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Washington should not engage with the country’s government unless it pursues accountability for war crimes

March 14, 2023

Washington should not engage with the country’s government unless it pursues accountability for war crimes.

By Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University
Abadir M. Ibrahim, associate director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.
MARCH 14, 2023

Abiy Ahmed

Now that the two-year civil war in Tigray and its surrounding regions is over, discussions have begun about transitional justice in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, a policy debate is taking place in the United States on whether and how to lift economic restrictions put on Ethiopia due to its massive human rights violations during the war.

In a debate between those favoring condemnation versus engagement, the latter group seems to have gained the upper hand. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, on Tuesday. The United Nations Human Rights Council is also about to hear a report this month on Ethiopia and possibly vote on the future of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE).

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Ethiopian government is keen on proposing a transitional justice process—on its terms. Although the world should rejoice at the prospect of transitional justice in the wake of a bloody civil war that claimed around 600,000 lives—according to Olusegun Obasanjo, Horn of Africa envoy for the African Union—Ethiopia is unfortunately unprepared to embark on this task.

Now that the two-year civil war in Tigray and its surrounding regions is over, discussions have begun about transitional justice in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, a policy debate is taking place in the United States on whether and how to lift economic restrictions put on Ethiopia due to its massive human rights violations during the war.

In a debate between those favoring condemnation versus engagement, the latter group seems to have gained the upper hand. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, on Tuesday. The United Nations Human Rights Council is also about to hear a report this month on Ethiopia and possibly vote on the future of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE).

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Ethiopian government is keen on proposing a transitional justice process—on its terms. Although the world should rejoice at the prospect of transitional justice in the wake of a bloody civil war that claimed around 600,000 lives—according to Olusegun Obasanjo, Horn of Africa envoy for the African Union—Ethiopia is unfortunately unprepared to embark on this task.

transitional justice mechanism is designed to promote or bring about accountability, justice, sustainable peace, and reconciliation in post-conflict and transitional societies through judicial and other processes that include prosecutions, reparations, truth-seeking, repentance, and various kinds of institutional reform. To succeed, a process of transitional justice ought to fulfill a number of criteria that are lacking in Ethiopia.

On the heels of the November 2022 Pretoria agreement, which halted active fighting between warring parties in Tigray but not human rights abuses that were reportedly continuing, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Justice rather surreptitiously issued a policy paper in January, which contained vague commitments to transitional justice and accountability.

Ominous signs of what is to come are already reflected in the policy paper itself, which puts notions of “sovereignty” and “national dignity” at its center. In addition to being a sign of insincerity, the adoption of such an ultranationalist position is deeply ironic. After all, any serious investigation is likely to find that Eritrea, a foreign state, was invited by the Ethiopian government to occupy Ethiopian sovereign territory, where it allegedly committed some of the most egregious human rights violations of the war.

The fact that the dominant view in Washington today advocates U.S. reengagement with Ethiopia on the grounds that national interest must trump human rights is thus welcome news for Ethiopia’s government. It perfectly aligns with the government’s urgent desire and need to use the principle of national sovereignty as an impenetrable shield against international accountability.

The centering of sovereignty and national pride in a human rights-related document is a prescription for failure. In our view, the Ethiopian government has adopted such a hypernationalist position in a bid to shield itself from international or regional processes of accountability, including possibly a hybrid mechanism such as the one that exists between the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

It appears to be interested in a monitoring and truth process through an expanded EHRC mandate, which it hopes can continue to monitor the cease-fire with the OHCHR’s regional office (which it proposes as the independent/international element) while still pursuing its own domestic investigations either through a revamped Inter-Ministerial Taskforce or a special prosecutor.

Even though it may be an exaggeration to equate this proposal, as some have done, to letting Russian President Vladimir Putin investigate alleged war crimes by his own soldiers in Ukraine, it is not so different.

The international community should be skeptical because the current initiative proposes to attain transitional justice without a transition—either from war or from authoritarianism. Furthermore, while the cessation of hostilities between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) seems to be holding, Eritrean soldiers still remain in border regions and eastern parts of Tigray as well as continue to commit human rights violations. In the Oromia region, a government offensive has been underway against the Oromo Liberation Army and Oromo Liberation Front. Describing the goal of the offensive, an Ethiopian official said, “to kill the fish drain the ocean.”

As was the case with previous transitional justice initiatives conducted exclusively by the Ethiopian government, they can be used by the government to thwart justice while staving off external pressure. The commission of inquiry established to investigate crimes against humanity in the Gambella region in 2004 was probably the most successful effort in diverting international attention, including that of Africa’s regional system of human rights enforcement.

The commission of inquiry for Addis Ababa, established to investigate 2005 post-election violence, also mostly failed because it was similarly designed to be unsuccessful. Although this commission had come close to reaching a rather timid conclusion confirming the excessive use of force by the police, it was not granted even that much leverage as a curious series of events led to the early suspension of parliament and, later, the resignation and eventual exile of the chairperson of the commission. And the commission of inquiry established in 2006 by Oromia’s parliament, and the Federal Parliamentary Assembly established in 2022 are two more recent examples of investigatory bodies that were established to cover up rather than expose human rights violations.

Even if one takes the Ethiopian government’s commitment to transitional justice at face value, it lacks the capacity to achieve it. It does not command enough faith among people. Ethiopia’s beleaguered judicial system, whose president and deputy president resigned under dubious circumstances after serving for a very brief period, is in no shape to deal with complex war crimes and crimes against humanity cases.

What’s more, the judiciary, especially the Federal Supreme Court and the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, have been active participants in the electoral dispute that set off the constitutional crisis that preceded and may have led to the outbreak of the war in Tigray.

The constitutional crisis traces its origin to a hearing led by the president of the Federal Supreme Court in a historic spectacle that was broadcast to millions of Ethiopians on live TV. The hearing, in addition to excluding critical voices, paraded a cascade of experts seemingly testifying in support of what would turn out to be the cancellation of the 2020 elections. The judicial determination, which gave the government unhindered discretion over elections under the guise of COVID-19 measures, was opposed by major opposition parties expected to win or make significant gains in 2020. The decision ushered in a series of crackdowns in the Oromia region in a little over two weeks, and the Tigray war commenced five months later.

The unanimous judicial decision in the government’s favor formed part of the drumbeat that accompanied the war. An aura of legality proved to be a critical component of a war that was justified on the basis of these decisions and waged as a “law enforcement operation” or an operation “to uphold the rule of law and constitutional order.”

Ethiopia’s government does not just have the will to thwart justice; it has the experience and capacity to do so as well.

It has already shown itself to be a capable operator in its attempts to disrupt, defund, or terminate the ICHREE; it has begun an open campaign targeting influential U.N. member states and regional organizations to this end. Before discounting the regime’s ability to succeed in its efforts, one would do well to remember that Ethiopia had been a leading actor in ensuring impunity for former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in connection with the genocide in Darfur as well as in coordinating the campaign for the mass withdrawal of African nations from the Rome Statute.

The Ethiopian government and, more importantly, its more educated members and backers should take a step back and reassess the potential harm to the country of yet another failed transitional justice initiative. Opposition groups—in this case, the TPLF and others—should have a principled approach that creates a united front on the issue of transitional justice for Ethiopia. The international community, which by now must have regretted the role it played in contributing to the success of the side that won the palace wars of 2018, must ensure that the authors of mass atrocities in the Tigray war would ultimately face transitional justice.

Transitional justice must deliver justice to the victims; it should not protect the perpetrators of brutality.

, Read More on  FP

3 Comments

  1. I am glad USA is keeping engaged with current regime of the old country. USA and its allies are the only ones putting the regime on notice for any reported violations of human rights and atrocities. It should not throw up its hands and abandon that country to the wolves in Moscow and Beijing. What happened in 1976-78 should never happen again. Those two ruffians in Moscow and Beijing will never caution the regime in Addis/Finfine when they see atrocities because both have their hands full of them.

  2. This essay is written by two peculiar men with peculiar history. One of them was one of Derg Mengistu’s gudifachaas. When many Oromos were incarcerated, murdered or forced to flee the country this one was being given all the accessories he needed. He was a lecturer at Mengistu’s university. It shows how important/valuable he was for Derg.
    The other one is someone who grew up idolizing those from his small ethnic group who were some of the top leaders of WSLF. Both these two are very good in theorizing but who failed to put what say and write in practice in the real world. They are very good at talk shops. That is what got them their current jobs.

  3. Oromia PP has lost touch with reality. Despicably corrupt officials have continued to weaken our country’s social integrity with apparent impunity. They are cold-bloodedly overseeing the massacre of thousands of citizens across the region, which is largely tumultuous & perilous. The cover-up of the Borana famine, which has starved over 800,000 people & killed 3.3 million cattle, while the regional politicians feasted on misappropriated public resources, shows how greed & ego animate the myopic & regressive politics of the region. Their ill-fated attempts to dominate state institutions & commandeer the economy under the guise of following Oromo political interests, as well as forcefully reshaping the civil society structure, particularly in AA and Oromia, are pushing Ethiopia to the brink of civil war. The Mayor’s allegation of a coup by people entering AA from other regions is a veiled assault on certain groups of people who are regularly denied access to the city. This is a false excuse for the city’s & Oromia region’s infringement on citizens’ human and political rights. The recent forceful attempt by Oromia regional & local officials to split, subdue, and reorganize #EOTC in the image of their ethnocentric politics exemplifies their desire to usurp the State and civil society to service their erroneous political agenda & insatiable greed.

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