Human rights and the election of the next Director-General: Public accountability now

By | Leave a Comment


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 marginalizationAmnesty 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.

Posted in Global Health, Human Rights, WHO ; Tagged: , , , , , , .


Maccaa says:

Thank you HRW for standing behind/for humanity. We only rely on you.

Getachwu says:

Dr. Thedros and his party tplf need to come to justice. Many innocent Ethiopians killed tortured and expiled from the country by these dictators.

Ambo Dambobaa says:

Tewodros Adhanom has been one of the highest official in the Tigrian Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). As such he was an immediate, direct and most brutal decision maker in the genocidal mass murders that were excuted by the TPLF gainst the Oromo, the Sidama, the Gambella, the Somali, the Amara, the Konso, etc ethnic groups in Ethiopia. If this man ever gets the job leading the World Health Organization, that would mean the United Nations will have a 21st genocider as one of its top leaders. This would an eternal shame and criminal negligence on the part of the United Nations and its specialised agencies such as the World Health Organisation.

Foy says:

well done!!

jemba says:

again re electing dectator on world for word

Gutema Amiro says:

Who by it self is discriminatory ,because candidate this brutality as who .

Chris Mekonnen says:

I echo the questions and concerns raised in the piece. It was with total trepidation that i first read the report that the AU has endorsed the Tedros Adhanom – the then Foreign Minister of Ethiopia to this role. This man is at the Center of a regime which has and is still committing the most dreadful crimes against humanity on its people and has been getting away with it because the west has turned a blind eye to it. When will Africa wake up and do what its respectful forefathers did for their people and continent. Why would Africa back a man who has his hands messed with the most inhuman decisions and actions against his own people who are also fellow Africans, as you see from the link below.


I fail to comprehend why would a credible candidate with proven track record of public service and credibility would require to hire a lobby firm with millions taken from the mouths of millions of starving children in his country . It would be at our peril to back the most inhuman and corrupt politician for the ultimate humanitarian role on the globe. It may be the turn of Africa to be represented at the highest level but not with a candidate with a tarnished humanitarian record and known for selling the health interest of the poor to Corporate firms. THINK!

Seifu says:

Dr. Tewodros Adhanom is the wrong candidate for this internationally reputable post because he has failed as the minister of health in Ethiopia. He belongs to the innermost circle of the Tigray People`s Liberation Front (TPLF) that is notorious for its violation of human rights and corruption (specifically nepotism). The World Health Organization (WHO) should not base the selection and appointment of its Director on rotation. The idea of having an African as the Director is commendable and valuable but it should be subject to reviews and serious scrutinizes if the continent fails to field a suitable candidate. This is the case with the candidacy of Dr. Tewodros Adhanom and it is in the best interest of the organization in general and Africa in particular to elect a capable and competent director. from the other parts of the World. Given the track records of the high TPLF officials like Dr,. Tewodros Adhanom, it is reasonable to suspect that he may have secured the endorsement of the AU through lobbying and corruption. Corruption remains to be one of the ills of Africa.

Selam says:

His election, selection & lobbying all suggest the very thin line b/n international institutions and murderous regimes of developing countries.

To start with Tedros the doctor, from Tropical disease control school dived straight into minstry of health in Ethiopia without any experience. Of course, being a Tigre is certainly the reason to the plum post.

His terrible performance at the introducton semi interview, he lacked basic international lingo such as what global North & south means. He was out of his deapth. He is not capable to run #who

Zerihun says:

Yes, all good values of WHO will be at risk, If Tedros Adhanom Is choosen for the

Berhanu says:

Dr. Theodros is member of the central committee of the TPLF which is the ruling party in Ethiopia. He participated in the killings of thousands of Ethiopians by the regime. He is part of the barbaric regime in Ethiopia. He does not deserve to be the leader of the world health organization.


Hey there.I Am an Ethiopian Norwegian living in Norway.I am so sad to even hear that WHO is giving a chance to one of the most evil human being maybe to be the next leader of WHO:
I am sure why he is where he is in this campaign to be one of the three remaining candidates?
I have no doubt that he has spent millions of dollars in order to be where is now.But the guy is responsible to the ongoing brutality in Ethiopia.He is a CC in the TPLF.
As we know TPLF is the only power running one of the second largest populated country in AFRICA:Ethiopia is now one of the most hostile country for any body who oppose the TPLF regime.So many Journalist,Opposition leaders and Academicians are in jails.
Under his order as foreign minister.TPLF have even kidnaped 2 Ethiopian diaspora activist.One of them was a leader of G7.He is a British Citizen kidnaped from Yemen three years ago.His name is ANDARGACHEW TSEGE.He was incommunicado for years.
He is a dad and Husband.His three children have suffered a lot not knowing the faith of their innocent dad.Do not ever forget who was the actual foreign minister at that Time.It was TEWODROS ADHANOM.
The other Ethiopian Norwegian is in the same faith as ANDARGACHEW.His name is OKHELO and was abducted from Sudan.
How come the world health org.even consider him worthy to be in the competition to begin with.
Dr.TEWODROS is one of those who misused his power.He is without a doubt a criminal who will face justice when the people of Ethiopia get their freedom soon.
Right now Ethiopia has become a police state.The country is in deep crises created by no other than TPLF.
Six months ago the people resistance became harder and we have seen many demonstration in many parts of the country.It was a peaceful demonstration met with lethal weapon.Many Ethiopians have been killed since the last movement started more than a year ago.
All the power in the Country is in the hands of TPLF for the last 26 years.Dr.TEWODROS is one of the central committee members of that group.He is a criminal and should never be running to be the leader of WHO.
The country is now in state of emergency for the last 6 months and now they have decided to postpone the duration of the state of Emergency.
Many of the social media is shut and people are scared.
After 26 years of TPLF in power Ethiopia has no free media at all.The so called government controls every media in the country.
Lately Forbes had reveled that Ethiopia has been robbed more than 30 billion dollars.
Where was Dr.ADHANOM then?
I would like to warn the responsible individuals around this issue that he will face justice in the near future and WHO should avoid that humility in order to keep the org.Transparency.
I hope WHO would not make the biggest mistake by choosing a murderer as a leader of these wonderful and very important org.
Thank you for reading my concern.

Demeke Yeneayhu says:

If UN fails to live upto its prime virtues, what else it stands for!

The ex-foreign minister of Ethiopia should immediately ask for an apology and drop out from the candidacy.

Bekele says:

Thank you HRW for standing for voice less Ethiopian

Tesfaye says:

It’s totally sad to Dr.Tedrose as a candidate at all. The AU indorse is through bribery & lobbying at the AU offices in addis so WHO & African people have to wake up from their day dream.
Big Respect ✊ to The author !

Biqilla Biyaa says:

Thank you HRO i read all above comment and i can say any more but no one mentions about ill treatment. Like capsule ordee to Ethiopia prisoners.because of that thousands of. Prisoners still suffering and hundreds of prisonee are died . This is need deep investigation by HRW .
This is done by Dr Tedrose him self who is ready to lead top job one of power ful WHO . If he is elected this is the no good for WHO at all and this man must stop . He is thousands of Oromo blood in his hand .

Mez says:

Please help us stop this guy who is the member of extremly crooked and operassive govenment in my country Ethiopia. This guy is not qualified for the job not only because of his educational credintials, but also he is one of the morst corrupt person in the ruling mafia group in Ethiopia.

mekurish says:

This person needs to be brought justice for all the criminal acts he committed to the Ethiopian people.

#Addiswork says:

.I am so sad to even hear that WHO is giving a chance to one of the most evil human being maybe to be the next leader of WHO:
I am sure why he is where he is in this campaign to be one of the three remaining candidates?
I have no doubt that he has spent millions of dollars in order to be where is now.But the guy is responsible to the ongoing brutality in Ethiopia.He is a CC in the TPLF.
As we know TPLF is the only power running one of the second largest populated country in AFRICA:Ethiopia is now one of the most hostile country for any body who oppose the TPLF regime.So many Journalist,Opposition leaders and Academicians are in jails.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Stay Informed

Signup for our mailing list and stay up to date on the latest happenings at The O’Neill Institute

Or sign up for our RSS Feed

The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

See the full disclaimer and terms of use.