On the 11th of March 2021 the African Union announced that Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission had a discussion with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen on the possibility of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) carrying out investigations on human rights violations in Tigray. This, according to the statement by the AU, was proposed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and was accepted by the Chairperson.
This statement was met with a considerably unfavourable reaction, at least on the part of those seeking truly independent investigations into the wide range of Human Rights Violations committed in Tigray. For example, Cameron Hudson, an independent analyst, in response to the statement tweeted “it’s hard to see how this body [AU] will be impartial”.
Other commentators, reflected on the chairperson’s declared support of the war on Tigray to argue he has “been part of the war and should not be allowed to independently ‘investigate’ the crisis”.
Likewise, an informal poll conducted by Tghat Media on Twitter asking whether or not respondents trusted the AU to deliver an independent investigation was met with a resounding NO – close to 90% of respondents said that the African Union is unlikely to deliver an independent investigation.
Another poll, run by the Global Society of Tigrayan Scholars, had similar results highlighting widespread mistrust.
Here we will briefly attempt to look at possible reasons for this negative reaction.
The African Union’s Abdication of a Potential Role in Pre-Conflict Mediation
Conflict, on this scale at least, generally involves months if not years of build-up of tensions. This was also the case for the war on Tigray. The government of Tigray, aware of the devolving peace and security of Ethiopia had attempted to alert the international community of the possibility of conflict and the very real crisis that it would initiate long before the outbreak of the war [1, 2]. Later, in the immediate run-up to the War On Tigray, on the 26th of October 2020, the Government of Tigray again wrote a letter to the International Community, including the African Union, to notify relevant parties of exacerbated tensions and the likelihood of imminent conflict with the federal government. This letter clearly established the background to these tensions and the steps already taken by the federal government that effectively “declared war not only on the democratic order but also on the continued existence of the country as a united nation”.
However, in the very year that the AU envisioned to “Silence the Guns” – a commitment to end wars, civil conflicts gender-based violence, violent conflicts, and preventing genocide on the continent of Africa by 2020 – this plea was ignored.
The African Union’s Failure at Conflict Resolution
On November 3rd/4th conflict did indeed erupt when Eritrean troops crossed the border into Tigray and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy declared war in a coordinated attack. In the first few weeks of the war, the government of Tigray continued to stress its willingness to cease hostilities and come to the table for discussions, including in a letter directly addressed to His Excellency Cyril Ramphosa, at the time Chairperson of the AU. Again this was ignored by all relevant bodies including the African Union. The commission continued to ignore the war until weeks into the conflict the President of Ethiopia, Sahle-work Zewde, traveled to South Africa, with an apparent interest in soliciting consultation from President Cyril Ramphosa, in his capacity as AU Chairperson. Following this meeting, he appointed a distinguished trio of former African presidents as his envoys and they visited Ethiopia on 25–27 November. However, after the envoys were rebuffed by PM Abiy these efforts were dropped without transparency and explanation on the part of the AU.
The most direct address of War on Tigray by the African Union came in the form of a statement given by His Excellency Moussa Faki Mahamat at the 30th Extraordinary Summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held on the 20th of December. At this time, His Excellency seemed to go out of his way to take a side on the issue [1, 2, 3] when he unexpectedly declared:
“the federal government took bold steps to preserve the unity, stability and respect for the constitutional order of the country; which is legitimate for all states”.
With this declaration, not only did the AU fail to “Silence the Guns”, and come out in support of civil war – its chairman used the most relevant regional setting to give legitimacy to a horrific conflict which has involved many massacres of civilians [1, 2. 3], weaponized sexual violence, and ethnic cleansing.
Another problem with his statement at the time was that it completely ignored the destructive role of Eritrea in the War on Tigray. Days before this meeting the US had officially affirmed what was by then common knowledge, Eritrea was a full partner in the conflict in Tigray. It had even gone a step further and asked Eritrean troops to leave in a statement made by a State Department official made on the 10th of December. The Chairman of the AU, however, failed to mention this in his statement on the conflict ten days later in a speech that ironically mentioned the constitutional order and unity of the Ethiopian state. Even more concerningly the African Union has to date made no comment as to the role of another member state, Eritrea, in the very crimes that it now hopes to investigate. Similarly the AU has also ignored the alleged role of a non regional actor, the United Arab Emirates, which has been reported to have employed drone warfare against Tigray.
Indeed, to date, the statement made at the IGAD remains the only one direct statement from the African Union as it relates to the War on Tigray. Meaning, startlingly the AU has made no comment, even a basic expression of concern as to the countless credible reports on war crimes and crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Tigray by both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, until it suddenly expressed its readiness to conduct an investigation.
This act has understandably created a lot of mistrust and deep hurt on the part of Tigrayans who have felt that the African Union has failed miserably to do due diligence or show adequate care for the causes and consequences of what such a conflict would entail for the civilian population of Tigray. But even if someone was inclined to look past these legitimate concerns to consider the possibility of the ACHPR investigating the Human Rights violations in Tigray, we are immediately met with another obstacle.
Questions about ACHPR
The very first question that we raise about the ACHPR is its track record as it relates to the War On Tigray. On the 26th of Nov 2020, this body delivered a statement affirming the talking point of the federal government as it relates to the start of the war and the still controversial Mai Kadra massacre without doing an investigation of its own. The commission has to date not retracted this statement nor sought to follow up its alarming allegations with an investigation. Moreover, to my knowledge, the ACHPR is yet to show any awareness of the many other credible reports of human rights violations, including documented massacres, weaponized rape, and ethnic cleansing. The absolute silence of this body – with the mandate to promote and protect HR in Africa – seems like a red flag worth taking into account. Why has the continental HR commission chosen to ignore atrocities that have not only been widely reported on in the international media, but have also been the subject of official statements by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, and the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict amongst many others?
Another point that is raised in relation to the ACHPR is that of impartiality. The chairperson of the ACHPR the honorable Solomon Deresso took a very public stance in support of the deferment of elections in 2020, by Prime Minister Abiy. It is to be remembered that the constitutionality of this move was challenged by the Regional State of Tigray, which went on to hold its own regional elections leading to a series of actions and reactions that finally culminated in the War on Tigray. In all fairness, it should be noted that Mr. Deresso discusses the various options and implications as well as promoting national dialogue to avert a crisis triggered by the deferred elections in the same Op-ed. The political affirmation of this action, as a “wise move” however, does cause concern about potential partiality in relation to any proposed investigations of the ongoing conflict initiated by this decision. These concerns, while by no means intended to impune the professional integrity of Mr. Deresso, are nonetheless of significant importance particularly as they are magnified and heightened by the unfortunately extremely polarized and complex nature of the situation in Ethiopia.
The AU as an Ethiopian Default for Diplomatic Cover Up
As a matter of course the Ethiopian regime seems to resort to lip service to “African solutions to African problems” whenever international pressure seeks more transparency and accountability as it relates to first the war on Tigray and now to ongoing gross human rights violations. Accordingly, as mentioned briefly above, the government of Prime Minister Abiy briefly acknowledged the envoys appointed by President Ramphosa. This was lauded as an “initiative of peace” by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Almost immediately, however, Ethiopia, having agreed to meet with the envoys, dismissed the possibility that they could play any meaningful role in mediation. Even with the most charitable assessment a certain level of diplomatic duplicity is evidenced in this move which manipulates the priority that regional bodies have in conflict resolution only to deflect international pressure or avoid investigation by other relevant actors.
It seems right therefore to suspect a similar pattern in relation to the Ethiopian Prime Minister soliciting an investigation by the ACHPR just at the time when international pressure for credible and independent investigations is at its highest. The Ethiopian government continues to persistently deny and even resort to attack all independent reports of grave human rights violations including the credibly confirmed massacres and ethnic cleansing. Therefore this current clamour by the Ethiopian government for an investigation by bodies over which it has considerable political influence suggests an effort to avoid truly independent investigation and accountability.
Credible, Independent and International Investigations
In light of all of this we come back to the question: can the AU and the ACHPR deliver credible, independent, and international investigations into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray? The brief discussion above tries to demonstrate why the answer to this is a resounding NO. Firstly, the credibility of the AU is queried by the affected community, Tigrayans because of its track record in dealing with the issue. Secondly, the issue of independence is equally problematic. The atrocities that have been credibly reported to have occurred in Tigray cannot have happened to this extent and magnitude with the collaboration of foreign forces without coordination and collusion at the highest levels of the Ethiopian government. However, as we have seen above, both the AU and the ACHPR have a history of taking up and uncritically amplifying the talking points of the Ethiopian government. To this, we can add the publicly affirmed political stance of his honor Solomon Deresso. Meaning that both the AU and the ACHPR lack the impartiality and independence that would be required for any credible investigation.
With this in mind the only possibility of credible, independent and international investigations in Tigray is a UN-led investigation as recommended by all international Human Rights actors including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others.