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Re-engaging Ethiopia at the expense of justice won’t bring peace

10 mins read

The international community should not support the Ethiopian government’s domestic efforts to investigate abuses committed in Tigray as the government itself and its allies are most responsible.

Credible human rights organizations have documented human suffering on a massive scale in Tigray since November 2020, including widespread displacement and forced expulsions, systematic looting, destruction of property and crops, mass detention, extra-judicial killings, rampant sexual violence, manmade famine, denial of basic services, and ethnic profiling.

Among the latest findings is a comprehensive joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, published in April 2022, based on their months-long investigation concerning the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from Western Tigray. 

The Ethiopian government responded to these reports with denials and has failed to take effective measures to stop the violations and address the dire humanitarian crisis in Tigray.

Despite the increased flow of aid since April, Tigray remains under siege. Entrance in and out of the region is highly restricted, essential services such as electricity, telecommunications, and banking are mostly shut off, and the majority of its population is still being denied assistance.

As a result, Ayder, the largest referral hospital in Tigray, declared that it is terminating its services due to the power outage and lack of medicine. 

On 1 June, in some of the only footage captured from within the region in over a year, a team of French journalists surreptitiously documented the famine conditions in Tigray and the devastation of the region’s medical system.

Given the magnitude of the human rights and humanitarian law violations, rights groups continue to call for an independent investigation to be conducted by an international body. 

That said, there is reason to believe that justice for victims could be sidelined in the interest of re-engaging Ethiopia and negotiating a peace deal. Doing so, or allowing the Ethiopian government to investigate itself and its allies, would be a grave mistake.

Ethiopia’s defiance

The Ethiopian government initially rejected any form of external investigation, saying that such calls are belittling and undermine its sovereignty. 

Following more pressure, Addis Abeba requested that a joint investigation be conducted. After external actors obliged, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was formed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Efforts by the OHCHR and EHRC to investigate became more complex when Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) advanced into the adjacent Amhara and Afar regions after expelling the invading forces from Tigray in June 2021.

In the end, the joint investigation was either unable or unwilling to cover large parts of Tigray, and failed to look into the majority of the massacres, sexual violence, and other atrocities. 

Aside from giving the government undue influence through the involvement of its human rights organ, the JIT also bought time for officials in Addis Abeba to devise ways to evade accountability.  

It, therefore, came as little surprise that when the JIT report was published on 3 November 2021, the federal government was the only party that received it warmly. It took Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed only a few hours to show how relieved his administration was by the findings. 

The JIT concluded that all sides have committed atrocities in northern Ethiopia. While this is true, the report downplayed the abuses in Tigray and equalized blame in a way that was out of touch with reality.

Upon publication, Human Rights Watch detailed some of the report’s inadequacies and continued calling for further international investigations.

The Prime Minister immediately announced that he had established an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce (IMTF) to design ways to implement the recommendations in the JIT report.

As evidence that the JIT was insufficient and flawed, the UN adopted a resolution to establish a body of inquiry headed by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) a month after the JIT report was released, which the Ethiopian government voted against.

The government wants the IMTF to be the only mechanism and has made clear that it will not allow access to either the UN Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia or the African Union Commission of Inquiry

As such, this proposal was clearly not made in good faith and reflected the government’s attempts to stonewall any independent accountability mechanism.

EHRC complicity

The JIT investigation was conducted despite overwhelming opposition by Tigrayans concerning the involvement of the EHRC, which, on paper at least, is an independent entity that doesn’t answer to the government. However, the EHRC’s funding is approved by Ethiopia’s parliament, and its Commissioner, presently Daniel Bekele, is also appointed by the government.

In practice, the Commission operates in ways that reveal how it is beholden to the government.

The EHRC supports the government’s position on accountability, as illustrated by a note it wrote to the UNHRC on 16 December 2021 objecting to the formation of an independent probe. It instead called on external actors to support Addis Abeba’s implementation of the JIT’s recommendations and to “encourage ongoing independent investigations in Ethiopia.”  

Both the EHRC and the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have conducted investigations, most notably into the atrocities committed in Mai Kadra and Aksum. The way these investigations were conducted made clear that these institutions merely serve the government’s interests.

The Mai Kadra investigation, for instance, was completed by the Commission a few days after the massacre occurred and did not look into atrocities committed against Tigrayans who fled the area to Sudan. The government then used the EHRC’s report to galvanize support for the war.

Later reports were more nuanced and demonstrated how hastily this investigation was conducted.

In the case of Aksum, on the other hand, the EHRC’s investigation was conducted over four months after the massacre occurred and only after the Prime Minister finally acknowledged Eritrea’s involvement in the war.

As a result, the MoJ only released its report on the Aksum massacre in May, six months after the incident took place. Moreover, its initial report stated that most of the casualties suffered during the massacre were combatants. This was only retracted later owing to international criticism, and because another report was released indicating that the victims in Aksum were civilians.

As for most other alleged massacres and atrocities committed in Tigray, many of which are corroborated by strong evidence, the Ministry and the Commission have remained silent.

Re-engaging Ethiopia

In response to the recent moves toward peace negotiations, some foreign actors have begun to re-engage with the Ethiopian government. 

The European Union (EU) previously accused the government of using starvation as a weapon of war and, in December 2021, suspended budgetary support for Ethiopia. The EU also criticized the World Bank’s financial support to Ethiopia for being “premature”.

In addition, its officials described the atrocities they witnessed in Tigray as something that can’t “be justified by using the preservation of the territorial integrity of Ethiopia as an argument.” The EU’s envoy, Pekka Haavisto, said that federal government officials shared with him their intention to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.

The US has also imposed measures on the government, including visa restrictions and removing Ethiopia’s duty-free access to US markets, based on preliminary findings of atrocities against Tigrayans, such as ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray.

However, recent developments indicate that the US and the EU are changing their positioning.

On 3 February, for instance, the EHRC and OHCHR held a consultative meeting on the implementation of the JIT’s recommendations by the Government of Ethiopia (GOE), where state representatives, including from the US and EU members, were in attendance.

Minutes of the meeting we obtained from a source note: “Participants present including the international partners concurred that the steps taken by the GOE so far were impressive.” This rose-tinted view of the current situation raises alarm bells for Tigrayans who are demanding justice.

On 2 June—the day the heads of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published yet another piece indicating the gravity of the ongoing atrocities in Tigray and called for more action—the EU delegation to Ethiopia, in a tweet, commended the accountability and redress measures “taken” by the government.

This statement was based on a “very informative” briefing provided jointly by the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice and the head of the IMTF Secretariat.

Domestic mechanism?

Although some argue that the same body accused of committing crimes—in this case, the Ethiopian government—can establish a credible domestic accountability mechanism to ensure justice, there is more than enough historical evidence demonstrating that such efforts are illusory.

William Schabas, a human rights law scholar, argues that as states are often actors or accomplices in such crimes, leaving accountability to domestic mechanisms is tantamount to impunity.

In a war fought by itself and its allies against Tigray forces, it is only naivety or complete disregard for the victims that would compel someone to believe that the federal government can arrange mechanisms to achieve justice by prosecuting its officials and officers.

In fact, even the JIT raised concerns that domestic mechanisms may not ensure accountability of commanders, but will instead end up only punishing rank-and-file members of the army.

The same government which promises to right its wrongs continues to, among others, use aid as a weapon of war, oversee the detention and torture of Tigrayan civilians in Afar and Western Tigray, and hold thousands of Tigrayan members of the national army in concentration camps. 

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Even assuming the federal government’s intentions are genuine in seeking accountability through domestic processes, Ethiopia’s law enforcement and judicial institutions lack independence

Moreover, the arrangement the government claims to have set to ensure accountability itself lacks checks and balances.

In the consultative meeting arranged by EHRC and OHCHR, the head of the IMTF Secretariat explained that the task force was composed of four committees. It has an office at the Ministry of Justice and is headed by the Minister, who is accountable to the Prime Minister. 

Furthermore, the Secretariat was established by the executive, and not through legislation. Hence, the task force is a government-led body with all its members coming from government organs.

All of the committees under the IMTF are composed of only government ministries and, in some cases, regional bureaus. Yet, many of these institutions and their officials are suspects in the heinous crimes committed against Tigrayans, Oromos, Amharas, and others.

In the unlikely scenario that a team produces a seriously damaging report, the government will likely trash it. This is what happened to the report filed by Filsan Ahmed, a former Minister, which detailed findings of weaponized rape in Tigray.

In addition, the starting point of a domestic accountability system must be preceded by the recognition that the government apparatus has inflicted damage, or at the very least an admission that the state has failed its obligation to protect.

In relation to Tigray, the government has expressed no remorse and hasn’t issued any form of apology; it has instead rubbed salt in the wounds through denial, minimization, mockery, and awarding medals to potential subjects of investigation. 

The government-led accountability process is also problematic from a practical angle. 

The Taskforce, with its original mandate expanded to include events since 28 June 2021, has been mandated to conduct investigations in Afar, Amhara, and Tigray. Full accountability cannot be achieved if investigations do not include parts of Tigray that the JIT did not visit or cover. 

The Tigray government has made it clear that it would only collaborate with an independent international body for any human rights investigation in Tigray. This means that the government’s task force cannot access Tigray and conduct an investigation there.

Sacrificing accountability?

Pushing to end the Tigray war and achieve lasting peace is admirable. The understanding that justice must be at the center of this process is also applauded, and so is the intention to support genuine domestic accountability mechanisms.

However, members of the international community must understand the context to ensure that their efforts are not aimed at a quick fix but rather aspire to bring about sustainable solutions that put victims at the center and don’t facilitate the continuation of state violence in Ethiopia.

Though the primary duty of preventing and prosecuting atrocity crimes rests with states, such matters aren’t their exclusive jurisdiction. The international community is obligated to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner when a state manifestly fails to meet its Responsibility to Protect its citizens.

The international community’s cautious optimism for more than nineteen months concerning the situation in Tigray constitutes a disastrous failure to act to prevent atrocities against Tigrayans.

All of the concerns that prompted discussions at the UN Security Council on Tigray still exist. However, the minimal signs of action by external actors to prevent atrocities and hold perpetrators accountable are slowly changing to re-engagement with a government that continues to unleash terror on its people.

The government has shown time and again that any concessions it makes to its policy of punishing Tigray is primarily the result of international pressure.

Justice will not be served through an inter-ministerial task force. This domestic process is, in fact, dangerous because it will serve to whitewash the many crimes committed. If Western powers are pushing for a peace process that promotes impunity of political and military leaders from criminal liability, there may be neither peace nor justice in Ethiopia.

In any discussion about what balance to seek in the peace-justice debate, the victims must be placed at the center. In Tigray’s case, the victims currently have no ability to communicate their needs and interests owing to the blackout of essential services.

Moreover, peace negotiations must not sideline justice for victims when the alleged acts amount to crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and, arguably, genocide.

Moving forward, a full-scale investigation by the Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia is the minimum requirement.

Only this can serve as a base for a credible, independent, and victim centered justice mechanism in the future.

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This is the authors’ viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Maarit Sheriff, OHCHR’s Africa branch chief, Michelle Bachelet, OHCHR’s commissioner, and Francoise Mianda, OHCHR’s East and Southern Africa section chief, speaking to media about the JIT; 3 November 2021; Geneva, Switzerland; AP.

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