by ERIC A. FRIEDMAN
I believe that human rights, and the right to health in particular, should be a top priority of and guiding principle for the next WHO Director-General, whom the world’s health ministers will choose at the World Health Assembly in May. Human rights, after all, encompass the values needed to achieve health for all and health justice, such as equity, non-discrimination, universality, participation, and accountability. They are legally binding precepts. Above all, they embrace human dignity, and the utmost respect for all people in health systems and health-related decisions. They embody the notion of people-centered health services.
This importance demands electing to the post a credible and strong leader on human rights, someone with a history of fighting injustice, of opposing human rights violations, of standing up for the marginalized and oppressed, of resisting political, corporate, or other interests that stand in the way of human rights. This centrality of human rights means electing an individual willing to stand against forces and policies that tolerate or even perpetuate discrimination, or that let political or other concerns override the rights of women, minorities, immigrants, political opponents, or anyone else. It entails appointing a person who views organizations fighting for human rights as partners, even when their own governments may oppose them.
Three candidates remain in the race to be the next WHO Director-General: Tedros Adhanom, David Nabarro, and Sania Nishtar. All candidates should be accountable for their past support of human rights, and outline their plans for furthering human rights around the world if chosen to lead WHO. While it is important for all candidates to do this, one candidate in particular ought to provide a detailed public account of where he stands, and has stood, on human rights. Having spent more than a decade as a cabinet minister in a government that has committed large-scale human rights abuses, Dr. Tedros must make clear his position and intention.
Dr. Tedros served as Minister of Health of Ethiopia from 2005 through 2012, when he became Minister of Foreign Affairs, remaining in the post until a cabinet reshuffle last November. He was, and remains, a member of the Central Committee of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), long the country’s dominant political party, of the more select, nine-member TPLF Executive Committee, and of the Executive Committee of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition.
Some background on human rights in Ethiopia is in order. It is a country where the ruling coalition won all 547 seats in its most recent (2015) parliamentary election, which surely says much more about the state of democracy than the government’s popularity. Freedom House rates Ethiopia as “not free,” ranking it below than many other of the “not free” countries (p. 18) and with one of the world’s largest declines in freedom over the past decade (p. 10).
In its World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch calls the media in Ethiopia “under government stranglehold,” with at least 75 journalists fleeing into exile since 2010, and others arrested. A 2009 law “continues to severely curtail the ability of independent nongovernmental organizations.” Security forces “frequently” torture political detainees, of whom there are many. Over the past decade, Ethiopia has denied entry to all UN human rights special rapporteurs, other than on Eritrea.
The Ethiopian government’s repressive ways gained international prominence at the Rio Olympics last summer. As he crossed the finish line, winning the silver medal, Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms as a symbol of protest against the government’s violent response to protests in the Ethiopia’s Oromia region. Two months earlier, Human Rights Watch had released a report detailing the government’s violent response to the protests, the most recent round of which began in November 2015. They broke out in response to the government clearing land for an investment project. This fed into wider fears about farmers being displaced without adequate consultation or compensation as part of a master plan to massively expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa, the capital, into the neighboring Oromia region. Adding fuel to the protests were environmental and other local concerns, and longer-standing grievances among members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, of political, economic, and cultural marginalization. Amnesty International reported that least 800 protesters had been killed by the end of 2016.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted a blog on its official website in October 2016 (when Dr. Tedros was still Foreign Minister) in response to Human Rights Watch’s reporting on Ethiopia. The piece accuses Human Rights Watch of baseless allegations, intentionally misleading its audience, and propagating “scare stories.” It focuses on the NGO’s response to an October stampede during an anti-government protest at an annual festival in Oromia, though addresses Human Rights Watch’s reporting in Ethiopia more generally. Yet Human Rights Watch is widely recognized to employ a gold standard of research. The above-mentioned report, for example, was based on more than 125 interviews, “court documents, photos, videos and various secondary material, including academic articles and reports from nongovernmental organizations, and information collected by other credible experts and independent human rights investigators.” All material in the report was verified by two or more independent sources.
In light of Ethiopia’s severe human rights abuses and Dr. Tedros’s prominent position within the ruling party and the government, a natural question becomes: What was his role in the country’s systematic abuses of human rights?
I do not know the answer, or the veracity of other charges that Ethiopian diaspora organizations have lodged. In his role in the TPLF and ERPDF power structures, is it possible that he tried to change things from the inside, using his position of power within the government to oppose the government’s repression?
What we do know, though, based on the independent reports of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department, and others, is that the human rights situation in Ethiopia is dire. And Dr. Tedros has long been an important member of the government.
Dr. Tedros has committed to an open and transparent approach to running WHO. Now is the time for him to demonstrate this commitment, publicly addressing the concerns about human rights during his time in the Ethiopian government, and his role, including as a member of the power structures of the ruling party and coalition. States should evaluate his answers carefully and in light of other evidence.
States should also consider whether regardless of Dr. Tedros’s actions within the government – perhaps unless he vigorously fought against rights-abusive policies from the inside – the mere fact of having served (particularly for a considerable length of time) in a high-level post of a government that perpetuates such severe human rights abuses should be an automatic disqualifier from any international leadership position. Would electing someone put forward by such a government, particularly someone who has long served in that government, in some way represent the international community endorsing, accepting, the legitimacy of that government and its policies, and diminish the importance we ascribe to human rights?
We live in an era where human rights remain under great threat. Especially at such times as these, it is vital that states vote for a candidate whose record and integrity will enable them to lead WHO into a new era of health and human rights.