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This article has been written by Lilian Matingi, a graduate geologist from the University of Nairobi. The author retains all moral and intellectual property rights.

My sister pointed me to a video clip of Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame being asked about the ‘serious violations of civil and political rights’ highlighted in the European Union’s 2018 Human Rights report by Catherine Nicholson, the European Affairs editor for France 24. She read out a portion of Amnesty International’s report-for context-in the lead to Rwanda’s 2017 election quote ‘opposition politicians, journalists, human rights defenders being jailed, physically attacked, even killed, and forced into exile or silenced.’ He dismissed these accusations as ‘rubbish’ and ‘just ridiculous’ and then went on to say “in fact, maybe you need to be looking around in Europe. You are violating people’s rights! When we have this problem of people being bundled and sent back to sink in the Mediterranean and so on, and so many people being mistreated in your own countries, why don’t you talk about your human rights, stop just offloading everything…”

That right there, is whataboutism or whataboutery, that according to Merriam-Webster is ‘essentially a reversal of accusation’, and that an ‘opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.’ It is a classic tactic that has been in play in politics for quite a long time, being in use mostly in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and has persisted to date in present day Russia. It serves to ruin one’s reputation, distract attention from criticism and accountability of one’s mistakes remains unchecked more often than not. John Oliver, a British-American comedian, points out that whataboutism ‘implies that all actions, regardless of context, share a moral equivalency; and since nobody is perfect, all criticism is hypocritical and everybody should do whatever they want.’

In essence what President Kagame did was imply that the EU was hypocritical in its accusations of human rights abuses since they were committing the same acts on migrants. Despite the fact that Europe’s migrant crisis and Rwanda’s election-related crimes are two different problems, Rwanda’s president somewhat seems to suggest that the EU cannot be the moral leader on upholding human rights.

This is also reflected in Russia’s intervention and annexation of Crimea in 2014. When the United States, Europe and their allies criticized President Vladimir Putin for his move, Russia countered with ‘what about NATO intervention in Kosovo? What about the invasion of Iraq by the US?’ Russia basically said that the West was hypocritical since they had interfered with the affairs of Kosovo and Iraq, so why should they not do the same with Crimea? President Obama responded to this argument by saying that NATO only intervened after the systemic brutalization and killing of the people of Kosovo for years, and that Kosovo, being a part of Serbia, left after holding a referendum, cooperating with the United Nations and Kosovo’s neighbours within international law. All this was in stark contrast to what Russia did in Ukraine. Furthermore, he highlighted the fact that there was sharp criticism of the US military unwarranted intervention in Iraq in 2003 by Americans, a move that he himself was opposed to. He further explained that the United States sought to work within the international system and did not seek to annex Iraq but instead, ended the war to leave Iraqis to decide their own future.

I have my own criticisms on the invasion of Iraq, but by providing a moral analysis and critique of his own country’s actions in Iraq, and highlighting the differences in scale between NATO’s intervention in Kosovo (though still controversial to date) and the Russian military intervention in Ukraine that resulted in Crimea’s annexation; President Obama countered whataboutism. Many people say that this tactic is not necessarily a bad one since it forces one to look at their own actions and question them, which I agree we should. We should be critical of our own actions. What is dangerous is going by the logic of whataboutery that since nobody is perfect therefore the accused has the go ahead to commit awful things. This will lead to moral numbness, the consequences of which are dire to say the least, from undermining justice to endangering the lives of people.




2 Responses

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