By: Meskerm Desta
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is set to receive a criminal complaint against Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first African Director-General. This complaint will be filed by David Steinman on December 1st, 2020 in regards to Dr. Tedros’ alleged involvement and compliance in criminal activities during the Tigray People's Liberation Front’s (TPLF) reign in Ethiopia.
The timing of this complaint is not surprising, as Dr. Tedros has been under heavy scrutiny for the WHO’s response on the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently, his alleged involvement in weapons procurement for TPLF as the war continues in Ethiopia. Mr. Steinman is a staunch critic of the former TPLF regime, especially Dr. Tedros whom he believes was complicit in human rights violations across the country. The complaint outlines that Dr. Tedros violated articles of the Rome statute and Effects Doctrine. The ICC prosecutor will review the complaint and determine whether there is enough information to warrant an investigation.
This complaint has the potential to open Pandora's box for Dr. Tedros and the TPLF, who dominated and controlled the political scene in Ethiopia for nearly three decades before being ousted from public office after massive state-wide protests between 2016-2018. During TPLF’s reign, Dr. Tedros served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health from 2005-2012 and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012-2016. He was praised and awarded by the global community for his work on Ethiopia’s community health infrastructure and improvements across multiple health indicators. Despite his accomplishments in public health, Dr. Tedros’s reputation and tenure has been riddled with scandals and accusations.
Minister of Health Tenure
One of the more well-known scandals Dr. Tedros faced is related to the alleged cover-up of potential cholera outbreaks on three separate occasions in 2006, 2009, and 2011. Cholera is a water-borne bacterial disease that can lead to death if left untreated. During these periods, the Minister of Health Dr. Tedros Adhanom resisted calling these clusters of illnesses a cholera outbreak despite ignoring the pressure from the international community to do so. The Ethiopian government was strictly referring to these occurrences as “acute watery diarrhea” (AWD) while also pressuring local health workers “not to refer to cholera outbreaks as such”, Human Right Watch’s researcher Felix Horne reported. In 2007, the UN and other humanitarian organizations reported that lab results did in fact indicate patients were infected with cholera. Moreover, research conducted in 2006 found cases of cholera in Guji, Bale, and East Shewa zones of Oromia. Government officials maintained their position against announcing this outbreak as cholera but did not provide evidence or test results to corroborate. An estimated 60,000 people were infected and more than 680 died from the outbreak in 2006 alone.
When confronted about his inaction during the cholera outbreaks during his campaign for WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros asserted he was a victim of a smear campaign. He remains steadfast in his position that the Ministry of Health responded to these “clusters of AWD” appropriately. To date, Dr. Tedros and the Ministry of Health have yet to be held accountable for their lack of transparency and inaction during these health outbreaks that led to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of people.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Tenure
Even as Dr. Tedros transitioned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his tenure was not without controversy. Perhaps the most bizarre entanglement is one that involves Beritu Jaleta Ahmed, an Ethiopian-Australian teenager from Melbourne. In February 2015, government officials and Ms. Ahmed spoke with reporters about a $20 million Australian dollar alleged prize that Ms. Ahmed won in a school competition. At minute 4:10 in the video, Tewolde Mulugeta, a government representative tells reporters that the Foreign Minister [Dr. Tedros] believes Ms. Ahmed “can be a great role model for children her age with the support of the government” and at the end of the video, Dr. Tedros is seen greeting Ms. Ahmed.
Dr. Tedros praised Ms. Ahmed for her desire to invest this prize money into building a school in Gara Muleta, Ethiopia. Ms. Ahmed claimed this alleged prize was funded by the Australian Government and the Rotary Club of Australia.
Upon further investigation of this $20 million Australian dollar prize by Addis Voice, the facts around this story became increasingly obscure. Representatives from the school where Ms. Ahmed allegedly received this prize, the government of Australia, and the manager of Rotary International in Australia all denied any involvement in supporting and/or funding a $20 million Australian dollar award. Jenna Hand, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, refuted the teenager’s claim that the Government of Australia gave her half of the prize money.” Concurrently, Bruce Allen, Manager of Rotary International in Australia, pointed out that 1300 Rotary Clubs raised only $A 5.6 million dollars for its own humanitarian projects and activities last year let alone giving “an outrageous amount of money” to a 14-year old school girl. “It is totally out of question. There was no application or grant to this person,” he said.”
Many Ethiopians were left confused after investigators confirmed that there was no $20 million Australian dollar prize, despite Mr. Mulugeta’s assertion that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received enough evidence that Ms. Ahmed received the prize at minute 4:09 of the video. The following month, the Foreign Minister was criticized as he attempted to shift blame away from himself and toward Ms. Ahmed through a Facebook post that garnered over 1,500 comments and over 500 shares. Neither Dr. Tedros nor his administration provided further details into this situation despite public outrage.
While in this position, Dr. Tedros along with other foreign ministers of the African Union received backlash for advocating that the ICC should not be allowed to prosecute sitting heads of states and governments. They believed that this action unfairly targeted African countries and had the potential to threaten a country’s sovereignty. This occurred during the ICC investigation of Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto who were accused for crimes against humanity for the post-election violence that occurred in 2007 and 2008 which lead to the murder, rape, and torture of many Kenyans.
"Sitting heads of state and government should not be prosecuted while in office. We have resolved to speak with one voice to make sure that our concerns are heard loud and clear," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Furthermore, an online article published in 2018 accused Dr. Tedros of turning a blind eye to TPLF Generals who headed METC (a state-owned enterprise that dominated Ethiopia’s military industrial complex) of conducting illicit arms deals using Ethiopia’s commercial fleets. In a three-page stamped letter, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Djibouti, Mr. Suleyman Dedefo outlined the nature of these illicit arms deals, however no follow-up or investigation was undertaken after these accusations.
WHO Director General Tenure
In the first year of Dr. Tedros’s five-year appointment as Director-General, the WHO appointed Robert Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador. Dr. Tedros had publicly acknowledged Zimbabwe’s commitment to public health, which was a sharp criticism of critics' analysis of the country's inability to meet the people’s basic health care needs. Although Goodwill Ambassadors do not have any real decision-making power within or outside the organization, the WHO’s appointment of Mr. Mugabe ignored his legacy of tyranny and oppression that ravaged Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe, who was once fiercely revered by his people for being a revolutionary leader, was accused of disproportionate state-violence and human rights abuses. This appointment sparked outrage in the international community, especially from the British Government, Human Rights Watch, UN Watch, NCD Alliance, and several others. Eventually this decision was overturned.
Analysis of events and Implications of ICC Complaint
All of these scandals (and accusations) are examples of how there has been little to no investigation or accountability for the TPLF and their leading global comrade Dr. Tedros Adhanom. Furthermore, Dr. Tedros was an important pillar in this political party that engaged in massive human rights abuses all over Ethiopia. He served as the Minister of Health for nearly 7 years but remained silent as his political party deployed violent measures to maintain a democratic facade. As a public health professional, Dr. Tedros had a duty to speak out against the impact of violence on health outcomes yet was silent as TPLF killed and tortured dissident communities.
It will be interesting to see if the evidence against Dr. Tedros is enough for the ICC Prosecutor to begin an investigation. My guess is that not much will come of this complaint formally because the WHO holds an immense amount of influence within the global community. However, what is at stake is TPLF’s reputation, or whatever is left of it. Leaders of the TPLF, like the late former PM Meles Zenawi are well-known global stakeholders who have developed key relationships in many sectors. Mr. Steinman’s complaint may finally be the last straw in the haystack that brings TPLF’s organization to its knees. Justice for the many people TPLF unlawfully jailed and killed may come sooner than expected.