The war in Tigray, which started in early November 2020 and which has been going on for close to 30 months, has rightly been described as the world’s deadliest crisis. Up to 800,000 people are estimated to have been killed or died from deliberate mass starvation and lack of medical assistance as a result of a deadly siege of the Tigray region imposed by the Ethiopian government and its allies. According to the regional Bureau of Health, over 120,000 women and girls were subjected to horrific campaign of rape and sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and the allied ethnic Amhara forces. Millions of people have been forcibly removed from their homes and remain under inhuman conditions in IDP centers and refugee camps. In Western Tigray alone, Amhara militia and regional security forces with the help of Eritrean Defense Forces and Ethiopian National Defense Forces have forced over 1.2 million Tigrayans from their homes to other parts of Tigray and 70,000 more to cross into refugee camps in Sudan. Again in Western Tigray alone, tens of thousands are believed to have been killed, forcefully disappeared and detained in concentration camps where they are held under inhumane conditions, face torture and extrajudicial executions. Tigrayans in the rest of the country outside the region itself were ethnically profiled, forcefully disappeared, extrajudicially executed, mob lynched, burned alive, arbitrarily detained under inhumane conditions in concentration camps across remote and inhospitable parts of the country.
In March 2021 the US State Department declared that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Western Tigray. It also stated that it was undergoing analysis to determine whether the human rights violations in Tigray amounted to genocide. However, at the end of 2021, the Department of State announced that it had halted the process of determination to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis. On 20 March 2023 it released the decision and declared that “war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing” have been committed during the Tigray war. The statement accuses all sides of committing war crimes. It also declared that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, and the allied Amhara forces committed “crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution” without naming the subjects of these crimes. It specifically accused Amhara forces loyal to Abiy Ahmed Ali of committing ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray. Following a press briefing about the declaration of the decision on Monday, Secretary of State Antonio Blinken tweeted:
Violations of human rights in Tigray are crimes of intent
While this declaration is a step towards recognizing the crimes committed and suffering of civilians in the region, the nature of the determination is deeply problematic. According to the the Rome Statute, ‘crime against humanity’ refers to a range of human rights violations “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”.
The determination by Secretary Blinken clearly repudiates the fact that hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans were systematically massacred, and millions deliberately mass starved and denied access to resources critical for their survival with a clearly stated intention to inflict suffering and exterminate ethnic Tigrayans. This decision by the Department of State is in clear contradiction to the fact that perpetrators of the crimes, particularly Ethiopian officials, have through their communications, including in their diplomatic engagements with Western diplomatic missions, explicitly and repeatedly stated that their aim was to wipe out the Tigrayans— some high officials even suggested the erasure of the Tigrayans from human memory. In early 2021, high government officials in Addis Ababa told Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister and an EU envoy to the Horn of Africa at the time, that their goal was to wipe out the Tigrayans.
The determination statement by Blinken even overly downplays the nature and intent of the credibly documented industrial-scale rape and sexual campaign by forces who told their victims that they were there to cleanse their bloodlines, infect them with HIV and destroy their wombs. Samantha Power, the Administrator of the USAID, rightly noted in June 2021: “The scale of those crimes, and the reports of the soldier’s conduct and testimony, suggests that the Ethiopian military, together with their allies in the Eritrean military and forces from the Amhara region, have launched a campaign to shatter families and destroy the reproductive and mental health of their victims.”
In contrast with genocide, crimes against humanity do not need to target a specific group. Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity is not a crime of intent. Blinken’s presentation of the identity the victims of the violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean armies and their allied Amhara forces as “Northern Ethiopia[ns]” without a clear mention of who the targets are is one of the ways of reducing the nature and depth of the violence and the intent with which it was organized and executed, which Ethiopian and Eritrean officials have never shied away from explicitly stating. However, what happened in Tigray fits genocide in every way. In Novermber last year, genocide experts called on Canadian members of parliament to recognize atrocities and violations in Tigray as genocide. During the address to the Canadian MPs, Makush Kapila, a genocide expert and humanitarian official, argued that “Progressive acts of genocide are being perpetrated by the governments and agents of the states of Eritrea and Ethiopia against Tigrayans”.
Unlike genocide and war crimes, “crimes against humanity” is not codified into an international treaty and there are thus no international mechanisms put in place to seek justice and hold perpetrators accountable. It is left to the realm of international norms, the limits of which have all been tested and breached by the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes and their allies during this crisis.
Whereas what happened in Tigray is clearly a crime of intent, i.e. a genocide – defined as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, the determination by the US Department of State of what happened in Tigray as “crimes against humanity” reduces it to a mere collection of violent and graphic events the victims of which are unidentifiable civilians in “northern Ethiopia”. It reduces a campaign planned and organized by Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and their allies to wipe out and destroy a clearly distinct ethnic group, the Tigrayans, into a simple residual effect of a “conflict”.
Why does this matter?
The statement, it seems, is made with the purpose of endorsing a domestic “transitional justice mechanism” that is being set up by the Ethiopian regime — the very regime that planned and perpetrated the crimes in Tigray. It is a prelude to the Ethiopian government gaining full control of the process of supposedly investigating the crimes, serving justice to victims and survivors, and holding the perpetrators, including itself, accountable. Rather than acknowledging the nature of the violations and crimes committed in Tigray and against Tigrayans in the rest of the country, the report, it seems, is about endorsing the “transitional justice mechanism”. However, Blinken’s attempt to give credence to this process while watering down what happened in Tigray is nothing less than whitewashing the crimes committed by the very entities now positioning themselves to dispense justice . This is equivalent to asking Russia and China to set up domestic “justice and accountability mechanisms” for crimes and atrocities that the US and other western States have determined as genocide (e.g., Uyghur genocide).
The push for a domestic “transitional justice” mechanism also disregards the role of Eritrea, a sovereign country whose forces have been credibly accused of atrocities that human rights experts argue could easily amount to genocide in Tigray. There is overwhelming evidence documented by international human rights bodies that show that Eritrean forces have been involved in massacres and forceful disappearances of civilians, use of widespread and systematic rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan girls and women and the systematic destruction and looting of civilian properties and infrastructures among other crimes. The crimes in Tigray are international in nature and require an independent international body to investigate the crimes, ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and to serve justice to victims and survivors. To present the human rights violations in Tigray as an internal matter and to expect domestic mechanisms to handle the “justice and accountability” process is to misframe the nature of the problem and to overestimate the capacity of the domestic mechanism, even if there were effective ones. By what jurisdiction does an Ethiopian court hold Eritrean officials and members of Eritrean forces accountable for the crimes that they committed in Tigray, an Ethiopian territory?
The designation of the atrocities and human rights violations in Tigray as “crimes against humanity” compared to previous designations of other similarly organized and deadly, but smaller in scale, crimes as genocide reveals the application of double standard in such decision-making processes. This is against the promise that recognition and international justice can contribute towards overcoming international crimes and healing the traumas of individuals and of societies. For the US to determine a campaign that killed more people than genocides in Darfur, Rwanda, and Bosnia, as simple “crimes against humanity” seems more like box-checking than a genuine effort to pursue international justice. Tigrayans are rightly disappointed by Secretary Blinken’s statement. As one Tigrayan commentator stated it,”The determination serves the US the most. Protecting the regime in Ethiopia comes next. By stating the obvious, the US appears neutral and gains more leverage on all actors. And by ruling out a genocide determination and endorsing a sham transitional justice, it protects the regime”.