Two years ago, I published a historical thriller, Money, Blood and Conscience, about an Ethiopian-American love affair during the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dictatorship. I later decided to add to the book a nonfiction “afterword,” an author’s note to the reader. It called for Ethiopia’s former TPLF rulers to be held accountable for crimes against humanity.
While writing the afterword, I realized that I had to include Dr. Tedros Adhanom among the TPLF leaders who should be prosecuted. As foreign minister from 2012 to 2016, Tedros had been Ethiopia’s foreign minister and a TPLF Executive Committee member. He shared control over Ethiopian security forces and proxies while they murdered, tortured, kidnapped, and unjustly imprisoned thousands of Ethiopians including children. He even arranged some of the kidnappings himself.
Tedros was simply too high up in the hierarchy of power, too much a part of the system, not to share responsibility for its crimes. Yet this international criminal now leads the World Health Organization, the planet’s most important public health agency.
To a world long indifferent to Ethiopian lives, Tedros is a hero. Lady Gaga called him a “superstar” when he co-hosted a Covid-19 awareness concert. In countless events and press conferences, he looked like a kindly, old uncle, a selfless, untiring hero saving the world. The Ethiopians he had helped murder were swept under the rug amidst the adulation. They were just black Africans, after all, who lacked Tedros’ multimillion dollar public relations budget.
Tedros’ international renown—and perhaps a failure of imagination—presumably make it hard for his professional colleagues to comprehend that he really is guilty of terrible crimes.
The psychological denial of Tedros’ criminality is due to an additional factor. Doctors and public health officials tend to shy away from human rights issues. They prefer to “stay out of politics.”
There are good arguments why they should. Global health professionals sometimes must work in unstable political environments, even wars, to reach those in need of healthcare. A refusal to criticize unsavory hosts may be the only way health workers will be allowed to function in dangerous territory.
Unfortunately, that practice too often extends beyond the war zone to places where moral courage is more affordable. Recently, it manifested in an announcement from Harvard University’s prestigious T.H. Chan School of Public Health that Tedros had been invited to deliver its May 27, 2021 graduation commencement address and will be given the school’s highest honor, the Julius B. Richmond Award.
It was bad enough that the WHO Assembly elected an international criminal without a global outcry. But Harvard is the last institution one would expect to be insensitive to victims of international crimes. The school’s decision to roll out a virtual red carpet for Tedros and present him to its graduating class as a trustworthy, honorable man insults those dead, injured and traumatized Ethiopians and further normalizes his crimes. It is scandalous.
Appalled, I sent the following email to the school’s dean, Dr. Michelle Williams:
Friday, April 2, 2021
Dear Dr. Williams,
I am an Ethiopia expert writing about the Harvard School of Public Health’s plan for Dr. Tedros Adhanom to deliver this May’s commencement address and be given the Julius B. Richmond Award.
Dr. Tedros shares responsibility for crimes against humanity that include the knowing facilitation of mass murder, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, kidnappings, and forced disappearances of thousands of Ethiopians, including children, when he was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s politburo member and Ethiopia’s third highest official. Please read my complaint to the International Criminal Court that lists the unmistakable evidence of his misconduct from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, and other reliable sources.
I respectfully urge you to revoke Dr. Tedros’ invitation to speak and the award out of respect for his victims and their families. I don’t represent the Ethiopian government, but I know it, too, would be disturbed to see this discredited individual so honored.
Please let me know your decision, and feel free to contact me if you would like more information.
Not long afterward, I received the following reply:
Dear Mr. Steinman,
On behalf of Dean Williams, thank you for writing with your concern about the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s choice of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as our 2021 commencement speaker. As director-general of the World Health Organization—the world’s premier global public health institution—Dr. Tedros is able to share perspectives and insights about global health efforts worldwide, including in low- and middle-income countries, that will resonate with the concerns of our Harvard Chan School community. Among his current efforts, Dr. Tedros is advocating for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the globe, as poor countries are at serious risk of being left out of vaccine distribution. We believe that, in this time of a global pandemic, it is important—and indeed, most valuable—for our public health students to be able to hear the voice of the person serving at the highest level in global public health.
MARSHA L. LEE | Senior Administrative Manager
Office of the Dean | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
This exchange sums up the dilemma. Besides patient rights and healthcare access, how much should civil and political human rights matter to public health professionals? The school’s young experts going out into the world on their noble mission are already burdened with mastering their complex profession. Is it fair to expect them to defend human rights too?
And shouldn’t they be allowed to learn from the man widely hailed as the field’s top expert?
Tedros’ advice may not be as reliable as claimed. As an Ethiopian official, he lied about his country’s poverty rate, political repression, and famine. And, of course, he famously botched his handling of the Coronavirus outbreak.
But even granting that Tedros has useful knowledge and experience to impart, Harvard overlooks the other lesson his appearance will teach–that one can facilitate mass murder and child torture and still be respectfully welcomed in the halls of academia. Harvard’s students may miss that lesson, but many international criminals will not.
Can this gap between pedagogy and ethics be bridged? Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that the prioritization of human rights is situational. One can imagine desperate scenarios where vital humanitarian interests override human rights concerns. For example, turning a blind eye to a dictator’s human rights violations could conceivably be the price of responding to a lethal pandemic in time.
But circumstances are rarely so extreme, and a commencement address by video link does not resemble such an emergency. Perhaps knowing when and how to stand up for human rights and when to subordinate them to other concerns is a skill that schools like Harvard’s need to teach better. The school offers a program called Human Rights in Development. Its website maintains that it “is concerned with the realization of human rights in the context of poverty reduction and development strategies.” Yet Harvard’s unwillingness to bear the embarrassment or inconvenience of canceling Tedros’ speech and/or award, or at least providing its students before the ceremony with historical context about their speaker, conflicts with that concern.
This year’s graduating class could scarcely have a stronger example before it of the potential threats to global health from ignoring civil and political human rights violations. If the WHO Assembly had found Tedros’ human rights record disqualifying, another director-general without his track record of Ethiopian cover-ups would likely have better resisted Chinese pressure to downplay Covid’s transmissibility for so long. Millions of deaths and injuries and the loss of trillions of dollars, devastating the same WHO member states who scorned human rights to elect Tedros, might have been prevented.
I therefore responded to Harvard as follows:
Dear Ms. Lee,
Thank you for your reply. I understand I will not change your decision. But please let me share this thought:
I’m sure Dr. Tedros has technical information of value. There are many other ways and places those lessons can be taught. To present a co-commander of mass murder to your students in an honored, respected fashion without also cautioning them that they are being addressed by an international criminal, and without the slightest mention of the harm he did to vulnerable populations—will mitigate against the social responsibility your school must teach as well.
Permit me to suggest that at least some context be shared with your students so they can better understand the contradiction their guest represents. I know some Ethiopian human rights organizations that would be glad to work with you on that. I will be happy to put you in contact with them if you like.
This last proposal met with a deafening silence.
Harvard’s negligent failure to grasp this teachable moment does its students a disservice. Furthermore, critical lessons from the WHO’s handling of the Wuhan outbreak cannot properly be taught without discussion of Tedros’ dark Ethiopian past and the global politics that public health professionals strive to avoid. Awarding Tedros and welcoming him with unqualified distinction will instead give Harvard’s graduating class an object lesson in how to legitimize, and thus enable, crimes against humanity.
The world is exposed to an elevated risk of more catastrophes like the present one if public health training continues to model such flawed and short-sighted values.
I hope that the school’s graduating class sees this article, so it can view Tedros’ visit in a more multi-dimensional way. Doing so will help prepare it for the difficult challenges ahead. The world it so admirably wants to protect will be a little safer.