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Ethiopian victims of war sue the state

December 31, 2022
topics: Peace and Reconciliation
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Ethiopia
tags: African Commission, Ethiopia, human rights, Tigray War

Two years after a protracted war between the Ethiopian government and rebels took place claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and displacing millions more, victims and survivors of the conflict are suing the government for gross violation of human rights and atrocities that have been described by international bodies as equivalent to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

An armed conflict that broke out in Ethiopia in November 2020 and pitted government forces against rebels under the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) wing has metamorphosed into a humanitarian crisis of epidemic proportions and a near-genocide. 

Close to two years since the war erupted, 600,000 civilians have lost their lives, more than 2.8 million have been displaced and over 20 million are in need of aid. 

Human rights violations

Residents of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia suffered some of the most devastating impacts of the conflict, with civilians being subjected to torture, rape, murder, detention, gender-based violence and a blockade of humanitarian aid, among other atrocities. Both government troops and rebels were accused of these gross human rights violations. 

An ad-hoc International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia established by the UN Human Rights Council in its initial findings noted that the parties to the conflict had committed some atrocities that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The UN Secretary-General, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and other NGOs in a report also accused the warring parties as being responsible for international crimes. 

Pressure has since been piling on perpetrators to be held to account and for justice to prevail for millions of Tigrayan victims whose lives have been disrupted.

Justice for Tigrayan civilians

 A consortium of legal bodies, including Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU) and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP have taken this further and are suing the Ethiopian government on behalf of Tigrayan victims.

The historic case was first filed in February this year at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a quasi-judicial human rights entity that promotes and monitors protection of human rights across Africa as enshrined in the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.  

In a statement, the litigants noted that despite atrocities having been committed against all parties to the conflict and against civilians of different ethnicities, they were focused on suing the state as it bears the primary responsibility to its citizens - highlighting that the Tigrayan community was the most affected by the conflict. 

Nick Leddy, LAW's Head of Litigation said that the consortium is looking for accountability from the government for its conduct while getting justice and closure for the victims and survivors. 

“Given that there are no local remedies available at the moment, the fact that the courts in Ethiopia are not particularly welcoming to Tigrayans claims and the International Criminal Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over Ethiopia, we felt there was need among Tigrayan survivors to get justice,” Leddy told FairPlanet. 

He added that they identified “[The] African Commission as the ideal avenue to bring human rights claims against the Ethiopian government given that it is the preeminent human rights institution on the continent and one that the Tigrayans can easily access.” 

The case against the Ethiopian state

In October, the African Commission announced that it would hear the case and requested the Ethiopian government to ensure that there was an end to allegations of atrocities while enhancing access of humanitarian aid to Tigrayan citizens and protecting aid workers. 

Finally in November, after various attempts at a truce, the Ethiopian government and TPLF signed an agreement to end all hostilities. But did this development have an impact on the case?

According to Leddy, while this was a positive development, there has been news of violations of the peace deal which raised concerns among Tigrayan victims and gave the court case more impetus.

The entities on 13 December filed a brief on the merits and admissibility of the case. “The brief details the violations committed by the Ethiopian government and its allies among them Eritrean forces,” Leddy noted. “This includes statements from survivors and open-source materials such as NGO, academic, and UN reports.”

The Ethiopian government has 60 days from the day the brief was filed to respond, with the legal firms having 30 days to then submit a rejoinder. 

There are, however, concerns over the willingness of the Ethiopian government to abide by the ruling of the Commission should it rule in favour of the victims. 

Ethiopia has also not ratified some key international human rights protocols which would provide other avenues to prosecute the case - for example in the African Court on Human Rights in Arusha further. 

Leddy argued that the ultimate goal of the case in addition to securing justice for victims is also to draw the attention of the international community to the level of abuse that the Ethiopian government has unleashed on its people. 

“This is an important case to document the widespread human rights violations and to make sure that survivors can have some possibility of justice.”

“Ultimately,” he concluded, “we hope there will be lasting peace for the sake of the victims and survivors.”

Image by Gift Habeshaw

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Ethiopia
Close to two years since the war erupted, 600,000 civilians have lost their lives, more than 2.8 million have been displaced and over 20 million are in need of aid. 
Residents of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia suffered some of the most devastating impacts of the conflict
“This is an important case to document the widespread human rights violations and to make sure that survivors can have some possibility of justice.”
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