Instead of jointly proposing a conflict management strategy, by its reluctant action, the international community has allowed Ethiopia to slip into the dangerous zone of mass atrocities. Time is running out as impunity feeds exasperation, which bolsters a loss of government control of the situation.
Since the military intervention of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) in the Tigray region in November 2020, witness accounts of systematic human rights violations appear in the media. Interviews with refugees in Sudan, satellite images and reports from within the country point towards extrajudicial killings based on ethnicity, the drawing up of lists by ethnicity for unclear purposes in Addis Abeba, rape and sexual violence, and attempts at forced transfer of property of people in Tigray. Large-scale killings and displacement was also reported from other regions, including Benishangul-Gumuz region. The images of heavily armed ENDF in camouflage entering villages on pick-up trucks feed into the narrative of international civil society organisations, whose set of indicators and analysis reportedly point towards genocide and mass atrocities.
Concern at violence based on ethnicity is not new regarding Ethiopia. In 2005, in the course of my work with the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, we were contacted by young political activists drawing our attention to the risk of large-scale violence in the context of the upcoming general elections. Photos of police brutality and its consequences graphically underlined their claim. In the aftermath of the elections, 193 protesters were killed by the police, according to a leaked internal report. Reports of atrocities also reached us from Oromia in a constant stream.
However, for many observers these concerns seemed to have belonged to the past. Prime Minster Abiy, the first Oromo elected to the position, moved the country towards a transition described as “multi-ethnic and democratic”. When awarded the Nobel peace Price in 2019, he seemed to have reached the mayor goal of peace with Eritrea, based on an agreed border. In the meantime, reportedly, Eritrean troops returned to Ethiopia and were sighted in Tigray supporting the ENDF. They and regional forces mixed with militia elements from neighbouring Amhara region allegedly committed serious human rights violations beyond the control of the government of Ethiopia, which undermines the limited trust established through the peace agreement.
Abiy had released political prisoners, appointed women to many cabinet positions and integrated a known dissident as head of the National Electoral Board. He reorganised the ethnic and region-based parties of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) into the new Prosperity Party. It did not come as a surprise to experts on Ethiopian politics and society that instead of overcoming ethnic and regional division, the implementation of these measures caused long-lasting ethnic conflicts breaking out anew.
The Constitution of 1995 established a system of ethnic federalism (“national” in Amharic), which is based on a confederation of “nations, nationalities and peoples” within “states”, which are highly diverse in population and size. The nations have the right, inter alia, to enact their own constitutions, choose their official language, create tax revenue, form regional security forces and even the right to secession. However, the wording of the respective provisions in the Constitution intentionally offered room for interpretation. The settlement of disputes between the central administration and the states is not clearly regulated and vested with the House of Federation and the Council of Constitutional Inquiry based on political compromise rather than binding decision by an impartial conflict management mechanism following the interpretation of the Constitution.
At its core, the conflict with Tigray is another dispute between state versus central power as occurred in Ethiopia in the past. In this case higher stakes were involved given the dominating role of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) in the central government in the past. Compared to the power of the central administration in other federal systems, the military intervention did not have to mean as such a break in the path of the transition, but a reestablishment of constitutional order.
On 28 November, Abiy declared in Parliament that the military operation concluded. Since then, at the latest, the situation in Tigray should be ruled by police and criminal law with full judicial oversight.
The system of ethnic federalism has been legitimised by a simulated agreement between the peoples and nations within each state with the central power, while, in reality, it was enforced by the EPRDF from the centre. Continuity of this arrangement is determined by congruity between the majority will of the people and the representatives of the states at the central level. Ethnic and regional parties could mainstream state interests into the political compromise at the central level for a long time. However, Ethiopian society developed in the past 25 years. While urbanisation is slow and only includes 21% of the population, it is expected to double by 2030. Agriculture is still the basis of the economy, but jobs in the service sector increased fast. Education influences the development of the non-farm economy and the young population, with an average at 17,5 years, demand productive jobs in the small cities. The internal migration of young educated Ethiopians, even within the same region, over time, will make ethnicity secondary to professional, economic and other interests shared with people across tribal identities and regions. Currently, Addis Abeba has already a share of the population coming from rural areas of 59% and Dire Dawa of 38%. The transition Abiy started is timely and inevitable. For it to succeed, the present arrangement needs to be replaced over time by a new social contract between the regions and the center based on a common narrative of Ethiopia in 2030.
A solution could only be found within the country and based on an inclusive political dialogue, but the situation does not seem to be ripe for serious talks. The killing of senior TPLF officials, including former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin, and the previous arrest of opposition leaders charged with terrorism, sent a signal that dialogue was not Abiy’s favourite path to address the challenges. After the inconclusive discussion of the situation at the 38th Extraordinary Summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Abiy also rejected AU mediation.
This deadlock could be broken if the current discussion on Tigray was broadened to the possibilities of preventing future ethnic violence without the central government or regional parties insisting on political control of the outcome. There are possibilities for Ethiopia’s international partners to support the creation of the necessary conditions for such discussions through a joint comprehensive strategy. This strategy needs to break up the different short- to medium-term issues related to the present situation in Ethiopia along a continuum of steps leading towards a national dialogue on crucial institutional improvements before the elections scheduled in June 2021.
1. Humanitarian access has appeared as the common priority of those intervening in the conflict so far. The UN Security-Council discussed the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia without an agreement on how to respond. This underlines the policy dilemma for Western governments, which view Ethiopia as an ally in a volatile region, especially against al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants al Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia. In December 2020, the EU postponed payment of nearly 90 million euros in budget support payments to due to the bloc’s concerns over the crisis in the northern Tigray region and conditioned the payment to full humanitarian access to the state. However, according to its principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, humanitarian assistance does not include the tools to prevent the large-scale human rights violations reported from the country. An international response to mass atrocities based on humanitarian assistance has failed in the past and must not be repeated again. Instead, support should be offered to Ethiopia to respond to the humanitarian needs through its own institutions and procedures. The evaluation of the impact of this assistance against standards of international concern should be monitored based on agreed indicators related to preventing mass atrocities. The UN should resume its previous humanitarian support of Eritrean refugees.
2. Ethiopia’s partners should define clearly and limit their international concern. Given the content of the reports on the situation and the global acceptance of the R2P, Ethiopia’s sovereignty is weakened until it took verifiable steps to investigate alleged human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable. The role of Ethiopia as host country to the AU and Art. 4 lit. h of the AU Constitutive Act underline this interest. Furthermore, Ethiopia hosts UN ECA and is an important logistical hub and troop contributor to UN peace operations in Africa. The legitimate concern of preventing mass atrocities should frame the joint strategy and determine the form of cooperation and the interdependence of the different elements.
3. Ethiopia’s partners should offer technical support for constitutional federalism to political, development and academic partners. The escalation of the conflict with Tigray was caused by the central government’s concern of setting a precedent for other states regarding the exercise of central power when giving in to the regional elections. This concern would be diminished if there was an independent conflict management mechanism in the Constitution as part of the system of federalism. Experience with different models of federalism is available and could be presented to the parties in Ethiopia. The underlying problems related to the organisation of federalism along ethnic lines within the institutions established by the Constitution has been analysed in the past. In particular, the establishment of a Federal Constitutional Court could ensure the interpretation of the Constitution with regard to disputes between states and the central administration and the protect of human rights throughout the country based on legal traditions, limited as they may be, developed by the Federal High Court and the Federal Supreme Court regarding trans regional issues for the past 25 years. The Ethiopian Commission on Human Rights and the ombudsman could deal with individual complaints based on the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court. Different constitutional and institutional solutions have been developed by other federal states that could be revisited in the light of recent developments. The establishment of effective conflict resolution mechanisms in the Constitution should be subject of a political-academic dialogue prior to the elections later this year.
4. The need for accountability for human rights violations in different states offers the opportunity of establishing a stronger, independent federal judiciary. With the military operation in Tigray officially completed, alleged human rights violations may constitute crimes under the Criminal Code and, as far as carried out in a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population, crimes against humanity under international criminal law (art. 270 et seq. of the Ethiopian Criminal Code). Investigating these allegations is the sovereign responsibility of the respective institutions of Ethiopia, in particular the courts. Ethiopia supported recommendations of the third cycle UPR to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The latter undertook remarkable investigations into the situation in different states that helped to put the Tigray situation into the broader context of political developments. The mid-term report, due in 2022, offers a timeline for measuring progress in addressing impunity. International partners should provide assistance through their judicial institutions to such efforts upon request.
A group of interested states led by Germany, Canada, Australia and Switzerland should engage jointly with the government of Ethiopia on a list of benchmarks and timelines related to the international concern of preventing mass atrocities that allows both the government and its international partners measurable progress against the ‘manifestly failing’ edge in the protection of its civilian population. These should be targeted at and limited to the risks of mass atrocities and not venture towards the political and economic system as such. The listed countries engaged with Ethiopia on issues related to governance and human rights in the past in a discreet and constructive way. They have a genuine interest in upholding the R2P and can provide credible assistance through their institutions and specialised civil society without suspicion of hidden agendas.
Assistance to addressing underlying conflict causes should focus on the establishment of a Federal Constitutional Court and the reenforcement of the federal court system by realigning and adjusting existing projects. These should mainly respond to demands of the different actors in Ethiopia and provide technical assistance directly to them. The UN, the AU and the EU tend to overload projects with their own institutional agenda and could be more useful in the implementation of the agreements resulting from the facilitation process rather than the process itself.
Ethiopia’s traditional regional partners may be less useful to engage. Reportedly, the Sudanese Army occupied previously contested border areas and relations with Egypt are strained by negations about the “Renaissance Dam”.
The crisis in Ethiopia is a security risk for its people and the region, but it is also an opportunity to help the country to move necessary reforms forward and make the elections a referendum over the progress achieved and future steps of the transition.
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