by Messay Kebede
I post this short memo to explain why I did not sign the petition protesting against the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in which it is stated, among other things, that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea since 1991. I have agonized over the issue for many days until I realized that my dilemma originates more from the wording of the petition than from the moral scruples of clearing a regime of the accusations of an influential international body.
What stroke me first is the malaise that I felt at the idea of not signing the petition. I could not dismiss the impression that the refusal to sign actually means that terrible violations of human rights do not occur in neighboring Ethiopia. Surely, knowing the complexity of the ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia and their present belligerent attitude toward each other, a report that targets Eritrea as a violator of human rights suggests that Ethiopia is the lucky exception in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, whether one likes it or not, the condemnation of Eritrea had one unmistakable implication: it suggests that, had the UN, as the moral conscious of the global community, observed horrific violations of human rights in Ethiopia, it would have denounced them too in the same irrevocable terms. Since it did not, one must infer that the Ethiopian government is free of such acts. Clearly, in singling out Eritrea, the UN is but absolving the TPLF government so that my refusal to sign turns me into a de facto accomplice of its atrocities.
I have read the indignations posted here and there over the request asking Ethiopians to participate in the signing of the petition. Some agree with the UN report about the violations of human rights in Eritrea; others remind that Eritreas secessionist ideology is responsible for the current problems of Ethiopia so that one should never associate in any way with a known enemy. Opposed to these are those urging us to sign, essentially for two reasons, which are: (1) In terms of human rights, what happens in Eritrea is not worse than what happens in Ethiopia; (2) the Eritrean government is an ally in that it gives full support to Ethiopian opposition forces fighting to remove the TPLF government.
I could see in the arguments of those who oppose the signature of the petition nothing but a vindictive attitude. If in singling out Eritrea, the UN Commission is in effect in complicity with the Woyanne regime, you cannot argue that it is the concern for human rights violations that motivates your refusal to sign. You perfectly know that by excluding the case of Ethiopia, the UN inquiry loses all credibility. But then, the consistent and justifiable position is to sign the petition because you expose bias or preferential treatment. Your signature is not a support for the Eritrean government: you denounce hypocrisy. It is a judgment on an international body whose major legitimacy is its assumed impartiality.
As to the arguments of those who call for our signatures, I find them to be too calculative, too inspired by the principle that the end justifies the means. We can appreciate the support that Eritrea gives to opposition groups without, however, denying the violations of human rights. In so doing, we appeal to the common interest of the two countries, which is a pragmatic attitude that falls short of implying that the UN report is based on erroneous facts. Moreover, that the two countries have a comparable record of human rights violations should in no way compel us to downplay the one at the expense of the other. The irony is that the attitude is no different from that of the UN: we condemn the one we dislike and remain silent as regards the one we like or do business with, even though similar crimes are committed by both.
I maintain that a petition denouncing the UN report is legitimate and expedient, but it must be inspired by moral outrage at the partiality and hypocrisy of the international body. It must be clearly directed at the UN while also denouncing the attempt to turn Ethiopians into an accomplice of the Woyanne regime by sponsoring a document of human rights violations that fails to mention Ethiopia. That is why I ask those Ethiopians who invited us to sign the petition to come up with a new one in which the focus is more on the UN than on Eritrea. This will enable us to display to the world the complicity of the UN and the Woyanne regime, while at the same time denouncing the unilateral attempt to destabilize Eritrea on grounds that have little to do with human rights, since the same violations are tolerated in the case of Ethiopia.