The War Crimes Trial of Alex de Waal
Time to Hold the Worst TPLF Propagandist Accountable
Back in September of 2021, I published a story on Medium for which I’m still waiting to earn its proper outrage. TPLF operatives barged into the office of UNFP, the UN agency that provided services related to sexual and gender-based violence in Ethiopia and its region of Tigray. They demanded the names of sexual assault victims and the locations of their safehouses.
Wrap your head around that for a moment. They wanted to violate the privacy and safety of the victims — all with the goal of parading them, whether through coercion or force, before the International Criminal Court.
Not one TPLF apologist has ever expressed horror, let alone concern over this appalling conduct.
But it’s interesting how a major propaganda goal was to drag Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his cabinet officials before the ICC. There was such a hysterical screaming from the digital woyane for this in 2021 that I suggested in turn that a group of intellectuals hold a show trial of its own, one based on the model that Bertrand Russell and others used to hold the U.S. accountable for war crimes in Vietnam.
And now before the ink on the peace agreement has fully dried, it’s being autopsied and nitpicked by the very agents that manipulated the Western media into buying “Tigray Genocide” in the first place: Kjetil Tronvoll, Martin Plaut, Alex de Waal, Rashid Abdi, William Davison and others. And by the Western reporters and editors who were happy to lie along with them, twisting facts and withholding key bits of information in coverage, as well as brazenly misusing photos and video. Because they could. Because it’s Africa.
Even as I write this, Kenneth Roth — the mouth that won’t shut up and go away after he went too far and Human Rights Watch rushed him out the door — is banging the drum for atrocities accountability. But only for one side. It’s also implied that someone has to do the accounting, someone outside Africa. Do we need it stated more explicitly?
To the rescue comes the human Roomba, always ready to thud uselessly against a wall, ka-chump, ka-chump, ka-chump, the analyst who can be reliably counted on to shoot himself in the foot while simultaneously shoving the foot in his mouth. And sure enough, he does.
Cameron Hudson tweeted on November 4, “Very clear that when you exclude the EU from the mediation and empower the AU, issues of justice and accountability are going to fall away.” Hudson later deleted the tweet.
Of course, encountering such racism is nothing special for Africans. They regularly have to endure the presumption that true justice is outside of their continent — and then they have to put up with the condescending view that this should be self-evident, even to them.
I reject that conceit, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’ll go further. If Christopher Hitchens could pile up the evidence to show Henry Kissinger really deserves a war crimes trial, then I suggest Ethiopia deserves no less than to put Alex de Waal in the dock for crimes against humanity. It probably won’t ever get this chance, but I submit that he should be tried in absentia anyway.
There will be those who think it’s outrageous to prosecute a man for his words. And yet we don’t tolerate inciting hatred in the West, or at least we’re not supposed to, and the Nuremberg tribunal sent Julius Streicher to the gallows for his vitriolic speeches and for publishing a newspaper so revoltingly hate-filled with anti-Semitism that even his fellow Nazi defendants were embarrassed by him.
Am I saying de Waal is a Nazi or that he should be hanged? Not at all. And in making that distinction, I’ve already struck a pose more reasonable and moderate than this Tufts University academic has ever granted his targets in the past.
It is a wonder to many why the Western media still turn to him at all, especially when he’s been proved wrong again and again. A year ago, this was de Waal, arrogantly assuming his beloved TPLF had won: “Tigray will not disarm… Not only will it retain its own security capability but it will demand direct access to international aid. Abiy Ahmed has lost, totally.” He went on Zoom to piously lecture Ethiopians on how they should repent, and as we all know, this brazen partisanship still didn’t raise eyebrows at the BBC or other Western media outlets.
It never occurred to them to thumb through his tome, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, and question lines that will make any Ethiopian howl with derision, such as when he lavishly praised the TPLF over its supposed “commitment to the welfare of the people.” They still haven’t questioned a man who sycophantically eulogizes and profiles top TPLF officials like Seyoum Mesfin and Tsadkan Gebretsensae.
But what is beyond forgiveness is his exhortation to violence and constant abuse of facts without remorse. And what makes de Waal so dangerous is his aura of credibility and respectability that allows him to spread his toxins on the pages and websites of the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, BBC, The Financial Times, The London Review of Books, African Arguments, Foreign Policy and the list goes on.
On October 14, he promised, “The Tigrayans have every motive to fight to the death; they expect that if they yield, the occupiers will repeat the mass atrocities — killing, torture, rape, pillage — that they inflicted when they controlled Tigray in late 2020 and early 2021.”
As we now know for sure, most Tigrayans don’t have a motive to fight to the death and sure as hell don’t want to. The joy with which the ENDF is being greeted in liberated areas — as shown in Ethiopian news footage and phone cam video — demonstrates this to be a lie.
But de Waal has kept lying, banging on about the Abiy government’s weapon of “starvation” even as the World Food Programme contradicts this with regular self-promotions about its aid deliveries in Tigray. To ignore these facts can’t be dismissed as lack of awareness. The inescapable conclusion is that de Waal is consciously defying the truth.
Nor is Ethiopia the only African nation where he has whipped up public outrage and sought to warp policy by Western governments. He has done it before, and unless there are moves to oppose and check his influence, he will do it again. Let’s look at the other cases.
He was a co-author of a tome that helped drive the war crimes tribunal on Rwanda, but his book offered a “one-sided, sanitized version” of the genocide that was fed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and ignored their own atrocities.
De Waal even boasted to a reporter about shaping the narrative of the genocide, and in one Op-Ed, he took a stand that borders on horrific. “The inhabitants of Mugunga camp are not refugees… they are fugitives from justice or migrants.” Claiming “There will be no bloodless political solution and it is naive to think there could be one,” he suggested, “If we are not prepared to go and destroy the Hutu militias, we should not stand in the way of the people who are prepared to do so.”
At the time, the Mugunga refugee camp had 175,000 men, women and children.
You can’t easily find this Op-Ed online, but it was published in The Guardian on November 15, 1996. Now maybe, like so much of pre-Millennium journalism, it fell through the digital cracks, but you have to wonder if the Guardian knows how embarrassing it would be to keep this particularly nasty specimen available in its archive.
In 2016, de Waal wrote a self-serving mea culpa over his conduct for the Boston Review. As journalist Judi Rever wrote, his article “drew immediate praise from his legion of academic followers. However his words rang hollow to many. His confession was too little, too late for Kagame’s victims in Rwanda and Congo, whose suffering over the course of twenty-two years has been incalculable.”
Nor had de Waal learned his lesson except to be better at mendacity. Only a year before, academic Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan, wrote a blistering “history of one man’s destructive misrepresentations” for the Sudan Tribune, pointing out how de Waal made “slanderously inaccurate” comments about the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement and its leader John Garang. Without diving too far into the complex minutiae of Sudan, it’s worth quoting part of Reeves’s take: “But it is de Waal’s casual noting that ‘Khartoum signed peace agreements’ that marks out a deeply disturbing willingness to abuse facts. Khartoum has indeed signed a host of peace agreements, and like all agreements the regime has signed over the past twenty-five years, they have proved worthless.”
When you go back to de Waal’s Boston Review mea culpa, it reveals far more about the man and his zealotry than he perhaps intended. “While Amnesty International’s staff had been trained to prune their reports to the bare minimum, HRW gave journalists and political scientists license to put their storytelling skills to use. If journalism is the first draft of history, the human rights report is the draft of the prosecutor’s indictment.”
Well aware that such an organization bestows on a report its real credibility, he acknowledged it can include mistakes and pondered, “But do they deserve their privileged status?” And he knew how these groups felt their enormous influence in the 1990s. “We could set agendas. Some humanitarians did so by using their moral and media clout to call for the great power of the day — the United States — to bend its coercive capacity to those agendas.”
By 2020, de Waal was past playing humanitarian Hamlet and projected his signature certainty about the evil of the Ethiopian state and its government. In article after article, appearance after media appearance, he hammered away. He had already given us his playbook, and here is the smoking gun of his destructive methodology:
When it came to charges by humanitarian groups, “Howls of fury and denial from the accused are considered an honor — the louder the better. The standard of proof is well below what is needed for conviction in court — for indictment, even — but the mud sticks.”
There are more lies that one could catalogue, lies of omission and the promotion of lies by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, who claimed he was in the mountains with TPLF fighters in 2021 when he cavalierly logged into a messaging app, which also incidentally, put the lie to the denial of telecoms. De Waal also likes to brag privately about his intelligence contacts, which must be a constant source of irritation to his CIA pals.
He is a strange figure, lacking the self-awareness that his own pomposity makes him an irresistible target for lampooning. And he has that mystifying trait in common with all pathological liars — he lies stupidly about things that can be checked. But no one can dispute that he has power. That he manages to slip away time and again from censure or criticism is because he can count on the laziness of Western editors who never bother to verify his claims. He can be confident that no white person manning an Africa desk will take an African’s word over his.
It has to stop. Because as I wrote above, he will do this again.
While last month, there was an impressive effort to eject de Waal from Tufts, I personally could not support this just on principle. The TPLF have used similar methods to try to bully and evict our lone voices of reason in academia, such as Professors Ann Fitz-Gerald and Jon Abbink. We cannot take on the methods of the enemy, and the whole point of universities is to serve as not only educational institutions but as forums for ideas.
Yet here I am, suggesting de Waal be put in a dock for his hate speech and propaganda for a terrorist organization. Why?
Well, why was Julius Streicher prosecuted? Let’s parse the issue further.
To those who again find my invoking a Nazi publisher inflammatory, I respond, Look closer. De Waal is neither a Nazi nor a publisher, but he has been a one-man propaganda wave that sought to legitimize a group for whom ethnic cleansing is written right into its founding document. In article after article, he’s sought to punish Ethiopia and Ethiopians and vilify their history and culture. If his work doesn’t meet the standard of hate speech, what does?
The petitioners at Tufts hoped to remove him from his professional position, but getting de Waal fired ultimately wouldn’t stop him and would only allow him to cloak himself in free speech martyrdom.
Of course, free speech is not absolute. And those who keep using the hashtag #JournalismIsNotaCrime ignore the fact that journalism is also supposed to have a canon of ethics and obey libel laws. Unfortunately, you cannot technically libel a country, and where can Africa seek redress for a constant stream of outrageously irresponsible, hate-filled commentary and downright wrong reportage? Nima Elbagir libeled Ethiopia and its people over and over, threw objectivity out the window by urging punitive legislation, and she was rewarded with a journalism award.
And who held Kjetil Tronvoll responsible when he played an active part in trying to subvert Ethiopia’s democracy? Who held Mukesh Kapila responsible for ranting how Ethiopians are “horrible people” and that there was nothing to learn from their history? A Canadian parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights — either ignorant or choosing not to care — ignored the corrosive acid in the words of this verbal thug and gave him six minutes to speak.
Julius Streicher was pulled into a courtroom mainly because his hateful words against Jews fanned the flames of hatred and provoked violence. He was a vulgar and truly despicable creature. The difference between him and an Alex de Waal is that de Waal is shrewd enough to cherry-pick his venues.
Like the TPLF, which has played the conqueror in Tigrinya and the pitiful victim in English, de Waal saves his most vituperative and inflammatory rhetoric for his home turf of the World Peace Foundation, knowing his more outlandish comments wouldn’t get an editor’s pass at a respectable newspaper or magazine. But his “analytical” (if one bends over backwards to be charitable) commentary in mainstream magazines still keeps the pot boiling. By manipulating the facts or leaving them out entirely, he keeps up the momentum that Ethiopia must cease to exist, its history and culture atomized, its government repudiated.
The results, however, are the same. Incitement to violence. Incitement to hate.
And where can Ethiopia seek redress? Certainly not at the ICC. Not at the UN, where Tedros Adhanom, a former TPLF cabinet minister under Meles Zenawi, is free to abuse his bully pulpit to help his cronies — with no Western media ever questioning his ethics or partisanship. What can Ethiopia do?
It is a nation of laws and thankfully, within recent days, a parliament. It can at the very least make a public gesture of its own to the world. It may be a symbolic gesture, but it can set the record straight, and it should. Because this war was started and prolonged with lies.
It is an insipid notion that “all wars are unnecessary.” Yes, war happens because diplomacy fails, but the righteousness of fighting Nazis in 1939 is no less dimmed because the struggle was soaked in blood red. It needed to be done. The TPLF murdered thousands of soldiers on November 3, 2020 and gave the Ethiopian state no choice but to fight back, and as a result, the struggle became ennobled, at least partially, through the just cause of fighting for Ethiopians to have a right to their own government and not to be ruled by ethno-fascists.
So when Julius Streicher had to sit next to the likes of Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess, it was because a court’s mission is also to seek the truth, and Streicher had so offended Western civilization with his lies and his exhortations for violence that truth demanded its day.
African civilization demands its day of truth as well. It is entitled to it.
Alex de Waal will likely never see the inside of an African courtroom as a defendant or spend a day in its prisons for his war crimes, his libels, and his relentless drum-beating, but Ethiopia can send a message to the world that it will not suffer the continued abuse of its sovereignty or its integrity. It will defy those who think they can work to destroy it with impunity.
Prepare a courtroom. Set a chair out, even if the accused won’t be showing up. Make the case against the man who has done as much to destabilize Africa as any warlord. And most of all, share it with the world, so that he is denied any more opportunities or influence to do it again.