Just a few months into the ascendance of the reformists led by Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the killing of ethnic Gamos and Wolaitas in Burayu and the subsequent mass exodus of people – reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide – between September 14 and 16, 2018 shocked Ethiopians. Considering Burayu town is just outside of Addis, news of the horrific developments went public so fast. There were numerous videos showing the plight of people during that time. National media also covered the news on account of their new found freedom.
Three years on, and those kinds of incidents have become a daily and weekly affair. In a recent televised address to parliament, Prime Minister Abiy pointed out that there were 113 unrests, excluding the recent war in Tigray, in the country. Bearing in mind that he has been in power for over two and a half years by then, he assessed that the number meant the unrests happened on a weekly basis.
Especially over the past few months, there have been regular mass killings in Metekel zone of Benishangul Gumuz region, and West and East Wollega zones of Oromia region. Although these zones are more frequently associated with mass killings, the tragic phenomena happen throughout the country. Ethnic centered killings were reported in Gura Ferda Woreda and Konso zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region; the conflict across the Afar and Somali border also has an ethnic aspect to it. There were ethnic based attacks in Ataye town of the Amhara region. The Mai-Kadra massacre that happened during the war in Tigray and claimed the lives of nearly 900 lives has received the attention of the international community as well.
The presence of such ethnic motivated killings across the country saw the increasing throw of the word ‘genocide’. Although the alleged use of the term has grown to describe the killing of ethnic Amharas in various parts of the country, other ethnic groups also claim that genocidal acts are being committed against them.
When the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released its investigation report last week entitled: ‘It did not feel like we had a government: the violence and human rights violations following the killing of musician Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination,’ therefore, a lot of attention went to the terminology used to describe the horrific killings. Accordingly, the report states: “The Commission finds that the attacks during the unrest and overall commission of the crime by individuals and groups who directly took part in it, constitutes the elements of a crime against humanity.”
Article 7 (1) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states crime against humanity means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, grave forms of sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance of persons, the crime of apartheid, other inhumane acts.
The UN Office on Genocide Prevention and The Responsibility to Protect identifies the above stated acts as the physical element of the crime. The office identifies the phrase ‘when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population’ as the contextual element and explains that the crime involves either large scale violence in relation to the number of victims or its extension over a broad geographic area (widespread), or a methodical type of violence (systematic). The office identifies the phrase ‘with knowledge of the attack’ as a mental element of the crime.
On the other hand, Article II of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide states:
‘genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’
The genocide convention provides that there are two elements of the crime. The mental element needs to show “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; and physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In an attempt to carve out a clear line of delineation between crime against humanity and genocide, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and The Responsibility to Protect points crimes against humanity do not need to target a specific group. “Instead, the victim of the attack can be any civilian population, regardless of its affiliation or identity.” Another important distinction is that in the case of crimes against humanity, “it is not necessary to prove that there is an overall specific intent. It suffices for there to be a simple intent to commit any of the acts listed, with the exception of the act of persecution, which requires additional discriminatory intent. The perpetrator must also act with knowledge of the attack against the civilian population and that his/her action is part of that attack.”
Yet another difference between the two, although not as technical, is that crimes against humanity have not yet been codified in a dedicated treaty of international law, unlike genocide and war crimes, although there are efforts to do so. The UN Office on Genocide Prevention explains, despite this the prohibition of crimes against humanity, similar to the prohibition of genocide, has been considered a peremptory norm of international law, from which no derogation is permitted and which is applicable to all states.
Explaining the difference between the two types of crimes, lawyer, Wubeshet Mulat remarked that crimes against humanity are incorporated under customary international law while genocide has its own convention. He went on to explain that Article 269 of Ethiopian Criminal Law that deals with genocide puts a relatively broader definition of the crime. He stated that the Article incorporates attacks on people based on their political views into acts of genocide along with attacks based on ethnic, religious and national identity, unlike many other states that only consider the latter.
Wubeshet further noted that not only acts of genocide but also attempted genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide are punishable by law. He further explained that the intent to destroy, fully or in part, a certain ethnic or religious group is key in determining whether an act is genocide or not. Accordingly, he analyzed, a criminal act does not necessarily need to involve the death of people for it to be pronounced genocide.
The international organization Genocide Watch divides the process of genocide into ten stages. It further explains that the processes might happen simultaneously and preventive measures can stop it at any of the stages.
Accordingly, the first stage is classification. This stage entails distinguishing people into ‘us and them’ based on ethnicity, race, religion or nationality. Genocide Watch argues that all cultures have such categories. As evident in our country as well, linguistic and ethnic differences have been emphasized as the basis of administrative structures.
The second stage is Symbolization, which entails assigning names or symbols to the classifications. People are accorded the derogatory use of names such as ‘jews’ or ‘gypsies’. The EHRC report states that individuals and groups who participated in the attacks in Ambo town chanted slogans against ‘Neftegna’.
The third stage is discrimination, in which a dominant group uses law, custom and political power to deny the rights of other groups. Genocide Watch indicates that the dominant group is driven by an exclusionary ideology that would deprive less powerful groups of their rights. It further notes the dominant group legitimizes the victimization of weaker groups. The EHRC investigation report states: “In some of the localities where EHRC’s investigation was carried out, witnesses describe being barred and prevented from accessing medical services. In Guna Woreda, Negele City, Arsi Negele and Dodola, in total violation of human rights obligations, security forces even went inside medical institutions and harassed, including by threatening medical professionals, and barred victims from getting medical help.”
The fourth stage is dehumanization, in which one group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. At this stage, hate propaganda in print, on hate radios, and in social media is used to vilify the victim group. In line with this characterization of dehumanization, the EHRC report states “The social media and television content/messages broadcast/circulating at the time as well as the slogans chanted by perpetrators of the crime show that the individuals and groups taking part in the conduct acted in a strategic and coordinated manner with full knowledge of the act thereof.”
Organization is the fifth stage. Genocide Watch states that Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility (the Janjaweed in Darfur.) Sometimes organization is informal (Hindu mobs led by local RSS militants) or decentralized (terrorist groups). The EHRC report states “a large number of people, organized in groups for the most part, moved from place to place to kill, bodily and mentally injure and displace people; destroy property.” The statement indicates that organized groups carried out the attacks.
The sixth stage is polarization. Genocide Watch states “extremists drive the groups apart. Extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the center. Moderates from the perpetrators’ own group are most able to stop genocide, so are the first to be arrested and killed. Leaders in targeted groups are the next to be arrested and murdered.” EHRC’s accounts of attacks in Kofele town indicate that Oromos were attacked, despite the attackers chanting slogans for the expulsion of ‘Neftegna.’
The seventh stage is preparation. During this stage, leaders of the perpetrator group plan to shape up the ‘final solution’ to the problem that is the victimized group. The EHRC report states there were prior tendencies of ethnic and religion based attacks before the assassination of artist Hachalu Hundessa, which was the trigger factor for the attacks.
The eighth stage is persecution. During this stage, victims are identified and separated out based on their ethnic, racial or religious identity. The EHRC report clearly states that the perpetrators attacked victims by intentionally identifying and separating victims mainly based on their religious and ethnic background.
The ninth stage is extermination, during which extermination begins and quickly becomes the mass killing legally called “genocide.” In the case of the violence and human rights violations that followed Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination, the three days of attacks that led to the killings of 123 people and physical injuries of at least 500 people would be the extermination.
The final stage is denial. Genocide Watch states it is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. In his 2005 article entitled ‘Twelve ways to deny a genocide’, President of Genocide Watch, Dr. Gregory H. Stanton raised rationalizing the deaths as a result of tribal conflict, blaming ‘out of control forces’ for committing the killings and claiming that what is going on doesn’t fit the definition of genocide as some of the ways to deny genocide.
As indicated in EHRC’s account of attacks in Jimma town, victims and witnesses identified the attackers as comprising of people from the town and from rural areas; whereas, zonal administration officials blamed ‘OLF Shene and organized individuals’. In so doing, they are blaming ‘out of control forces’ such as OLF Shene for the attacks and denying the accounts of victims and witnesses. The accounts from Jimma also state that victims identified the attacks as being ethnic and religious based while zonal administration and the police clearly stated that the facts on the ground did not show that.
Although extracts from the EHRC report can be used to depict how the violence that followed Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination fits the ten stages of genocide by Genocide Watch, the EHRC went with crimes against humanity as the appropriate classification of the crime. Probed on Abbay media about the Commission’s decision to refrain from using the term genocide, EHRC Commissioner, Daniel Bekele (PhD) stated that the elements of the crimes committed led them to classify the crimes as crimes against humanity. He said the elements of the crimes do not fit genocide. He further noted that only two attacks against ethnic and religious groups have been internationally recognized as genocide – the Rwandan and the Bosnia-Herzegovina genocides.
However, Wubeshet argues that the nature of the crimes listed constitutes genocide. He argued that the report indicated the attacks target people based on their ethnic and religious background. The report states “the attack targeted people of Amhara ethnic origin in localities where Christians constitute the majority of the local population and, inversely, Orthodox Christians where Muslims are a majority.” He further argued that their intent cannot be taken as anything but to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic or religious group.
Wubeshet further noted that the terminology used by the commission eases the international pressure on Ethiopian officials compared to international reactions to crimes classified as genocide. He further pointed out that Ethiopian criminal law does not have an article dealing with crimes against humanity and thus prosecuting suspects would require coming up with another charge that is recognized in Ethiopian criminal law.
Although the arguments for and against genocide are both strong, the crime of genocide seems complicated. This complicated nature is depicted by Genocide Watch as follows: “Intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a nation, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, dolus specialis that makes the crime of genocide so unique. In addition, case law has associated intent with the existence of a state or organizational plan or policy, even if the definition of genocide in international law does not include that element.”
In a genocide emergency alter on Ethiopia issued on November 2020, Genocide Watch declared that it considered Ethiopia to be at stage 9 – extermination – due to the war in Tigray. The EHRC report also sounded alarms on a possible genocide in its recommendation. Part of it read, “…as indicated in the report, that crimes against humanity of this nature combined with the current national context are signs that the risk of atrocity crimes, including genocide, is increasing …”