War and Accountability in Tigray: Interview with Professor Steven Ratner, Commissioner on the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia

War and Accountability in Tigray: Interview with Professor Steven Ratner, Commissioner on the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia

. 9 min read

Steven R. Ratner is the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and most recently a commissioner on the UN Human Rights Council's three-person International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. He teaches and writes in the field of public international law on a range of issues, including civil and interstate armed conflict, and accountability for human rights violations. Previously, he served on the UN’s Group of Experts for Cambodia and the Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.

As a member of the UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, you have worked extensively on the war in the Tigray region of the country with a spotlight on human rights violations. Could you briefly summarize the conflict for our readers—who was involved and what took place between November 2020 and November 2022?

The war in Tigray was the end stage of a long-running conflict between the political parties in Tigray headed by the TPLF—the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front—and the federal government in Addis Ababa. For a good period of time after Ethiopia emerged from a totalitarian dictatorship in the 70s and 80s, the central government in Addis was controlled by a multi-party coalition where the dominant [parties were] actually the Tigrayan parties. And even though [Tigrayans are] only 6% of the population, they really controlled the federal government from about 1991 [until] about 2018. When a new government was elected in 2018, they pretty much sidelined the Tigrayans, and the Tigrayan parties went back to their province in the north and proceeded to have a back-and-forth series of disagreements, ultimately culminating in a decision by the Tigrayan authorities not to hold elections when the federal government wanted to have them.

The federal government [ultimately] decided that it wanted to show the Tigrayans who [was] in charge, and in November of 2020, the federal government's forces invaded the Tigray regional state. They were assisted by the Eritrean government, which [represents] the country just to the north of Tigray. Of course, Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia. The government of Eritrea has a particular “beef” with the Tigrayans because, when Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia, it was the Tigrayans, who were in Addis controlling the government, that were fighting against the Eritreans. Essentially, you had this sort of pincer approach: one attack from the south by the federal forces and one attack from the north by the Eritrean forces. And it led to this horrific war that began in November of 2020.

At a certain point, the Tigrayans seemed to reverse the course of events, and were actually heading [south] towards Addis. But the federal government reversed that counter-offensive and then managed to impose a very strong humanitarian blockade on the country beginning in the middle of 2021. That led to tremendous human rights violations in the north of the country. Eventually, in late 2022, there was a ceasefire agreement that ended the worst of the fighting, but Eritrean forces remained in the northern part of the country. There [are] still a lot of ongoing violations. The legacy of the past has not been dealt with.

One of the terms of the agreement mandated that the Ethiopian government allow humanitarian aid providers “unfettered access” to Tigray. What is the current status of humanitarian aid in the region, given the government’s history of blockading aid and services? Has aid been flowing more freely, or are providers encountering resistance on the Ethiopian side?

The short answer is that the situation, as far as humanitarian aid is [concerned], [is] a lot better as a result of the CoHA [Cessation of Hostilities Agreement]. There certainly is far more aid going through then than in the past. At the same time, there [are] still a lot of bureaucratic obstacles. There [are] still a lot of difficulties that humanitarians and NGOs have faced. The government is still imposing some restrictions. It's not as if things are back to normal. Equally important [is] the legacy of the war in terms of the survivors, particularly victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The amount of reconstruction and psychosocial support [necessary] for victims is enormous, and the government is really not facing that and putting in the resources to solve those issues. So even though there is certainly a lot of humanitarian relief going in, what's necessary is far, far greater than that.

The International Commission’s final report detailed dozens of human rights violations perpetrated by soldiers on both sides of the conflict [including] gender-based violence [and] massacres. The report states that, from interviews with survivors, many perpetrators have been identified by either their name or nom de guerre. How will the international community hold these individuals accountable, if at all?

Unfortunately, [with] the way Commissions of Inquiry work, all we [have] is a first step [towards] figuring out what happened and laying the groundwork for future responses. So we do not conduct a criminal investigation. We are not oriented towards that kind of work [requiring] specialized criminal investigators to interview people [in] a specific way. We're just trying to figure out what happened in a very basic sense: not beyond a reasonable doubt, but, with our standard of proof, [to] have a reasonable grounds to believe that the events that we talked about in our report happened. So it's really just a first step.

It is true that a number of the people that we interviewed were able to identify their perpetrators. But that, of course, is not enough to justify indicting any of those people. You have to have much stronger evidence to actually do that. The names are all kept confidential, and are not released, because it really wouldn't be fair to anybody to have their name in a report based on one witness saying [they] committed the atrocity. Those names can only be released through a long process approved by the High Commissioner for Human Rights [of the United Nations], pretty much only if there's been a request by a national prosecuting authority or by the International Criminal Court.

As far as those options go, the International Criminal Court is not going to be dealing with Ethiopia, because Ethiopia is not a party to the ICC statute. Then the only way it could get to the ICC would be if it [the matter] were referred by the Security Council, and that's not going to happen because Ethiopia has too many friends on the Security Council. As [for] prosecutions by individual governments under the principle of what's called universal jurisdiction, I'm not aware of any governments that have expressed interest in prosecuting anybody. So when we're talking about accountability, what we're really talking about, with respect to individuals, is the possibility that there might be individualized sanctions against them. The US and the EU both have programs that identify people and freeze their bank accounts or limit their travel or don't allow them to have visas. Just a handful of countries actually go ahead and do that.

There [are] other ways of holding the state accountable; for instance, to condition future assistance and future relations on an improvement in the situation on dealing with the past. That's what we human rights lawyers call “horizontal enforcement,” where one country essentially tries to use its influence to get another country to improve its human rights record. So enforcement is quite tricky. I don't think there are going to be any foreign prosecutions. As far as domestic prosecutions go, the government [of Ethiopia] has not really shown an interest in that. They say they've prosecuted a small number of people from early in the war, but those proceedings are secret. We don't really know exactly what the people were convicted of, whether the witnesses had any role in those trials, [or] whether they met due process standards. And clearly the number of Ethiopian forces involved is enormous. I might add that Ethiopia has no interest whatsoever [in] prosecuting Eritrean forces for violations of human rights on Ethiopian soil. There's absolutely nothing in place to deal with the horrendous abuses committed by the Eritrean forces.

To what extent does the Ethiopian public, beyond those directly affected by the conflict, know about the abhorrent crimes allegedly perpetrated by the armed forces? Has there been any meaningful criticism of the government in the capital or elsewhere in the country?

To a limited extent, I do think there's an awareness of the toll of the war. Certainly in Tigray, people know what they've been through. I think in the rest of the country there is some awareness. There are a few open media outlets. There are some NGOs [and] some civic [groups] in the country. It's not a complete clamp-down on free information, but it's very difficult to know exactly the extent to which people know the details.

I do think that when people answer questions [about future accountability and transitional justice], they have a sense that something very, very bad has been going on for the last couple of years. But they also have grievances that go [way] back before November 2020. [When] the Amhara, a much larger ethnic group, think about accountability, and when they think about dealing with the past, they are thinking about the way they perceive themselves as being mistreated when the Tigrayans were the powerful player in Addis. So everybody's got their own grievances. They all seem to want to have some kind of process, but it's not clear exactly whether they're concerned only about what's happened to them, or whether they're concerned about what happened to other groups.

In addition to everyone who lost their lives, millions of people were displaced by the conflict. What is the situation for refugees following the one year anniversary of the peace agreement? Were many displaced people able to return to their homes or integrate into other societies?

Many Tigrayans who have fled the conflict are very fearful of going back. Some are in refugee camps in Sudan, some are in Djibouti, some are in other places. As long as Eritrean forces are there [and] as long as the situation is very unstable, there's a great deal of fear. [The CoHA] is really just a cessation of hostilities agreement. It's not a blueprint for long-term peace, and the government hasn't really talked in those terms. Many observers say [the CoHA] was really just an agreement between the elites—between the TPLF in Tigray, and the government—and that it really didn't have a lot of buy-in from the population. So it's still a very fragile situation. And equally important, as we mentioned in our report from a few months ago, is that the violence is now spreading to other areas in Oromia and Amhara with far more actors involved.

Despite the magnitude of the Tigray conflict—one recent estimate states that 600,000 people were killed—international attention in 2022 was largely focused on the Russia-Ukraine war. Indeed, the same outpouring of support and solidarity on behalf of Ukrainians was largely not seen for Tigray. How do observers like yourself keep the attention of the media, governments, and ordinary citizens? What can we do to make sure these conflicts are visible in all their horror?

Well, it's a very significant challenge for people involved in the practice of human rights because both formal media and social media play a huge role in what people decide to focus on. The fact is that when you have a war that involves Western countries, with Western-looking people, that tends to get the attention of the Western media. Of course, the Ukraine war is a total horror, involving aggression by a major power to conquer one of its neighbors. That gets a lot of attention, as it should. [Meanwhile,] Ethiopia is an African country. It's off the radar [for] a lot of people in Western Europe and the United States. It was a civil war, for the most part, despite Eritrean involvement. It's seen as a civil war, just another of a long list of civil conflicts in Africa that a lot of Westerners think they can't really understand or comprehend.

The United Nations has a role to play here in keeping attention on these other conflicts. The UN, unlike the US, is supposed to look around the world at conflicts and give them the attention they deserve. The UN is not perfect in that. They do focus too much on some conflicts and not enough on others. It's still a political body. But I think by creating our commission, they at least signaled that this was a conflict worth looking at. At least the states that voted for the creation of our commission did, but it's an enormous struggle.

I recall a story from when we were at the UN in October. We were going to have a press conference surrounding our parents at the General Assembly, and the Ukraine commission was going to have a press conference about its attendance at the General Assembly. One, I believe, was canceled, and the other one had almost nobody there because everybody was focused on the Gaza war. The public’s and governments’ attention is almost limited to one catastrophe at a time. I sort of understand that. In the case of Ethiopia, given the number of people who've been killed, there's certainly a sense that I think many of us have, that African lives matter less to a lot of people. And there's no question that the toll from the Ethiopian war has been [one of] the largest of the 21st century. And despite that, it has [certainly] not gotten the attention of the Ukraine war or the Gaza war.

Wyss spoke with Ratner on December 5, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.