Ethiopia urgently needs a transitional justice policy

The country has a window of opportunity to improve its transitional justice approach, which has been disjointed and ineffective.

Earlier this year, Ethiopia’s government granted amnesty to political figures and influential activists detained since 2020. In justifying the decision, authorities said victims’ wounds would heal through transitional justice. The attorney-general said Ethiopia had been overwhelmed with gross human rights violations that only transitional justice – and not ordinary criminal justice – could address.

But transitional justice measures aren’t new for Ethiopia – and to date they haven’t lived up to expectations. For them to work, the country needs a policy tailored to the Ethiopian context that sets clear directions concerning the process.

Transitional justice entails a series of judicial and non-judicial measures to come to terms with dictatorial regimes and large-scale past abuses. Ethiopia’s 2018 change of government, stemming from widespread popular unrest, brought transitional justice into the spotlight. This regime change didn’t deliver a provisional government (as it did in 1974) or a transitional government (as in 1991). Nor did authorities resort to extrajudicial measures such as the summary execution of former officials, like in 1974. 

Instead, immediately after assuming office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali introduced transitional justice measures. He granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners and removed opposition groups from the terrorist list. Abiy also focused on vetting political appointees and reforming institutions. He acknowledged state-sanctioned violence and promised to bring perpetrators to justice.

Local and international communities celebrated these early transitional justice measures and promises, including the African Union. Coupled with Ethiopia’s steps to establish peace in the Horn and end a two-decade-long military stalemate with Eritrea, the transitional justice measures earned Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Transitional justice isn’t new in Ethiopia – and to date it hasn’t lived up to expectations

By 2019, transitional justice was already gaining ground in the country. The government established the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission (ERC) to forge a lasting peace. It also founded the Administrative Boundaries and Identities Issues Commission (ABIIC) to address territorial disputes among regions and ethnic groups.

However prosecutions didn’t materialise to the extent promised. The ERC – overly ambitious and ill-designed for complex and broad mandates – was dissolved prematurely. A similar fate followed the ABIIC.

Ethiopia’s transitional justice process has been ineffective for two significant reasons. First, the country adopted incomplete, disjointed and contradictory measures instead of a holistic and complementary approach.

The process was incomplete due to the absence of meaningful victim or public participation. With regard to contradictions, Abiy told Parliament in July 2018 that Ethiopians had forgiven the government for crimes it committed since 1991. The statement contradicted promises of accountability for past abuses. Later, the attorney-general abruptly started selective prosecution of human rights violations, the scale and nature of which the ERC was mandated to investigate.

Second, the country couldn’t implement transitional justice measures due to state fragility created by protracted unrest, inter-ethnic clashes and devastating wars. Armed conflicts with groups in Tigray and Oromia have not only dimmed the prospects of carrying out transitional justice but resulted in further atrocities.

The African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy could be a good reference for Ethiopia

To address these challenges, Ethiopia needs a policy process that acknowledges the complex and arduous nature of coming to terms with the past. Adopting a policy may mend broken promises for transitional justice, as it will show genuine political commitment on the government’s part. It could encourage the participation of opposition groups and other stakeholders who would use the policy to discuss choices of measures.

The AU’s Transitional Justice Policy could be a good reference for Ethiopia. Drawing on past experiences, it acknowledges context specificity as much as it advocates for African shared values and ownership of the process by the affected country. It also clarifies the overarching purposes and guiding principles.

A policy provides a general approach to choosing which transitional justice measures to pursue, such as prosecution, reconciliation (including establishing the whole truth), memorialisation and reparation. Adopting one or more of these measures may depend on the policy’s main goals – guaranteeing non-repetition of violence and promoting social healing.

A comprehensive policy is also vital in sequencing and balancing choices. It will help ensure synergy and complementarity by avoiding the introduction of conflicting measures, as is currently the case.

Also, a homegrown policy could emphasise inclusiveness. Unlike what appears to be dominating the transitional justice discussions in Ethiopia, inclusiveness should look beyond warring and non-warring dissident groups. It must involve marginalised groups, like the youth, women, minorities and internally displaced.

An inclusive policy should look beyond warring and dissident groups, and involve marginalised groups

The Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission, established in December 2021 to start a conversation on the country’s fundamental differences and disputes, could benefit from a transitional justice policy. A policy could guide the dialogue process and recommendations concerning past atrocities. It could help the commission reject pro-amnesty proposals that overlook victims’ interests. In that respect, the AU’s Transitional Justice Policy highlights the significance of criminal accountability as envisaged in international law.

A transitional justice policy could also be relevant in post-war peace talks. It offers guidance when negotiations involve – as they almost always do – questions of gross human rights violations during conflicts. Peace and justice processes should never overlook victims’ perspectives or promise impunity to bring parties to the table. A policy would highlight this.

Anonymous sources indicate that Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry has shown interest in developing a transitional justice policy. The need is urgent. If disjointed and ineffective measures continue to be installed and aborted, Ethiopia will lose momentum. Alternatively, the Ministry of Peace may consider including a transitional justice component in its National Peacebuilding Policy, which has been in the pipeline since 2019.

Either way, such a policy must result from extensive consultation with all stakeholders to ensure its legitimacy.

Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, ENACT project, ISS Addis Ababa

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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