Whataboutism and Bothsidesism in the War on Tigray
October 27, 2021
By Medhanie Gaim and Temesgen Kahsay
It is now close to a year since the war on Tigray started. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have mobilized their armies and affiliated militias and regional forces to commit massacres, weaponized rape, displacement, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of critical infrastructure and heritage sites. Thousands have been massacred; hundreds of women and children have been raped; priests and nuns have been killed; sacred places have been desecrated, and hospitals and schools have been vandalized.
With the significant exception of the western part that has become a site of extraordinary cruelty and atrocity, a large part of Tigray’s territory has been liberated, since the end of June 2021. However, despite the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Ethiopian government at that time, Tigray remains under siege. Food aid and vital supplies have been largely prevented from entering the region subjecting 90% of the Tigrayan population to man-made famine and death by starvation. Recently reports are emerging of deaths from hunger, and researchers at Ghent University predict hundreds of deaths per day. To break the humanitarian blockade that is orchestrating what the United Nations has recognized to be the worst famine the world has seen in a decade, the Tigrayan forces have had no choice but to push the battlefronts forward to the Amhara and Afar regions.
Amidst this ongoing crisis as well as the large catalog of human rights violations and war crimes that have thus far characterized the war on Tigray, a notable tragedy has been the whataboutism and bothsidesism that have defined both the domestic and the international response. These responses are permeated by logical inconsistencies and fallacies that either deny, deflect or justify outright the multifaceted violence.
Whataboutism: An Ethiopian trope par excellence
The most superficial observer would recognize “whataboutism” as a mainstay of discourses surrounding the war on Tigray. One instance in which this has been revealed to an extraordinary degree is in responses to reports of the industrial scale to which sexual violence was weaponized against the women and children of Tigray. At the time when reports of the brutal sexual atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops emerged, journalists, researchers, and government officials almost immediately resorted to pointing to the alleged “prevalence” of rape in the culture and other contextually irrelevant statistics to distract from the issue. This inability to call out and demand accountability from the perpetrators was also reflected by PM Abiy Ahmed, who in a speech to the Ethiopian parliament, sought to minimize the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) committed by his soldiers by presenting it as something inconsequential when compared to “how about our soldiers who were struck by a bayonet?”.
The whataboutism we observe currently in Ethiopia is not limited to responses to SGBV. Other egregious mass crimes like massacres or man-made famine are similarly dismissed and explained away. An almost routine response in this regard has been raising any human rights violations committed during the long tenure of the EPRDF (including crimes in which many of those occupying the helms of power currently are fully culpable) to justify the ongoing atrocities in Tigray.
The so-called “27 years of darkness” used to designate the period of EPRDF rule is invariably used as a blanket excuse for the collective callousness of the Ethiopian elite to atrocities that have shocked and alarmed the rest of the world. This entirely false and logically untenable equivalence nonetheless is also the primary rationale for the academic, media, religious and other elite who have been the architects and cheerleaders of the increasingly catastrophic war and ongoing genocide.
For example, religious leaders, who would have been expected to preach peace but who instead blessed the war, engaged in this type of whataboutism, using past alleged transgressions to justify the atrocities in Tigray, and push for the war to continue. After they met members of the US congress, 11 Archbishops and Bishops of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church from North America told the press that they presented Ethiopia’s case and why the government should not negotiate with the TPLF. In one interview, Archbishop Abune Fanuel of Washington D.C. said if the US did not negotiate with Al-Qaeda, who have created havoc in the US, Ethiopia should not negotiate with TPLF too. He said, “their 9/11 is our November 3.” Thus, because of past violations, current injustices are justified.
Similarly, to deflect attention, Ethiopian elites and top government officials used cases of injustice elsewhere to stop the international community from intervening. A pro-regime activist even quoted rape victim cases from the UK and how the justice system failed them to support his argument that the international community should not interfere in the rape cases in Tigray. So, generally, regardless of what is happening in Tigray, the argument goes, we are not all saints.
This framing (particularly the ‘27 years of darkness‘ narrative that Abiy Ahmed started) was, unfortunately, adopted by a large segment of the international community. This narrative promoted by domestic media and elite by design has sadly ended up influencing reporting on the unimaginable atrocities that have been visited upon Tigray in the international media. Notably, a journalist for Channel 4 news, Jamal Osman, among the few who were granted access to Tigray and saw the destruction and even interviewed sexual violence survivors, almost immediately started to reference past allegations of human rights violations to justify the horrors he had witnessed firsthand.
Journalists and analysts with a large Social Media following also engaged in the whataboutery promoted as talking points of the government and a large segment of the Ethiopian elite. Without detracting from the need to address any and all past wrongdoings in the appropriate fora, however, it is inarguable that focusing on past transgressions in the face of ongoing atrocities can only serve to minimize the responsibilities of perpetrators that are currently wreaking havoc. When those engaging in whataboutery fail to condemn the violence, it signals to perpetrators they can continue committing heinous crimes with total impunity; a case in point in this regard is what is happening in Western Tigray. Moreover, lack of accountability means absolving perpetrators from justice and the rightful consequences of their transgressions, present or future.
Bothsidesism: What is fair is neither right nor just
In addition to whataboutism, another tactic of relativizing and distracting from the sheer magnitude of the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed in Tigray has been the perennial bothsidesism. We are constantly told “there are two sides to every story,” regardless of the stark difference in the intent and even the actions of the warring parties. At the risk of stating the obvious, killing, rape, destruction is terrible in any context. This is a universal truth we can all agree upon without qualification. However, when the entire apparatus of two sovereign states is deployed to exterminate an entire ethnic group, it is categorically different from civilian casualties and collateral damage that sadly accompanies the most well-regulated conflict.
The Ethiopian government and its officials have made clear their genocidal intent of weeding out what they call the ‘cancers’ of society on many occasions. Even so, however, the regime continues to be given an unending benefit of the doubt and acknowledged as much a victim in the war it initiated and is prosecuting with deliberate brutality as those who were invaded are fighting back to ensure their survival.
Even when it has been clearly established that the Ethiopian government is committed to escalating and protracting the conflict by calling up to arms a poorly trained and ill-equipped regional militia, the international community tends to push for punishing both sides (E.g. President Biden’s Executive Order on Imposing Sanctions on Certain Persons With Respect to the Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis in Ethiopia is a case in point) to give a semblance of impartiality.
This type of bothsidesism also glosses over the asymmetrical configuration of the belligerent forces. There are the Amhara regional forces, Eritrean troops, and the Ethiopian national army hemming Tigray from all corners. Then there is a regional army trying to break a siege. One party is engaged in a scorched-earth war policy and is attempting to wipe out Tigray, while the other is fighting to stop the annihilation and secure the survival of Tigrayans.
False equivalences between such asymmetrical forces however result in dangerous reporting that fails to take into account the actions of a regional government that rallies residents to fight, armed or not. As noted by Alex DeWaal such calls: “blur the line between combatant and civilian and between combat and massacre.” One cannot place those pushing invading forces to ensure their survival and those who kill for pleasure on equal ground. Putting a force that has shown discipline by freeing POWs and following international law on treating POWs and citizens in occupied areas, guaranteed to protect cultural heritage with those who deliberately destroyed Tigray’s symbol of cultural and historical heritages, desecrating churches and mosques are out-and-out wrong. There is neither moral nor legal ground to draw a parallel between the two forces. They are neither the same nor equal.
Bothsidesism also characterizes the responses to the recent campaign of airstrikes on Mekelle, close to residential areas, factories, and hospitals, which targeted civilians and civilian infrastructures. These unprovoked attacks that have primarily targeted civilian infrastructure and killed and grievously injured innocent victims have been met with the usual call for ‘both parties’ to stop violence although there were no both sides to it.
A similar trend is also seen in relation to the use of starvation as a weapon of war when with clear evidence of who is blocking aid and even when the Prime Minister himself admitted to doing so for political reasons, the IC persists in calling on ‘both parties’ to allow humanitarian access. Similarly, even after the government clearly demonstrated that willful violation of international law by expelling seven senior UN staff the UN secretary-general resorted to bothsidesism as recently as Oct 19:
we urgently call on all parties to allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of relief supplies and aid personnel to areas in needAntonio Gutteres, Secretary General of the United Nations
Such a statement came even after humanitarian aid was made conditional: Ethiopia would ease up humanitarian access if the Tigray forces withdrew.
Such a response is so ubiquitous that even after the government airstrike forced a UN humanitarian flight to Mekelle to return to Addis Ababa, risking the safety of humanitarian personnel in the flight, Martin Griffiths sent the same ‘all parties’ message. To treat a party that has put one on a chokehold and the other struggling to get out of the chokehold as equal is reckless, and the semblance of the balance does not make any intervention just.
The HRW report on the situation of Eritrean refugees is another case in point. For anyone who has been following the war on Tigray and how the warring parties conducted themselves, producing a report that implicates both sides in the same report with headlines such as “Eritrean and Tigrayan forces killed and raped refugees” is as dangerous as it is inaccurate. To report what Tigrayan forces and the Eritrean armies did in the same report risks conflating crimes of different character and magnitude proportions. Similarly, the joint UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigation on Tigray is found to be “neither impartial nor independent”, we fear bothsidesism could taint the upcoming report to render it irrelevant, deferring the justice victims deserve.
Understandably, many resort to bothsidesism to avoid accusations of pro-Tigray bias in their reporting but this taints the true purpose of the reports. Again, the two forces are neither the same nor equal. Given the Ethiopian government’s blockade and communication blackout, when journalists report alleged atrocities without convincing evidence (regardless of how evil the atrocities are on their own), the media and uncritical social media activism tend to exaggerate and use such reports to justify past crimes and encourage new ones. Moreover, when journalists want to create a sense of balance, it also invites desperate criminals to make one for them. It has for example been reported that regional forces are attacking their own people to incriminate TDF in any possible way.
It behooves those engaging in whataboutism, instead of directing responsibility for current wrongdoings, to reflect on what exactly they are distracting from. What if you start thinking about the children in war zones who are currently starving as you read this sentence? Why not think about the agony of the mothers who have nothing to give to their kids? Why not think about those who are needlessly suffering? These are the questions that we need to ask.
For those engaging in bothsidesism, we say there are no two sides to massacres. There are no two sides to weaponized rape. There are no two sides to starvation and siege. The “there are two sides to every story” adds nothing. It fails the civilians and innocent who are caught up in the crossfire of a conflict. More importantly, when the international community resorts to bothsidesism and the diplomatic euphemisms of “all parties to the conflict” as a strategy, it deflects responsibility and absolves itself from taking concrete action.
Neutrality is a luxury for those who have got nothing to lose in this war. Decentering Tigrayans’ voice and experience in the name of neutrality minimizes as well as subordinates the suffering of millions as secondary to concerns about sovereignty, geopolitics and security. Ethiopia is a country that has waged a genocidal war on one of its own regions. In its scorched-earth policy of war, it has weaponized sex, food, information, access, fuel, finance and has turned every space into a battlefield. For millions of Tigrayans, bothsidesism equals endorsement of the action of perpetrators and whataboutism amounts to adding salt to their wounds.
As Elie Wiesel once said:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
Temesgen Kahsay: Temesgen Kahsay is an assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology. His area of research is the intersection between religion and society, religion and culture and the role of the religion in the contemporary local and global contexts