A civil war that started in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s Tigray region devolved into a brutal conflict and humanitarian crisis. The conflict included multiple armed actors, all of whom are alleged to have committed mass atrocities. A ceasefire agreement in November 2022 brought a formal end to the conflict, but civilians remain at serious risk of mass atrocities. Despite the ceasefire agreement, serious human rights violations continue in Ethiopia's Tigray region, and conflict continues to rage across the country.
As part of the ceasefire agreement (under Article 10), the government of Ethiopia has put forward a transitional justice policy. Any transitional justice effort faces the enormous task of addressing severe harm that has been inflicted against multiple communities, and building the path to a peaceful future. Because the government of Ethiopia has been implicated in mass atrocity crimes, civil society organizations hold serious doubts about the government of Ethiopia's plans for transitional justice.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide convened civil society leaders from Ethiopia in July 2023 to discuss how best to measure transitional justice efforts in the country, and what benchmarks would be required for success. This post summarizes key points from that discussion.
Discussion with Civil Society
Civil society organizations hold serious doubts about the prospects that a party to the conflict—a party that has been implicated in mass atrocity crimes—can shepherd a genuine, inclusive, and transparent transitional justice process that will redress and repair the significant harm communities across Ethiopia have suffered.
The conversation focused on how to measure transitional justice efforts in the country, and what benchmarks would be required for success.
This discussion with Ethiopian civil society members was one of many. Previous discussions have focused on transitional justice mechanisms generally, and past conversations included consistent calls from civil society for a full spectrum of transitional justice mechanisms. The conversation summarized below shows how civil society groups see the importance of various transitional justice mechanisms, and how they see them interacting with each other.
Several participants questioned whether the government of Ethiopia had the political will to advance genuine transitional justice measures, and whether, given the history of crimes committed by state actors, there would be sufficient trust between the government and civil society to move transitional justice measures forward.
Some expressed concern about legitimizing a transitional justice process on the part of the government that seemed unlikely to produce satisfactory measures to repair the harm suffered by victims and survivors of mass atrocities. Some questioned whether transitional justice measures could successfully move forward in an environment where grave human rights violations persist.
Participants also stressed that serious human rights violations were committed before 2020 in southern Ethiopia, where communities remain at risk today, and that transitional justice efforts should not be limited to Tigray nor post-2020 crimes. Participants agreed that non-repetition of war is a priority, and there was discussion about what kinds of transitional justice approaches would be required to achieve that goal. There was general pessimism about whether conditions have been met for genuine transitional justice efforts in the country to take hold.
Knowing that the government of Ethiopia is implementing its transitional justice policy, participants were interested in discussing how to create an enabling environment so that a genuine consultative process may unfold. There was a sense that the government’s transitional justice process should not serve as a cover to avoid other forms of accountability. There was consensus that the future of the country may be tied to how the crimes of the recent past are addressed—or not.
Amidst this backdrop of serious concerns, the participants in the discussion sought to answer the following questions: What does successful transitional justice in Ethiopia look like? If there were to be transitional justice efforts that are genuine, inclusive, and transparent, what would that require?
Summary of Discussion
The discussion was structured around four general and mutually reinforcing themes of transitional justice: understanding the nature and scope of the crimes, holding those responsible to account, redressing harm to victims, and preventing future crimes. The following are key points from that discussion:
Ensure civil society organizations are fully integrated in any transitional justice process, with an emphasis placed on building trust with and among those organizations.
Ensure local civil society groups operating in Ethiopia have the resources, technical support, and expertise to gather and preserve information regarding grave human rights violations.
Develop genuine consultations with victims and survivors. There needs to be full consultation with groups within Ethiopia in order to understand what they need to repair the harms they have suffered, and in order to build trust.
Create an inclusive process to understand the timeline of crimes committed and to decide how far back information collection processes should go. Ensure that victim experiences are considered in this decision.
Understanding crimes and redressing harm
Because crimes are continuing today, do not end the timeline of evidence collection with the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. Acknowledge that civilians continue to suffer even after the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement. Crimes continue, though on a lesser scale, and access to essential services remains limited.
Ensure leaders implementing transitional justice efforts are independent and impartial.
Ensure there is representation from various regions in documentation efforts.
Ensure fact-finding is shaped in order to understand the nature and scope of crimes against children, in order to avoid having an adult-centered understanding of the crimes.
Ensure a focus on victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based crimes, including mechanisms that can provide them with the medical, psychological, and security support required to come forward and share information.
Analyze the environment in which crimes were committed, including looking at hate speech and disinformation online, and the destruction of necessary infrastructure.
Information collection should include looking at all actors in the conflict, including countries that may have provided some level of support to armed actors.
Properly protect those who share testimony, data, or other evidence with those conducting documentation or truth-seeking efforts.
Ensure there are sufficient resources, including specialized expertise, to understand the crimes.
Make sure research is conducted into crimes across the country, so that each region and each crime receives the value and attention it deserves.
Ensure researchers have the capacity to analyze national and regional laws within Ethiopia in order to gain a fuller understanding of the nature of the crimes.
Restitution should include returning property, as well as restoring pathways to sustainable employment. Financial reparation would be necessary to reverse the harm done.
Ensuring a peaceful and stable future
Ensure the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement is upheld.
Some level of formal, legal accountability is important in order to prevent recurrence of crimes. Domestic approaches should be a part of the discussion, even if not politically feasible.
There needs to be greater education for people throughout Ethiopia on justice options, and what transitional justice could mean, including local or traditional approaches.
There needs to be a network of civil society within Ethiopia to advance the implementation of transitional justice efforts - and such a network does not exist today.
Institutions are already weak and need to be strengthened. Support federalism so that the institutions that are most responsive to their populations can be strengthened.
Institutions should serve as impartial checks on bureaucracy and political power.
Develop and strengthen bonds between communities in Ethiopia. Foster respectful co existence, which has been shattered, while paying special attention to vulnerable groups.
An international body, or group of independent actors could be developed to monitor the success of transitional justice efforts.