Crimes Against Humanity in Tigray: Unveiling Atrocities and Pursuing Accountability
The genocidal war on Tigray, declared on November 4, 2020, has revealed the grim reality of the worst forms of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and human rights violations. This article seeks to discuss the atrocities committed, the actors involved, and the need for international justice mechanisms–specifically the United Nations-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). Beyond the Ethiopian context, the renewal of the ICHREE mandate is an opportunity for the international community to uphold shared moral and legal values concerning war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of genocide, and international justice and accountability.
Defining War Crimes
War crimes refer to acts committed during armed conflict that violate established humanitarian norms and principles. These crimes encompass a range of actions, including deliberate targeting of civilians or civilian objects, torture, rape, forced displacement, and the use of prohibited weapons. The gravity of war crimes is reflected in their classification as a prosecutable offence under international criminal law. Numerous legal instruments have been developed to address war crimes, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Defining Crimes Against Humanity
Crimes against humanity refer to a category of offences that are universally condemned and deemed as the most severe violations of human rights. These heinous acts, committed either in times of peace or armed conflict, encompass a range of actions such as murder, torture, enslavement, persecution, and enforced disappearances. What sets crimes against humanity apart from other crimes is their systematic nature and scale, often targeting a specific civilian population based on their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or social status. Perpetrators exhibit an alarming disregard for human life and dignity while inflicting widespread suffering on a massive scale. The gravity of these crimes necessitated the establishment of legal mechanisms to hold individuals accountable for such acts; the earliest recognition came with the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Today, international courts like the International Criminal Court strive to prosecute those responsible for these horrific acts, aiming to achieve justice for victims and deter future perpetrators.
The United Nations Genocide Convention, adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1948, represents a landmark in international human rights law. It defines genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by killing its members; causing serious bodily or mental harm; imposing measures to prevent births; forcibly transferring children from the group; or deliberately inflicting conditions that will lead to their physical destruction.
The Convention not only provides a legal framework for states to prevent and punish genocide but also obliges them to take necessary measures to protect individuals and communities at risk. Since its adoption, it has been ratified by over 150 countries and has played a critical role in raising awareness about the gravity of such crimes against humanity.
The International Commission of Human Rights on Ethiopia (ICHREE)
As a mechanism to investigate reported atrocity crimes, determine the types of crimes committed, and lay the groundwork for justice and accountability for crimes committed in Ethiopia, an international and independent probe, ICHREE, was established at a special session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in December 2021. ICHREE, based in Entebbe, Uganda and led by a Chair and two other high-level experts appointed by the HRC President, was given the task of conducting a thorough and impartial investigation into human rights violations that have occurred in Ethiopia since November 3, 2020. This investigation has looked into violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international refugee law, with a focus on any potential gender-related aspects of these violations. The Commission’s goal has been to establish the facts and circumstances of these abuses, collect and preserve evidence, identify those responsible, and make this information accessible for accountability efforts.
Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes in Tigray
The ongoing war on Tigray has witnessed numerous atrocity crimes deemed war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the civilian population by human rights groups and ICHREE. Reports from multiple sources indicate that these crimes include extrajudicial killings, widespread sexual violence, forced displacement, and targeted attacks. The Ethiopian government’s military intervention, followed by a complete siege and de facto humanitarian blockade, has resulted in a dire humanitarian situation with severe food shortages and lack of access to medical care for the affected population. Moreover, there has been widespread systematic looting and destruction of infrastructure by both state security forces and armed militias.
Crimes against humanity and war crimes in Tigray have resulted in the deliberate destruction of infrastructure and cultural heritage sites. Important facilities like hospitals, schools, markets, and religious institutions have been targeted, causing a loss of vital services and erasing the local cultural identity. Over 80% of healthcare facilities and over 99% of ambulances have been looted, vandalised, or destroyed, worsening the already dire humanitarian conditions. Additionally, 75% of state and private universities have been destroyed, and numerous sacred and religious institutions have been desecrated.
Despite numerous obstructions to their work, in both their first report and second report, ICHREE was able to establish that the Federal Government and its allied regional forces and militias committed crimes amounting to crimes against humanity given systematic and widespread nature of the atrocity crimes committed. The crimes against humanity committed described by the Commission include mass killings, sexual violence, starvation, inhumane acts, severe deprivation of liberty, and prosecution in the form of mass detention and torture. Further, in their 2023 report, ICHREE made sure to highlight ongoing crimes and the risk for future atrocities.
Mass Killings and Ethnic Targeting
The Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Amhara Forces, and Eritrean Defense Forces have been implicated in mass killings and targeted violence against the Tigrayan people. The investigation identified multiple incidents of mass killings in different areas, specifically targeting Tigrayan civilian males. These crimes occurred during a siege where essential services and supplies were intentionally disrupted. Additionally, the Ethiopian government restricted humanitarian access, exacerbating the crisis and limiting medical assistance for survivors.
The report further emphasises that the war on Tigray saw deliberate disruption of essential services by Ethiopian and Eritrean defence forces, including looting, pillaging, and destruction of civilian property. Humanitarian access was restricted, leaving survivors with limited access to medical and psychological support. Tigrayans faced arbitrary arrests and detentions, expulsion from certain areas, and were held in detention camps where they experienced poor conditions and violence. The government’s use of derogatory language and anti-TPLF narratives also contributed to discrimination and hostility against the Tigrayan population, spreading through social media.
Sexual Violence and Gender-Based Crimes
ICHREE’s second report identifies crimes against humanity in Tigray involving the use of violence and gender-based crimes as tools of warfare. Women and girls have been subjected to sexual slavery, physical abuse, and other forms of violence. Multiple armed groups have been responsible for these acts, often collaborating with each other. Tigrayan women, predominantly those of reproductive age, have been targeted during home invasions and while searching for necessities. Survivors of these atrocities range in age, including pregnant women, and have experienced assaults in front of their children or family members. Further, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Physicians for Human Rights have documented these crimes against humanity, highlighting their gender-based nature and severe impact on the Tigrayan community.
Violence against women during armed conflict is considered a serious violation of international human rights law. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols condemn such violence, categorizing them as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. International human rights instruments are supposed to protect women and girls from violence during armed conflict, and states have an obligation to provide appropriate treatment for survivors. Individual acts of violence can be prosecuted as criminal acts, and if they are part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians, they can be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Commanders and superiors can also be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates through the concept of command responsibility. Perpetrators of violence against women and girls in armed conflict should be held accountable.
Establishing Genocidal Intent
Examining the legal framework, specifically the United Nations’ Genocide Convention, we could ascertain if the atrocities in Tigray meet the criteria for genocide. The United Nations’ Genocide Convention serves as a powerful tool for promoting global unity against acts of genocide and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Factors such as targeted killings, acts aimed at preventing births, severe mental or physical harm, and forcibly transferring children support the argument that genocide is taking place in Tigray Language accompanying atrocity crimes committed, especially presented as justification for sexual violence, speaks to intent, as does hate speech and language employed by Ethiopian federal and regional government officials.
The investigations the Commision has been able to conduct only cover a fractions of the crimes committed in Tigray and therefore cannot portray the multi-faceted attack that was unleashed on the people of Tigray. Among the facets yet to be investigated is the cultural and societal destruction, which are against international law based on the 1954 Hague Convention and Geneva Convention. Extending ICHREE’s mandate with the necessary resources would allow for the extent and scale of crimes committed in Tigray to be properly further investigated so as to have a more complete picture and more comprehensively establish the facts of the war on Tigray.
Challenges in Implementing Transitional Justice in Tigray
The application of the Ethiopian government’s plan for transitional justice in Tigray would face significant challenges. The involvement of the Ethiopian government, whose genocidal leadership remains in power, and international actors in the war on Tigray necessitate an international justice mechanism. A domestic transitional justice process would not have the jurisdiction to hold international belligerents and perpetrators, mainly Eritrean forces, to account for crimes committed. Further, ongoing crimes against humanity and war crimes obstructs evidence collection, truth-seeking, and holding perpetrators accountable. Limited resources and political polarisation hinder the implementation of comprehensive transitional justice. The lack of a legal framework and institutional capacity further complicates the process. Further, continued crimes and resistance to a victim-centred approach to justice and accountability from the Ethiopian government perpetuates impunity and erodes trust in the state.
Without accountability for perpetrators, victims and their families are discouraged from participating in processes. When individuals face harm or injustice, it is crucial that they have confidence that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions. Without this assurance, victims may feel helpless and unable to trust the legal system. The lack of accountability can also perpetuate a cycle of violence or wrongdoing, as potential wrongdoers observe the absence of consequences and continue their harmful behavior. In turn, this discourages victims and their families from coming forward or reporting crimes, causing a decline in public safety overall. Accountability establishes faith in the justice system and serves as a powerful deterrent against future crimes by sending a clear message that misconduct will not go unpunished. Ultimately, without accountability, victims and their families are left feeling unsupported and marginalized, compounding their trauma while undermining societal stability and equal access to justice.
Need for International Justice
Rather, what could be labeled an ongoing silent genocide in Tigray stands as a harrowing testament to the urgency for international justice and accountability in the face of grave human rights violations and atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. Crimes that could amount to genocide demand the attention of the international community to ensure justice for the victims and prevent further human rights abuses.
Ensuring accountability for those responsible for the war on Tigray is a vital step toward healing and fostering future peace. Establishing a credible and impartial investigative and accountability mechanism would guarantee that those responsible for the atrocities face justice. Such a mechanism should be empowered to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals involved in heinous crimes, irrespective of their positions or affiliations. This approach would send a clear message that impunity for gross human rights abuses will not be tolerated and definitely necessitates international justice.
The lack of accountability for atrocities committed during the war on Tigray poses a severe threat to global human rights and security. Impunity not only emboldens perpetrators to continue committing crimes but also erodes faith in the international justice system. By actively seeking justice for the victims, the international community can send a strong message that such acts will be met with swift and decisive action. Robust international accountability further acts as a deterrent against future human rights abuses by discouraging potential perpetrators.
The ongoing gross human rights violations require the international community to fulfil its legal and moral obligations. States are bound by international human rights treaties and conventions, ensuring the protection of individuals from egregious violations. In cases such as the war on Tigray, where the local judicial system lacks capacity and political will, international intervention becomes indispensable. Upholding international obligations by intervening and establishing justice mechanisms demonstrates a commitment to the principles of justice and human rights.
International justice mechanisms play a vital role in facilitating reconciliation processes in post-conflict societies. In the aftermath of the war on Tigray, fostering reconciliation is crucial to repairing fractured relationships and rebuilding trust. The pursuit of international justice can contribute to establishing the truth, acknowledging victims’ suffering, and fostering dialogue between communities. The myriad reasons driving the pursuit of international justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity underscore the significance of this endeavour. From uplifting and healing victims to deterring future violations and promoting global peace and reconciliation, international justice serves as the foundation upon which societies can address the egregious actions committed during times of armed conflict. By seeking international justice for Tigray and elsewhere where similar violations of international law take place, we strive towards a world characterised by accountability, respect for international humanitarian law, and a resolute dedication to moral and legal principles. For this reason, the UNHRC must extend the mandate of ICHREE. The extension of the mandate of ICHREE is indispensable to ensure accountability and international justice for the gross violations of human rights including war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray.
Batseba Seifu – Omna Tigray External Contributor, October 2023