On 2 November, the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front signed an agreement in Pretoria to end the two-year civil war in the country’s north. Besides committing to a permanent cessation of hostilities and restoration of constitutional order, the parties announced that the African Union’s (AU) 2019 Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP) would accompany the deal.
The AUTJP is included to ensure accountability, truth, reconciliation and healing in post-conflict Ethiopia. It is the first time AU-led peace talks have incorporated the AUTJP. Transitional justice is considered vital in many peace processes, and its importance for Ethiopia has been highlighted before.
Including the AUTJP as a key part of the agreement should quell concerns about accountability and justice relating to crimes committed during the war in Ethiopia. The AU policy is also important because Ethiopia has unsuccessfully attempted transitional justice three times in the past 50 years (in 1974, 1991 and 2018). None of these efforts was accompanied by a framework for transitional justice.
The AUTJP comprises five essential elements Ethiopia can use to design and implement a successful transitional justice process. First, it addresses the deficiency in transitional justice efforts that focus exclusively on criminal accountability and selectively disregard local contexts. The AUTJP was premised on the idea that accountability without a restorative dimension doesn’t build lasting peace.
Ethiopia serves as an example. In 1974, the Dergue summarily executed former officials instead of bringing them to justice. The post-1991 transitional justice process did not include reconciliation or reparation for gross human rights abuses perpetrated during the Dergue era (1974-1991). Only prosecutions were pursued – and these represented a typical example of victors’ justice. All of the over 5 000 defendants who stood trial for genocide against political groups and war crimes against civilians were members and affiliates of the Dergue – the vanquished.
An AUTJP-based accountability process in Ethiopia can ensure a full and impartial investigation of atrocities and the prosecution of all parties accused of committing international crimes. Also, the AU policy emphasises the importance of removing potential impediments to prosecution, including enacting enabling legislation.
In that regard, Ethiopia needs to pass laws proscribing crimes against humanity. It should also criminalise torture and enforced disappearance as standalone crimes and provide legislation on command responsibility.
Second, the AUTJP requires transitional justice to be comprehensive and not limited to adopting just one or two familiar aspects, such as reconciliation or prosecution. The policy details 11 transitional justice elements, including the importance of setting up commissions, using traditional dispute resolution mechanisms, and reparations and memorialisation. None of these was meaningfully implemented in Ethiopia’s past experiences.
The AU policy may encourage Ethiopia to revive, among others, reconciliation. This transitional justice component was expressly denied in the post-1974 and 1991 transitions and aborted in the post-2018 transitional justice process.
Third, the AUTJP provides benchmarks and standards for adopting and implementing elements such as prosecution, reconciliation, reparation and memorialisation. Unlike what the AU policy considers effective memorialisation, Ethiopia seldom remembers its victims at the national/federal level. There hasn’t been a commemorative date for the summary executions of 1974, the Red Terror campaign, or the 1988 aerial bombing of marketgoers in Hawzen.
Although regional governments erected memorial obelisks and monuments, they were mostly built to glorify victories and wartime heroes, not the victims of war or gross human rights violations. And the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum is a private initiative.
There is also a significant gap in the intergenerational dimension of violence and memorialisation in Ethiopia. In recent protests, the youth nostalgically called for the return of Mengistu Haile Mariam – the Dergue leader who presided over the Red Terror and several violent campaigns.
Fourth, the AUTJP provides general transitional justice principles that ultimately determine the effectiveness of the process. These include prioritising elements based on the local context and using an inclusive and consultative approach. The policy also underlines the need to synergise, sequence and balance the elements used.
Ethiopia’s post-2018 transitional justice process has not been effective partly because incomplete, disjointed and contradictory measures were adopted instead of a holistic and complementary approach. The country should domesticate and contextualise the AUTJP to improve on this recent experience and implement the Pretoria peace agreement effectively.
Finally, the AUTJP requires attention to cross-cutting issues such as the participation of women and girls and other vulnerable groups. Last week’s peace talks were criticised for not including female representatives in either delegation. Ethiopia’s previous transitional justice process also lacked women as key stakeholders. No perpetrator stood trial for gender-based violence or rape in the post-1991 accountability process, although these offences were considered rampant during the Dergue era.
The peace deal might have brought some relief to Ethiopians, but its sustainability depends on the successful application of the accord. As former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta noted during the signing ceremony, ‘The devil is in the implementation.’
If the parties remain committed, the agreement seems well thought out as far as transitional justice is concerned. It has already paved the way for implementation, with parties committing not just to cease hostilities but to avoid inhibiting transitional justice through, for example, hostile propaganda, rhetoric and hate speech.
Article 10(3) of the accord calls for the preparation of a national transitional justice policy that mirrors the AUTJP. Designing a national policy could be the starting point for launching the process and designating or establishing responsible institutions. It is helpful that the AU is already translating the AUTJP into Amharic to facilitate domestication and implementation.
To ensure the process is inclusive and credible from the outset, the temptation of victors’ justice must be resisted, and all stakeholders must be involved in drafting the proposed transitional justice policy.
Effective transitional justice depends on political will. It is also a complex, time-consuming and resource-demanding process. Civil society organisations could play a vital advocacy and capacity-building role, and it is commendable that the peace agreement provides for their involvement.
Written by Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, ENACT project, ISS Addis Ababa