Ethiopia’s Transitional Justice Mechanism: Designed for All, Serving None

Ethiopia’s Transitional Justice Mechanism: Designed for All, Serving None

In November 2023, Foreign Affairs published an article titled “Can Justice Bring Peace to Ethiopia? How to Heal Divisions After Decades of War.” In this article, a few researchers and academics discuss their findings from a nationwide survey of over 6,600 adult Ethiopians conducted in June and July 2023 to examine people’s “needs and attitudes” regarding peace and justice. Since then, this article has gone far and wide, circulating around The Hill and even being mentioned in the latest House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Ethiopia Hearing.

The article raised several questions for me, particularly about how I should evaluate their findings and conclusions; it should also be noted that the survey methodology and full report have not yet been publicized. The following shares my thinking, and for the purpose of this exercise, I will focus on the larger framing of the article rather than the specific details.

Before diving deep into the article, one question is front of mind–who is transitional justice meant to serve

There is no doubt that with decades and centuries worth of history, it is likely that every community in Ethiopia deserves justice. This transitional justice discussion, however, coincides largely with the end of the active armed conflict in Tigray in November 2022. There are also various United Nations, European Union, and United States officials often discussing transitional justice as a form of justice and accountability in connection to the grave crimes committed in Tigray. 

One would assume, then, that post-war in Tigray, the primary focus for a transitional justice mechanism would be Tigray, as the topic only came about following the war. Further, it is embedded into the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). If we take this assumption as true, then we are seeing the Ethiopian government expand a mechanism meant to serve a specific population to the entire country, diluting justice and accountability not only for that population but for the greater Ethiopian population it claims to serve.

With this in mind, the researchers conducted a nationwide survey where, if we take the data as is, we learned a few important statistics–one being that “90% of Ethiopians said it would be unacceptable to move forward without truth-seeking, trials, or reparations.” Once you expand a transitional justice mechanism to serve the rest of the population, this makes sense. It also makes sense that you will have a lot more complexity–including with the timeframe of crimes committed and whether accountability should occur at a domestic or international level, among other considerations. With the research conducted having a national scope, I think the authors do an adequate job of illustrating the difficulties in implementing a transitional justice mechanism that satisfies all, but the question I keep coming back to is–who is this mechanism meant to serve

Justice for the violence in other regions should not be diminished, yet the grave crimes in Tigray should not be brushed aside in the larger context due to the region’s smaller population. It is deeply concerning that only 2% of those in Tigray accept a domestic transitional justice mechanism, in comparison to 41% of the larger Ethiopian population favoring existing domestic courts, as pursuing this form of accountability will likely mean victims will not get the justice they desire and deserve. 

The war in Tigray had unique elements that justify Tigrayan’s lack of support for a domestic solution. These include: the role of the Eritrean forces (and their invitation by the Ethiopian government), the state-sponsored genocide with perpetrators still in senior levels of country leadership, and the lack of trust in Ethiopian institutions and civil society organizations considering their alignment to the Ethiopian government amidst the war, shown through hate speech, calls to action, reductionist telling of events and more. These elements may not be as important to an Ethiopian outside of Tigray when considering a domestic transitional justice mechanism. The 41% statistic makes sense, again when you expand the scope to the greater population.

Lastly, there are cases where transitional justice and other forms of domestic accountability mechanisms (e.g., in Rwanda) were accepted, but they were only pursued once there was a change in government. It is different in Ethiopia, as the perpetrators are still in power. The authors of the Foreign Affairs article point out that juxtaposition here: “In theory, many victims in Ethiopia want perpetrators dealt with by domestic courts and traditional processes. But they also deeply distrust the government.”

All in all, as per the findings, I can see how transitional justice may work for the broader Ethiopian population (I cannot really speak on the views of the other regions), but when focused on Tigray specifically, it is likely that transitional justice will not work for many of the reasons mentioned in the article; and if it is pursued, justice for the extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Tigray, many of which continue today, would be diluted in the broader context. The framing of the article could have been more nuanced to bring forward these points, but really, I mostly blame an Ethiopian government that is intentionally designing a transitional justice policy for all but in actuality, will serve none. Given that the Ethiopian government has also deliberately sabotaged prior justice and accountability efforts, this domestic mechanism is once again being depicted to be monumental yet vague and simply stands as a more favorable means for the regime to control and own the process with limited intervention from the international community. It is, therefore, difficult to critique articles or findings related to the transitional justice mechanism when there is confusion at the root of it all–who the transitional justice policy is meant to serve and for what purpose. 

In late October 2023, the Chairperson of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), Mohamed Chande Othman, addressed the 78th session of the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, providing an update on Ethiopia’s human rights situation. In this update, the transitional justice process proposed by the Ethiopian government is criticized for lacking transparency and victims’ confidence: 

“In sum, the Ethiopian Government’s actions with regard to international and regional monitoring show all the hallmarks of a strategy that has been termed “quasi-compliance”. By this we mean a deliberate effort to evade regional and international scrutiny through the creation of flawed domestic mechanisms and instrumentalization of other institutions. These mechanisms ostensibly advance accountability but in practice aim to alleviate international pressure. Such strategies often come at the expense of victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and non-recurrence and pose a serious threat to the entire international human rights system.”

The transitional justice process is intentionally designed to be so expansive that it is vague and nearly impossible to be sufficient as a form of justice for all communities involved. It is imperative that the international community be open and willing to support other forms of justice and accountability because as the authors of the Foreign Affairs article mention, “Done incorrectly, transitional justice processes can set a country back, reinforcing a sense of social and political exclusion among certain groups.” The reignition of conflict is a plausible consequence and must be mitigated by centering victim needs in a nuanced and intentional way.

Bserat – Omna Tigray Contributor, January 2024