By Sareta Ashraph
On November 2, following formal peace talks mediated by the African Union, the Ethiopian government and regional forces from Tigray have agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities. It is hoped that the Agreement will bring to a close a two-year war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and left an untold number of survivors of mass atrocities—including sexual violence, torture, and starvation—in its wake. Hostilities have intensified in recent months, prompting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to release a statement warning about the commission of further crimes against humanity and a heightened risk of genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Survivors of mass atrocities have called for peace. But will justice follow peace in Ethiopia?
Encouragingly, the Agreement appears to recognize that justice is central to lasting peace. Article 1 includes as one of its eleven objectives, “to provide a framework to ensure accountability for matters arising out of the conflict.” Article 10 (3) elaborates: “The Government of Ethiopia shall implement a comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining truth, redress for victims, reconciliation, and healing, consistent with the constitution of the FDRE [Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia] and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework. The transitional justice policy shall be developed with inputs from all stakeholders, and civil society groups through public consultation and formal national policy-making processes.”
Justice and accountability are necessary given that the commission of mass atrocities, often including ethnic-based targeting, has been an intentional strategy of multiple parties to the conflict. The conflict began between the national army and Tigrayan forces before evolving to include Eritrean national forces allied with the Ethiopian government forces, the Amhara Special Forces, and Amhara militia, versus the armed wing of the TPLF, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and ethnic and other irregular militias. Multiple parties are alleged to have committed mass atrocities.
In September 2022, the UN-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia released its report, which found that “violations, such as extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence, and starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare have been committed in Ethiopia since 3 November 2020,” and determined that, “in several instances, these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” It is right, therefore, that the Agreement addresses, however vaguely, the matter of accountability.
Breaches of the Agreement have already been reported. Even if, as is hoped, the Agreement holds, its implementation will undoubtedly be challenging, not least as regards the issue of Eritrean forces, which fought alongside Ethiopia and were identified by survivors as having committed atrocities, including killings and rape. The Eritrean government was not part of the peace talks and considers the Tigrayan authorities a threat. It remains unclear whether it will respect the Agreement or act as spoilers. Article 3(2) obliges Ethiopian and Tigrayan parties to stop “collusion with any external force hostile to either party.”
Moreover, the Ethiopian government, in order to discharge its Article 10(3) obligation of implementing a “national transitional justice policy,” will have to properly investigate allegations of crimes committed by its own forces. The Agreement makes no mention of its parties cooperating with international investigations, for example by the UN Human Rights Council, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry, or the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.
In the midst of other ongoing conflicts, there has been a failure to act on what has been called “the world’s largest conflict.” With the door to peace now ajar, effective and meaningful efforts to ground future justice processes must be ushered in. This includes support to—and monitoring of—the Ethiopian government in meeting its obligations under Article 10(3) as well as ensuring that United Nations and African Union investigators have unhindered access to sites of alleged crimes and to witnesses. However, it must also encompass support to civil society who are, in almost every situation of mass atrocity, the first to collect information and evidence that form the foundation of accountability.
The importance of accountability-driven documentation efforts by non-governmental organizations and civil society has deepened over the last decade. But groups in Ethiopia have, to date, received relatively modest funding. Support to them should also include elements of capacity-building to ensure the design and implementation of survivor-centered, trauma-informed processes that extend far beyond the interviewing of survivors, and include investigation planning, the preservation of physical and digital evidence, information security, and case-building for core international crimes.
Space should also be dedicated to nurture victim-led justice efforts, recognizing that victim groups play an integral role in advancing different transitional justice efforts. Raising and addressing the danger of reprisals to survivors, witnesses, and human rights defenders, including those working on documenting atrocities, will be crucial to ensuring accountability.
The conflict in Ethiopia erupted and then worsened without occupying significant discussion either in the media’s public square or in the corridors of power. The Agreement, coming weeks after both the International Commission’s findings and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s warning, provides an opportunity to seed justice that the international community must grasp. It is only through ensuring such justice that an enduring peace can be built in Ethiopia.
Sareta Ashraph is the Senior Legal Consultant for the Simon-Skjodt Center.