The Arc of Justice

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / April 20, 2009

“We Shall Overcome…”

In 1965, in a commencement address at Oberlin College, Ohio, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about the ultimate victory of good over evil, justice over injustice, right over might, truth over lies and human rights over government wrongs. “We shall overcome,” he said “because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice… No lie can live forever…. Truth crushed to earth will rise again…. ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the demon known, stands a God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’”

No Lie Can Live Forever

These past few months have been unkind to global criminals who believed they can commit crimes against humanity with impunity. Recently, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was found guilty of mass murder and kidnapping by a Peruvian court. Judge Cesar San Martin declared that Fujimori was guilty “beyond all reasonable doubt" for authorizing a secret police death squad (“Colina Group”) he created commit massacres in the Barrios Altos area of Lima in 1991 and at La Cantuta University in 1992 that left 25 dead, and for the kidnap-murders of a journalist and a businessman in 1992. Fujimori’s defense: “I knew nothing about the killings!” He blamed his intelligence service chief for the crimes. After years of evading justice, the truth rose again from the slums of Barrios Altos and the campus of La Cantuta University and crushed Fujimori at age 70! He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He may yet face trial for corruption and misappropriation of public funds.

George W. Bush’s legal bushwhackers in the “war on terror” are under investigation for crimes against humanity. All indications are Spanish prosecutors will soon make a formal announcement to seek criminal charges against six top former officials -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Assistant Attorney General (and now federal appeals court judge) Jay Bybee, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith -- in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo. With the stroke of the pen, President Obama illuminated Bush’s tapestry of lies and legal sophistry to conduct torture secretly and illegally spy on American citizens.

Sudanese president Omar al-Basir is a fugitive from justice. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for “masterminding with absolute control” a criminal plan “to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.” He is accused of causing the deaths of 35,000 people “outright” in the Darfur region since 2003. International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampos stands ready to bring al-Bashir to the bar of justice to face the truth.

Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, top leaders in the Revolutionary United Front, were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Sierra Leone's civil war. The monstrous brutality of this evil trio included forcibly recruiting child soldiers, amputating hands and arms and carving the initials “RUF” into the bodies of their victims. They will be serving long prison terms. Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is in the second year of his trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity. Pol Pot's chief torturer Kaing Guek Eav (Duch) is one of 5 suspects currently on trial in Cambodia for genocide and crimes against humanity. And the list goes on…

The widely-respected human rights organization Genocide Watch recently requested the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to “investigate the brutal massacre of 424 Anuak carried out in Gambella, Ethiopia in December of 2003” and the “extra-judicial killings, rape, disappearances, destruction of livelihood and the displacement of thousands of Anuak [which] continued into late 2005.” Genocide Watch accuses the dictatorial regime and its leader in Ethiopia of “perpetrating crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide” in the name of “counter-insurgency.” The request for investigation concluded: “Despite the violation of international law, not only has no one been held accountable for these crimes which occurred over five years ago, but worse than that, such crimes continue in other places in the country.”

Angels, the Demon Known and Lies

In June and November, 2005, 196 innocent people were massacred by the security forces of the ruling dictatorship in Ethiopia, and 763 wounded. The Angels gunned down in broad daylight include1 : Tensae Zegeye, age 14. Debela Guta, age 15. Habtamu Tola, age 16. Binyam Degefa, age 18. Behailu Tesfaye, age 20. Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21. ShiBire Desalegn, age 21. Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23. Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41. Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45. Abebeth Huletu, age 50. Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75, female. Victim No. 21760, male, age unknown, and so on. In December, 2003, 425 Anuaks were massacred in Gambella and thousands more displaced. Tens of thousands were massacred, raped and displaced in the Ogaden region and the rest of the country. Tens of thousands of innocent Ethiopians currently languish in the regime’s dungeons as political prisoners. And on and on…

A spokesman for the “Ethiopian Embassy” in Washington, Woindimu Asamnew, offered the usual dismissive blanket denials: “We don’t take seriously their allegations and fabrications. They are totally unfounded, fabricated lies… We don’t take this kind of idea [outside investigation of genocide] seriously. We have a parliament; they do take care of these kinds of issues. There is no any need of inviting international body for this purpose because of unfounded allegations. An outside investigation is unnecessary and unacceptable. We have investigated the matter and taken corrective measures, otherwise this kind of exaggerated and unfounded lies are not taken seriously by our government. What I'm saying is that any individual can say whatever he wants, but alleging something and the realities on the ground are totally different matter.”

Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again

Those familiar with the criminal law know that the first line of defense among the hardened criminal classes is: “Deny the truth. Deny it Again. Deny it a thousand times. When the evidence (the truth) is overwhelmingly against you, ridicule the charges, call them ‘totally unfounded, fabricated lies’ and blame someone else, or the trees, the moon, the sun and the stars.” But sophisticated criminals do not simply deny the truth, they make it an art form: They weave a dazzling tapestry of lies to evade responsibility for their actions. They dehumanize their victims and profess moral sanctification by condemning their critics. By claiming to “investigate the matter and having taken corrective measures,” they audaciously seek to exonerate themselves from the monstrous crimes they have committed. By trivializing the devastating consequences of their crimes, they continue to dehumanize and brutalize their victims virtually implying that the victims are responsible for causing the criminals to inflict suffering and sorrow upon them. By condemning their critics as falsifiers and spiteful, they hope to draw attention away from themselves and fixate it on the motives, intentions and purposes of their critics. But truth crushed to earth will rise again!

The truth will rise again thunderously from the silent graveyards of the thousands of massacre victims; it will be heard in the agonizing wails of the torture victims; the truth will be told in the plain words of political prisoners; it will be recounted in the graphic testimony of eyewitnesses; the truth will ooze out of the sewer mouths of the murderers and torturers who will tell their dirty secret tales to save their skins; the teardrops of women who were raped and violated will paint the truth on the canvas of justice; reporters and journalists who were muzzled and jailed will write the truth in endless volumes; the truth will come alive in high resolution satellite photographs and amateur videos; it will be depicted in the photographs of the mutilated bodies of victims and it will be scientifically reconstructed in the forensic laboratories. The criminals’ own signatures will rise up from the official documents and orders like the ghosts of Rwanda and scream: “J’accuse!”. It is very true that the “the realties on the ground” are very different for the criminals and their victims. The victims demand justice; the criminals seek to evade it.

Wrong NOT Forever on the Throne!

Human rights will be the crown jewels of human liberty. As Gandhi taught, “There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” In other words, wrong will not remain on the throne forever. That is why we must learn the right lessons from those who have done humanity so much wrong. The rule of law is on the rise ever so slowly in the world, and dictatorship on a precipitous decline. Neither Fujimori, al-Bashir, Gonzalez or the other criminals ever thought that they would be held accountable for their crimes in a court of law, or even in the court of world opinion. All of them believed they were above the law, and sneered at the rule of law. They perverted justice and subverted the democratic process; they eliminated the normal checks of an independent judiciary and evaded the supervision of a legislature freely elected by the people. They stonewalled the independent media from investigating and reporting their crimes, corruption and abuses. The fact of the matter is that people, even the poorest ones, know their basic human rights. Oppressed people the world over are crying out for justice, and for wrongs committed against them to be righted. In sum, they want and demand the rule of law!

Keeping Watch

Ethiopians shall overcome because "truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again" in our beautiful homeland. With the faith in the truth, to paraphrase Dr. King, “we will be able to hew out of the craggy boulders of crimes against humanity, a shining marble temple of democracy, freedom and human rights. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, sisterhood and human rights and speed up the day in Ethiopia when, in the words of the prophet Amos, ‘Justice will roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” No truth, no justice; no democracy, no peace!


The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at