Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Denialism can’t foster accountability

A report issued by the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) at the beginning of the week in which it accused Ethiopian government security forces of committing extrajudicial killings against dozens of civilians in the Amhara region in October has hit a nerve. In a rare expression of dissatisfaction with the Commission, the head of the Government Communication Service (GCS) flat out rejected the Commission’s report, saying it was biased, based on incorrect information and lacked context. He went on to say that the report undermined the credibility of the institution and urged it to display the independence and impartiality with which it is mandated to discharge its responsibilities independently. However, he was at pains to point out that the government’s criticism of the report was not intended to muzzle the EHRC. The government’s attempt to pour cold water on the report, however, is fraught with flaws that subject it to legitimate criticisms.

In the first place the GCS did not go into specifics and chose to refute the report in general terms. The report, for instance, documented several incidents in which numerous civilians died and were injured in drone and heavy artillery attacks. Aside from lambasting the report and casting doubt over the integrity of the EHRC, the Service failed to deny that any of the alleged incidents took place or provide any counterevidence. This glaring omission leaves little room for doubt that the GCS’s rebuttal amounts to little more than a PR exercise. As a government agency tasked with availing the public complete and verifiable information on matters of national importance, the length to which it went to discredit the report is inexcusable.

The GCS’s accusation regarding the veracity of the findings of the report is also questionable. The methodology EHRC uses to gather evidence and investigate human rights violations has been recognized as being on par with international standards. The Ethiopian government has frequently argued as much in various international forums. Its passionate defense of the report published in 2021 by the EHRC and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) following their joint investigation into alleged human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law committed in the context of the conflict in Tigray pays testament to this fact. Ever since EHRC was reorganized anew under the current leadership, it has been one of the few institutions that has demonstrated independence and issued scathing reports that the government has taken no objection to. There is no logic by which its report is touted when it seemingly vindicates the government but is described as being prejudiced and unfounded if it reflects badly on it.

Needless to say, EHRC is not an institution that can do no wrong; no one expects it to be. However, even if its recent report is said to be erroneous, it would have been infinitely better if the government had endeavored to debunk it point by point on the basis of factual evidence, not dismiss it wholesale and make a veiled threat aimed at compelling the Commission into retracting the report’s findings. Vowing to be committed to establishing an independent institution but claiming that the work it does is not necessarily neutral is akin to trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. The appropriate reaction would have been to acknowledge that the government has taken note of the report and would bring the perpetrators of the acts it detailed to justice following an investigation.    

The government’s denial of documented atrocities without offering any proof to the contrary is a troubling development for it demonstrates an apparent absence of the desire and willingness to foster accountability. Accountability is one of the bedrock principles of the rule of law—a concept that transcends political systems and is fundamental to any just and stable society. Ethiopians should be able to have confidence that the rule of law will always be upheld. This requires of the government to forsake its go-to strategy of denialism to duck responsibility. It’s only then that it can be a part of the solution and enable the citizens it serves to realize their long-sought aspiration for peace, democracy and prosperity.

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