Can Ethiopia’s government be held accountable for crimes in the civil war after complaint filed at the AU?

By Fred Harter
Posted on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 15:34

Angesom Mezgebo, offer a flower to commemorate Gebrehiwot Yemane and Haben Sahle Newfie, his two-nephews, who were among the people killed by attacks in Tigray, the northernmost region in Ethiopia,Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

On 8 February, a group of lawyers submitted a landmark complaint to the African Union Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, accusing Ethiopia's government of serious human rights violations against civilians in Tigray.

The action, brought by Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) and the Pan African Lawyers Association, is the first legal case against Ethiopia for abuses committed during the conflict in the north of the country.

It accuses Ethiopian troops in Tigray of committing massacres, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and mass displacements. It does not cover violations allegedly perpetrated by other parties to the conflict, such as Amhara ethnic militias, Eritrean troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

“We know and recognise that there are victims ­­­on many different sides of this conflict, as well as different perpetrators within the conflict, including non-state actors,” Antonia Mulvey, LAW’s Executive Director, tells The Africa Report.

“However, we filed this case against the Ethiopian government because it has a primary responsibility for the protection of civilians within its borders, and for the actions of both its own military and any armed groups within its borders.”

The AU rights commission – which was founded in Ethiopia in 1987 but currently sits in Gambia – convenes on 23 February. The lawyers hope the body issues emergency actions against Ethiopia and initiates an investigation into the allegations.

Foreign interference

Throughout the conflict in northern Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has consistently characterised international outcry at human rights abuses as foreign interference in his country’s affairs. Mulvey said her team submitted their complaint to the AU commission because Ethiopia is a member and cannot easily dismiss its legitimacy.

“We chose the African Commission because we want an African institution to solve an Africa problem,” said Mulvey, echoing a phrase often used by Abiy. “Let us not forget that the African Commission was established in Ethiopia. We want to remind Ethiopia of its obligations and responsibilities, and to see it take some actions to protect civilians.”

The complaint submitted by Mulvey and her colleagues is the latest attempt to obtain accountability for human rights abuses committed during the conflict between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Abiy promised a swift victory when the war erupted in November 2020 but the fighting has dragged on for more than 15 months.

Denying atrocities

Early on, Abiy’s government imposed a total communications blackout on the Tigray and barred media access. When reports of atrocities including massacres and gang rapes started to seep out of the region, Ethiopian officials resorted to flat out denial.

Following reports, for example, of a massacre of hundreds of civilians by Eritrean troops in the holy Tigrayan city of Axum, a senior Ethiopian diplomat dismissed them  as “very, very crazy”, and Abiy would not admit the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray until April 2021, five months after they entered the region.

At the same time, the government amplified reports of atrocities committed by the Tigray side, seizing on findings by the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and also from Amnesty International, that Tigrayan forces massacred hundreds of people in the western Tigray town of Mai Kadra during the opening weeks of the war. It is still not clear what happened in Mai Kadra, with Tigrayan refugees who fled to Sudan also claiming that pro-government forces were responsible for killings there.

Slight shift in position

Since then the government has shifted its position slightly, accepting some measure of accountability for abuses. An investigation by the attorney general’s office into the Axum massacre concluded that Eritrean troops had indeed killed civilians, citing 110 as the death toll . In May the department announced that prosecutors had convicted three Ethiopian troops for rape and charged 28 others with killing civilians in Tigray.

Yet rights groups say these investigations lack transparency, and no further announcements have been made regarding prosecutions of soldiers. When asked by The Africa Report if more soldiers had been convicted since May, the attorney general’s office did not give a figure.

“The attorney general’s office has made repeated assurances to undertake investigations into rights abuses, but it’s not clear whether or not they’ve materialised,” says Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“There have been a few public statements from the attorney general’s office on the status of investigations and referring to a handful of military trials underway. But there was no clarity as to the rank of these individuals facing trial, the types of evidence and what they were being charged with. Others are being prosecuted by the military court, another body that is completely opaque.”

Independent investigations not welcomed

Meanwhile the government has displayed an unwillingness to allow independent investigations. Researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not been able to enter the country, and in June, when the AU launched a probe into human rights violations committed in Tigray, Ethiopia’s government called on the body to “immediately cease” the probe. It has made little progress. Similarly, officials have stated they will not cooperate with an investigation by a panel of experts set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council in December.

Instead, the government has endorsed the conclusions of a joint investigation by the UN and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Council into abuses committed in Tigray between November 2020 and June 2021. Published in November last year, it found that all parties to the conflict in Tigray were guilty of abuses including killings of civilians, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions and torture.

There are enormous gaping holes in the joint investigation.

Significantly, it absolved the government of allegations that it had deliberately blocked the delivery of aid to Tigray, despite private complaints from humanitarians  that their work had been hindered.

The report suffered from several blind spots, with the investigative teams unable to travel to swathes of Tigray that had been recaptured by the TPLF, including Axum, As a result, they had to rely on the testimonies of displaced people from the city. Several other massacres, such as the one committed by Eritrean troops in the central Tigray village of Dengelat in November, were not covered by the report at all.

“There are enormous gaping holes in the joint investigation,” says Bader. “They did say that it was not a comprehensive report, but they were not clear about what the constraints on their movements meant for their findings…they did not visit the sites of some of the worst abuses of the conflict, there were gaps in their depictions of attacks on humanitarians, in the types of sexual violence and they didn’t document sexual slavery, which has been reported by a range of organisations, for example.”

Shortly after the report was published, Abiy said: “We are heartened by the fact that the joint investigation dispels some of the insidious and baseless accusations that have been levelled against the Government of Ethiopia.”

New inter-ministerial taskforce

On 29 November, the government established an inter-ministerial taskforce to follow up the recommendations to the joint report. The body’s mandate extends to cover human rights abuses committed in the Amhara and Afar regions after the TPLF entered them in July, and it comprises of four committees chaired by the ministries of justice, peace, women and social affairs, and finance.

the only option is to join the front line.'”]

The taskforce’s 158 investigators start training this week (24 February) and will be deployed to nine regions in Amhara and Afar, where their investigations are expected to last four to five months. But no date has been set for them to visit Tigray, which is under TPLF control, and there are questions as to whether government and TPLF abuses will be investigated with equal depth.

The point we want to make is that justice will be served not just by arresting perpetrators, but by prosecuting them and holding them accountable for their actions.

“The situation does not permit any investigators to enter Tigray right now,” Tadesse Kassa, the task force’s chair, tells The Africa Report. “But our plans for investigations include the region. The investigation committee is composed of police officers, prosecutors and other professionals, and they can only operate in regions where the federal government can guarantee the security situation on the ground.”

Tadesse adds that Eritrea and the TPLF have refused to cooperate with the task force. Nonetheless, he says he is optimistic that the body will be able to deliver justice for victims.

“Most of the proceedings will obviously be in absentia, because we don’t have a lot of the people responsible for the violations in our custody,” he says. “The point we want to make is that justice will be served not just by arresting perpetrators, but by prosecuting them and holding them accountable for their actions.”

Failure of previous taskforce

However, critics point out that a previous taskforce from the ministry for women and children, responsible for investigating claims of sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers in Tigray, failed to yield results. The minister responsible, Filsan Abdi, eventually resigned in September, claiming that senior officials blocked her from publishing the findings of her report.

“We brought back the most painful stories, and every side was implicated, but when I wanted to release our findings, I was told that I was crossing a line,” Filsan told The Washington Post in December. “’You can’t do that,’ is what an official very high up in Abiy’s office called and told me.”

TPLF rejects allegations

For its part, the TPLF has rejected human rights abuses levelled against it in the Afar and Amhara regions while also promising to carry out investigations. So far there have been none. Most recently, the TPLF dismissed the findings of an Amnesty International report that accused the group’s fighters of killing dozens of people and raping women and girls in the Amhara towns of Chenna and Kobo. “The attacks were often characterized by additional acts of violence and brutality, death threats, and the use of ethnic slurs and derogatory remarks,” Amnesty said.

We have to hope the Africa commission, when they sit on 23rd Feburary, will seize this case and issue emergency measures against Ethiopia. This would be an incredibly important step.

Bader points out that collecting evidence as quickly as possible and granting early access to investigators is critical to building viable cases against suspects accused of war time abuses. Much crucial information may already be lost, and the lack of government cooperation with the various independent probes means that “the chances for credible accountability are very slim,” she says.

Mulvey says their investigation into Tigray “has been one of the most difficult cases we have prepared” given the difficulties gaining access to victims. She compares the region to other conflict zones such as Myanmar. Yet she believes the complaint they have submitted to the AU’s commission on people’s and human rights will secure accountability.

“We have to hope,” she said. “We have to hope the Africa commission, when they sit on 23rd Feburary, will seize this case and issue emergency measures against Ethiopia. This would be an incredibly important step. We hope it will lead to more cases and give the African community an opportunity to act. More importantly, it gives the victims a voice.”

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