The Tigray War demands accountability, not only to address past violations but also to prevent a relapse into further war. Developments following the Pretoria Agreement clearly indicate that accountability is being intentionally evaded, by both domestic and international actors. It is thus incumbent upon all Tigrayans to redouble efforts and exhaust potential accountability mechanisms.
When the war in Tigray started in November 2020, few had expected it to last beyond the three weeks time frame the government of Ethiopia set for what it referred as the “Law Enforcement Operation”.
Contrary to its deliberate and misleading label, the war was anything but lawful, it was a culmination of a lawless and total war where Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Amhara regional forces had masterminded and carried out a genocide, breaking domestic, regional and international humanitarian, refugee, and human rights laws.
After two years of carnage and rampant destruction that claimed more than 600,000 lives, left hundred thousands of women with deep physical and psychological trauma from the industrial scale use of rape as a method of warfare, displaced millions and destroyed ancient heritages and the livelihood of millions, the war came to a sudden stop.
The last phase of the war (August-November 2022) made it clear that Tigray is not a match against the combined forces of two states and regional forces who have mobilised their military and financial resources to wipe Tigray out of existence. Tigray has to settle for victor’s peace or face an eventual annihilation by war of attrition.
The Pretoria-Nairobi Agreements
In November last year, the TPLF and the Ethiopian government signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in Pretoria, South Africa. Following the agreement, the war has ended, the guns are silenced, a long overdue respite for a population that has been battered by a genocide and siege.
But the war is far from resolved. Except for shifts in fragile alliances, the fundamental issues that led to the war remain in place. At the moment, Tigray has a negative peace, while it is disarmed, the Eritrean and Amhara forces continue to occupy large swaths of Tigray, obstructing aid, the return of IDPs, and continuing massacres, rape and displacements with impunity. The Irob and Kunama minorities in northeast and northwest Tigray remain under occupation and are facing the threat of extinction.
Basic services remain patchy and unfettered access to humanitarian aid remains uneven. Ethiopia has continued its media blockade on Tigray and still continues to ban journalists from entering Tigray.
Despite the colossal destruction and death the war caused on all sides, the leaders and faces of the war have escaped accountability and are further entrenched and remain in power, while the children, mothers, women and minority communities and the vulnerable who bore the brunt of the war are left to pick the pieces and lick their wounds. As the Palestinian poet and writer, Mahmoud Darwish, once said:
The war will end, and leaders will shake hands. That old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son. And those children will keep waiting for their hero father. I don’t know who sold our homeland, but I saw who paid the price.
What are the prospects for accountability and justice for victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Tigray? Will transitional justice deliver what it promises or further retraumatize and double victimise and push the quest for justice to the unknown future?
Agreements and Implementation
The Pretoria agreement, in its Article 10.3 stipulates:
The Government of Ethiopia shall implement a comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining the truth, redress for victims, reconciliation, and healing, consistent with the Constitution of FDRE and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework.
Despite its potential, the provision for accountability and justice is vague in details; it lacks clarity on the definition and the scope and mechanism of transitional justice. Crucially, it also leaves out the role of Eritrean forces who are responsible for some of the major war crimes in Tigray. The Ethiopian government wants to extend the timeframe for the transitional justice to include crimes committed since 1991, downplaying the gravity of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since November 2020 and further muddying the quest for justice.
Furthermore, since the signing of the peace agreement, the Ethiopian government has been preoccupied by anything but accountability, truth, reconciliation or healing. It continues to ban journalists and investigators from having access to Tigray, denies vehemently allegations of human rights violations by its forces and downplay the gravity of the war crimes and the urgency for justice and accountability.
Ethiopia has also attempted to terminate the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts in Ethiopia (ICHREE). Eventually, it has dropped its effort, not because it is planning to cooperate with it, but because it is assured that the international community will not renew the mandate of the ICHREE beyond 2023.
For the international community, justice and accountability for the war crimes committed in Tigray is secondary to its geopolitics. For the USA, it took less than two months to label Russian atrocities in Ukraine a genocide, while halting a genocide designation in Ethiopia in pursuit of diplomacy. While the European Union took a firm stand at the beginning of the war and emphasised the need for accountability, its member states like France, Germany and Italy have been more keener on normalisation than accountability.
For their part, Tigrayan authorities are sending mixed signals on justice and accountability. On one hand, in an interview with the Washington Post, General Tsadikan said “If we make this [justice] the primary agenda, it will be a dealbreaker”, framing the quest for justice as an obstacle and rendering justice secondary to peace. On the other hand, Getachew Reda, president of the Tigray region, has recently stated “…ultimately justice, however long it might take, needs to be served.”, recognizing both its necessity and the extended time it requires.
Worryingly, as the incessant photo-ops and tone-deaf posts of Tigray’s officials reveal, there is a desperate rush to move forward and the question of justice and accountability is fast disappearing from the official media and political discourses and is taking a backseat in the evolving situations in Tigray.
These measures and similar developments are hardly assuring indicators of the commitments of Ethiopia, Tigrayan authorities and the international community to justice and accountability.
The promise of the ceasefire agreement to address the questions of justice and accountability, remains just a promise. In reality, its interpretation and implementation so far indicates, it is not intended to bring justice and accountability and redress but impose impunity in the name of transitional justice.
What next for victims?
Peace and justice are not antithetical, and there is no true peace and reconciliation without justice and accountability. The promise of future peace should not be based on the denial of past and ongoing atrocities. Tigray victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity deserve justice and their quest for enduring justice deserves sustained attention and practical response from domestic, regional, and international stakeholders.
While Tigray is slowly returning back to normalcy, in the meantime, there are some initiatives and actions concerned citizens and stakeholders need to support for securing justice and accountability.
Despite the ceasefire agreement, Tigray has seen only the resumption of telecommunication services. For all other practical reasons, it still remains partially cut from the rest of the world. International investigators and independent media are unable to travel to the region and have to continue their reports and investigation remotely. Western, northwestern, southern and northeastern parts of Tigray are still under occupation and inaccessible either for investigators or independent media.
Demand for unhindered access and end the slow response to the ongoing partial blockade.
Keep the Investigations Going On
Tigray has yet to emerge from the genocidal war launched against it, and the need for ongoing documentation and robust investigation remains urgent. This requires the strengthening of local initiatives like the Tigray Commission of Genocide Inquiry and other similar initiatives based either in Tigray or in the diaspora.
Tigrayans also need to remind authorities the fact that the investigation needed to document, verify and archive atrocity crimes committed in Tigray is not complete and should be urged not to tap with massacre sites and destroy critical evidence for investigation.
We are what we remember. The current genocidal war is not the first in the long history of Tigray replete with periodic wars and famines the central governments have frequently employed to subdue the people of the region. If Tigray wants to avoid the repeat of the past, it has to commit to remembering the present.
With the international community rushing to normalise relations and brush war crimes under the rug, Ethiopian and Tigrayan authorities deprioritizing justice and accountability, Tigrayans are taking self-initiated measures to preserve the memory of massacres, rape, destruction and injustice they have witnessed. Music videos, books, documentaries, paintings and artistic productions are now becoming the reserve and sites of the cultural memory of the Tigray genocide.
However, individual and fragmented efforts, despite their novelty, are not sufficient, they should be collectivised and concretised in the cultural and social history of Tigray. The Tigray genocide should be formally institutionalised via having its remembrance day (November 04 as a possible day), preserving massacre sites as open museums, development of genocide research institutions and its incorporation as part of the standard curriculum across schools in Tigray.
Genocide Designation in the Diaspora
Genocide designation is inherently a political process and is subject to competing interests and perspectives. As such it is open to collective and organised effort of affected communities who strive to establish the truth and the justice and accountability it deserves.
The Tigrayan diaspora in the US, like the Armenian, Uyghur and other diaspora communities and their relentless effort to get genocides recognized, should join hands to work for the designation of the war crimes, crimes against humanity in Tigray as a genocide.
The “Rohingya” Option
The Rohingya, an underrepresented and under-resourced ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar, have been the target of extensive ethnic cleansing and war crimes under successive Myanmar governments, leading to their displacement and expulsion from their ancestral lands.
In 2019, the Gambia with the backing of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, filed a case to the International Court of Justice, bringing the war crimes against an underrepresented minority community to the international arena. Tigrayan civil societies could seek similar paths to justice to the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray.
Remedial Secession As A Path To Justice
Tigrayan victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity under Ethiopian, Eritrean and the Amhara forces face a long struggle to secure the justice and accountability they deserve. Their paths to justice is obstructed by political and institutional hurdles including a state that has invited another state to perpetrate war crimes against them, the same state that is ready now to deny them justice, their own political leaders who tend to see justice not as a primary cause but expedient to short-term gains, and an international community that is more invested in normalising relations than justice and accountability. As similar experiences from other conflicts like Liberia and Darfur indicate, the search for justice could take decades before it brings any meaningful closure.
While other mechanisms are explored and the options are left open, Tigray also needs to consider pursuing remedial secession as part of its quest for justice. This is not the first time Tigray has been subjected to famine, starvation and genocidal state policies from successive central governments, from the monarchy of Haile Selassie to the socialist regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. Tigrayans are rightly questioning the viability of remaining part of a genocidal state and should seek independence and ratify the Rome Statute and deliver justice and accountability to all victims who deserve anything but less.
Leaving the fate of victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray to a state that has perpetrated those same crimes and has failed to deliver transitional justice in 1974, 1991, and 2018, is both double victimisation and criminal.