The quest for justice and accountability in Ethiopia remains shrouded in uncertainty, even as we approach the one-year mark since the Pretoria agreement brought an end to the war that plagued northern Ethiopia for two long years. Unfortunately, the resolution of one conflict has given way to a new set of challenges, as disturbing reports of human rights violations continue to surface in the troubled regions of Oromia and Amhara.
In this complex landscape, four key actors have emerged, all striving to shoulder the immense responsibility of addressing the grave human rights abuses that have marred Ethiopia in recent times. The United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), the Ethiopian government, and the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA) are each engaged in their own efforts to ensure justice and accountability prevail.
In December 2021, the UN Human Rights Council established the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) to investigate human rights violations in the country. However, the Ethiopian government has denied access to the Commission, hindering its ability to fulfill its mandate. Despite this obstacle, ICHREE remains an active body.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Commission of Inquiry on Tigray, was formed in June 2021 in response to the AU Peace and Security Council’s directives. This commission, headquartered in Banjul, Gambia, was also tasked with investigating allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, with the ultimate goal of determining whether these allegations constituted serious and widespread violations of human rights.
Regrettably, the ACHPR Commission of Inquiry on Tigray was dissolved by the African Union in May 2023. The AU justified the decision by stating that the Ethiopian government’s national transitional justice efforts were deemed sufficient, rendering the work of the commission redundant. Unfortunately, during its two-year tenure, the ACHPR Commission did not produce any reports before its closure.
The Ethiopian national transitional justice (NTG) represents the third avenue for addressing justice and accountability in Ethiopia. Supported by the Ethiopian government, the NTG’s team of experts, based at the Ministry of Justice, is currently in the final stages of preparing a comprehensive national transitional policy. The implementation of this policy is expected to commence within a few months, according to the team.
The NTG’s mandate extends beyond addressing the atrocities of the conflict in northern Ethiopia, aiming to encompass other significant human rights violations as well. The timeline for these efforts may potentially span from 2018, or even as far back as 1995, marking the inception of the Ethiopian constitution.
Opinions regarding the constitution’s ethnic provisions vary greatly. Some argue that these provisions are the root cause of ethnic violence in the country, while others contend that they offer the most viable solution for accommodating Ethiopia’s diverse population. Complexities and divergent perspectives surround Ethiopia’s pursuit of justice and reconciliation, sparking debates over potential overlap between NTG and the National Dialogue mandates.
The final venue in the pursuit of justice and accountability is the Commission of Inquiry on the Tigray Genocide, established by the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA). Currently, the commission is in the process of conducting a comprehensive assessment of the damages incurred during the conflict, including a door-to-door assessment.
The commission challenges the accuracy of the casualty and economic damage figures previously provided by the federal government until it releases the findings of its ongoing assessment. Tigray officials argue that the transitional justice process should be spearheaded by this commission, emphasizing that Tigray was at the epicenter of the conflict.
At present, all the venues are all actively engaged in addressing the conflicts and ensuring accountability. Each asserts itself as the appropriate entity to investigate the violations and ensure justice. However, thus far, it is the ICHREE that has been able to disclose its report, shedding light on the serious human rights violations that have taken place.
In a recent report published on September 14, 2023, ICHREE shed light on the dire humanitarian situation and ongoing violations occurring in the country.
The report spans the period from November 2020 to July 2023, providing an overview of the two-year war in northern Ethiopia, the prolonged conflict in Oromia, and the more recent outbreak of hostilities in Amhara, among other regions.
According to the report, a significant number of individuals have fallen victim to severe human rights violations, with the figures painting a distressing picture. The report highlights the occurrence of mass killings, rape, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, and starvation. Per the report, at least 10,000 women have been subjected to sexual violence during the conflict in northern Ethiopia alone, with Tigray Interim Administration officials even suggesting a higher number exceeding 30,000 in Tigray.
The report underlines the grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes committed not only in Tigray but also in the regions of Amhara, Afar, and Oromia. It emphasizes the urgent need for further investigation into both past and ongoing abuses, as the conflict in Tigray shows no signs of abating, with Eritrean troops and Amhara militias continuing to engage in violations.
Despite being denied access to Ethiopian territory, the ICHREE managed to compile its report through alternative means. The commission conducted interviews with Ethiopian victims who had fled to neighboring countries, analyzed documents, and studied satellite imagery. Out of the 545 interviews conducted, 360 were utilized in the report.
While the Pretoria agreement brought an end to major conflicts in northern Ethiopia, the report reveals that human rights violations persisted in Tigray and other parts of the country. It highlighted that the federal government’s attempts to establish the national Transitional Government (TG) seem to be an effort to deflect international accountability.
It accused the government of failing to effectively investigate these violations and initiating a flawed transitional justice consultation process. The report suggests that Ethiopia has sought to evade international scrutiny by creating domestic mechanisms ostensibly aimed at combating impunity.
According to the ICHREE, which has received staunch support from the Western world, genuine transitional justice in Ethiopia can only be ensured through an international justice body. The commission concluded that international human rights law has been breached in Ethiopia and that resolving these breaches cannot be achieved solely through domestic initiatives.
During a recent briefing on September 18, 2023, after presenting the report to the UN Human Rights Council, Mohamed Chande Othman, the Tanzanian chair of ICHREE, shared the commission’s perspective on the situation in Ethiopia. He stated that the Ethiopian Transitional Government lacks inclusivity, transparency, and was hastily established to meet governmental deadlines.
“NTG does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute international crimes committed in Ethiopia. For instance, there is no way the NTG can press charges against Eritrean forces,” he said, characterizing the NTG as a deliberate attempt by the Ethiopian government to evade international scrutiny.
Othman highlighted impunity as a major issue in Ethiopia.
According to the commissioners of the ICHREE, a number of parties bear responsibility for the atrocities committed in Ethiopia. These include the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigrayan forces, Amhara regional forces, militias, Fano, and the Oromo Liberation Front. If ICHREE proceeds with prosecution, political and military leaders may be held accountable before an international court of justice or a court venue under the African Union (AU). However, it should be noted that the AU has already closed that particular avenue.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, a member of the ICHREE commission and former chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, highlighted the egregious nature of the atrocities committed by Eritrean forces in Ethiopia. She compared the situation to other instances of atrocities around the world, including the case of Rwanda, stating that Ethiopia stands out as one of the worst cases she has witnessed.
Coomaraswamy also mentioned that the commission had requested the Ethiopian government’s engagement on transitional justice issues but had not received a response.
The Ethiopian government has vehemently accused the UN of establishing the ICHREE with the ulterior motive of advancing the political interests of the West in Ethiopia. The government went so far as to request the UN to defund ICHREE and oppose the extension of its mandate. However, these appeals were unsuccessful as the votes at the UN Human Rights Council favored the continuation of ICHREE’s work.
The current mandate of ICHREE is set to expire by December 2023, and another voting session is expected to determine its future.
Despite the government’s objections, the commissioners of ICHREE are advocating for an extension of the commissions mandate, citing ongoing investigations that remain unfinished. They emphasize that their inability to conduct investigations underscores the need for a thorough international investigation.
“We could not conduct the investigations with the political leaders, military commanders, and high-ranking officials of the parties to the conflicts,” added Othman.
Numerous international human rights organizations are actively advocating for the extension of the ICHREE’s mandate.
Officials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice have acknowledged the external interests in transitional justice in Ethiopia, while asserting that the ruling Prosperity Party itself may not have the same level of vested interest. They further point out that the protracted conflicts in Oromia and Amhara regions could potentially impact the implementation of the Ethiopian Transitional Government.
According to Marishet Tadesse, a member of the NTG team at the Ministry of Justice, stakeholder discussions in Oromia and Amhara have not yet been concluded, as Ethiopia continues to grapple with ongoing conflicts.
“This national homegrown transitional justice is necessitated because it is difficult to ensure justice for the human rights violations through the conventional court system. Once the transitional justice policy is finalized, multiple institutions will be established to carry out its execution,” Marishet says.
Those institutions, he says, will work on investigations, prosecution, court proceedings, compensation, and reconciliation.