HRW: Tempest in a Teapot


HRW: Tempest in a Teapot

Amen Teferi


The Ethiopia is getting tired of hearing the hackneyed, old and unchanging bogus allegations published by HRW. We have had already spent too much of our energy and time reading and responding to the relentless unjustified accusations of HRW; and yet we persist to grasp straws. This article is –if belated- a response to the newest HRW allegations against the Ethiopian government as rendered in its report titled There is No Time Left”

From the word go, let it be known that this article is not a damage control undertaking. In my view, HRW’s reports pertaining to Ethiopia’s human right condition seem to be aiming at soothing the cynic grudge the organization harbors against Ethiopia. I believe it feels happy and vindicated when it gets chances to denounce the Ethiopian government. Hence, not a month goes by without issuing patently screwed allegations against the Ethiopian government. More often than not, the report it publish meant to represent the Ethiopian government as tyrannical for both economic and political reasons and we have these charges up to the eyeballs.

So be it.

Here, I have no intention to accuse the HRW of meddling in Ethiopia’s internal human rights about which the ruling party is well aware and has set itself to curb these shortcomings with an ever-increasing commitment.

In fact, universally sanctioned natural rights and freedoms require the concerted effort of the world community. Hence, we are morally obliged to stand in defense of the aggrieved and tyrannized people of the world in unison. Thus, it would be appropriate for any politically conscious “citizen of the world” to show solidarity and sympathy for the suffering of those who are deprived of their inalienable rights.

Therefore, as a global human rights body, HRW can claim a broad mandate that would enables it to investigate abuses or violations elsewhere outside of the country that host its headquarter. Its organizing principles would predispose it to demand and monitor the compliance of governments with universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But here we must also underline that the organization’s unbiased credentials are useful to discharge these cumbersome duties and worldwide missions. HRW’s legitimacy in other country would only be strengthened and solely depended on its proven courage and determination in confronting totalitarian regimes.

Therefore, an organization like that of the HRW should disregard any desire to strike a left -right balance on ground of ideology or otherwise, for that would make it vulnerable to damaging accusations of bias.

It is not the addresses of the HRW headquarter that tarnishes its legitimacy as a global human rights organization. Most damaging pit fall is the partiality it may reflect by its ideologically driven reports. If it fails to document abuses committed by “the right” with the same neutrality as it monitors and document abuses committed by “the left,” its legitimacy would be bankrupted, while its bold confrontation with totalitarian regimes will improve its legitimacy in the US and other countries.

Nonetheless, some Americans criticize the HRW for disregarding the human rights abuses at home, similarly we condemn it for the ideologically motivated accounts it periodically publish about Ethiopia’s human rights conditions.

Otherwise, I would fully endorse a monitoring group such as the HRW as platform and an outlet to discuss issues pertaining to the global human right condition. It is my conviction that rights body like the HRW would help to remind us the universality of the issues of human rights and assist us in promoting fraternal spirit that would bridge rifts of political or cultural orientations.

The important thing in this regard is the impartiality of HRW in all its undertakings. Impartiality is an asset that would put a premium on any international human rights organization that claim to monitor governments’ compliance to the universal human rights standards. If it fails in this regard, it will lose its legitimacy and trustworthiness both as a national and international monitoring organ.  

Putting aside all other intentional or planed biases, there are some unavoidable factors that could be prejudicial to its most sacred asset i.e. impartiality. We know that HRW’s headquarters is in New York and significant percentage of its staffs and funds are from America. These character defects may be construed as bias that could risk tying HRW’s moral standing to the U.S. government. This implies the need, on the part of HRW, to be constantly vigilant in safeguarding itself from being partial. Therefore, upholding Universalist ideal requires, among other things, an effort to diversify and denationalize the organization’s staff, funding, and focus. Sadly, HRW usually plays below the board. 

There had been bad blood between the government of Ethiopia and HRW, which predisposed this international organization to focus unduly on denouncing and vilifying the Ethiopian government instead of thinking strategically to fulfill its goals as global rights body. HRW must reconsider its position seriously and change its course of action, rather than simply focusing on casting the Ethiopian government as tyrant.

The text and context of the recent report is molded by seemingly foolish irony and paradox that would mock the sense and sensibility of critical readers. Nobody would fail to notice the subtle irony when one consider the core conclusion and recommendations of the HRW report visa-vise the breaking news about the drought that put at risk the lives and livelihoods of eight million Ethiopians. Here is the acute paradox that reveals the nature of the HRW who sought to defend human right while at same time it is conspiring to defeat it.


On one hand, the report asserts that climate change is occurring, and governments should take several steps in response to the impending challenges posed by the climate change, which in turn, as it argued, would jeopardize the enjoyment of human rights. On the other, it denounces every scheme and effort that would actually reduce people’s dependency on rain fed agriculture that is suffering from highly erratic rainfall due to the effect of climate change.


HRW was founded in 1978 as the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee (HW). Helsinki Watch was an organization modeled after a domestic human rights monitoring group formed by a collection of Moscow dissidents. The birth of Helsinki Watch was connected to a specific international agreement (the Helsinki Final Act). The signing of the Final Act had recognized “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among . . . all States.”

 The Helsinki Final Act concerned with a particular group of victims (Eastern Bloc dissidents), and founded explicitly as a U.S. citizens’ organization operating on American funds. The organization had gotten its start-up fund from the Ford Foundation - a 400,000 USD grant.

HRW’s current global mandate is the result of a gradual shift away from a model of legitimacy based on country-specific committees (that sought to monitor domestic compliance with international norms) to one based on a supranational human rights regime. In fact, country-specific committees were getting aid, when necessary, from better-placed colleagues abroad.

During those days, there were challenges to overcome and strengths to build on. It is no accident that only the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee, from the various Helsinki monitoring groups, had step-up its position and now lay claim to an international status.

Looking to this trajectory, we will realize how shifting historical circumstances and ideological commitments have contributed to the creation of modern human rights NGOs like the HRW. As some scholars argue, the modern human rights regime had origin in the U.S. For instance, Stephen Hopgood, in his book “The End times of Human Rights” discuss about the Americanization of human rights in the 1970s.

The signing of the Helsinki Act prompted the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group and that in turn caused initiated birth of various national Helsinki Watches whose members were engaged in adopting the legitimizing framework they had borrowed from the Moscow Helsinki Group to make the organizational makeup fit their own very different context and aims.


Subsequently, Americas Watch came into being and then followed the establishment of the International Helsinki Federation. Finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the original Helsinki Watch mandate had ended allowing the organization to conceive of itself as a global and international NGO atop a larger network of national human rights activists all over the world.


With its current organizational structure, HRW has only traversed a journey of four decades by extending its mandate beyond the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Act that had a potential limit on its international ambitions. As it transforms its American connection, the organization had come to stand for human rights in general, and by the end of the 1980s, it covered the entire globe.


Peter Slezkine had investigated this transformation from the national organization (Americas Watch) to an international one that covers the entire globe. He had also noted that this shift away from the Helsinki process toward a broader human rights mandate was largely driven by Aryeh Neier. Neier had been involved with Helsinki Watch since its founding and was a member of HW’s Executive Committee.


Explaining the shift Neier writes, “We established Asia Watch in 1985, Africa Watch in 1988, and the last of the regional Watch Committees, the Middle East Watch, in 1989. With that, there were no longer any geographical limits on our capacity, so we started using the name Human Rights Watch to establish our identity as an organization with global reach.”

Finally, by the late 1980s, Human Rights Watch had become a global organization dedicated itself to defending human rights around the world.

It seems self-evident that an organization that named itself as “Human Rights Watch” must have an international scope, be governed by solid universally applicable principles, and thus strive to monitor abuses wherever they occur by enforcing universal standards on a global scale. An organization that has entrusted itself with the above functions and responsibilities need to be more effective and least vulnerable to criticism. Its performance should reflect the universality of its principles and it should operate outside the world of particular allegiances, origins, and ideologies.

However, such kind of impartiality and universal representativeness has remained to be elusive. As I have already noted, headquarter in New York and a significant percentage of American donors and staff would risk tying HRW’s moral standing to that of the U.S. government. Thus, the opening of each new office, the issuing of each new report, and the acceptance of each new donation may be construed as examples of particular biases that would undermine HRW’s declared universalism.

But the prevailing assumption within the organization seems to be that time and money should help it approach its universalist ideal. A concerted effort to diversify and denationalize the organization’s staff, funding, and focus could eventually make defenders of rights almost as generic as the “humans” who have them, and the subjects of HRW’s advocacy nearly as varied as the species in general.

Helsinki Final Act, as an international agreement, was an important document that shows that citizens of the United States and the USSR are motivated by the same basic concerns. Above all, the fact that the essential concerns of the Act mostly mirrored the U.S. government policy was not perceived as a major problem. America’s HW follow the Moscow precedent by monitoring domestic compliance with the Final Act (or at least appearing to do so), but ultimately HW considered the then U.S. government as an ally, not as an antagonist.

However, the old cordial relationship had ended with the coming of Ronald Reagan to power. America’s HW reaction to the election of Ronald Reagan was monumental and remarkable. From the moment the organization decided to respond to Reagan’s particularism by seeking to prove the universality of its own principles, it headed down a path of continually expanding the scope of its monitoring activities. It started documenting abuses committed by “the right” in order to balance its monitoring of “the left”; it added humanitarian law to traditional human rights law; it began issuing reports on “open” societies and expanded its mandate to include social and cultural rights.

Then, HW assumed antagonistic relationship with the U.S. government and changed its “original mission” of encouraging liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents in societies that it identified as “closed”.


For an organization that had come to stand for human rights in general, any attempt to limit its purview was problematic. However, later America’s HW had begun monitoring the U.S. government. In this regard, one of its leaders said, “We will monitor U.S. compliance, in the belief that by holding ourselves accountable in an open and forthright manner we earn the right to hold others accountable as well. We all share a faithful commitment to human rights both in this country and throughout the world.”

This shows that

Bias in “No Time Left”

By turning blind eye to the concrete realities of the people living in the Omo valley, the HRW is not only compromising its own core values, but also edging itself with a “criminal offense.” Disparaging a development project that matters most to the lives of pastoralists who were thus far forgotten and hence were forced to live the most ignoble life in the Omo river valley is nothing but an offense comparable to genocide. As various studies have indicated, the regulated flow is expected to stimulate irrigated agriculture downstream of the Gibe III dam to replace traditional rain-fed agriculture and this will ensure the livelihood of the community that would otherwise be vulnerable to the impending effects of the climate change.   

HRW has obligation to be open to the interest of the people and should stop to retreat behind such false depictions that would misrepresent the concrete facts on the ground. The report titled There is No Time Left” does nothing to relieve the burden of the two neighborly pastoralist communities who are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, unless they work together to mitigate the problems related with environmental degradations  that requires full cooperation of the two governments that are guided by the vision of regional integration.

Here, the HRW has held an ignoble position that could inflict a massive damage on the indigenous pastoralist people living in the Omo river valley leaving them outside the reach of modern way of life. If the HRW had considered the issue evenhandedly, I believe, it would have easily recognized the outcome of the arguments it had advanced. As it argued in defense of the Turkana community of Kenya, it has failed to appreciate that the same argument would equally be valid from the perspective of the pastoralist communities of Ethiopia that are living along the Omo river valley in turfs bordering the Turkana people.

It is impossible to justify the position of HRW who defend the Turkana community on grounds of vulnerability to the effect climate change that incur daunting social and economic problems, without utterly disregarding the comparable and legitimate interests of the communities living within the territories of Ethiopia.


Sacrificing and/or depriving the legal and natural right of one community to “fulfill” the others would be unacceptable. Promoting the interests of one community by denying the equally rightful interests of the other is unjustified. The natural feelings for justice would demand that we treat all human beings and communities fairly and equally. It would be disappointingly unbecoming, controversial and disgusting to see an international human right organization such as the HRW committing grievous offence that would forfeit the right to life of the persons who are members to the community concerned.


As it argued in the aforementioned report, the impending impact of climate change would disproportionately menace and affect those communities who have lamentably weak adaption capability. We have had enough fear and trembling envisaging our future through the eyehole of scientific studies on climate change that paint such a horrendous picture the HRW. As cited by HRW, the scientific studies by IPCC and other have confirmed that the African continent is already experiencing the effects of climate change in many regions.


HRW also noted, “….a recent study characterized parts of Sudan and Ethiopia; the central African countries surrounding Lake Victoria; and the continent’s southeast, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa, as ‘global hotspots’ of climate change, with a high likelihood of drought or flooding and declining crop yields or ecosystem damages on top of high population and poverty rates.”


HRW urges governments to appreciate the impact of climate change that could negatively affect their ability to respect, protect and fulfill rights to water, food, health and livelihood. It also advised governments to conduct human rights risk assessments to identify communities and individuals vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and insist that governments should take steps to reduce this vulnerability through adaptation plans that integrate human rights standards. Moreover, it recommends development of adaptation plans through meaningful participation and access to all relevant information for all affected groups. Further, it has recommended the adaptation interventions should include appropriate accountability mechanisms. However, to our surprise, it denounces Ethiopia’s development project that aims to respond to the problems it has enumerated. 


Actually, if the Ethiopian government failed to implement development project like the one it is undertaking now, it would exacerbate the vulnerability of people to human rights abuses and further exacerbate the effect of climate change. Hence, it has designed and implemented various development projects in a manner that would facilitate adequate adaption program to climate change and promote application and diffusion of related technologies.


Human rights bodies, scientific experts, governments, and civil society have recognized that worldwide, climate change is having, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on the ability of people to enjoy their basic human rights and the capacity of governments to fulfill their obligations to realize those rights.


As HRW has declared that, these events can lead vulnerable populations to the loss of their lives, homes and livelihoods. The Ethiopian government has recognized that climate change is having, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on the ability of people to enjoy their basic human rights and its capacity to fulfill its obligations to realize basic human rights of vulnerable population as it can lead them to the loss of their lives, homes and livelihoods. Hence, it launched development project that can renovate the lives of these vulnerable population in manners that ensures the respect of their human rights. But here HRW is vilifying the same project that is designed and implemented to transform the lives of the same population HRW claims to stand in defense.   


The Ethiopian government is defiant or stubborn when it comes to safeguarding its policy independence. It does not compromise its position and is always a vigilant defender of its sovereignty. By virtue of its prerogative, the international human right organization -Human Rights Watch- that can otherwise be rightly referred as the “lord of poverty,” has published such a foolhardy report that displays the continuation of its traditional showdown with its uncompromising ideological opponent -the Ethiopian government. The recent report issued by the HRW, as it often is, reflecting the characteristic disposition of its author. It always induces confrontational attitude when it engage the Ethiopian government.


Thus, not even a month goes by without publishing some patently screwed report that would allege the perpetration of serious violations of human rights by Ethiopian government. Customarily, it shoves against the Ethiopian government claiming every kind of transgressions against the human rights that is stipulated in the FDRE constitution.


By virtue of its prerogative, the HRW is potently effective to smear the name of its foes, using its global organizational structures. An international human rights body like the HRW is endowed with such a menacing power that could tremble its opponents. It is misusing this power against the Ethiopian government. Seemingly, it has the higher moral ground that has positioned it to lay any blame on the “usual suspect.” HRW is well aware of this indubitable influence in its possession, which it can exert, as it wishes, on third world governments.


The internationally sanctioned principles embodied in the FDRE constitution and the various international accords that it has endorsed would serve as standards for the improvement of the Ethiopia’s human rights record. The most intriguing thing that could starkly reflect the inherent contradiction of the HRW’s report is the accusation of HRW against the Ethiopian government for exploiting its natural resources for the benefit of its citizens.


It also tries to ignite inimical spirit between Ethiopia and Kenya in a manner that would reminds us of the lamentable tactics employed by colonial rulers who sought to wedge antagonism between different social or ethnic groups implementing the famous divide and rule principle.


The Omo River

Actually, it has tried to wedge animosity between the Ethiopian government and the Omo valley pastoralist and that strategy was soon proved a failure. When it realizes that the local people are for the development projects being undertaken in the Omo river valley, the HRW had tried to press another hot button that could foment confrontation and conflict between Ethiopia and Kenya. When the first alternative proved to be a failure, it has come up with yet another plan –Lake Turkana – to subvert Ethiopia’s development project.


Contrary to what HRW claimed a World Bank Concept Note has described the importance of development within the Omo Basin, and has stated in regard to Lake Turkana that there is “no significant use of the lake’s waters” (World Bank, 2004). The same “World Bank Concept Note” considers that it would be relatively easy to obtain a “no objection” from the Kenya Government, and that if there is donor funding involved, Kenya “can benefit from the Project”.


The Gibe III Project process is consistent with the World Bank Concept Paper proposals. In 2009, the Kenya Government signed a MoU with Ethiopia to buy power from Gibe III, hence the Kenya Government is supportive of the Project, and an inter-governmental environmental monitoring committee was being established.

Any reading of any report on Ethiopia published by the HRW seems to focus on feeding its cynic attitude. The organization feels happy and vindicated when chanced to grab any significant or insignificant issues that can serve as excuse to demonize the Ethiopian government. Thus, the organization tries to represent the Ethiopian government as tyrannical for both economic reasons and political reasons.

The newest report published by the HRW claimed that the development project Ethiopia undertakes in the Omo river valley has devastating impact on the communities living in Turkana County, leading to the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods of the vulnerable populations.

In its report titled, “There is No Time Left” the HRW alleged that the Omo valley irrigation and hydropower dam projects are threatening the livelihood of the people living in Turkana County. HRW made this unwarranted conclusion without any updated and integrated basin-wide environmental and social impact assessment. To reach at a reliable conclusion, first we need to quantify the full impact of the development projects and then conduct a thorough socio-economic and livelihood survey of the concerned communities whose life is dependent on Lake Turkana.

The report further alleged “Industrial and agricultural development across Turkana’s northern border with Ethiopia also threatens the welfare of the Turkana [as Ethiopia] has embarked on a massive plan for dams, water-intensive irrigated cotton and sugar plantations, and irrigation canals and other infrastructure in the Omo River Basin over the past several years.”

According to this report “Omo River provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana and hydrologists predict that these developments, including the Gibe III dam, Africa’s tallest, which began filling its reservoir in 2015, could have a devastating impact on Lake Turkana, dropping water levels and potentially causing the lake to recede into two small pools.”

It also claims the reduction of the river’s natural floods, which would diminish fish breeding and increase the salinity levels and a reduction of water levels could also lead to higher localized temperatures and increased rates of evaporation, further increasing salinity.

Nevertheless, HRW did not conduct an independent study that would substantiate its entire claims. HRW’s report simply focused on expounding its perceived impacts of the development projects Ethiopia is undertaking in the Omo river valley without even giving a scant attention to needs and livelihood of the people of Ethiopia.


In my view, the issue of the Omo river must be considered as major bi-country trans-boundary economic and political issue involving south-western Ethiopia and north-western Kenya.




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