Flat White

How did a human rights abuser end up running the WHO – and how is he still there?

12 June 2020

2:49 PM

12 June 2020

2:49 PM

In 1348, the Black Death killed between 30 to 50% of the entire population of Britain. In one of the greatest health crisis to affect the world since then who was selected as the person to lead the global effort to fight COVID-19? Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

Tedros should never have nominated for the position of Director-General of the World Health Organisation. Having nominated, however, no one should have voted for him. Having been elected he should have had the decency and humanity to declare that he was unfit for such an office. Alas, however, he still serves. 

It is not only his dreadful performance during the COVID-19 crisis that makes him unfit for office (although that is grounds alone) but it is his period as a minister in the Ethiopian government between 2005 and 2016 that should disqualify him from any international office.   

Back in the 1980s, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a union of a number of political parties including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF itself was founded in 1975 and as part of EPRDF with the help of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) they overthrew the marxist government run by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and installed another Marxist government led by Meles Zenawi. Mengistu fled Addis Ababa in May 1991 and was granted asylum by Robert Mugabe. Of course he was. In 2006, Mengistu was found guilty of genocide by the High Court in Ethiopia. The TPLF itself has been listed as a terrorist organisation in the Global Terrorism Database since 1976 when it was first found to be engaging in kidnapping and hostage-taking.  

Born in 1965, Tedros obtained a degree in Biology from an Ethiopian University in 1986. Tedros then appears to have worked as a health official when Mengistu was in power but left Ethiopia to study in England where he obtained a Masters of Science in Immunology in 1992, then a PHD in Community Health at the University of Nottingham in 2000. It is unclear when he joined the TPLF but it is inconceivable he wasn’t a member by the time he became Health Minister in 2005. It was later reported that Tedros had served as one of the top 9 politburo members of the TPLF for many years.   

Tedros was always an inappropriate candidate for the top job at the WHO given the appalling human rights record of the Ethiopian government during his period as a senior minister. A review of the Annual Reports of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International for those 11 years makes disturbing reading. 

Perhaps for his entire period as health and foreign affairs minister Tedros may have been oblivious to the contents of these reports and to what was happening in his country but it beggars belief that for 11 years he was either unaware of human rights abuses or indifferent to them. Certainly, some of the international donors to Ethiopia should regret that they continued to aid Ethiopia during this period without sufficiently pressuring the Government on these abuses. These donors included the US, UK and, of course, China. 

 Combining the reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty for the years 2005-2016, one finds shocking domestic crimes either engineered by the Government of which Tedros was a senior minister or ignored by them.  

In searches of many articles, reports, reviews and other materials covering Ethiopia between 2005 and 2016 there is not a single reference to Tedros objecting to the behaviour of the Government controlled army or police. There is not a single reference him condemning any human rights abuse or the crackdown on dissidents or Opposition members. There is no reference to him objecting to the imprisonment of journalists or the shutting down of the voices of human rights advocates. In fact, there was no reference whatsoever to Tedros doing anything other than acting as a willing conspirator in the crimes against humanity committed by the Ethiopian government of which he was a senior minister for 11 years. 

In 2006, the reports refer to campaigns of repression and brutality in many parts of the country by security forces and civil officials. Seventy-six Opposition politicians and journalists amongst others were arrested. Independent newspapers and their editors reported harassment and intimidation and faced criminal charges because of their reporting. Torture and imprisonment (including of school children) by the authorities of one local state were reported. Atrocities including extrajudicial killings and rapes conducted by Ethiopian military forces in Gambella State in 2003 saw the government take “no meaningful action to address [these] widespread atrocities.” Alleged executions and torture in the East of Ethiopia could not be investigated because the military restricted access to the region.  

The reports for 2007 aren’t any better. HRW notes: “Government forces committed serious human rights abuses including rape, torture and village burnings during a campaign against Ethiopian rebels in [the] Eastern Somali region [of Ethiopia].” In response to attacks by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an opposition group, Government security forces responded by “razing entire villages, carrying out public executions, raping and harassing women and girls, arbitrarily arresting, torturing and sometimes killing suspects in military custody and forcing thousands to flee their homes.” In January, a 10th-grade student died after police beatings and two high-school students were shot dead. In March, security officials allegedly executed 19 men and a 14-year-old girl.  Amnesty includes in its 2007 report that female genital mutilation remained widespread.  

In 2008, Amnesty said “Government forces were responsible for mass arrests, torture, rape and extrajudicial executions in a continuing conflict with an armed (opposition) group. Thousands of government opponents were detained without trial.” HRW reported ‘Ethiopian military forces have continued to commit war crimes and other serious abuses with impunity in the course of counterinsurgency campaigns… ‘Local opposition groups were crippled and in April elections the ruling party and its associates won more than 99% of all constituencies. The Government also introduced legislation that would criminalise most independent human rights work. In April government soldiers working in Mogadishu in support of the Somali government raided a mosque and killed 21 people, seven of whom had their throats cut. By 2008 Chinese investment in Ethiopia had risen to more than US$350M up from US$10M 5 years earlier. 


In 2009, HRW stated that the human rights trajectory is ‘deteriorating’. The opposition leader was imprisoned. Laws made human rights work impossible. Acts of dissent became acts of terrorism under new laws. New civil society laws were described as ‘among the most restrictive of any comparable law anywhere in the world’. Prisoners faced torture in police and military custody. Government soldiers who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity were not held to account by the government, and rarely investigated but not surprisingly an August 2008 inquiry into the behaviour of the armed forces found no serious abuses took place. 

In its 2009 report, Amnesty said “Ethiopian troops fighting insurgents in Somalia in support of the Transitional Federal Government committed human rights abuses and were reported to have committed war crimes. Government forces attacked a mosque in Mogadishu killing 21 men, some inside the mosque. On 22 May in absentia, four Ethiopian pilots were sentenced to death for seeking asylum whilst training in Israel in 2007. 

In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the EPRDF won 99.6% of the vote. Hundreds of political prisoners remained in jail, however after 22 months in jail, the opposition leader, Birtukan Midekssa was freed although in December 2009 the United Nations had determined that her detention was in breach of international law. According to HRW ‘Hundreds of other Ethiopians have been arbitrarily arrested and detained and sometimes subjected to torture and other ill-treatment… Torture and ill-treatment have been used by Ethiopia’s police and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters….’ ‘Very few incidents of torture have been investigated promptly and impartially, much less prosecuted… Ethiopian military and other security forces are responsible for serious crimes in the Somali region, including war crimes, but… no credible efforts have been taken by the Government to investigate or prosecute those responsible for the crimes.’ 

Newspapers were closed and editors fled the country out of fear. Fifteen other journalists fled the country. The Voice of America was jammed as was Deutsche Welle.  

In 2011 things hadn’t improved. ‘Hundreds of Ethiopians… were arbitrarily arrested and detained and remain at risk of torture and ill-treatment, said HRW. More than 200 opposition supporters were arrested. Numerous journalists were arrested and accused of treason. In August, an Amnesty International delegation was expelled from Ethiopia. 

Tedros must have done well as Health Minister because in 2011 he was the first non-American to receive the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award. 

The role of Tedros as Health Minister between 2005 and 2012 brought him much praise for the work he did which led to a reduction in mortality rates for HIV and malaria although it is alleged that three cholera outbreaks while he was Health Minister were reclassified as diarrhoea to avoid international embarrassment. 

In 2012 prime minister Meles passed away but things didn’t improve. Thirty journalists and opposition members were convicted of terrorist acts. Protests by Muslims saw arbitrary arrests, detentions and beatings. Several of Ethiopia’s most reputable human rights activists fled the country due to threats. Two journalists were jailed for fourteen years. One was later reduced to five years. Another journalist was sentenced to 18 years in jail. However, two Swedish journalists jailed in 2011 to eleven years in prison were released in September along with more than 1950 other prisoners as part of an amnesty to celebrate the Ethiopian new year.  

In March, a government-backed paramilitary force executed 10 men in their custody and killed nine other villagers over an incident in a village in Raqda. In April Ethiopian soldiers arrested many young men and committed torture, rape and other abuses against scores of villagers while attempting to extract information following an attack on a local farm according to HRW.  

In 2013 ‘Hopes that Ethiopia’s new leadership would pursue human rights reforms following Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death in August 2012 have been shattered; there was no tangible change in policy in 2013’ said HRW.  They went on: “The beating of protestors and arbitrary detention continued. Access to legal counsel was often denied. Human rights groups have either removed ‘human rights’ from their mandates or have dramatically scaled down operations. Webpages and blogs are often jammed or blocked. Protests by Muslims result in the arrest of journalists covering such demonstrations.” 

No doubt as a result of their sterling human rights record Ethiopia was elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012.  

Ethiopia served a three-year term but despite their long and scandalous human rights record, they were re-elected in 2016 for another three years. The. Council’s Charter requires it to promote and protect human rights around the world however this is the body that since its inception in 2006 has passed more motions condemning Israel than all other countries in the world combined.  

In 2013 the Africa Report recorded that Tedros had become one of the three “influential newcomers” within the TPLF following the death of prime minister Meles. 

In 2014, the UNHRC in its Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia condemned it for violating international standards in relation to repressive domestic legislation allowing arbitrary arrests and curtailing free expression. Members of opposition parties continued to be arrested. Dozens of journalists fled the country. The owners of six newspapers were charged after a period of harassment against their publications. Domestic and international calls were regularly monitored by the Government. Up to 1.5 million rural villagers were planned to be relocated ‘to improve their access to basic services’ although such relocations were accompanied by beatings, arbitrary arrests and other forms of violence. Ethiopia’s criminal code made same-sex relations an offence punishable with up to fifteen years in prison according to HRW.  

In its 2014/15 report, Amnesty noted that torture took place in local police stations… regional prisons and military camps. Torture methods included burning and electric shocks. Amnesty also reported that in the three years ending 2017 security forces had killed at least 800 protestors. 

In 2015 the EPRDF won all 547 seats in the May elections. A truly remarkable result. Opposition parties could not hold rallies and many of their organisers were arrested. Eighteen Muslim protestors were jailed to between seven and 22 years each after protesting against government interference in their religious affairs. The Somali regional state paramilitary police force ‘continued to commit serious human rights abuses’, ‘according to HRW.  

In 2016, the last year of Dr Tedros’ reign as foreign minister, HRW reported that Ethiopian security forces cracked down on… largely peaceful demonstrations, killing more than 500 people’ in the regions of Oromia and Amhara. In August over 100 people were killed at protests in Amhara and Oromia. Many acts of torture and rape were never investigated. More journalists were arrested and websites blocked. In response to killings in Oromia and Amhara, the government-run and euphemistically named ‘Ethiopia Human Rights Commission’ concluded that the use of force by security forces ‘Was proportionate to the risk they faced from protestors”, contrary to available evidence according to HRW. 

In 2016, the International Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ethiopia was amongst Africa’s leading jailer of journalists. Then British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond warned Tedros in a meeting that Britain would re-examine its relationship with Ethiopia given that an Ethiopian born English citizen was on death row simply because he was a member of the opposition parties. 

So, it’s not hard to understand why in 2017 Tedros would appoint the late president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador for the WHO given his own appalling human rights record. A fellow traveller you might say. As The Australian has previously reported, Tedros ultimately withdrew Mugabe’s nomination under international pressure.  

Tedros’ close relations with the Chinese Communist Government which have become transparent during the current COVID-19 pandemic are no surprise. UN records show that during his period as Director-General of the WHO Chinese contributions rose from approximately US $23m in 2016 to US $38m in 2019 to a promised US $57m in 2020. China was also a great donor to Ethiopia where donations rose from US $345,000 in 2000 to US $44m in 2017 allegedly for food and refugee programs.   

If there was any doubt about the crimes against its own people committed by the Ethiopian government that Tedros served as a senior minister for 11 years, they were put beyond doubt by the current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018. Ahmed told parliament that previous Ethiopian governments had sanctioned the torture of its political prisoners. He admitted that Ethiopian security forces had tortured people in the past and used terrorist tactics to stay in power. He made the obvious admission “that this is unconstitutional” to use force to stay in power which should be considered terrorism. Ahmed’s more liberal approach to ruling Ethiopia including the release of political prisoners has been strongly opposed by Tedros’ old party the TPLF which has now refused to join new Prosperity Party Government after 28 years in power.   

What culpability does a Senior Minister have for the criminal acts of the Government he serves? Is it possible that a senior minister such as Tedros could be blissfully unaware for a whole eleven years that his government had potentially committed war crimes and/or human rights abuses? But this is an inconceivable proposition. No doubt appalled by what he must have known was happening in his country, did he contemplate resignation and then asylum? Or did his actions prove that there is only one conclusion to be reached which is that Tedros not only knew of these atrocities but accepted them, did nothing to prevent them and is therefore culpable for them? 

Politically speaking, things seem to be improving in Ethiopia. Freedoms and reforms are being introduced under Prime Minister Ahmed. The one thing we do know is that few governments could be as bad as the one Tedros served in for 11 years before the global community decided to promote him. Shame on the members of the WHO. 

Tedros should never have been elected Director-General of the WHO. He should have actually been charged for crimes against the Ethiopian people as was the former Leader Colonel Mengistu along with his associates. 

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.


Show comments
Close