Analysis: Ethiopian rights defenders’ call for independent investigations into war-related crimes deterred, as gov’t pushes for transitional justice

A child in the Tigray region receiving medical treatment for injuries after after an aerial bombardment. Picture DW news portal.

By Million Beyene @MillionBeyene

Addis Abeba – The Ethiopian government has been relentlessly opposing and even working to terminate the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), an office mandated by the UN to investigate violations committed during Ethiopia’s two-years devastating war that started in the Tigray region and spread to Afar and Amhara regions, covering what’s now commonly referred to as “the northern part of Ethiopia.”

Despite backing off following international pressure, the Ethiopian government had recently submitted a draft resolution to the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council officially asking to end the mandate of UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). The draft resolution would have blocked the publication of outcomes of ongoing probe by the commission.

From the onset of the commission’s establishment in December 2021, Ethiopia insisted it was established for political purposes and has had an uneasy relationship with it, once accusing it of having “weaponized human rights for political pressure”.

Ethiopia’s latest attempt to discredit the ICHREE however, faced opposition by a group of 63 worldwide human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) who have appealed to the permanent representatives of member and observer states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject any resolution forwarded by Ethiopia on the mandate of the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE).

Unlike the strong support and push for UN mandated independent investigation into rights violations committed during the war from international human rights groups, there has been systematic pressure to deter local rights defenders operating in Ethiopia from making similar calls. 

Out of the 63 rights groups that appealed against Ethiopia’s draft motion only two; the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and Center for Development of Rights and Democracy (CARD) were based in Ethiopia.

Yared H/Mariam, a legal expert and head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center told Addis Standard that local rights groups failed to be vocal for independent investigation fearing its consequences as “the position of the government on the issue is political”. 

“I believe they choose to remain silent fearing for their existence,” Yared noted.

“If the joint report made by the UN’s rights organization and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is not sufficient, a convincing reason should be presented and made public”

Tadele Derseh

Yemane Zeray, associate professor and director of Tigray’s “Genocide Commission” however, accused rights groups operating in Ethiopia for abandoning the purpose of their establishment and rather becoming tools for the government.

He said the civil societies during a recent visit to Mekelle after the peace deal, were asked and challenged by the people, where they have been for the past two years, and leaving the politics aside, why they failed to be a voice for the affected society. 

He asks “how can civil associations and human rights advocates that lack courage to promote peace over war dare to call for independent investigation into crimes committed during the war”?

Tadele Derseh, vice president of Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Societies consisting of 364 organizations and director of Vision Ethiopia Congress for Democracy (VECOD), however emphasized that the sovereignty of the country should come first and defended the government’s position against the UN’s commission of experts.

Tadele added that he believes anyone who violates the law should be prosecuted in order to ensure accountability, but reiterated the need for an approach that respects the sovereignty of the country.

“If the joint report made by the UN’s rights organization and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is not sufficient, a convincing reason should be presented and made public”, he said.

In November last year a joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that there is reasonable grounds to believe that a number of violations committed during the war may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, and that they require further investigations to ensure accountability.

Despite the outcomes of the joint investigation the international community had moved on to establish the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) in December 2021 to conduct further investigations.

Befikadu Hailu, director of the Center for the Development of Rights and Democracy (CARD), one of the two local rights groups who supported the ICHREE, emphasized that the UN led independent investigation has the capacity to cover inaccessible areas and reveal the real extent of violations committed during the war.

He added that independent investigation is important to redress victims and survivors as well as to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Ethiopia however, expressing its commitment to investigating all cases of violations of human rights and ensuring that victims receive redress within the framework of the Pretoria peace agreement, said the investigation by the commission of experts undermines the agreement and the ongoing transitional justice initiative.

Chief commissioner of the state funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Daniel Bekele, during the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council said his commission welcomes the peace agreement and its provision to establish comprehensive transitional justice policy, which according to Daniel is inline with the recommendations of the joint investigation.

He further called on the council and the international community to “coordinate efforts towards proper designing and effective implementation of a genuine, human rights compliant, holistic and victim centered transitional justice policy for Ethiopia”. AS

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