Is genocide vs crimes against humanity at issue today?

By Assefa Gultu / January 12, 2011
I am puzzled by the recent line of debate among our respected public scholars regarding dreg officials' pardoning by the criminal government of Meles Zenawi which was in large part sparked following the piece written by Eskinder Nega. As is true of all his writings, Eskinder argued cogently and from a strict legal perspective that "Derg officials have been sentenced to death for the wrong reasons". He made a persuasive case that they were not guilty of genocide but of crimes against humanity. This emotionally detached but intellectually and legally compelling argument was not received by many (including myself, although for a different reason) enthusiastically. It even led some to think that Eskinder, if not a Derg sympathizer, appears to have at least been trying to diminish the magnitude of the heinous crime the country has ever seen.

And for obvious reason: this is a highly emotionally charged case that is personal to most people in the country, especially for the generation of that era. Needles to say it is very difficult for those people to separate the legal from the emotional. Such is the case for people like Professor Tecola, for whom I have a great respect, when he said that he would like to see "these brutal murderers punished properly by hanging them in public squares". He further wrote that "I find Eskinder Nega’s article puzzling and bizarre" adding that Eskinder seems "to admire the arrogance and blood thirsty posturing of those subhuman creatures". To the extent that this difference of opinion created a discomfort among the people whom we admire-we know this to be the case on Esknder's part from his follow up article expressing his unhappiness in the fed back he received-it is a sad situation to witness. This is because we all know that no one in his/her right mind tries for a second to lessen the horrible nature of the Derg's crimes. Certainly not Eskinder who is a courageous defender of justice and rule of law not just from the distance like most of us do, but by living day to day under an enormous threat for his safety.

Nor is it fair to say that the likes of Professor Tecola's argument are out of line simply because he did so passionately. Both have made their case convincingly and, their difference to me is a matter of emphasis, not of substance. After all, although they seem to criticize the manner in which Eskinder approached the case, Tecola and others who have responded to the former's, article are all essentially in agreement with Eskinder. They all think that crime against humanity, which Eskinder seems to be trying to prove what the derg is guilty of, is no less horrific than genocide. This brings me to the point I want to make in this article. Despite the apparent difference in tone and style between Eskinder and the others who took part in the debate, they all have one thing in common: they all seem to have missed the timely, probably more important aspect of the issue, i.e. why, how and whether or not the dreg officials should be pardoned.

I was not old enough to be emotionally associated with the period when these mindless criminals committed their unspeakable atrocity. But from what I have read and heard, they have not just murdered hundreds of thousands of people, but they have decimated a whole generation of enthusiastic young Ethiopians who would have changed their country for the better. But when I heard the news that they were going to be pardoned, the first thing that came to my mind was not the magnitude of their crime (who would dispute that), but the question I asked my self was: why?

I am not a legal expert but when some one is pardoned, it is not because the crime is less severe. In fact, the whole issue of pardon is not so much about the person or group for whom the pardon is granted, although there are certain considerations that need to be taken in to account regarding the behavior of the accused. But pardon in general says more about the intention of the party that grant the pardon than the one to be pardoned. So, what is the intention of the government in doing so? In a country where people are accused of genocide for working in a news organization in an other country, where does the compassion come all of a sudden to release the country's worst criminals? How can a government that sends its own people to prison on charges of treason simply because they tell the truth has overnight developed a heart to excuse its worst enemies with whom it fought a bloody 17 years?

Abune Paulos , Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (who refused a prayer service for those killed in the streets of Addis by the government security forces saying that nothing happened), told us that the reconciliation process to pardon the Derg officials was initiated by him and other leaders from the other three religions in the country. He also told us that the reconciliation will bring a much needed renaissance (hidase) to the country and the whole nation will be fully on hidase once the derg officials are released on Ethiopian Christmas (never mind the thousands of political prisoners that languish in the country's prisons and many opposition parties that are not even allowed entry in the country).

I mean, reconciliation is a noble thing and I believe that it is a much needed remedy to our nation's insurmountable problems. The country needs to reconcile with itself. To make this reconciliation more complete, pardoning the Derg officials can be a part of it, but only a part. The most important part is for the current government to go down in its knees and ask the Ethiopian people to pardon it for all the crimes it committed on the country and to open the country for a genuinely democratic transition.

Instead, the regime in power not only is the one who grants pardon to others but continues to play politics in the name of reconciliation and forgiveness, which are our society's most sacred moral values. We all remember how this government used the drama of pardon when kinijit leaders were released. It was the elderly (shimagles) that were used as a tool then. Now, it is the religious leaders. And then we saw the game played again on Birtukan Mideksa. So, when the government is using reconciliation as a cheap political weapon to stay in power, is there any hope that we can achieve true reconciliation? When our supposed moral leaders are shamelessly willing to be used as a tool for repression, do we have any hope as a country? Can we go any lower as a society?

To me, these are the issues we should be reflecting on when we discuss about the pardoning of Derg officials. There is rumor now that the much publicized pardon is not going to be granted and the prisoners are not being released. As I was not excited by the news of the prospect of their release, nor am I depressed by the report that they may stay in prison. I am still preoccupied with one of the worst crime they have committed (or its implication): laying the ground work in Ethiopia for the country's enemy (the current government) to take hold of our nation.

The writer can be reached at