Ethiopia: Genocide and the unfinished debates

By Abebe Gellaw –
First of all, I would like to commend Ethiomedia for publishing two contrary views on genocide, which is one of the most controversial legal issues among scholars and legal practitioners around the world. In response to Eskinder Nega’s article, “Derg: Guilty of genocide or politicide?” another writer, Tecola Hagos, tried to pointedly dismantle the latter’s argument with his rejoinder, “The crime of genocide vs. the crime of politicide.” Considering the fact that healthy debates on many contentious issues deepen our understanding and widen perspectives, I have found both arguments quite fascinating.

As a matter of fact, I hold both writers in high esteem and have no desire to take sides except for the content of the arguments made with regard to genocide in the Ethiopian context. I would, however, be disingenuous if I fail to point out the fact that Tecola’s argument seems to make a pointed attack on the validity of Eskider’s analysis. Moreover, the writer used accusatory statements and phrases that have negatively impinged upon the quality of his points. According to Tecola, Eskinder has made a “stupendous assertion…after going through some torturous and wrong analysis of the Genocide Convention and the meaning of Genocide.” In the last lap of his argument, Tecola even dismissed Eskinder’s well-articulated and highly informative piece as “puzzling and bizarre,” which seems to me quite inaccurate.

Needless to say, I had many opportunities to debate with Eskinder before I fled Ethiopia over a decade ago. While so many of us decided to run away, he has resolutely decided to stay at home and boldly fight the injustice being perpetrated by the tribal movement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Debating with Ekinder is as fascinating an experience as reading his articles and stories. We had agreed and disagreed amicably on a number issues. Eskinder is one of the boldest and well-informed Ethiopians I have ever met. Nonetheless, my position on this particular controversy has nothing to do with my admiration for an old comrade, who was once accused of committing genocide by the Meles regime and suffered in harsh jails with his wife Serkalem Fasil, who gave birth to their first son while in custody. In my view, he only committed what I call “journalistic genocide” which can only be achieved by fearless journalists like Eskinder trigger nightmare, who made tyrants suffer from fear and trepidation until a point where they started mistaking every critical article, story and exposé as an act of “genocide” against them.

Though I would not dare to present myself as an expert in the field, I have attended a class and a couple of scholarly debates among leading academics and legal experts on genocide and crimes against humanity at Stanford University. After all the debates and arguments, what I noticed is that even the most renowned scholars in the field depart with a footnote, i.e., “genocide” is not only controversial but also an evolving terminology whose meaning needs to be expanded or re-examined. For instance, in his new book, Stalin’s Genocide, Stanford professor, Norman Naimark, has proposed that the definition of genocide as “the systematic mass murder of national, ethnic, racial and religious groups” should include “social classes and political groups”, using Joseph Stalin’s crimes as a case in point. In fact, that argument concurs with Tecola’s, who also appears to favour an expanded definition of genocide. He contended that there is no ambiguity over the genocidal nature of Derg’s crimes, which he sees in a cut-and-dried manner.

Contrary to what Tecola asserted, I could not find a single instance where Eskider defended Derg officials despite the fact that he pointed out that there was a glaring error of law during the controversial “genocide trial.” My understanding is also that Derg committed crimes against humanity during its reign of terror. Crimes against humanity, as far as I know, is no less grave than genocide and would not reduce the gravity of the crimes perpetrated against so many innocent citizens who were brutally and ruthlessly murdered and tortured. If I am not mistaken, this is the sentiment that has been well reflected throughout Eskinder’s commentary which concluded that Derg officials were wrongly convicted of genocide rather than “politicide.” In my view, Eskinder’s argument is very sound as genocide is still a gray political area in countries like ours where it is not an objective legal matter left to the jurisdiction of independent judiciary, which has never existed in the entire history of Ethiopia.

What is more glaring is the fact the rogue regimes of Derg and TPLF have committed similar crimes that have no less severity. Even so, one can argue that the Gambella massacre is more genocidal than the Red Terror, which was an indiscriminate politically-motivated massacre. While both are heinous mass killings, regardless of the number of victims, the Gambella massacre targeted the Anuak ethnic group with the objective of exterminating members of a certain minority ethnic group in part or in whole. That’s a view consistently articulated by a number groups and scholars including Dr. Gregory Stanton, founder and president of Genocide Watch. In a letter he wrote last March to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Justice Navanathem Pillay, Dr. Stanton noted: “As a result of our investigation and based on our experience in international law and genocide, we concluded that the killing of the Anuak in Gambella, Ethiopia, fit the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity.” A WikiLeaks cable has recently revealed that Meles, according to his evil security chief, is very worried about the efforts of Genocide Watch and others to bring a forgotten genocide he masterminded to the attention of the international community, which has, at times, a habit of exercising selective outrage. Despite all that, the highly tainted Ethiopian penal code, which Tecola used as a reference, will not help Dr. Stanton for obvious reasons. The penal code, for instance, has no practical application against the corrupt criminal ethnic junta in power.

History has always been the most credible witness. Pardoned or not pardoned, Derg and TPLF officials remain criminals. They know it and we all know it, no matter how hard they pretend in public. In fact, it is quite entertaining to see one group of criminals, with no moral authority in their veins, pardoning and damning other criminals they arrested in the course of snatching state power by brute force. But we surely know that both sides never worry about justice except for making utmost efforts not to be held accountable for their crimes.

Eskinder has suffered and is still suffering under the Meles regime. Likewise, Tecola has sadly suffered at the hands of Derg officials. Despite all that, both sides should not close the debate as Tecola seems to have done already. As a final verdict, he wrote: “I would like to see these brutal murderers [Derg officials] punished properly by hanging them in public squares.” In other words, Tecola wants to see Derg officials to be hanged by Weyane, whose crimes are as horrible as the latter. But where is the justice that he wants to see fully displayed and exhibited in public squares? In my opinion, his emotive conclusion defeats his own reasoning. After all, vengeance is not justice which must not be overshadowed by one’s victimhood. For justice to reign, reason and dispassionate judgment must be ensured. In Ethiopia, let alone justice, almost everything is in short supply.

If victims become judges over those who hurt and brutalized them, every criminal may end up hanging on gallows or being guillotined in public, which will only repeat the same scenario of injustice. In a similar vein, if we task Meles with the job of hanging people for genocide, he will not even have mercy for people like Tocola Hagos and Eskinder Nega, as he sees critical thinkers and those who expose his crimes more genocidal than Derg officials. How can we forget? Abraha Belai, Elias Kifle, Sisay Agena, Dawit Kebede, Professor Mamo Muchie, Dr. Hailu Araya, Professor Getachew Haile, Birtukan Mideksa, five VOA journalists including Solomon Kifle and Tizta Belachew…were accused of committing genocide and other capital crimes by none other than Meles Zenawi, the genocidal ruler of Ethiopia…. Strangely enough, the majority of the people mentioned above have never been to Ethiopia for decades. But for Meles and his servile lawyers like Million Assefa, one of the people who authored the genocide charge sheet and has just joined Zenawi’s absolutist parliament, there is a uniquely elastic definition of genocide making Ethiopia the first country in the world where criticising a criminal regime, or for that matter reading the news on the radio in Washington DC, is tantamount to genocide and crimes against humanity. One does not need to massacre anyone. Publishing a critical article or airing views can be a genocidal act in Ethiopia under Meles! Nothing is impossible for the “genius” dictator-in-chief, who is not afraid to commit all kinds of stupid absurdities. We may forget, but history never does.

Leaving aside Zenawi’s idiotic judicial parody, there is a wider consensus that genocide is a moot question in so many instances. That is the very reason why even the Darfur case is still being debated globally; some say it is genocide, others are certain that it is crimes against humanity and people like Meles Zenawi argue that nothing punishable had happened in Darfur for fear of setting a precedence that can be turned against him. Meles has shamelessly emerged as one of the guardian angels of Al Bashir trying to protect him from justice. This is the kind of a pitiful world we live in where ruthless criminals have still more power than those who fight for justice in many parts of the world… Had it not been for this sad reality, the likes of Al Bashir, Mengistu and Meles would not have been living in the lap of luxury while the bloods of millions of their victims cry for justice from their graves..

Genocide, which is mostly tainted with political overtone, is not totally black and white. So it is very logical to let the debate rage…. I am pretty sure that both Eskinder and Tocola will not disagree with the last point.

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Posted by on January 4, 2011. Filed under FEATURED,VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.