Ethiopia | Exclusive Interview with Human Rights Watch official

The New York based international non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), is known for its advocacy works and reports on rights issues. Though HRW covers about 80 countries world-wide, its works on Africa and the Middle-East consume the lion share of its resources, according to its financial statement. Human Rights Watch logo

HRW has been criticized by national governments, other NGOs,the media and even by its founder and former Chairman, Robert L. Bernstein, on various occasions.

Yet, arguably, none of those exchanges reached the height of its fall-out with the government of Ethiopia, which included a post-election protest rally against HRW – in May 2010 in Addis Ababa.

The media – local and international – frequently reports soundbites from the intense public exchanges between Addis Ababa and HRW. However, there has not been many if any occasions, if any, occasions where the media asked HRW to respond to specific criticisms posed by Addis Ababa.

Therefore, HornAffairs requested HRW’s Headquarters for an an interview.

HRW assigned its Horn of Africa researcher, Felix Horne, to answer the questions prepared by HornAffairs’ Editor Daniel Berhane.

[As we were granted a written interview of limited questions, we regret that it didn’t cover all relevant areas, nor follow-up questions.]


Your allegations have been challenged on several occasions. For example; your claims of aid abuse and forced villagization are deemed “unsubstantiable” by a field study of a number of key donor agencies. This was reiterated by Sir Malcolm Bruce, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for International Development of UK, last year.

However, not only you insist on your allegations, those allegations are cited in subsequent reports – on a different subject matter – as if their truth value is established. Wouldn’t that undercut the foundation of your reports?

Human Rights Watch:

HRW’s villagization report was and remains the only investigation that gathered testimonies and evidence both on the ground just after the abuses happened AND with the actual victims of the program in the locations they had fled to. No investigation by the Ethiopian government or by any of the donors interviewed the actual victims of the villagization program (ie those now living in refugee camps) despite the offer by HRW to facilitate those visits.

Donor led investigations involved very short field visits many, many months after the violations were documented by HRW. The donors have still not adequately investigated the abuses, and government has not carried out any meaningful investigation that we are aware of. The Ethiopian government and the donor community are quick to dismiss the allegations by HRW and to critique our methodology but not a single government representative or donor official has ever reached out to HRW to discuss our methodology on the villagization report.


I learnt that you believe the similarity of the narratives of your sources certifies the credibility of their story. That was the methodology you used on your recent report titled “Torture and Ill-Treatment in Ethiopia’s Maekelawi Police Station”.

However, isn’t it a public knowledge that Ethiopian political asylum seekers are coached to secure residence in western countries? Thus, isn’t it natural to expect most of them will be versed in an identical narrative?

Human Rights Watch:

We use a number of techniques to corroborate the testimonies in our reports. There are undoubtedly challenges in relying on testimonies of refugees just as there are challenges relying on testimonies inside of Ethiopia where many individuals are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals from government.

Of course, the draconian restrictions on human rights work inside of Ethiopia make it next to impossible to carry out research on the ground in-country that provides adequate security for both our researchers and the victims and witnesses we interview.


You are often criticized for having ideological agenda. One of the oft-cited demonstrations of that is your insistence on the privatization of Ethio-Telecom.

Isn’t that an economic policy matter? Haven’t we seen in India, South Korea – even in the United States of America – that the provision of telecom services by private firms does not prohibit governments from blocking websites and spying on private phone calls?

Human Rights Watch:

Yes, and HRW criticizes those governments as well. A quick glance of our website will show a number of projects we have done on those issues around the world. We do not have an opinion one way or the other about the privatization of Ethio-Telecom. We have never stated otherwise.

What we said in our recent report is that liberalized sectors generally have more privacy protections than state run sectors – that’s not the same as advocating for privatization. This of course does not mean that liberal telecom sectors are devoid of illegal surveillance practices – as we have documented numerous times as stated above.


Some people believe that you don’t live up to the standards that you preach. For example; Transparency. Can you give me the full list of your donors and partners, especially those pertinent to your works on Ethiopia?

Human Rights Watch:

HRW does not accept donations from governments, directly or indirectly. You can find more information on our funding at


There are reasons to believe that you lack sincerity in your position regarding Ethiopia. For example, Last year Human Rights Watch awarded four Ethiopian journalists. However, the press release specified the names of the media on which three of them used to work, but not that of Eskinder Nega’s.

My hypothesis is that you skipped the name of Eskinder Nega’s papers because their holocaust glorifying and genocide promoting content was exposed in my article months earlier.

Human Rights Watch:

The three journalists you mention were associated with their media outlets because the work of each of these journalists was associated primarily with these publications. When Eskinder was arrested most recently he had a lengthy employment history with a variety of publications and at the time of his arrest was a blogger and not employed by any single publication.


In your recent report titled, <<“They Know Everything We Do”: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia>>; you have made several controversial claims. However, your accusation that the government of Ethiopia spies on pro-Eritrean groups – such as Ginbot7, OLF, ONLF – appears illogical, given the hostility between Addis Ababa and Asmara.

Do you concede to the fact that these groups are financed by Eritrea (which the groups’ leaders publicly admitted)? If so, wouldn’t it a national security matter rather than an issue of domestic political party competition?

Human Rights Watch:

We do not know whether or not these groups are financed by Eritrea. What we know is that individuals are being targeted who express opinions contrary to government policy or positions with the claim being they are members of these Ethiopian opposition groups, despite their often being little or no basis for that association.


Daniel Berhane

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