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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, March 4, 2024

Fletcher World Peace Foundation director responds to online backlash over Ethiopia comments

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The Fletcher School is pictured on Oct. 18, 2022.

Nearly 30,000 people have signed a petition calling on Tufts to remove Alex de Waal from his position as director of The Fletcher School’s World Peace Foundation, alleging that his comments on the crisis in Northern Ethiopia “directly [promote] human right violation and atrocities” and violate international law. De Waal says the comments originate from Ethiopian war propagandists. Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins confirmed that the university does not intend to remove de Waal. 

The Tigray War, which is in its second year, has produced starvation, sexual violence and massacres in northern Ethiopia. Both sides have reportedly committed atrocities, with American Secretary of State Anthony Blinken accusing the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces of “ethnic cleansing” in Tigray. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front continues to fight against the central Ethiopian and Eritrean governments after the states’ armed forces launched an operation in November 2020 to overrun the Tigray region.

De Waal, who has researched the region since the 1980s, has called the violence against the Tigrayan people a genocide orchestrated by the federal government. De Waal stated that the accusations made against him in the petition are a result of the Ethiopian government’s war propaganda machine, which has included an “international social media campaign.”

“If you look at those who perpetrate mass atrocity, crimes against humanity, genocide, they have a propaganda public information machine to target those who they don't like,” de Waal said of the calls for his removal.

“Tufts University is committed to the principle of academic freedom and the exploration of ideas and varied opinions and experiences, even on controversial topics. We support Professor de Waal’s right to express his views,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily.

The humanitarian crisis has likely taken upwards of 500,000 lives, according to research out of Belgium’s Ghent University. De Waal says the Ethiopian and Eritrean coalition is guilty of starting a starvation siege against the Tigrayans, who are an ethnic minority. 

“I think the violence that we will see against the Tigrayans will be genocidal,” de Waal said. “I've been very hesitant to use that word.”

He says that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is perpetuating the war to destabilize Ethiopia and that Eritrea is in direct control of about half of the Ethiopian army, and called the country “a vassal of Eritrea.”

“This is as bad as Rwanda. And then the repercussions of that are, the whole of Ethiopia will be destabilized [and] the state actually will collapse,” de Waal told the Daily. “It basically has collapsed already … and a state of 100 million people collapsing, we haven't seen that.”

Similar comments by de Waal about Ethiopia’s collapse from a November 2021 interview have sparked an online campaign calling on Tufts to remove de Waal from his positions as a professor at The Fletcher School, as well as from his role as the executive director of the World Peace Foundation. 

“To those angry and defrauded citizens of what is still today the Federal Republic of Ethiopia, including those who dreamed of becoming subjects of a revived great Ethiopian empire, face your day of reckoning. Face the collapse of those dreams, the exposure of those lies … and repudiate the toxic untruths you have been told,” de Waal stated in the interview the petitioners highlighted as including hate speech toward Ethiopians. 

Critics have responded to de Waal’s attacks on the Ethiopian forces by accusing him of being linked to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, who are fighting against the Ethiopian federal government and the petitioners characterize as a “terrorist insurgent group.” 

“We, Africans and friends of Africa, and the signatories of this petition, would like to ask the World Peace Foundation and the University of Tufts to revoke Alex de Waal as Executive Director for the aforementioned reasons, which we trust do not meet the standards of an organization ‘tasked with educating about the ills of war and promoting international peace,’” the petition states. “Alex de Waal has been retrogressive, divisive, detrimental to peace building, and inciting tribalist violence with his comments in a tense and defining moment for the people of Ethiopia, its democracy, and its sovereignty.”

Hamel Haile, the social media chair of the Eritrean Ethiopian Students Association of Tufts University, sees de Waal as inappropriately taking a side in a complicated conflict. 

“It's interesting to note that the TPLF is not only instigating within Addis [Ababa], the capital of Ethiopia, and within the northern regions of Tigray, but also doing so across the border,” Haile, a sophomore, said. “And I think that just shows how much potential danger a group like the TPLF can cause, especially with the support of Western academics such as Alex de Waal.”

Abigail Henok, the secretary of EESA, said the TPLF committed atrocities during their decades in power.

“There's so many other tribes throughout Ethiopia that are also facing a humanitarian crisis … during the TPLF era … Ahmara people went missing over that time, whether they were put into prison, or they were killed, literally no one knows where they went,” Henok said. “I think the TPLF have a very good grasp of the Western media that other tribes don't have.”

The TPLF, de Waal says, played a significant role in Ethiopian economic growth and poverty reduction. He notes the decision to “crush” Tigray was a result of a secret political pact between Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.  

“There was a joint military operation launched by Eritrea and Ethiopia which overran Tigray and for eight months from November 2020 to June 2021, Tigray was the scene of the most horrendous massacres and mass rape, pillage, starvation, torture,” de Waal said. “I've not seen anything quite as bad.” 

He also commented on the claims that he is involved with the TPLF. 

“I spent my career working on human rights, on the principles of peace and security in Africa,” de Waal said. “What they say is just a joke, but they have their trolls and apologists. …They think the only reason why I could possibly say these things is because I'm being paid … by TPLF.”

“I personally feel like there's obviously extremists in this whole movement against the TPLF,” Henok said on de Waal’s response. “But I feel like being criticized is something that's expected if you're making comments that are very biased against a certain group.”

Haile and Henok believe de Waal should be removed from his position.

“He is the executive director of the World Peace [Foundation] … there’s arguably a lot going on and … that can be very politically destabilizing,” Haile said. “It's very clear where his interests kind of land on this, the petition didn't get 29,000 signatures for nothing,” Haile said.  

De Waal continues to call out international inaction on the crisis, referencing commitments made by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to combat human rights atrocities.  

“[Power] was saying, ‘this will never happen on my watch,’” de Waal said. “Blinken was saying the same thing … ‘this will never happen on my watch.’ It's happening on your watch.”