I write to you today regarding two particularly concerning articles, which you recently penned in different mediums regarding a conference held by Eritrean youth at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). The first piece was published on September 13, 2013 on Awate.com under the title “Brainwashing The Young: YPFDJ Panelists Redefine Human Rights.”
The second piece was published two days later as a letter to the editor inThe California Aggie, a UC Davis daily newspaper, under the title “Letter to the Editor: Eritrean campus conference.”
As I do with all new articles written by unfamiliar authors, I read both of yours with an open mind and heart in the hopes of gaining some new perspective, even if the containing views run starkly counter to my own. After reading both of your articles, however, it became clear to me that your work was not only based on serious factual errors but also served as defamation of my character and those of others.
The first article initially came to my attention on the day it was published via friends on social media who explained that my name was mentioned in the article. Prior to opening the link, I couldn’t help but grow concerned about the article’s factuality as it was published to Awate.com, which has long been known for its pattern of publishing material based on rumors and lies. For example, consider that the website, which was described in recently leaked emails from Stratfor Global Intelligence as “Eritrean opposition, Islamist, Ethiopia-friendly,” was caught lying about the death of the Eritrean president just last year and did not issue any apology to its readers for the error. However, I gave your piece the benefit of the doubt as your name was unfamiliar and I considered that you may have reluctantly published it to the website due to limited publishing options.
You started off the Awate.com article by describing Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa,” citing the work of someone who has never visited Eritrea. Conversely, as someone who actually has visited the nation on multiple occasions, I can assure you that I saw no cult of personality, no speeches about a nuclear program, no wide-scale famine, or no signs of dependence on China for food aid and survival. I did, however, catch a glimpse of some of the 100,000+ annual tourists, who I often found aimlessly strolling down the streets of Asmara and or drinking cappuccinos while sitting al fresco at one of the many café’s lining Freedom Avenue. I should also mention that even the Addis Ababa-based AFP reporter Jenny Vaughn, who actually did visit Eritrea, recently admitted that “Eritrea is not the ‘open air’ prison or the ‘North Korea of Africa,’ as it has been crudely labeled in the past by its enemies.” I certainly wouldn’t go as far as labeling you Eritrea’s “enemy” since we’re just getting acquainted and you may be the hapless victim of propaganda or, as your article’s title ironically suggests, “brainwashing.” However, it seems that saying that you’re brainwashed without truly knowing you amounts to mere name-calling and I was raised to treat strangers with respect. Be that as it may, I kindly suggest that you witness the truth for yourself by visiting Eritrea and sharing your experiences instead of deferring to pundits.
Next, your article goes on to explain that the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ) was holding a conference at UC Davis, which you “affectionately” describe as a progressive school. You then state that the host of the event is the “Eritrean ruling party, which is to say the government.” This statement is false on two levels.
First off, there are no parties in Eritrea but there is instead a broad-based popular movement called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which is currently leading a provisional government tasked with steering the nation as it transitions towards a fully developed and institutionalized participatory democracy from which genuine political parties can eventually form. YPFDJ takes inspiration from the PFDJ movement and has the mission, as you rightfully state, “to build a strong, conscious and patriotic Eritrean youth movement.” You may perhaps disagree with what PFDJ and the government truly is, which is completely fine, but the reality is that you do not even afford your readers with descriptions of what these entities themselves claim to be, as clearly outlined in the Eritrean National Charter.
Second, the organizers of the event, who I personally know, are Eritrean-American youth and student volunteers that are neither paid by the Eritrean state nor obligated to fulfill any directives given by the State. It may come as a bit of a surprise to the misinformed that such voluntary service to Eritrea and support of its government is widespread in the diaspora but the truth, as even a 2013 V.I.C.E. article reluctantly concedes, is that “there is still a significant amount of support for [President] Isaias in the Eritrean diaspora.” Therefore, it is erroneous for you to claim that the conference was hosted by either the Eritrean “government” or a “ruling party.” The fact of the matter is that all the unpaid volunteers, which you failed to acknowledge as the true conference planners, worked very closely and frequently with UC Davis’ Conferences & Event Services staff. In fact these same volunteers along with the Eritrean-American communities across North America raised funds to cover the conference expenses through various means that include car washes, benefit dinners, and other events.
Next, your article claims that you attended the conference after an invitation from “conference organizers.” Although all youth are welcome to attend the conference so long as they fulfill the registration guidelines, it appears that there has been no official endorsement of your invitation by any of the conference organizers. I know this because I personally asked them. In fact, two of the organizers revealed to me that they know exactly who you are; that you walked in uninvited and unregistered on Friday, August 30 during the session entitled “Human Rights and Eritrea’s Image.” According to their account, one of the members caught you standing in the back because you had no conference t-shirt, no official registration lanyard and were wearing regular street clothes. You explained that you were a UC Davis student from Oakland, CA, who coincidentally walked in on the session and was interested in taking part in the rest of the conference. They also noted that you were instructed to follow-up with a member in charge of registration, who told you how to officially register. They said you actually visited the conference premises at two different times—unregistered both times. After being caught the second time, you left and were never to be seen again. That’s their account.
What you may not know is that everything that conference planners told me has been caught on video because the experience of the Eritrean community, which has been a victim of sporadic illegal acts over the last decade (vandalism of Oakland community center, fire-bombings in Sweden, disruption of public seminars by intruders, etc.), led YPFDJ to videotape most of the conference premises as a precautionary measure. The audience, outside area, lobbies, and other areas were taped. Not only are you seen standing in the back of Freeborn Hall but you are also seen walking in and out of the venue. By walking in unregistered, you violated the policies of YPFDJ, which rented out the venue for the weekend. Of greater concern to you, however, is the fact that you violated UC Davis policies stipulated in the contract with the organizers. I’ve been told that the organizers have yet to take official actions with university authorities, as they are often reluctant to needlessly put other Eritreans in professional or academic jeopardy. However, I’m told that your case is still being carefully reviewed. Aside from a legal breach, your alleged actions are the subject of great shame in Eritrean culture. As the saying goes, “keyte’adime zimetse key’tsegebe kede” (“The uninvited guest leaves the party hungry”).
After lying about the fact that you were invited, you went on to state that you “studied, researched and worked with international human rights law” and that “it was quite serendipitous that [you] happened to sit in on the human rights presentation.” I find it quite miraculous that, of the 95 total hours spanning the conference, you just so happened to walk-in on a 45 minute human rights session. The odds of that occurring purely by chance is 0.7 percent (7/1000). Add in the fact that UC Davis is the largest campus in the UC system (7,309 acres) in America’s most populous state and it becomes nearly impossible for me to believe that an Eritrean-American with a background in international law just so happened to serendipitously walk into a session on human rights in Eritrea. I was also informed by the conference planners, who spoke with you, that you had a copy of the conference itinerary booklet in your hand. This suggests that you came to the conference with a very specific and preset agenda.
Your article moves on to indicate that this year’s conference broke with YPFDJ tradition in that it was not held in “major metropolitan areas with substantial dissenting diaspora communities.” Ironically, this conference venue was much more urban that the many of past conferences. This fact was made obvious to the serial conference attendees and veterans who noticed full bars on their cell phones and ate in a dining hall alongside non-members—namely, UC Davis students—which was not the case with the last three conferences. Most of these veteran conference goers will tell you that five of past nine conferences—with the exception of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th, which were held in the D.C. Metro area—were located at venues that were surrounded by 360 degrees of forest and wilderness. Not this one, however, which is exactly why it was relatively easy for you to walk right on in.
So what exactly was your impression of the human rights session while you were trespassing? Well, it seems your article claims that the session promoted “indoctrination,” “rhetorical sidestepping on critical issues” and “brainwashing” of youth. I can state with confidence that all of the above are false since I was among the four panelists, as you later indicate in your article. As conference videotapes will attest, my concluding statement to the youth touched on my personal journey in discovering the truth about Eritrea and I challenged all youth to read the news daily and think critically about what they read. To indoctrinate and brainwash is to do the exact opposite: to promote uncritical thinking. Therefore, how is it that the other panelists and I were brainwashing and indoctrinating youth as you claim?
You also state that “panelists denied outright the occurrence of human rights events of significant proportions.” None of the panelists denied—nor endorsed—the existence of human rights “events,” whatever that means. Assuming that you meant “abuses,” suffice it to say that there exists no government on this planet that is not in breach of some human rights. The truth is that we simply asked our audience to consider a more holistic interpretation of human rights that extends beyond the myopic focus on Civil and Political (CP) rights—as exhibited by hegemons like the US—and includes the equally important Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights. We even outlined the great breadth and diversity of ESC rights relative to CP rights that are stipulated in the 30 articles of theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights. Let me remind you that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) clearly states “that all human rights areuniversal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing and that all human rights must be treated in a fair and equal manner on the same footing and with the same emphasis.”
Even in spite of the equality among rights, OHCHR still makes the observation that “no social phenomenon is as comprehensive in its assault on human rights as poverty.” If you don’t believe this is true, just ask yourself why African Americans, whom followed the path of W.E.B. Dubois (demanded civil rights) as opposed to that of Booker T. Washington(demanded economic rights before civil rights), are still effectively disenfranchised and trapped in a state of destitution that renders them effectively unable to enjoy the fruits of their civil freedoms. Perhaps they put the cart before the horse. In any case, does it not make the slightest bit of sense why panelists would express to the audience that focusingexclusively on the Eritrean government’s record on CP rights, which will always be a work in progress, while ignoring ESC rights goes against both historical experience as well as the wise words vis-à-vis poverty by the OHCHR, the world’s preeminent human rights body?
Your article recalls words used by panelists to describe human rights. You then state that “this selection of words is more closely associated with collective and national rights than the rights of individuals.” How is it that words like “dignity” and “justice,” among the four mentioned, confer greater association with national as opposed to individual rights? Is it not the case that people seek individual freedom so that they can have the dignity to make their own decisions rather than those dictated under tyranny? Without justice how can one preserve anyone’s individual rights? Clearly, these terms and ideas are critical for individual rights. In fact, these words were so integral to human rights that both of them are included in the very first sentence of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had its own dedicated slide in our presentation: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Clearly these words are important.
Just for the sake of argument lets us even assume that you are right that the words “justice” and “dignity” had a preference for national rights over individual rights. We must still consider that Eritrea’s national culture may preferentially value national rights (or “state rights”) over individual rights. If this is true, who are you—or myself for that matter—to say that individual rights should be given greater precedence against the Eritrean people’s wishes? It’s a well-known fact that Eritrea as well as most non-Western nations (particularly the Global South) tend to place greater emphasis on the community and less on the individual (as the African proverb goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”).
To simply default to the right of the individual over that of the nation amounts to a form of cultural imperialism. It is for this very reason that international law, set by the Western-centric Great Powers following World War II, placed greater emphasis on substantive law over procedural law such that the law preferentially protected individual rights at the expense of state rights and effectively reduced requirements for evidence by individuals claiming abuses by the state. Therefore, is it not understandable why such laws may be culturally incongruent among Eritreans, many of which—whether we agree with it or not—share a culture of martyrdom for the sake of “the community” or “the nation”? Is it not understandable for the panelists to ask the audience to simply consider that Eritreans recognize the importance procedural law, in line with their indigenous culture? However, it could be the case that your Western upbringing may have instilled in you an unconscious aversion towards the Eritrean values that YPFDJ works tirelessly to preserve. This aversion to even the most widely accepted Eritrean values was made starkly obvious to me after your article crudely described a “skit honoring the freedom fighters (or ‘martyrs’)” as a sort of tactic to get the audience “primed to experience a sense of gratitude for not living during the time of colonization and occupation, thereby drawing attention away from the severe human rights violations that are taking place today in Eritrea.” It actually hurt me to read these words written by a young, and probably bright, Eritrean.
It should also be emphasized now, if it wasn’t emphasized enough during the session, that the overwhelming focus on substantive law at the expense of procedural law isn’t only out of touch with our Eritrean customs but it is also illogical and unjust, particularly against smaller states without great international influence. Consider for example that unverifiable claims by nameless and faceless asylum-seekers are brought to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) under their confidential complaint procedure (1503 procedure). Do you honestly believe that their words—presented to the UN HRC by non-independent, U.S. State Department-funded NGO’s like Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW)— should simply go unverified, taken at face value, and accepted without critical analysis? In response to this question, the panelists encouraged their audience to demand hard evidence and think critically about all claims instead of simply taking at face value all the unverifiable human rights abuse claims by alleged victims. It must be noted that your article’s spouting off of a laundry list of unverifiable human rights allegations by AI and HRW, both of which were not present in Eritrea to investigate the truth of any claims, will not suffice as hard evidence of human rights violations (Note: both NGOs were expelled after failing to meet regulations regarding transparency of external finances). Encouraging the world to take an approach of blind acceptance and downplaying procedural law may even worsen any existing abuses by governments. It may draw their energies and resources into a inefficient and dysfunctional system when energy and resources can instead be spent by citizens, like you and me, on pushing the governments to use their energies to genuinely address outstanding human rights issues and by providing them with the legal know-how such that they can effectively accomplish this goal.
Alas, after forcing my way through the nauseating constellation of factual errors in your article, I finally arrived at the section in which you mention me by name. You falsely label me as a “self-proclaimed activist” in spite of the fact that such a proclamation was never made. At any point during the session, did you hear me say that I’m an activist? If not, then you lied once again. Your article proceeds to say that I “blatantly denied the occurrence of human trafficking in the Sinai desert or attempted military coup of January 2013.” You emphasize that my message to the audience was that “human trafficking of Eritreans is not happening in the Sinai desert.” Much like your claims that I flatly denied human rights abuses, I found this to be an outright lie and defamation of my character. Contrary to your claims, I actually explained to the audience multiple times throughout my portion of the presentation that human trafficking was as old as history and that it occurs all around the world—including the Sinai.
The reality is that you have mentioned me, in print, by name and field of academic study, deliberately lying about my regard for human suffering, which effectively tarnishes my public reputation, exposes me to contempt, and places my professional future at risk of injury. As such, you are defaming me and, sadly, questions of legal recourse against another Eritrean may now enter the discussion. I must stress that there is video evidence to back up my claims that you are deliberately lying about what I said as well as the fact that you broke university regulations. There are also additional charges and items of evidence for those charges, which I do not wish to openly discuss for your professional sake and for undisclosed legal reasons. Once again, it pains me to even consider taking action against a fellow Eritrean, who seems quite well accomplished and may still be an asset to our community one day, but your case must be considered in the name of upholding justice, absent your efforts to resolve this quietly. Without pursuing justice how can we enjoy and exercise the aforementioned individual freedoms, which you value so dearly? I digress, however.
The truth about my positions on human trafficking of Eritreans in relation to human rights and on the alleged “coup” attempt have both been well documented on my blog. Regarding the former, I cited 134 references for any critical thinker to carefully analyze and to come to their own conclusions about the human trafficking of Eritreans. The latteralso has numerous external links and screenshots of social media publications to show how baseless claims of an Eritrean coup d’état propagated on social media were able to make it within less than 24 hours onto to the pages of the world’s largest circulating newspaper, the New York Times. Instead of citing and challenging the aforementioned works, which was the primary basis of my segment of the panel presentation, you instead chose to simply dismiss my arguments as “conspiracy theories of re-occupation and neo-imperialism.”
In regard to so-called “conspiracy theories,” let us turn to the words of Professor Noam Chomsky: “If something comes along that you don’t like, there are a few sort of four-letter words that you can use to push it out of the sphere of discussion…but if you’re an educated person what you use are complicated words like ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘Marxist’.” Additionally, “re-occupation” is not a theory about some pending event but is actually an established fact as of 2008. As a recent AFP article wrote, “Ethiopia still occupies land ruled by a UN-backed court as belonging to Eritrea.” Furthermore, your use of the word “neo-imperialism” shows your ignorance of my views and of Africa’s ongoing struggle with imperialism. I don’t even know what “neo-imperialism” is, honestly. However, I suspect that in your haste to brand me as a purveyor of, as you claim, the “’them-versus-us’ rhetoric of radicalism,” you unwittingly created a somewhat entertaining portmanteau of anti-imperial buzzwords—neo-colonialism and imperialism. The buzzword that you were likely looking for is “neo-colonialism,” which Kwame Nkrumah, one of modern Africa’s most celebrated heroes, dubbed as “the final stage of imperialism.” Given that you’re an African-American who attends one of a collection of historic universities that turned the Bay Area into a bastion of American radicalism and progressivism, I find it absolutely deplorable that you deem neo-colonialism as a conspiracy theory. What an absolute shame.
Moving on to your segment on the presentation by fellow co-panelist Ms. Sophia Tesfamariam, you express disagreement with her criticism of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth. In contrast to Ms. Sophia, who pointed out that the Special Rapporteur was unfit to accurately and impartially report on the human rights situation in Eritrea, you state in reference to Ms. Keetharuth that “there would probably be few qualified candidates for the position than one who has extensively studied human rights in Eritrea.” What you fail to mention or perhaps even recognize is that Ms. Keetharuth has never been to Eritrea. Thus, how is it that she could have “extensively studied human rights in Eritrea” without ever witnessing the ground realities? Additionally, Ms. Keetharuth’s bias was revealed to the UN HRC when her report’s data on human rights in Eritrea was discovered to come almost exclusively from asylum seekers dwelling in two countries that have active and/or unresolved conflicts with Eritrea—Ethiopia and Djibouti. Much more information can be found in E-SMART’s latest report regarding Mrs. Keetharuth and the human rights situation in Eritrea. The report even highlights how the Special Rapporteur’s previous employer, AI, went as far quoting visiting foreigners in a report after they complained that “we had to eat by our hand” in order to make the case that the human rights condition in Eritrea was dismal. How can an Eritrean, who was likely raised to eat with their right hand, take biased AI reports or Ms. Keetharuth seriously? It simply boggles my mind.
Reaching the end of your Awate.com article, I must say I was truly disgusted by the dizzying number of lies, misrepresentations, misquotations, (unconscious) assaults on displays of Eritrean patriotism, and defamation of characters. I was less surprised to find almost the same lies regurgitated two days later in more condensed form in a letter to the editor of the California Aggie. Thus, I feel no need to comment on this any further except to say that you have misguided your unsuspecting UC Davis colleagues, who may have potentially assisted in easing our people’s suffering through engagement but may now instead turn their efforts towards other nations where they feel they can actually make more of difference. Propagating misunderstanding via our pens kills our people. When I considered the potential consequences of your actions and writing, I felt compelled to look into what could motivate such maliciousness and/or misunderstanding from a seemingly bright young Eritrean. Thus, I took to the web.
A cursory Google search of your name landed me on IntLawGrrls.com, which contained an article entitled “Introducing Jihan A. Kahssay.” The piece explains that you are Eritrean, that you worked in Ethiopia to resettle refugees in partnership with UNHCR, and that you authored an introductory post for the website. Interestingly, the article goes on to state that “Jihan dedicates her post to Zewditu I…who reigned as Empress of Ethiopia.” Quoting your post, the article writes, “Empress Zewditu held the title of ‘The Queen of Kings,’ and was the first woman head of an internationally recognized state in Africa. Under her rule, Ethiopia entered the League of Nations and abolished slavery.” I found this to be quite repulsive coming from someone who calls themselves Eritrean. Although the Empress may have nominally abolished slavery for public consumption, the truth is that the practice continued unhindered long beyond her rule and many Eritreans consequently joined their Oromo counterparts in becoming the victims of abductions and slavery after the illegal annexation of their nation. The Empress’ measure was merely for international show such that Ethiopia could win favor within the League of Nations and continue practicing the lucrative and unjust practice with even less public scrutiny. One would think that an Eritrean who is supposedly concerned about her people falling prey to human trafficking, which has been called the “modern slavery,” would be cognizant of and would point out the historical realities surrounding Eritrean and African enslavement. It also wouldn’t hurt for such a person to look internally for inspiration—though not exclusively—from Eritrea, whose rich history has been deliberately and systematically undermined by successive regimes ruling its hegemonic southern neighbor. Though you and I aren’t technically obligated to do anything for Eritrea we all know that there’s an unwritten responsibility to use our every seemingly small opportunity to usher the critical mass of world attention necessary to curb our nation’s perpetually ongoing marginalization, which perpetuates issues like human rights. Touching examples of this abound. Just consider Eritrean cyclist Meron Russom’s words when recently asked by an AFP reporter about his career plans he explained that his “aim is to introduce our country to the world” and that he races “because of our people.”
As seen with Meron, a sense of Eritreaness and obligation to Eritrea is a powerful motivator of what we say and how we act in matters involving Eritrea. When it sometimes comes to questioning someone’s Eritreaness after they raise an argument about anything Eritrean, I generally prefer to avoid sharing my answer to that question for fear that it may serve as an ad hominem attack. However, when someone makes a bold statement of questionable Eritreaness via their own argument—in their own writing—I feel that I’m obligated to simply present that fact and let others be the judge. Though your Awate.com article harped on about the Eritrean government’s role in sponsoring the conference, I found it interesting that you went on to state that “there were very few people in Davis…to protest, witness or even notice what Eritrea was doing in Freeborn Hall.” Notice that you didn’t say “what the Eritrean government was doing” or “what brainwashed Eritrean youth were doing.” Instead, you said “what Eritrea was doing.” In other words, the conference was the work of Eritrea rather than the government. Thus, why would an Eritrean who is for Eritrea encourage the protest of work by Eritrea or by any of its manifestations? Honest error? Perhaps. Freudian slip of your fingers on the keyboard? Perhaps. I will let you be the judge but suffice it to say that your article is riddled with constant and subtle—almost unconscious—signs of a deflated sense of national pride that can only be described as self-defeating.
Finally, I would like to point out that UC Davis, contrary to your opinion, was a natural venue for the conference. As you state, the university is “progressive, liberal, eco-conscious, and bike-friendly.” If free education and free healthcare isn’t progressive and liberal then I don’t know what is. I also think Eritrea’s remarkably low carbon footprint, pristine coastline, and numerous alternative energy investments place the nation at the forefront of eco-consciousness. Lastly, everyone knows that Eritreans love their bikes. In fact, the AFP article that quoted Meron, dubbed Eritrea as a “cycling-mad Horn of Africa state.” Therefore, it seems that UC Davis was a natural venue for a broad-based, popular movement of Eritrean youth.
It’s a painful shame that you chose to misconstrue the facts about the conference and about individuals like myself. I would have preferred that you approach me personally so that we could share divergent perspectives or even debate in the name of our community and personal growth. Perhaps we could have even found fresh alternatives to the conference that better serve our nation, if we jointly saw fit. As the freedom fighters used to say, “Aynfelale!” (“Let’s not be torn asunder!”). When both of us succeed, we all succeed. Therefore, I sincerely hope that you favor Eritrean unity over division and take all the necessary measures to resolve this issue quietly. I do not wish to escalate this issue and put you at any unnecessary risk. However, the ball is not in my court and I await your actions. I want to make it very clear that Eritrean youth, such as those in YPFDJ and other nationalist organizations, are increasingly refusing to sit quiet in the face of such brazen transgressions.
In spite of your actions, I continue to assume the best in you and feel that you may have been a victim of misunderstanding, which in turn may have cultivated the internal angst that sent you down a hasty and misguided path. I can only guess the real motivation of your actions but if your intent was to spoil a fruitful gathering or its public image, it’s clear that such plans have failed. If those were indeed your plans, then the irony of your piece—and similar ones that have come before it—is that it will likely serve the opposite of its intended aim of casting doubt on YPFDJ’s credibility. It will instead serve to remind members and non-members of the pitiful extents at which misguided individuals or Eritrea’s detractors will go to meet misinformed aims or personal ambitions at the expense of Eritrea. Therefore, I would like to send you a bittersweet thank you for further galvanizing our youth and reminding them that the price of freedom is their eternal vigilance.
Simon M. Tesfamariam
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