At the opening of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council this week, the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said:
Human rights are not a luxury that can be left until we find solutions to the world’s other problems.
While this is without a doubt true, the reality of contemporary global human rights protection and accountability for abuses significantly undermines this notion. With growing geopolitical competition in an emerging multi-polar world in which economic and political interests take primacy, human rights issues continue to be sidelined. Authoritarian regimes have taken this opportunity to intensify violations of human rights and are breaching nearly all international human rights laws and norms at an unprecedented scale.
This is evidenced in what is happening in countries like Ethiopia where impunity has become the accepted norm. For over two years, millions of people in the Tigray region in Ethiopia have been subjected to gruesome massacres, an industrial-scale campaign of rape and sexual violence, and the systematic destruction and looting of civilian properties and critical infrastructures such as health facilities. The Tigray region was also placed under a brutal siege for more than two years leading to mass deaths from starvation and lack of medical supplies. Up to 800,000 people are estimated to have died due to the systematic killings by the different forces involved in the war and the siege in the Tigray region alone.
Following the start of the war, the Ethiopian regime imposed the world’s longest communications shutdown and prevented independent media from accessing the region, making reporting from the ground and documentation of evidence of human rights violations incredibly difficult.
Tigray as a testing ground
Under the sealed-off skies, this brutal war also turned Tigray into a testing ground for two unprecedented experiments. First, the war involved the use of some of the deadliest weapons of our times such as unmanned aerial vehicles supplied by different global powers, sometimes even competing powers ( Israel and Iran, for example). Iran, Turkey, China and the United Arab Emirates among others supplied drones that were used to target crowded camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs), hospitals, children’s playgrounds, markets, and other civilian targets. It is reasonable to assume that these countries saw the difficult terrain of Tigray and the tradition of guerrilla warfare in the region as a unique opportunity to test these weapons. Moreover, the near-complete communication blackout imposed by the Ethiopian government provided an opportunity to do so while affording plausible deniability to the international community.
Accordingly, despite early evidence of the use of Iranian drones in Tigray, it was not until they were used by Russia in Ukraine that the United States and western countries started to condemn the transfer of Iranian weapons to Ethiopia in violation of UN Security Council sanctions.
Second, the Tigray war has been a test of the limits of international humanitarian and human rights laws and norms. Most recently this is evidenced in the ongoing effort by the Ethiopian regime to prevent UN investigation.
Large-scale fighting and attacks have recently halted following a peace deal between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front signed in early November 2022. Some encouraging progress has been made since such as the cessation of large-scale warfare in Tigray and the opening of the region’s borders to limited humanitarian access. However, much of what was agreed upon in the peace deal is yet to materialise and the conditions for civilians in Tigray remain catastrophic. Contrary to the widespread hope for the peace deal to end human rights violations, reports continue to emerge of civilian atrocities committed many weeks after the signing of the agreement.
The ongoing campaign against independent investigation, justice and accountability
A worrying development following the peace deal has been the diplomatic efforts by the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes to prevent an independent international investigation of human rights and international laws violated through the course of the war. Both governments are openly pushing to impede the possibility of justice and accountability for crimes committed in Tigray and neighbouring regions during the last 30 months. In a press briefing in Nairobi in early February, Eritrea’s ruler Isayas Afewerki argued that calling for justice and accountability for the human rights abuses, which he called were “fabricated lies,” was to try to “derail” the peace process.
This argument by the Eritrean ruler is similarly being forwarded by the Ethiopian government, which is currently campaigning to terminate the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts of Ethiopia (ICHREE), which was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2021.
It is to be remembered that in addition to openly opposing the establishment of the ICHREE from the outset the Ethiopian government has previously tried to get the Commission defunded on two separate occasions; in April and December 2022.
At the opening ceremony of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa last week, Demeke Mekonnen, Abiy Ahmed Ali’s deputy and Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, called on African states to stand by Ethiopia to prevent investigations by the ICHREE. He argued that investigation by the ICHREE:
“could undermine the AU-led peace process & the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Agreement with inflammatory rhetoric. It could also undermine the efforts of national institutions”
Why should we be worried about Ethiopia’s moves to block the investigation and impede justice and accountability?
After breaching countless human rights and humanitarian laws and norms with little to no meaningful consequences from the global community throughout the war, the Ethiopian government has now turned towards preventing investigation into, and justice and accountability for, the crimes committed in Tigray and the rest of the country.
Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about these efforts, noting:
We are very worried. The Ethiopian government has taken quite a hostile position towards the commission [ICHREE] since its establishment in December 2021. We’ve seen the Ethiopian government using a whole range of tactics some of which were unprecedented including moves at the level of New York. New York is not in theory a venue, a forum, where decisions that have been made in Geneva should be reopened.
Laetitia also added that.
…given both the scale and the gravity of the abuses which have unfolded, but also the ongoing deliberate attempts and efforts, by the Ethiopian government, to make real-time and on the ground reporting so difficult… we firmly believe that there is a need for ongoing in-depth investigations.
The Ethiopian government provides two conflicting and very problematic arguments to justify the termination of the Commission’s mandate. On the one hand, much in line with the arguments proffered by the Eritrean dictator, the Ethiopian regime claims that seeking justice and accountability for the crimes committed in Tigray will “hamper” the ongoing peace process. On the other hand, the government claims that the works of the commission could be replaced by domestic justice and accountability mechanisms which it claims are being established and strengthened for this purpose.
The first argument is deeply troubling and sets a terrible precedent for future efforts to ensure justice and accountability for human rights violations in Ethiopia and beyond. A durable peace cannot be achieved by sweeping the death of close to a million people, the systematic rape and sexual violence of hundreds of thousands of women and girls (and in some reported cases of men) and the deliberate denial of access to services critical to life and forced starvation of millions of civilians, under the rug. Peace and justice cannot be traded. There cannot be durable peace without recognizing what happened, serving justice to victims and survivors, and holding the perpetrators accountable. As Mehari Tadele Maru, a scholar based at the European University Institute, rightly argued “justice must not be killed by a peace deal”.
The second argument is equally problematic, particularly from the Tigrayans’ point of view. Even though the strengthening and use of domestic mechanisms should be encouraged, no institution in Ethiopia today is immune to influence by the perpetrators of the crimes. Under the current circumstances in which the perpetrators of the crimes remain in control of the domestic justice and accountability mechanisms, it is impossible for such institutions to independently investigate the gross violations of human rights, serve justice to victims and survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.