, and presented to Parliament earlier this year concluded the measures taken by police and security agencies, in general, had been proportionate, though it also noted that in some specific cases excessive force had been used to control the violence. Mr. Horne claimed this demonstrated its lack of independence. This was, perhaps, not surprising: Human Rights Watch never accepts anyone else evidence, however well sourced, if it disagrees with its own conclusions; and this report came out only a few days before its own report claiming there had been widespread use of excessive force.

Similarly, Mr. Horn inaccurately, and damagingly, claimed the Government has done no more than blame “anti-peace elements” for the deaths. This is simply not true. The Government has clearly demonstrated its own shock and horror at the tragedy. It promptly expressed its very deep sorrow and its condolences to families on behalf of all the peoples of Ethiopia, it declared three days of national mourning and promised a full investigation into what happened. Mr. Horne displays similar ignorance of government activity when he says the government should demonstrate a commitment to respecting human rights by creating a forum to listen to protesters’ grievances in Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia. The government has, of course, set up a whole range of discussion fora across the country to listen to grievances over the last few months and held numerous meetings with various groups, as well as talking to political parties and others. It has made it clear it will respond on a large scale to legitimate protests and the President’s speech at the beginning of last week at the opening of Parliament promised consideration of proportional representation and various other reforms.

Most regrettably, as remains the norm with Human Rights Watch’s comments on Ethiopia, it is clear that Mr. Horne refuses to consider any evidence that might disagree with his own preconceptions, or with Human Rights Watch’s apparent aim of bringing an end to development aid for one of the poorest countries in the world. He compounds this by demanding outside intervention in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, another of Human Rights Watch’s attempts to manipulate Ethiopia’s policies, provide support for the country’s external opposition some of which is openly and publicly committed to the violent overthrow of the government and, indeed, consistently indulges in terrorist operations. Human Rights Watch still continues to believe that claiming the moral “high ground” is a substitute for accurate reporting or factual evidence. It is not. Nor, it must be said, is Human Rights Watch’s patronizing and egotistic (and inaccurate) claim that ‘we are always right”, and a persistent refusal to admit any possibility of error, a proper foundation for genuine advocacy.


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