Amid Ethiopia talks, report finds mass atrocities in war

Tigray soldiers arriving in Mekele on June 29, 2021.

Tigray soldiers arriving in Mekele on June 29, 2021.

What you need to know:

  • In hostilities that resumed last month, the Ethiopian national forces, Amhara regional government forces, and Eritrean forces are fighting Tigrayan regional forces over basic governance issues.

The Ethiopian government announced on October 6 that it was ready to attend peace talks with Tigray Region Authority to be mediated by the African Union and led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

The talks, set to begin on October 8, were accepted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s national security adviser Redwan Hussein.

“The AU has issued an invitation for peace talks. The government of Ethiopia has accepted this invitation which is in line with our principled position regarding the peaceful resolution of the conflict and the need to have talks without preconditions,” Mr Hussein wrote on Twitter. 

But as the protagonists prepare for peace talks to end the war that broke out in 2020 and has killed more than 465,000 people, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has released a report detailing widespread human rights abuses and demanding justice and accountability from those responsible for the atrocities.

The report entitled, “Justice Options for Ethiopia: Eight Options to Provide Redress for Ethiopia’s Victims”, says the country needs justice and accountability mechanisms to demonstrate that perpetrators of crimes against humanity will not escape punishment.

In hostilities that resumed last month, the Ethiopian national forces (ENDF), Amhara regional government forces, and Eritrean forces (EDF) are fighting Tigrayan regional forces (TDF) over basic governance issues.

All sides have been accused of committing horrific crimes including murder, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, and deliberate starvation, with complete impunity. Elsewhere in Ethiopia, Oromo forces (OLA) and other militia have also perpetrated crimes. 

The report proposes establishing transitional justice mechanisms including criminal accountability, reparations (including compensation, rehabilitation, mental health support, access to medical care, land and property restitution, and apologies), and guarantees that the crimes will not be repeated.

There is also a need to hold perpetrators of crimes on all sides to account while avoiding making false equivalency between crimes perpetrated by different groups. The report also recommends conducting a truly representative and meaningful national dialogue with an international mediator, and addressing historical and ongoing crimes and violations.

The museum investigators note that successive regimes in Ethiopia have committed mass atrocities with complete impunity. “This has left Ethiopian society without a shred of recognition or repair and has fostered a perception that perpetrators can commit atrocity crimes without facing consequences for their actions,” the report says.

But the Ethiopian Federal Attorney-General's Office investigated several cases concerning federal government soldiers accused of killing and raping civilians. These investigations resulted in the conviction of four soldiers of such crimes in May 2021. 

Atrocity crimes

The first of eight options proposed in the report is to set up a special chamber that could be created within the ordinary Ethiopian criminal justice system to prosecute atrocity crimes.

“Given the complexity of prosecuting atrocity crimes, it would be necessary for the international community to provide training and technical assistance to Ethiopian officials responsible for prosecuting and hearing such cases,” the first option says.

The second is to set up mechanisms for reparations as most of the Ethiopians interviewed for the report endorsed pursuing forms of justice that extend beyond criminal accountability to include reparations, guarantees of non-recurrence, and truth-telling mechanisms.

This model would be similar to that adopted in the Gambia after the ouster of former president Yahya Jammeh in 2017. The truth commission in the West African country gave people the opportunity to tell their stories and has proposed specific individuals to prosecute.

The third option is that prosecutions for atrocity crimes committed in Ethiopia could take place in other countries under the principle of universal justice, which permits states to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes.

Recent examples of such prosecutions were in Sweden, Germany, and Belgium for crimes against humanity committed in Syria. But the report notes that most African states, especially Ethiopia’s neighbours, have opposed the principle.

The fourth is to establish an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to prosecute atrocity crimes committed in Ethiopia. Most individuals interviewed expressed support for the creation of a court in an African country such as Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is another option to prosecute international crimes of aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But the challenge is that Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that created the ICC. This option can only succeed if the UN Security Council could refer the situation in Ethiopia to the ICC under Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute.

Other options include allowing the UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, which recently released a similar report on atrocities, to return to Ethiopia and cover the areas that it could not cover because of non-cooperation from the government.

It also proposes that the international community provide support to local organisations in the Tigray region that are seeking to keep a record of crimes that have occurred. Finally, the report suggests that the US government lead its own investigation into the situation, following a model similar to its investigations in Darfur and Myanmar.