Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at the Um Rakuba refugee camp which houses Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. File photo: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER
Ethiopian refugees wait in lines for a meal at the Um Rakuba refugee camp which houses Ethiopian refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. File photo: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

Since the outbreak of war in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region last November, Human Rights Watch and other international organisations have documented serious abuses by Ethiopian forces and their allies, including summary executions, sexual violencedestruction and looting of private property, and forced displacement. Many of these abuses amount to war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has characterised events unfolding in parts of the region as “ethnic cleansing”. In addition, in early June UN and aid agency analysis found that 350,000 Tigrayans were experiencing famine-like conditions and 33,000 children are already suffering from malnourishment. On June 28, after a week of heavy fighting in which key towns, including Tigray’s regional capital, came under the control of the Tigray Defence Forces, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire. The effect of the latest developments,  including on Eritrean and Amhara forces, is not yet clear.

While Western governments and institutions have sounded the alarm on the unfolding human rights and humanitarian crisis in Tigray, some African opinion-makers and analysts have criticised the AU’s silence and inaction. With its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the AU should have been at the forefront of efforts to condemn and curb the mounting abuses during a conflict that quickly deteriorated on its doorstep.

The ad hoc and limited measures taken by the AU so far have failed to exert pressure on the Ethiopian government, which has rebuffed attempts by African institutions and respected figures to negotiate an end to the conflict, including the appointment of three special envoys by the previous AU chair and calls for action by organisations such as the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. In other cases, the AU’s impartiality and independence has been questioned by Tigrayan victims and communities, particularly after a statement made by AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat in December that the Ethiopian government took bold, legitimate steps in Tigray to preserve the country’s unity.

African statesmen have also remained largely silent. Perhaps given the lack of public outcry by other national leaders on the continent, Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s call for action on Tigray was directed not at African institutions but at the US and the UN Security Council. Yet to prevent further mass atrocities leadership from the AU and African member states is key.

Instead of welcoming independent, external scrutiny by the AU via the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Ethiopia’s foreign ministry criticised its creation of a commission of inquiry as “lacking legal basis”, and proceeding “in a misguided direction”. The ministry said the inquiry is outside the scope of the invitation for the commission to carry out a joint investigation with the national human rights commission, as requested by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

By anchoring its Tigray investigation on its independence and impartiality, the rights commission will hopefully earn the same respect as its groundbreaking recommendations regarding the establishment for the first time of pan-African accountability mechanisms such as the International Human Rights Tribunal in Burundi and the Hybrid Court in South Sudan. Unfortunately, AU member states have yet to carry out these recommendations, underscoring the need for state support at all phases of regional interventions: before, during, and after.

As the commission begins its work in Tigray its mission needs clear support from AU member states and protection against interference. AU member states should embrace the principle of “non-indifference and be ready to break ranks with Ethiopia rather than shield its leaders from scrutiny and accountability. They can begin by publicly condemning the atrocities committed by all warring parties during the brutal nearly eight-month conflict. They should also be ready to provide the necessary political, financial, and technical support to the ACHPR inquiry to ensure the investigation is conducted in a timely, impartial and comprehensive manner.

They should request regular updates from the ACHPR on its investigation, urgently call for an AU extraordinary session on the crisis in Tigray, and adopt targeted sanctions against those responsible for serious abuses. To maximise the impact of punitive measures the AU should engage multilateral institutions such as the UN and EU and support calls for greater scrutiny of Ethiopia and its allies, including Eritrea.

The ACHPR should also seek the full co-operation of other international human rights systems, particularly the UN’s human rights office as it conducts a separate investigation into abuses in Tigray based on the Addis Ababa Roadmap, which provides a collaboration framework for both agencies. 

The crisis in Tigray is the ultimate test of African leadership and the AU’s Pan-African ideals, one the AU is so far failing. Only by acting boldly and in a principled manner, regardless of states’ political interests, and adopting a strong regional approach, can the AU prevent further harm in a crisis that has already unravelled on its watch.

• Kaneza Nantulya is the Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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