Ethiopia — A History of Chemical Weapons, Selective Punishment and Global Hypocrisy


Tens of thousands of Ethiopians killed with mustard gas when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936. Photo:

White House spokesman Sean Spicer infamously declared, of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, “Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” When pressed by a reporter to clarify, he snapped: “I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing—he brought them into the Holocaust center.”  

This faux pas by Trump’s mouthpiece was inevitable sooner or later in a White House populated with white nationalists whose membership includes a coterie of racists, anti-Semites and Islamophobes.

The Ann Frank Center rightly called for Spicer’s firing as did House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. In its rush to carry out a neo-fascist coup from within the White House, the extreme right may have bitten more than it could chew. Trump whose allegiance is only to himself has essentially established a family oligarchy to lead the nation and may have had enough of these white supremacist ideologues and their demise may be in the horizon. It seems to me Spicer’s attempt to humanize Hitler comparing him favorably with Assad may be the beginning of the end.

General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense who should have known better, clumsily attempted to justify Spicer’s comments saying that no chemical weapons were used on the battle field since the Great War (WWI), not in the WW II, and not during the Korean War. He should examine the history of the Defense Department he heads for starters.

The U.S. used Agent Orange which contained the deadly toxin dioxin during the Vietnam War. For 10 years until it was stopped in 1971, the U.S. carried out 20,000 sorties spraying 12.1 million gallons destroying over 5 million acres of dense forests and 500,000 acres of crops, leaving low levels of dioxin residue in the soil which may take years to clear. As a result 1.2 million Vietnam era veterans have been exposed and the VA reports it has paid $162.6 million in compensation to date. Many veterans have suffered from rare cases of cancer and died.

According to a Columbia University study 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians were under the spray’s paths. Vietnamese sources estimate the health of 4 million civilians was affected, 500, 000 children have serious birth defects that has gone down to 3rd and 4th generations. A 1970 study showed a high concentration of dioxin in the Vietnamese mothers’ breast milk. The spraying of this chemical has also caused a catastrophic ecocide. Agent Orange is an innocuous sounding name for dioxin, one of the deadliest toxins known.

There are several other incidents of use of chemical weapons before the current one in Syria; the perpetrators remain to be determined as there have been no internationally recognized inspection. The use of chemicals by Sadam Hussein against Iranian forces was extensive resulting in the death of tens of thousands, allegedly helped by our intelligence services identifying enemy troop movements. During the Iran Iraq war he was a U.S. ally.

All the recent talk about chemical weapons took me back to my school days in Ethiopia when I came to learn about the atrocities of the Italian invasion in 1935. It was an attack from two fronts, one from Eritrea in the north under Marshal De Bono, who was later replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The other was an attack from what was then the Italian colony of Somalia under General Rodolfo Graziani. The invasion from the north did not go well initially as patriotic Ethiopian forces pushed back and nearly defeated the invaders.

To avoid a repeat of the 1896 Battle of Adwa debacle when Emperor Menelik II’s forces destroyed a huge Italian army, Marshal Badoglio ordered wholesale use of mustard gas on unsuspecting Ethiopians who died of agonizing suffocation and surface body burns by the thousands and their forces were decimated.

From then on it became the weapon of choice by both Badoglio and Graziani on their march towards Addis Ababa. Note that Italy was a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning use of chemical weapons.

Emperor Haile Selassie fled into exile in England where he was to remain until his return to the throne with the help of Ethiopian and British forces in 1941.

It was during his exile that Selassie made a dramatic appearance at the League of Nations on 20 June 1936 and made his famous speech that was prescient, foreshadowing the catastrophe that was to befall Europe a few years later. Here is an excerpt from that speech describing the gassing of his people by the fascists.

“The very refinement of barbarism consisted in carrying ravage and terror into the most densely populated parts of the territory, the points farthest removed from the scene of hostilities. The object was to scatter fear and death over a great part of the Ethiopian territory. These fearful tactics succeeded. Men and animals succumbed. The deadly rain that fell from the aircraft made all those whom it touched fly shrieking with pain. All those who drank the poisoned water or ate the infected food also succumbed in dreadful suffering. In tens of thousands, the victims of the Italian mustard gas fell. It is in order to denounce to the civilized world the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I resolved to come to Geneva”.

The indiscriminate use of chemicals was genocidal in scope and intent as one Italian official at the time put it “I wish we could wipe out all Ethiopians but is not possible.” Hospitals were systematically bombed and destroyed including British and Swedish field hospitals.

The then head of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ethiopia, Marcel Junod described the gruesome effect of mustard gas on the victims in great detail but officials in Geneva refused to make his report available to the League of Nations citing “neutrality.”

The other crime against humanity occurred on 19 Feb 1937. Following an assassination attempt on his life by two Ethiopian/Eritrean patriots, Graziani unleashed the fascist Black Shirts on the civilian residents of Addis Ababa. The Black Shirts went on a frenzied orgy of barbaric violence, killing, burning and looting for three days. An estimated 30, 000 Ethiopians lost their lives. People were shot dead on the streets or in their homes; many were rounded up taken in trucks and thrown into ravines where they were shot dead. Homes were burnt with people inside and even those who jumped the fences into foreign missions were forcibly taken out and shot — the inviolability of foreign embassies be damned.

The Black Shirts posed by the dead bodies for pictures to send home as souvenirs. Addis Ababa was emptied of its Ethiopian residents. A Hungarian doctor Ladislav Sava who lived and practiced in Addis Ababa was an eye witness and describes dead bodies strewn all over city streets; the river under Ras Mekonnen bridge was turning red from the blood of dead bodies that were thrown over the bridge. Ian Campbell, author of “the Plot to Kill Graziani” and Alberto Sbacci, the noted Italian historian have meticulously documented the massacre by interviewing eye witnesses, examining archival photos, letters, pamphlets, orders, speeches and other Italian documents. Italy has managed to keep most of this secret and there are still classified documents of the massacre.

Graziani who has earned the nickname “Butcher of Fezzan” for his atrocities in Libya before coming to Ethiopia was never held to account for his war crimes. Ethiopia’s efforts to have the war criminals tried under the newly established United Nations after the war were consistently blocked by the British. Badoglio in fact was rewarded by the Allies with the Prime Ministership of Italy after the fall of Mussolini. An Italian military tribunal in the post Mussolini government had sentenced Graziani to 19 years in prison for his role in ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and use of mustard gas in Libya but was freed after serving only 4 months due to pressure of the British Government. His home town of Affile has erected a statue for him recognizing him as a “hero.”

Italy, unlike Germany has yet to confront the crimes of its fascist past and take responsibility for its actions. Ethiopian victims of genocide and crimes against humanity are crying out for justice in accordance with international law.

I can be forgiven perhaps if I am not moved by Trump’s crocodile tears and his newfound compassion for victims of chemical weapons in Syria when he, in one of his first acts as president issued his mean-spirited executive order to ban indefinitely Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

Millions of Syrians have become refugees, fleeing a war that the U.S. helped start with the invasion of Iraq that destabilize the entire region. Over 600,000 Syrians have lost their lives and the carnage continues.

The selective invocation and application of culpability makes a mockery of the Nuremberg Charter and the 1948 Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Humanity.


Columnist Dr. Mohammed A. Nurhussein MD is a retired medical doctor in New York.

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