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Ethiopia’s new struggle over war crimes accountability

The atrocities reported so far are only ‘the tip of the iceberg’.

A destroyed tank is seen in a dry field in the aftermath of fighting between the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, in Afar region, Ethiopia, February 25, 2022. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
A peace deal in November ended two years of war in which aid was used as a weapon and civilians massacred. A destroyed tank in Afar, Ethiopia, February 2022.

Ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Ethiopia this month, there was widespread speculation that President Joe Biden’s administration might ease restrictions on economic assistance slapped on the country during its war in northern Tigray.

 

Instead, while Blinken announced a large package of humanitarian funds for aid agencies working in the country, he also said Ethiopia’s government must do more to set up a “credible” transitional justice process that ensures accountability for human rights abuses committed during the two-year conflict. 

 

“Then our own ability to move forward on our engagement with Ethiopia, to include economic engagement, will also move forward,” Blinken said in the capital, Addis Ababa, shortly after holding talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

 

This position reflects the stance of the European Union. During the war, the US introduced sanctions on individuals accused of prolonging the conflict and suspended Ethiopia's membership in a preferential trade pact, while the EU withheld $107 million in budgetary support, citing serious rights violations.

 

These have been committed by all sides, including government troops and rebel fighters led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), according to investigators.

 

Some of the worst atrocities were by Eritrean soldiers allied to Ethiopia's military, who are accused of waging a campaign of rape and sexual slavery in Tigray and of killing hundreds of men and boys in the holy city of Axum, one of several bloody massacres.

 

Forces from the Amhara region that borders Tigray, another ally of the federal government, have also been accused of “ethnic cleansing” for evicting hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans from western Tigray, an area Amharas claim as their own.

 

A map of Ethiopia showing Tigray and Amhara regions

Meanwhile, the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) believes Ethiopia’s government used “starvation as a method of warfare” by blocking aid to Tigray and sealing off its borders. In 2021, the US estimated that these restrictions had pushed 900,000 of the six million population to the brink of famine.

 

Despite their seriousness, these atrocities are “only the tip of the iceberg”, said Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s deputy director for east and southern Africa. A communication blackout imposed on Tigray for much of the war and restrictions on access to the region mean many human rights abuses may remain hidden, making further investigations vital, she told The New Humanitarian.

 

Restoring ties

 

Both the US and the EU have long insisted that three criteria must be met before they restore direct economic support to Ethiopia’s government. The first two are an end to the fighting and the resumption of aid to Tigray; the third is accountability for human rights abuses.

 

A ceasefire signed in November has silenced the guns and seen aid trucks roll back into Tigray, where 5.2 million people need humanitarian help. The deal also calls for “a comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining the truth, redress for victims, reconciliation, and healing", in line with Ethiopia’s constitution and the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy Framework. 

 

But diplomats say more effort is required on this front before ties are normalised.

 

Some work has been done by the government, which is facing a reconstruction bill of nearly $20 billion and is keen to see the return of donors to help rebuild the war-battered economy.

 

In September, the Ministry of Justice presented a discussion paper to diplomats outlining options for transitional justice. A final version was published in January, and officials have launched a consultation process expected to last until June.

 

The document focuses on “truth-seeking”, “healing” and “reconciliation”, stating that “focusing only on criminal accountability has its drawbacks”, although it does explore the possibility of prosecuting war criminals. 

 

It proposes several models for transitional justice, including the establishment of a dedicated "truth and reconciliation commission", setting up a special prosecutor's office, and using existing institutions.

 

It also suggests a number of time frames for the process.

 

 “We're not going to lift restrictions overnight and suddenly pump money into the country. It's a gradual process.”

 

Donors would prefer focusing on crimes committed since November 2020, when the war erupted. But the Ministry of Justice suggests starting dates of 1991, when the former TPLF-dominated regime came to power, and 1995, when Ethiopia’s current constitution came into force. This would entail a national process, rather than one focused on the recent war.

 

Ethiopia is not a member of the International Criminal Court, ruling out The Hague as an option for delivering justice, and the document dismisses the idea of an ad hoc international tribunal, such as those for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as “neither desirable nor feasible”.

 

“The only rational alternative is to promote the adjudication of the crimes using domestic courts – with a caveat attached in terms of institutional reforms,” the document states.

 

A European diplomat in Addis Ababa described this work as a “step in the right direction", but added that “we are not at the point yet where we are seeing results.”

 

Another Western diplomat said they were “concerned” about transparency, especially in relation to “criminal investigations and prosecutions”.

 

“There is a strong commitment on paper, which is noted and welcomed, but of course, we need to see concrete outcomes,” they said. “We're not going to lift restrictions overnight and suddenly pump money into the country. It's a gradual process.”

 

Government pushback

Throughout the conflict, Ethiopia's government has been sensitive to allegations of human rights abuses, criticising Western media outlets reporting on killings and sexual violence as politically biased and expelling diplomats and UN staff.

 

It has also blocked access to Tigray, imposing one of the world's most severe communications blackouts and barring journalists. Abiy did not admit the involvement of Eritrean troops until March 2021, despite mounting evidence of their presence.

 

When the US State Department released a report earlier this month documenting rights abuses in northern Ethiopia, the government called it “selective”, “untimely” and “inflammatory”. 

 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has tried to cut funding for ICHREE, the UN’s probe, which the deputy prime minister has dismissed as “politically motivated”. 

 

Members of ICHREE have only visited Ethiopia once, in July last year. During that trip, they were confined to Addis Ababa and did not visit any conflict-affected areas to conduct investigations. As a result, their work has been carried out remotely.

 

Recently, Ethiopia sought support for a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council to terminate the body. It was eventually persuaded to drop the resolution, but only on the understanding that ICHREE’s mandate will not be renewed in October, a diplomat said.

 

Given this track record, human rights experts worry about the government's commitment to a robust transitional justice that holds all parties equally accountable. One observer, who did not want to be named, said they are concerned about its "capacity and willingness to hold its own forces to account.”

 

“ICHREE’s mandate is to preserve evidence for accountability that may lead in the future to holding powerful people to account,” they told The New Humanitarian. “That may be why the government is pushing against it so strongly.”

 

The body was established in December 2021, following the publication of a joint report by the UN’s human rights body and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. It found that all parties had committed violations, conclusions that Ethiopia accepted.

 

“The joint report therefore called for further independent investigations, but the government has opposed these.”

 

However, the joint report suffered from serious gaps. It only covered the first period of active conflict in northern Ethiopia from November 2020 to June 2021, and its investigators were unable to travel to the sites of serious abuses in Tigray, such as Axum.

 

The joint report therefore called for further independent investigations, but the government has opposed these. Instead, it set up an "inter-ministerial task force" to implement the joint report’s findings and insists further investigations will be done by national bodies under the transitional justice framework, with international experts participating as monitors.

 

Scepticism over government commitment

The activities of the task force and those of the Ministry of Justice have been opaque, and subject to little outside scrutiny. So far, a handful of soldiers have been convicted for abuses committed during the war, but their identities and the nature of their crimes have not been made public.

 

Meanwhile, the government has sought to downplay accusations of abuses. In its initial investigation into the Axum massacre, for example, the Ministry of Justice suggested most of the victims were combatants and that some of the perpetrators may have been criminals dressed in Eritrean and Ethiopian military uniforms provided by the TPLF.

 

Only later did the government accept that the victims were civilians killed by Eritrean soldiers. Some fear future investigations could follow a similar trajectory.

 

“It is not going to be perfect, definitely, there is no such thing as a perfect transitional justice process.”

 

For its part, the TPLF has issued similar denials when faced with accusations that its forces targeted civilians. In Feburary 2022, when Amnesty International released a report with evidence that Tigray fighters had killed civilians and raped women in a series of Amhara towns, it dismissed the rights group’s findings as “partial and misleading” and promised an investigation that never materialised.

 

On 24 March, the new interim president of Tigray, Getachew Reda, underlined the importance of “accountability and justice for the genocide inflicted on the people of Tigray in the war” but made no mention of crimes committed by his side.

 

Abadir M. Ibrahim, associate director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School and a former advisor to the Ministry of Justice, said he is “sceptical” that Ethiopian government officials will “subject themselves to a process that will reveal their human rights violations and then possibly even end up in their prosecution”.

 

He fears that, to appease donors and regain funding, the government might launch “a process that looks like transitional justice, but they’re able to control the results”, he told The New Humanitarian.

 

Others are more optimistic, however. “What I like about Ethiopia is that they have agency,” said an African Union official. “They are doing things on their own and we should give them breathing space.”

 

Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, says he is encouraged that the government accepted the findings of his body’s joint report with the UN and added that “it is important to build on the concrete steps that have been taken”.

 

“The transitional justice process must be nationally led and owned,” Daniel said. “That does not mean there is no role and space for contributions from international partners.”

 

A transitional justice mechanism is due to be established close to Ethiopian new year in September. Such a body would not have the authority to investigate and prosecute soldiers from Eritrea, a sovereign country. Its leader, Isaias Afwerki, has dismissed allegations against his troops as “a fantasy”. 

 

A Western diplomat described the issue of accountability for crimes committed by Eritrean soldiers as “a tricky question” that is “up to Ethiopia” to answer. Their government and others are pushing for UN experts to monitor Ethiopia’s national investigations, something Addis Ababa has said it is open to. 

 

“It is not going to be perfect, definitely, there is no such thing as a perfect transitional justice process,” they said.

 

This article was written and reported by an Ethiopia-based journalist.

Edited by Obi Anyadike

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