Ethiopia: The Need for an Independent Investigation in the Wake of a Major National Disaster


A national disaster (humanmade or natural), can strike any time anywhere in the world. When it happens, it can become an issue of national priority. In case of a major national tragedy, governments and officials may want to secure the involvement of independent actors to investigate the causes and offer recommendations for speedy, effective recovery and closure. In fact, an independent investigation of a national tragedy is a mandatory component of disaster response and recovery activities in any country. A refusal to welcome an independent investigation would look at least suspicious; in contrast, the presence of independent investigators would create an atmosphere of transparency in the investigation process. It also helps improve the country's domestic and international image after the tragedy.

What happens to countries when they face a humanmade or natural disaster? This question does not have a single answer. Apparently, thousands of people mourn the lives lost to the national tragedy. Thousands of others raise questions about possible causes of the national disaster and propose ways to ease the burden of loss in society. Still, the investigation of causes should be a top priority in any national disaster. Governments have a moral, ethical, and legal obligation to identify its causes and take steps to facilitate post-disaster recovery and closure. This is when an independent investigation can and should be warranted. It can offer significant benefits to countries.

After the tragic attacks of 9/11, American society, and also the global community, had too many questions about the causes of the disaster. It was an organized terrorist attack, and the American public wanted to know why the U.S. government, President of the United States, and national security officials had failed to anticipate and prevent the deaths of innocent people. At the beginning of 2002, the New York Times published a letter of a 9/11 widow, who wrote about the "need for an independent investigation to look into the colossal national security failures that occurred on Sept. 11" (Breitweiser, 2002). The letter was a collective voice of other widows, who were looking for but could not find answers to their questions. It was also a reflection and expression of public anxieties that inevitably result from national disasters of any kind.

As such, an independent investigation in case of major national tragedies is compulsory because people want to know. A national tragedy is always emotional, and the only way for society to curb the extreme emotions of loss and uncertainty is to understand the causes through an independent and objective investigation. Sometimes when resources are limited, governments may not prioritize and investigate the tragedy. However, an independent investigation can undoubtedly provide answers to the most challenging questions; and, it can also boost the effectiveness and credibility of the government. It may happen that a country facing a national disaster does not have the necessary infrastructure and experts to perform an effective investigation. In a limited scope, foreign investigators can participate and help the local independent investigators technically.

An independent investigation guarantees transparency. Quite often, the presence of independent investigators is the best guarantee of impartiality and objectivity in the investigative process. It is not uncommon for officials to conceal evidence of their fault. Many national tragedies occur because of human errors knowingly or through negligence. An independent investigator creates an atmosphere of openness and could clear conspiracy theories. An independent investigation is a perfect way to reveal the hidden factors of tragedy and force governments to take action and prevent similar incidents from happening again. In the presence of an independent investigator, officials may be reluctant to manipulate or misrepresent facts. Even if they do, a thorough and effective investigation will uncover hidden facts.

An independent investigation can improve countries' international image; it can also be life-saving. When a national tragedy occurs, everyone wants to know the cause. Countries that reject independent investigations and fail to engage an objective process will look suspicious at best; at worst, they will never know the reason for the disaster.

Sometimes, an independent investigator can provide relevant clues and save the lives of people. In 2018, media reported the death of a Ukrainian pilot who had been accused by Russian officials of shooting the MH17 flight in 2014 (Oliphant, 2018). The results of an independent investigation confirmed that the young man was innocent; however, it took too long to identify the figures responsible for the national tragedy. As such, any information provided as a result of an independent investigation can save the lives of innocent people and identify those who might or might not be involved in the tragedy.

In conclusion, national tragedies are always devastating. People lose their lives. Families lose their loved ones. However, even when extreme negative emotions prevail, people want to know the leading causes. This is why an independent investigation is so important. It is a guarantee of impartiality and transparency. Sometimes, it is the only way for countries and their people to learn the truth and works towards healing and closure. An independent investigation can benefit any country and improve the quality and outcomes of the investigation process.

Ed.'s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. He can be reached at You can follow Samuel on twitter @salemu

Contributed by Samuel Alemu

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