Viewpoint

There is no African solution for Ethiopia’s Tigray problem

A UN—not AU—commission is needed to investigate the reported war crimes.

As mounting evidence of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law are coming out, the war in Tigray is in the international spotlight.

The credible reports of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch corroborated by international media indicate that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed. More recently, the US Secretary of State’s allegations of ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray also grabbed attention.

Subsequently, the pressure for an independent investigation has become almost unbearable. For many observers, it is now indisputable that the reported atrocities warrant an independent, credible, and prompt international probe to counter impunity and ensure accountability.

Dropping its previous resistance, the Ethiopian government has now expressed its interest in a joint investigation. But, who should conduct such an intricate and indispensable inquiry?

Addis Ababa has proposed the African Union (AU) lead, leaning on the mantra of ‘African solutions for African problems.’ The AU has accepted the invitation and revealed its confidence that its human rights body—the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)—will deliver.

This, however, is problematic for multiple reasons.

 Lack of competence

After the UN Security Council seized the matter, the human rights abuses and humanitarian crisis in Tigray became a threat to global law and order. Therefore, the discussion between Ethiopia and the AU is too narrow, and the UN must be consulted in order to fulfill its mandate to maintain international peace and security.

Furthermore, the bilateral approach casts doubt on the fairness of the initiative. The decision on the investigation, including its forums and modalities, should be inclusive and so involve actors such as the UN and all parties to the conflict.

A credible probe must handle intricate legal, policy, and practical issues. Among other things, it involves gathering and verifying information, creating and recording events, preparing dock-ready pieces of evidence for further investigation or prosecution, recommending measures to redress violations, providing justice and reparation for victims, and holding perpetrators accountable.

However, the ACHPR—a quasi-judicial organ established to promote and protect human rights— has never been involved in a complicated investigation and fact-finding process since its inception in 1987.

For three reasons, the Tigray task is too complicated for the Commission.

First, it lacks the required expertise to conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation of this scale. Apart from engaging in communication and monitoring roles, the Commission has a dearth of relevant experience.

Second, member states often do not comply with its decisions and recommendations. Even the political organs of the AU—the Assembly and the Executive Council—have paid little attention to the ACHPR and its functions. The Commission usually complains about the inadequacy of budget by the AU and that it is forced to solicit money from other sources. And, most importantly, its decisions and recommendations have never been part of a serious discussion and consideration by either the Assembly or the Executive Council.

Furthermore, the Assembly has never used its power under Article 23(2) of the Constitutive Act of AU to pass serious resolutions such as imposing sanctions on defiant states who are unwilling to comply with the decisions of the Commission.

Third, legal and procedural guidelines are unavailable. And, given the urgency of the situation, a proposal to adopt new rules of procedures, standards, and guidelines would result in a further delay. Most worryingly, where the prosecution process would continue after the completion of the investigation is a very critical jurisdictional question that the AU seems incapable of dealing with.

The absence of a permanent criminal court like the International Criminal Court makes the prosecution process onerous and complicated. Establishing a special or ad hoc court is also a rare experience under the AU system. Even if a special court is established, there is no doubt the jurisdiction will be contested.

The African Court of Justice and Human Rights, which is a combination of human rights and criminal jurisdiction, is yet to enter into action as the establishment protocol failed to garner support. Moreover, even if the court starts functioning, there is an exclusionary provision on the jurisdiction that exempts leaders and states from being charged. Therefore, without resolving this issue, it is highly unlikely that it will ensure justice.

 Independence and Impartiality

The fact that the ACHPR special rapporteurs are commissioners appointed from member countries, as opposed to being independent, external experts like UN rapporteurs, casts doubt on the credibility of AU-led investigations.

Furthermore, after the Chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, made the controversial statement that the Ethiopian federal government took legitimate action in Tigray to preserve the country’s unity, a number of Tigrayans, perhaps including victims and their families, question the AU’s independence and impartiality.

What makes the argument stronger is the deafening silence of the AU about the ongoing outrageous human rights and humanitarian law violations. That has eroded the confidence of many Tigrayans in the institution’s impartiality. This may mean that victims and witnesses refuse to cooperate in the investigation, which, in turn, would adversely affect its quality.

Similarly, the AU rights commission, under the chairmanship of the Ethiopian government-nominated Solomon Ayele Dersso, has so far remained almost silent amid credible reports of heinous massacres and horrific gender-based violence at the hands of, primarily, Eritrean troops, Ethiopian soldiers, and Amhara forces.

The only exception was the brief press release in November 2020 confirming the report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission—a legally autonomous federal institution—on the Mai Kadra massacre in which criminal culpability was attributed to Tigrayan militia and officials. Since then, the Commission has neither condemned crimes nor demanded an independent investigation. This apparently selective approach casts doubt on its credibility and impartiality.

In conclusion, given the legal, procedural, and credibility concerns, endorsing an AU investigation is inappropriate. Rather, it is the UN that is suited to investigate, primarily as allegations include international crimes and the crisis is seen as a threat to international peace and security, not only involving Eritrea, but also possibly United Arab Emirates drones.

The UN has a wealth of expertise through its Commission of Inquiry and fact-finding missions. Furthermore, it has well-established procedural rules and guidelines for this type of probe and, if necessary, it can refer the case to the International Criminal Court.

Given its experience, the UN Human Rights Council should exclusively establish, by resolution, an international commission of inquiry with the aim of identifying perpetrators and ensuring full accountability. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights may provide the necessary support to the commission of inquiry.

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Main photo: African Union headquarters in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia; DW

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About the author

Yonas Aregawi

Yonas is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Erlangen–Nuremberg in Germany. Formerly, he was a law lecturer at Dire Dawa University.

17 Comments

  • Just so we understand. Yonas Aregawi is working with and for Tplf. He is busy defending the indefensible. Tplf crimes are everywhere — from torture to money-laundering to human trafficking to lawlessness (hence fleeing to Mekelle having lost all legitimacy and about to face popular wrath and thence fomenting civil strife by organizing and financing local terror groups). But matters are becoming clearer with fact-checkers discovering Tplf photo-shopped deception https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54985545 and so on.

  • This is a very Condescending piece. Ethiopia Insight is spiraling downward in the content and substance of its articles. First, just because ACHPR lack expertise and experience doesn’t mean that African Solutions should be thrown out of the option. Author in fact contradicts himself a lot. On the one hand, he says ACHPR lacks experience, on the other he says its role has been limited to monitoring; and still argues its recommendations have not been enacted. Which recommendation which followed a serious investigation has been rejected? Be that as it may, but Africans can definitely create their own instruments. Again, the UN (west) experience that the author seems to favour were not born with their experiences. Above all the experiences that the Author recommended had resulted in mayhem and chaos through out the world.
    There is something that most pundits and TPLF henchmen seem to either deliberately ignore or can’t see. If Ethiopia wants to heal its wounds, it has to reconcile with its past, especially the past 27 years of TPLF rule. The best way to reconcile with this is to do a comprehensive investigation; to avoid selective investigation on the recent incidents of Axum. The latest intense emphasis on Axum had glossed the horrible injustices and crimes in Mai Kadra, Benshangul, Agnwak, 2005 election…etc. The fact that TPLF refused to hand over the suspected perpetrators before it choose the road of open conflict says volumes how it wants to cover its crimes and how committed it is to cover these crimes. Perhaps the crimes are bigger than the consequences of the way in the eyes of the TPLF.

  • Indeed, your arguments are so plausible. The only thing you systematically and intentionally missed out is the UN should investigate not only the atrocities of the war in Tigray but also Mikadra genocide.

  • I wish everyone is becoming one and give a solution for our problems.our problem is divided in to our own ethnicity. When are we going to think that we all came from Adam and Eve.when we divide ourselves our problems getting hard on us. We can unite and push our problems to side. We are not living in this world forever it is just a contract world. we don’t even know are we going to wake up tomorrow or not. Please be your brother keepers one to another.Be good and good things will come to you.

  • The piece is full of half truths, misrepresentations and lopsided assertions. Over all, the writer spat out whatever was fed to him by the TPLF propaganda machine. He is one of the privileged expensively educated parrots.

  • The extent and the depravity of the war crimes and atrocities committed, the intentional and wholesale population displacement from western Tigray, this is all such that only UN and other international organizations have the experience and the standing for a full investigation. The EU, US, and UN have been alarmed by the abuses and crimes known to them so far. They have seen unspeakable atrocities before – Rwanda, Darfur, and elswhere. They are calling for a full and independent investigation and accountability.

  • Be careful what you wish for. The AU could have had a better outcome for Libya a decade ago. UN/US intervention rarely has resulted in alleviating the suffering of the local people. In fact, more often, US soldiers leave countries more broken than when they entered it.
    Check out Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, even Afghanistan.

    There is nothing more grating, more deflating and more embarrassing than an African saying: “White people please save us barbarians”

    Unleavable.

  • Yonas, your concern over human rights situation in the country is comendable. Human rights protection and promotion have been a matter of concern in the country, at least, since the era of Emperor Haile Sellassie. The advent of TPLF in to power since 1991 had been , at least by its followers, a moment of cleaning all the dirts of previous eras. Unfortunate enough, we have been wittnessed the opposite. That need to be washed rather than covered in the name of reconciliation. As for the attrocities in Axum, why not listening to the cries of Mai Kadra too. Do you believe, as the guru of Law, suppresing those destitutes with the help of lobbyists and ‘white ‘masked mercenaries, and above all irresponsible paid global media will burry the bloods of the poor? Do you really trust this shameful partisian move by powerful countries and regional bodies such as EU will remain forever that help criminals present themselves being victims? I do not think so. ALL ATTROCITIES COMMITTED IN THE COUNTRY NEED TO BE INVESTIGATED AND PURPETRAITORS SHALL BE BROUGHT TO JUSTICE.

  • Thank you a lot My brother Yonas . You have expressed in detail what is happening in Tigray and the remedial action .

    Keep it Up !!!

  • Not bad idea.The protection of human rights is universal and the best interest of everyone and at any moment. Al’so,I agree with that the UA organization as being incompetei, impartial and toothless, on of being. corrupt entity since 1964 where former H/ Salassie used and manipulated in a similar fashion. But also I think the human rights violations and atrocities perpetuated by the TPLF and Tigrains against civilians, not o mention financial exploration and corruption, in the last 20 years or so should investigated and commissioned. That would be the best interest of every Ethiopian and an equitable justice.

  • Excellent article,Yonas. Since the war on Tigrai was internationalised by the invvememt of Somali, USE and Eritrea, the inveztigation s must be carried by an international body approved by the UN. This what EU, US and UN are demanding. AU supported the war on Tigrai and for this reason it can’t be involved as it has already stood on the side of the perpetrator, Abiy. More over, as you stated, AU lacks the expertise required to probe war crimes committed in Tigrai on an industrial scale.

  • You demand scientific proof yet you yourself dismiss facts! “who knows Tigray outside Tigray region and Ethiopia”, are you writing behind a wall? How many news are made on Tigray? How many foreigners are defending #TigrayGenocide? Quite a lot. Check Google analytics, one way to understand the magnitude.

    “a threat to global law and order” is a bit stretched, i agree. He should probably have rephrased it as “mass migration to Europe”, which is likely if the crisis continues; and crisis in the horn can also affect the security and trade globally.

  • Any atrocity shall be condemened strongly. To demand Justice to all, one needs only to be human. The tone of racism in your messege may only propagate injustice. Let’s put the multiple atrocities hapend in perspective and demand justice to all. Then we will have a just country!!

    • Response to Germachew Berhe Dorri. There is no racist tone in my comment. The crimes committed during this conflict need to be investigated and those responsible punished. I would like to point out my family is a victim of the dispossession and displacement that TPLF carried out in Setit-Humera. We have been betrayed by our brothers east of Tekeze. We welcomed our brothers during the hard days of the struggle against Mengistu. We opened our homes and lands. We provided shelter and supplies during those dark days. In exchange once TPLF controlled Addis Abeba they implemented their evil plans on our communities. At times we were even prevented from mourning and burying our dead according to our customs. In any event we have used our own blood to overthrow our oppressors. There is no going back. I can assure you we will never make the same mistake again. It is better we maintain good relations like we have done before TPLF started encroaching across Tekeze. It also behooves you to start using the descriptive terms Welkait, Tegede, Setit-Humera when describing our land. It is not West Tigray …..

  • Can the UN inquirty also look into other human rights violations in Tigrai. Namely can the same body review the systematic displacement, disposession, ethnic cleansing, and genocide carried out on the native people of Welkait, Tegede, and Setit-Humera by TPLF over the past 30 years with the goal of changing the demography from mostly Amhara, Agew, and Qimant to Tigre. This surely qualifies worthy of UN security council review.

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