Justice in Ethiopia must not be killed by a peace deal

Holding war criminals accountable in Ethiopia is the only way to guarantee lasting peace in the country.

People stand in line to receive food donations, at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021. Picture taken March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
People stand in line to receive food at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia on March 15, 2021 [File: Reuters/Baz Ratner]

In early November, the international community welcomed almost unanimously the peace agreement between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed in Pretoria. But while the deal is a positive step, a statement of intent to silence the guns, some hard questions remain.

In particular, the issue of accountability for the litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray remains largely unaddressed. Since the start of the conflict in November 2020, over 500,000 have died in the fighting or from famine and lack of health care. More than 5 million have been put under siege and deliberately starved; tens of thousands have been sexually assaulted; and well over 2 million have been displaced due to fighting and ethnic cleansing.

Yet, the peace deal does little for the victims of the violence who want justice. Its provisions on accountability for criminal atrocities are too loosely formulated. The agreement mentions that the Ethiopian government will adopt “a comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining the truth, redress for victims, reconciliation, and healing, consistent with the Constitution [of Ethiopia] and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework”.

This statement is too general and open to interpretation and gives enough space to the Ethiopian government to dodge responsibility and never really initiate a transitional justice process that will hold war criminals accountable.

There have already been early signs that there is no political will to seek accountability. One just has to look at the struggle of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which was tasked with investigating atrocity crimes in the war in Tigray. The commission has been undermined systematically from the very start.

When ICHREE was created, the Ethiopian government sought to prevent it from getting funding. It failed, but the budget allocated to the commission was still not enough to ensure it functions properly.

When ICHREE started work, it reported suffering from “time and staffing constraints”, as six positions within its secretariate were cut. Worse still, it did not have the full cooperation of the local authorities and was denied access to sites of alleged atrocities in Ethiopia. It even complained that its requests to other UN entities for “documents and materials of interest [were] largely deflected, or responded to after an inordinate delay”.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprised of members of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was also slow to share its internal database, the ICHREE reported.

The commission has faced all these attempts to undermine its work despite the fact that it is investigating alleged crimes by all sides of the conflict and not just the government’s forces and their allies. And its report released in September reflects that.

It states that “the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that members of the [Ethiopian National Defence Forces] committed the following war crimes: violence to life and person, in particular murder; outrages on human dignity, in particular humiliating or degrading treatment; intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects; pillage; rape; sexual slavery; sexual violence; and intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. The Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that Tigrayan forces committed the same war crimes, with the exception of sexual slavery and starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, regardless of the scale of violations.”

The report further states that the Ethiopian army and its allies have “committed widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls. In some instances, the attackers expressed an intent to render the victims infertile and used dehumanising language that suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity. Tigrayan Forces have also committed acts of rape and sexual violence, albeit on a smaller scale.”

At a September meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, representatives of the commission concluded: “the horrific and dehumanising acts of violence committed during the conflict…seem to go beyond mere intent to kill and, instead, reflect a desire to destroy.”

In light of these findings, it is not surprising that the Ethiopian government is afraid of the ICHREE inquiry and that is why it will not and cannot lead an accountability process for war atrocity crimes using the Ethiopian legal system.

However, the accountability process is being undermined not only by Addis Ababa, but also by regional players. The three African members of the UN Security Council – Kenya, Gabon and Ghana (also known as the A3) – have consistently blocked Security Council action on the conflict in Tigray.

Yet, it is not in their interest or in the interest of the African Union to do so. Justice and accountability are directly tied to peace in Ethiopia and hence stability in the region. That is why, the A3 and the African Union need to support this investigation.

There are a number of steps that need to be taken to guarantee a fair accountability process in Ethiopia.

First, the ICREE should be supported with all the necessary funding and mandate extensions to carry out its work of investigating and documenting atrocities in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has to be pressured into giving access to sites of interest and cooperating with the investigation.

Second, the International Criminal Court should be involved in the accountability process. Ethiopia is not a state party to the Rome Statute, but the UN Security Council could and should refer the case to the ICC. Russia and China could block this move, as they have done in the past with resolutions the Ethiopian government has opposed.

If this happens, there is still a way to get ICC involved – if the authorities in Addis Ababa accept its jurisdiction under Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute. That of course would only happen under major international pressure.

Third, the African Union could spearhead the accountability process by setting up a hybrid tribunal in another African country. It did that for the prosecution of former Chadian President Hissène Habré, who stood trial in Senegal in 2015. This would ensure adherence to international fair trial standards and deflect pressure to maintain impunity for war criminals.

Accountability and justice are powerful tools to prevent the repetition of atrocities and conflicts in the future. Properly investigating atrocities and then starting an accountability process is the only way to guarantee lasting peace in Ethiopia. The Pretoria peace deal will not hold long without these steps.

Already, there are signs that peace is being undermined. Abductions and killings of Tigrayan civilians continue and violence in other parts of the country has not come to a halt. A successful transitional justice process in Tigray would not only solidify peace but also pave the wave for such processes in other parts of the country that have been in conflict and seen mass killings, such as Oromia.

Victims of the war in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia have already suffered immensely. They must not be robbed of their rights to justice and redress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.