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The Human Rights Council (HRC), the premier human rights body of the United Nations (UN), among many other human rights issues, will decide on the future of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE).  This commission was established to investigate and establish the facts and the circumstances surrounding alleged violations and abuses of international human rights committed during Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, which began on November 4, 2020.

On September 14, 2023, ICHREE submitted its second report that details the atrocities committed in Ethiopia and called for further investigation. ICHREE also reiterated its call for unrestricted access to regions where grave atrocities persist. Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law leads ICHREE to recommend ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations. It has asserted the long-held view that Ethiopia’s journey toward a future of lasting peace hinges on the establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, it is vital to establish the truth for the reason, and given the distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation and help accomplish this.

Nonetheless, despite its essential work so far and the fact that atrocities continue to be committed and the Ethiopian government is unwilling to ensure genuine transitional justice process and accountability, ICHREE now faces an uncertain future as the HRC debates its renewal. The hopes and demands of millions of victims and their families for truth and justice hang in the balance. Extending ICHREE’s mandate is crucial. Any decision to the contrary will go against the core principles of the HRC upon which it is founded.

Based on their voting behavior of 2021 and 2022, except for Malawi, which has abstained, most of the 13 African members, 6 of the 8 Latin American and Caribbean members, majority of 13 Asia-Pacific States will probably vote against the renewal of the extension. Recent reports show that the US has indicated its readiness to support a bid by the Ethiopian government to end the ICHREE, and 7 Western and 6 Eastern European States may follow suit.

While national interest and geopolitical consideration might explain this change in US and EU policy to ending the ICHREE mandate, they also argue that the anticipated national transitional justice process set out in the Pretoria peace deal makes ICHREE redundant.

ICHREE has also confirmed a long-held view that the government of Ethiopia “has failed to effectively investigate violations and has initiated a flawed transitional justice consultation process. Ethiopia has sought to evade international scrutiny through the creation of domestic mechanisms ostensibly to fight impunity.” ICHREE reports that the complete lack of trust in Ethiopian state institutions to conduct a credible transitional justice process is a recurring theme among the population. The government’s consultation process has fallen short of African Union and international standards, inadequately reflecting victims’ voices and being constrained by arbitrary deadlines. Impunity remains the norm, exacerbating the risk of future atrocity crimes. This challenging situation is compounded by the weakness of state structures responsible for providing protection, including ineffective national laws and a lack of independence in key institutions such as the judiciary and law enforcement. Widespread mistrust in state institutions and domestic accountability mechanisms, exacerbated by the politicization of the transitional justice process, has further eroded public confidence.

The horrific toll of the Tigray war

According to the 2022 Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) of Uppsala University, the Tigray war marked 2022 as the deadliest year since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, contributing significantly to a 97% global surge in organized violence. This war was waged by the Ethiopian government, significantly assisted by external forces, primarily the Eritrean Defence Forces.

Waged by the Ethiopian government, with substantial assistance from external entities, chiefly the Eritrean Defence Forces, a comprehensive blockade and media blackout were imposed on the region for over two years. The Tigray conflict led to a staggering 600 000 deaths, the deliberate starvation of over 5.7 million people, the pervasive use of rape and sexual assaults on thousands as weapons of war, and the displacement of more than 2 million in an ethnic cleansing campaign.

ICHREE confirmed that between November 2020 and July 2023, over “10,000 survivors, primarily women and girls. By comparison, the Commission is aware of only 13 concluded and 16 pending Ethiopian military court cases addressing sexual violence committed during the conflict. Such cases cannot be said to render meaningful justice for survivors, particularly considering the historical and contemporaneous impunity in Ethiopia for such acts.”

Additionally, the report confirmed the siege on Tigray, destruction of livelihoods, and denial of humanitarian access to Tigray, emphasizing that these actions violate the prohibition on starvation as a method of warfare. ICHREE confirmed civilian deaths directly linked to the manufactured humanitarian crisis leading up to the CoHA.

Geo-political manoeuvres

Both ICHREE and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have confirmed that these forces were guilty of ethnic cleansing, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Despite the US Secretary of State’s recent decision to exclude the designation of genocide, reports by Foreign Policy suggest that US government experts concluded that, in addition to other crimes, acts of genocide had, in fact, been perpetrated against the Tigray people: “The State Department drafted a declaration in 2021 that the Ethiopian government’s actions in Tigray constituted genocide, according to three US officials familiar with the matter, but never released the declaration.” ICHREE also revealed that the Ethiopian army and its allies frequently used sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls, at times with the intent to render them infertile and therefore annihilate the Tigrayan ethnicity. 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.”

The latest US position appears influenced more by geo-political considerations than by any change in the policies of the Eritrean, Amhara, and Ethiopian forces. Despite its deadly nature and the resulting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide, the Tigray war remains underreported. Compared to the conflict in Ukraine, the Tigray war has received minimal attention and resources, presumably owing to its diminished significance in the geo-political considerations of powerful nations.

The decision of the ongoing HRC will act as a barometer in measuring the world’s commitment to human rights in the Global South. If the HRC and its members genuinely condemn these atrocities, they need to demonstrate their commitment to accountability by extending ICHREE’s mandate.

Transition on paper, war in reality

On 2 November 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa, the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front signed a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities agreement, hoping to conclude the two years of conflict. However, since then, calls for justice and accountability have largely gone unanswered. The peace agreement’s accountability clauses remain vague, and there seems to be an overwhelming lack of political motivation to address them.

Independent international investigations into these atrocities have encountered deliberate obstacles. ICHREE has faced continual resistance from the Ethiopian government and its allies in the HRC since its inception. In an alarming development for international human rights organizations, a parallel inquiry by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was silenced and subsequently terminated by the African Union (AU). Both had been established to probe Ethiopia’s war on Tigray, aiming to unearth the causes of the conflict and hold offenders accountable. The AU’s decision undermines the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, setting a perilous precedent for future inquiries into human rights abuses. Moreover, reports of confidential negotiations between global powers and the Ethiopian government cloud the future of ICHREE. ICHREE continues to call for Ethiopia to cooperate “with ICHREE and other international and regional human rights mechanisms, including granting them unconditional access to all areas of Ethiopia.”

Arguments against these international investigative commissions often emphasize national sovereignty, the Pretoria peace accord, and Ethiopia’s commitment to transitional justice. Article 10 of the Pretoria agreement underlines the importance of a robust national transitional justice policy. While certain countries – China, Russia, and some other HRC members, including those from Africa — view such an investigative mechanism as an infringement on sovereignty, the US and EU support ending the ICHREE mandate based on the anticipated national transitional justice procedures set out in the Pretoria accord.

Recently, the Ethiopian government introduced its transitional justice policy, titled ‘Policy Options for Transitional Justice in Ethiopia’ (TJP). Nevertheless, this policy is mired in controversy, primarily since the Tigray region—one of the significant parties to the Pretoria Agreement—has rejected it. The central contention is the glaring absence of significant consultation with victims, directly affected communities, crucial stakeholders, and representatives of conflict hotspots, predominantly the Tigrayans, during the TJP’s formulation. This lack of inclusivity challenges the policy’s legitimacy, as it appears indifferent to the distinct needs, rights, and interests of these communities.

Furthermore, the TJP’s overarching approach to all Ethiopian conflicts, regardless of their causes, dynamics, and consequences on communities, fails to recognize the particularities of each conflict. Its handling of the Tigray war is a case in point, where long-standing political campaigns, antagonism towards Tigrayans, military collaborations, and egregious tactics like media blackouts, forced starvation, and mass rapes were commonplace.

Additionally, the TJP does not adequately address the broader geopolitical scenario under which these atrocities occured. Critics underscore the policy’s narrow scope, exclusion of victims, impediments to reconciliation, and a worrying trend of state-sanctioned impunity. The TJP’s inclination towards “national sovereignty” at the expense of its “responsibility to protect” its citizens raises significant concerns. It emphasizes reconciliation over holding wrongdoers accountable, potentially sidestepping international probes, especially from ICHREE.

Furthermore, the ICHREE considers Ethiopia’s support and full cooperation with an international investigation mechanism as one of the fundamental indicators of a government’s sincerity in pursuing a transitional justice process meeting international standards. This, as part of establishing the facts surrounding the war, is one of the primary and foundational actions for genuine transitional justice. Therefore, ICHREE recommends that, given Ethiopia’s failure to credibly investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, the Human Rights Council should support ongoing international scrutiny and investigations into past and ongoing violations.

Ethiopia’s deepening poly-crisis

Ethiopia is trapped in a swiftly deteriorating, multi-dimensional predicament. ICHREE highlights a shift toward securitization in Ethiopia, with civilian administration being replaced by militarized “Command Posts.” State–society relationships continue to crumble, culminating in amplified armed conflicts, atrocities, and breakdown of governance. Due to multiple intertwined factors, the armed unrest in Ethiopia shows no signs of subsiding soon. The main reasons for this include widespread dissatisfaction with the Pretoria agreement, an escalating horizontal power struggle, and a collapsing economy. However, the persistent violence and political upheaval in Ethiopia suggest neither a peaceful transition nor a transitional political arrangement. Conflict and atrocities endure in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Gambella, and Benishangul Gumuz regions. War and atrocities continue in various Ethiopian regions. The ICHREE report confirms the continuation of war and atrocities in various Ethiopian regions, including the Wollega zones, Guji, Borana, and parts of West Shewa. It also notes that certain Amhara groups, such as Fano, enjoy considerable local support, similar to that of TDF and OLA.

The prevailing conditions in Ethiopia are not conducive for an earnest transitional justice initiative. With conflicts continuing in numerous regions, the nation seems to be diverging further from peace. The Ethiopian justice framework is viewed as biased, deficient in its capacity, and lacking the determination to hold entities accountable, particularly for transgressions committed by the Eritrean government. It also neglects the vast magnitude of human rights breaches and the ongoing mass atrocities, even after the Pretoria accord’s signing.

ICHREE confirms the occurrence of grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes in Tigray, and the Amhara, Afar, and Oromia regions. These violations encompass mass killings, sexual violence, starvation, forced displacement, and arbitrary detention. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE emphasizes that the African Union and states supporting the CoHA (Ceasefire and Humanitarian Agreement) use their best efforts to ensure that the CoHA parties fulfill their obligations, particularly regarding accountability, the protection of civilians, humanitarian assistance, internally displaced persons, and transitional justice. The conflict in Tigray persists, with ongoing atrocities occurring, including those committed by the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) and Amhara militia. Hostilities have escalated to a national scale, posing significant risks to the state, regional stability, and human rights in East Africa.

Furthermore, despite the Pretoria deal’s role in ending active combat, it has failed to deliver on its promises. This failure primarily stems from the Ethiopian Federal Government’s inability to fulfill commitments related to human rights, transitional justice, and territorial integrity. ICHREE pronounces that the African Union Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM), and UN OCHA have been undermined by Eritrean government forces operating in Ethiopian territory. With regard to the AU and UN, ICHREE calls on the AU to make their best efforts to ensure that the Pretoria deal is implemented.

Considering Ethiopia’s current tumultuous state, characterized by continued hostilities and a lack of meaningful progress on the Pretoria Deal’s foundational pledges, one questions the nation’s readiness for a genuine transitional justice mechanism. This skepticism is exacerbated by recurring state-led offenses and unrest in areas like Amhara, Oromia, and Gambella. Fundamental questions that emerge in this context are:

  • Is Ethiopia earnestly moving towards peace or an inclusive democratic system?
  • Can Ethiopia’s current socio-political and economic environment support a genuine transitional justice initiative?
  • Is there a discernible commitment towards transitional justice in Ethiopia?
  • Does this commitment spring from a genuine intent, or is it merely a smokescreen to conceal impunity?

Transitional justice without transition to peace or transitional politics

Tigray, as represented by the Interim Administration established in accordance with the Pretoria Agreement, has rejected the transitional process and draft policy as is. In essence, in the face of Tigray’s rejection, Ethiopia does not have an active transitional justice policy. The power imbalances in Ethiopia’s transitional justice policy often benefit the stronger party – in this case, the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government’s upper hand over Tigray imperils transitional justice, yet again underscoring the need for international oversight and support. However, the national initiatives seem to lack the necessary independence and capability, especially in terms of holding all perpetrators, including Eritrean forces, accountable. National endeavors to unearth this truth are frequently swayed by prevailing power dynamics, underscoring the critical need for an unbiased entity like ICHREE.

The Ethiopian stance on transitional justice shows a lack of resolute intent. The Ethiopian legal infrastructure does not explicitly categorize crimes against humanity, leading to challenges in prosecuting those accountable. The inclusion of foreign entities, chiefly the Eritrean forces, further muddies the legal waters. In this regard, the pressing worry is the TJP’s potential ineffectiveness in averting future atrocity crimes.

Ethiopia’s journey towards a future of lasting peace hinges on the post-war establishment of political and legal accountability. Without accountability, the recurrence of such heinous acts remains a tangible threat. For this, two key steps are essential: First, it is necessary to establish the truth. Ethiopians must agree that truth is the foundation for progress beyond the war and towards lasting peace. Otherwise, the truth remains contested and weaponized for power, resources, and identity politics. Facts surrounding the recent wars, severe and widespread human rights violations, and other significant events must be ascertained, or the “truth” will continue to be manipulated. Second, given the evident distrust and limitations of national institutions, only an impartial international entity, such as ICHREE, can provide an objective evaluation.

Truth and Truth as the bedrock

Truth is the linchpin for reconciliation, accountability, and sustainable peace. For transitional justice to gain a foothold in Ethiopia, establishing the truth about the wars is paramount.  Without the truth, the transitional justice process, in its existing design, might perpetuate denial and grant impunity rather than champion justice, increasing the likelihood of its rejection by victims and the wider Ethiopian populace. The current TJP, which seems hasty, warrants a revisit based on independently ascertained facts.

ICHREE’s indispensable role 

The conflict in various parts of the country should culminate in a comprehensive peace process addressing the root causes. With UN mandate, independence, capacity, and experience, the ICHREE is uniquely equipped to impartially establish the comprehensive truth, given local constraints and the distrust of national institutions and challenges in their independence. Its impartial inquiry, including investigations into Eritrean government actions, stands a better chance of laying the groundwork for a victim-centric transitional justice process. No alternatives have the same credibility, capability, and impartiality required to establish these facts authoritatively. Terminating ICHREE’s mandate not only contravenes the HRC’s cardinal mission of upholding human rights but also risks perpetuating a relentless cycle of violence and transgressions in Ethiopia.

Given the ongoing wars and atrocities in Ethiopia, and considering the findings in the ICHREE report, now is the moment to reinforce ICHREE, not terminate it.