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Putting Lipstick on a Pig, Ethiopian Style

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Last week, there was a great deal of teeth-gnashing, knuckle-cracking and gut-wrenching by Ethiopia’s dictators over Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2010 report. The dictators belched out much sound and fury that signified nothing. Their fury had to do with HRW’s conclusion that “Ethiopia is on a deteriorating human rights trajectory as parliamentary elections approach in 2010.” In blunt and unequivocal language, HRW whipsawed the dictators with the facts:

Broad patterns of government repression have prevented the emergence of organized opposition in most of the country. In December 2008 the government reimprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa for life after she made remarks that allegedly violated the terms of an earlier pardon. In 2009 the government passed two pieces of legislation that codify some of the worst aspects of the slide towards deeper repression and political intolerance. A civil society law passed in January is one of the most restrictive of its kind, and its provisions will make most independent human rights work impossible. A new counterterrorism law passed in July permits the government and security forces to prosecute political protesters and non-violent expressions of dissent as acts of terrorism. Ordinary citizens who criticize government policies or officials frequently face arrest on trumped-up accusations of belonging to illegal “anti-peace” groups, including armed opposition movements. Officials sometimes bring criminal cases in a manner that appears to selectively target government critics…

The dictators bellyached about HRW’s “unfairness” and bitterly complained about its malicious and willful blindness to the great strides and democratic achievements they have made over the past several years. “How could HRW overlook our prized Code of Conduct for Political Parties negotiated by 65 political parties?” they lamented. How could they disregard a “Code” that is so “impressive, transparent, free, fair, peaceful, democratic, legitimate and acceptable to the voters”? To add insult to injury, they even overlooked the appointment “by parliamentary acclamation” of a new human rights commissioner. No matter. All HRW cares about is carping about the “civil society and anti-terrorist laws” and fabricating stories about human rights abuses in the Somali Regional State. Those cynical and contemptible rascals have “no interest in, and no time for, any promising developments.” After all, they are just stooges and mouthpieces of the evil Ethiopian “dissident” Diaspora whose sole aim is to discredit the “democratic achievements” of the dictatorship.

When candidate Barack Obama ran for the U.S. presidency, he used a folksy idiom to describe John McCain’s pretensions as a new force of change in Washington. “That’s not change [McCain is talking about]. That’s just calling the same thing something different. But you know, you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change; it’s still going to stink.”

Well, you can jazz up a bogus election in a one-man, one-party dictatorship with a “Code of Conduct”, but to all the world it is still a bogus election under a one-man, one-party dictatorship. You can appoint lackeys to issue a whitewash human rights report on “allegations” of abuse in the Ogaden and call it an objective inquiry commission report, but it is still a whitewash. You can appoint a fox to guard the chicken coop and call it safeguarding human rights, but the sly fox will not spare the chickens. You can put lipstick on dictatorship to make it look like a pretty democracy, but at the end of the day, it is still an ugly dictatorship!

Ethiopia’s dictators think we are all damned fools. They want us to believe that a pig with lipstick is actually a swan floating on a placid lake, or a butterfly fluttering in the rose garden or even a lamb frolicking in the meadows. They think lipstick will make everything look pretty. Put some lipstick on hyperinflation and you have one of the “fastest developing economies in the world”. Put lipstick on power outages, and the grids come alive with megawattage. Slap a little lipstick on famine, and voila! Ethiopians are suffering from a slight case of “severe malnutrition”. Adorn your atrocious human rights record by appointing a “human rights” chief, and lo and behold, grievous government wrongs are transformed magically into robust human rights protections. Slam your opposition in jail, smother the independent press and criminalize civil society while applying dainty lipstick to a mannequin of democracy. The point is, “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper and call it ‘democracy’ but after 20 years it stinks to high heaven!”

Of course, all the sound and fury is a calculated effort at misdirection. Instead of talking about the factual allegations in the HRW report, the dictators want to make Human Rights Watch the ISSUE. But HRW is one human rights organization that needs no lipstick to do its work, or to cover it up. HRW’s investigators do not work on a commission. They don’t get paid a dime for digging up mass graves in distant lands and conduct complex forensic studies. They make no money walking the scorching deserts for days and thumping the under brush in the tropical forests to interview remotely located civilian victims of war crimes and human rights abuse. HRW does not work for profit. They do their exceedingly difficult and dangerous work to prevent human rights abuse and to hold states, armed groups and others accountable for human rights violations. They receive their financial support largely from individual donations and gifts. HRW never takes sides in any conflict. To do their work, they do not make their own rules but use established international human rights conventions, treaties, domestic laws and resolutions of world bodies.

Vile accusations against HRW are not new. All governments and groups stung by HRW’s factual reports squeal like a stuck pig. They try to discredit HRW’s reports as methodologically flawed, unsubstantiated, speculative, slanted, unfair, biased and so on. They try to distract and misdirect public attention from the evidence of their criminality in the reports by attacking HRW as an antagonistic and politically vindictive organization. In the past few years, HRW has been vilified by those on opposite ends of the same conflict. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have called HRW a “Zionist” organization. The Israeli government has accused HRW of being “obsessed with Israel” and dubbed them “supporters of terrorism.” But HRW is an organization with the highest level of integrity. They will not back down from holding any government accountable, including the U.S. In its latest report, HRW praised President Obama for abolishing secret CIA prisons and banning all use of torture, but they clobbered him ferociously for “adopting many of the Bush administration’s most misguided policies” including the policy of “indefinite detention without charge” of “enemy combatants”.

There is no secret to HRW’s investigative work. They conduct extensive interviews of alleged victims of human rights abuse. They work with confidential informants in victims’ communities and gather evidence from others sources within a given country. They talk to officials and top political leaders and analyze government reports and any other relevant documentation and data. They conduct field investigations and their experts conduct forensic studies, perform ballistics tests and examine medical and autopsy reports. They always seek official permission to conduct their investigations, but most governments generally refuse or ignore the requests to enter their countries for such purposes. HRW has a rigorous system of checking and cross-checking facts. Before publication, HRW always presents its findings to the relevant governments for comment and feedback, and to incorporate changes and make corrections where appropriate. Often, regimes and governments remain silent and provide no feedback on the reports before publication. Once the reports are made public, governments sensitive to criticism unleash their spin-doctors to moan and groan about HRW in an attempt to capture media attention and deflect public scrutiny from the evidence in the reports that incriminate them.

“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” But attacking the messenger does not make a lie out of the message, just as putting lipstick on a pig does not make the pig a swan (perhaps a vulture).

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Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.

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