Inclusive national dialogue and accountability for rights violations can heal Ethiopia from a culture of impunity

Author: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn
Human Rights Lawyer and Gender equality advocate

On 3 November 2020, conflict broke out between the Tigray People Liberation Front and Ethiopia’s National Defense Forces when the Tigray People Liberation Front assaulted the Northern command. Due to the conflict in Ethiopia, women and girls continue to bear the brunt of the cruel and inhuman acts committed by all parties involved in the conflict for the last 17 months. Many have lost their lives, suffered sexual violence, been displaced, and starved. Young girls, women living with disability, older women, and refugee women have been the target of brutal sexual violence. These crimes are horrific in nature as they represent the level of vengeance and humiliation pursued by actors to the conflict. Reports have highlighted the extent of these violations and implicated all sides to the conflict in war crimes and crimes against humanity.    

Impunity has for long characterized Ethiopia’s transitions. Ethiopia went through different transitional periods beginning from the imperial regime to Derg in 1974, from Derg to EPRDF in 1991, and from EPRDF to Prosperity Party in 2018 and currently going through a period of transition that is accompanied by violence and conflicts. Ethiopia and Ethiopians missed the chance to reconcile with the past particularly as far as gross human rights violations are concerned. Replacing impunity with accountability and establishing rule of law in the country remains unfulfilled to date.

In the context of the ongoing conflict, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s National Defense Force, Eritrean Defense Force as well as Amhara Special Force and its allied militia are reported to have committed widespread sexual abuse against Tigrayan women. In the initial stages of the conflict, rape cases were reported in Mekele, Ayder, Adigrat, and Wukro hospitals of Tigray. Investigations on human rights in Tigray indicate that Tigrayan women were subjected to attempted rape, gang rape, oral and anal rape, and insertion of foreign objects into the vagina; in addition, they were subjected to  ethnic slurs and  degrading comments. They were also exposed to unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Access to humanitarian aid including access to sexual and reproductive health services remains a challenge. Sexual violence was reported to have been used as a weapon of war and as a deliberate strategy to terrorize, degrade and humiliate the victims. In the most hideous way, Eritrean women and girls fleeing persecution in Eritrea were also reported to have been raped by members of Eritrean Defense Forces and forces allied to the Tigray People Liberation Front in the Tigray region of Ethiopia where they sought refuge. To date, women who were impacted by the conflict continue to be the subject of abduction while on the move.

The number of women who are subjected to sexual violence increased when the conflict expanded its horizon to Amhara and Afar regions of Ethiopia. In these two regions, Tigrayan forces were reported to have committed widespread sexual violence against Amhara and Afari women and girls. In Nifas Mewcha, vicinity in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, women were reportedly raped during a nine-day period. Women were subjected to gang rape including in front of their children, physically assaulted, called names and degraded with ethnic slurs, impregnated by their rapists and suffered mental health problems including anxiety and depression. They were also robbed and deprived of their source of income. Women were unable to access comprehensive post-rape care, including emergency contraception, post emergency prophylaxis for HIV and sexually transmitted infections. In these two regions, it was reported that  Tigray Forces used sexual violence to demoralize, dehumanize and punish communities. Sexual violence was used in a more premeditated and organized manner arbitrarily but also selectively for combat purposes.

Due to the nature of this crime, the tendency of survivors coming forward with what happened to them in the current context of Ethiopia is limited. There is a likelihood of under-reporting because of the nature of the Ethiopian polity where patriarchy is the dominant view.

Violations of Women’s Human Rights 

Conflicts exacerbate deep rooted inequalities in any country. The gender discrimination women and girls are subjected to in a society continues to amplify their victimization during the conflict. Outside situations of armed conflict, women in Ethiopia continue to face gender-based violence including marital rape and other evolving forms of violence such as acid attacks, gang rape, and abduction. In Ethiopia, the male is the traditionally acknowledged master of his family. Marriage is viewed as a means of strengthening the link between families and ethnic groups particularly in the rural parts of Ethiopia. Thus, the role of women in the society is that of cementing family ties through bride-wealth and producing children. The cultural perception of women as the property of men has led to a situation where all actors in the conflict used rape as a weapon. In most Ethiopian societies, at least until recently, men are the main breadwinners. This has facilitated the path for their dominance over domestic and public decisions and further shaped the view that any harm directed at women is harm to the honor of the men in their lives. In the current context of Ethiopia, women and girls continue to be the direct victims of the conflict as they were subjected to sexual violence. However, the attacks targeting women of a certain group also symbolize a desire to shame and degrade the men in their society and their community at large because of the status that is given to them in their society.

Ethiopia’s constitution provides full and equal rights for women under article 25, and 35. Ethiopia’s revised criminal code also provides an explicit prohibition of violence against women and girls, including rape.  It is important to note that Ethiopia’s criminal code also contains provisions related to crimes against humanity beyond sexual violence.  All members of the African Union including Ethiopia are bound to respect the rights protected under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Article 5 of the African charter prohibits all forms of exploitation and degradation including, slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment and treatment.

The African charter also promotes the liberty and security of a person under article 6.

Interpretations provided by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights have directly referred to the application of Article 6 not only in promoting  physical safety in the context of arbitrary detention and torture , but also in the protection of women from sexual violence. In addition to the African Charter, article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for the equal protection of women and girls with men in the context of enjoying both their civil and political rights. The same covenant under article 7 provides that women and girls should be protected from ‘torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. Here, it has to be well understood that the human rights committee has defined torture to also include sexual violence.

As a result of the conflict, Ethiopian and Eritrean women and girls were deprived of the protections they had under national, regional, and international human rights law.

Credit to https://thejewishnews.com/2017/12/26/ending-silence-abuse/

It is important to understand that sexual violence is not and should not be considered as an unavoidable outcome of any conflict. It is a crime that is prohibited, preventable and punishable under International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, and International Human Rights Law. Ethiopia is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Article 1 of CEDAW defines discrimination against women to include gender-based violence that is violence directed against a woman because she is a woman, or because it affects women excessively. In the context of this definition, rape during conflict is discrimination against women directed at them because of their gender.

CEDAW does not allow States to derogate from the Convention’s obligations even during periods of armed conflict or public emergency. State obligations linger during such periods, including due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate, punish and ensure remedy for violations of the rights of women. Under the convention, state parties are also required to control the activities of domestic non-State actors within their jurisdiction. On the other hand, when a state is in direct hostility with a non-state actor that deprives women and girls of their human rights, it is indulged to protect women and girls from right violations.

Under Article 2 of CEDAW, state parties are required to address all aspects of their legal obligation under the Convention to “respect, protect and fulfill” women’s rights. The obligation to protect extends the state’s obligation to defend women and girls from right violations by third parties including non-state actors. States also have an obligation to regulate non-State actors under the duty to protect, so they exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and ensure reparation for the acts of non-state actors. By depriving women of these protections, all actors to the conflict: Ethiopia’s Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray Special Forces and Tigrayan militia groups on the other and Amhara Special Forces (ASF) and Amhara militia groups/Fano committed war crimes.

In elaborating on article 2 of CEDAW, General Recommendation 30 clarifies the application of the Convention to situations of armed conflict including to complex peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction processes. It outlines the content of the obligations assumed by state parties and further highlights obligations of non-State actors such as the Tigray People Liberation Front and allied militia and that of Amhara Special Forces (ASF) and Amhara militia groups/Fano. Although non-state actors cannot become parties to women’s rights instruments in general, in the context they exist in Ethiopia, they have an identifiable political structure and exercised significant control over territory and population during the conflict. Hence, they are indebted to respect international human rights laws.

Under human rights law, it is increasingly acknowledged that, at minimum, armed non-state actors who take government-like actions or ‘de facto control’ over territory and people must adhere and safeguard the human rights of individuals and groups. Some special procedures and investigative mechanisms of the Human Rights Council have further recommended that armed groups have human rights obligations, for example, derived from their abilities. It is in this scenario that actors not affiliated with states can be included as subjects of international human rights law, without putting them in the same position as states.

On top of the obligations discussed above,  as it relates to  article 12 of CEDAW, General Recommendation 30 states that parties have an obligation to ensure psychosocial support; family planning services, including emergency contraception; maternal health services, including antenatal care, skilled delivery services, prevention of vertical transmission and emergency obstetric care; safe abortion services; post-abortion care; prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, post-exposure prophylaxis including care to treat injuries such as fistula. Under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Ethiopia ratified in 1993, pregnant women have the right to health and essential health services that are free when necessary as part of their right to the highest attainable standard of health. The documented limitations on access to essential health care services in conflict affected regions of Ethiopia tantamount to violation of both the CEDAW and the ICESCR.

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol) that was ratified by Ethiopia on July 18, 2018 elaborates on the right of women to security. The Maputo Protocol protects women from the violation of their human rights both in times of peace and conflict. The protocol also calls on states to protect women seeking asylum and refugee status in their territory. Even though under international law states primarily apply territorial jurisdiction, this obligation also applies equally to both citizens and non-citizens, including refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers and stateless persons, within their jurisdiction or active control.

In the context of the conflict in Ethiopia, Eritrean refugee women’s right was violated when members of Eritrea’s Defense Forces and Tigray Special Forces and Tigrayan militia groups subjected them to sexual violence. As a result, their right to be protected from sexual violence was violated. Through these actions, they were deprived of the rights they have under the 1951 refugee convention which Ethiopia acceded to in 1969. Ethiopia also ratified the Kampala Convention in February 2020.

Article 11(2) of the Maputo Protocol further underlines that women in whatever ethnic group they belong to in a conflict should be provided civilian protection. Despite this, women belonging to diverse ethnic groups: Tegaru, Erob, Amhara, Afari, Eritreans were subjected to sexual violence. Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrean National Defense Force, Tigray Special Forces and Tigrayan militia groups, Amhara Special Forces (ASF) and Amhara militia groups/Fano violated the right of each individual woman to be recognized as a civilian and be provided with such protection.

Impacts of the conflict on women and girls

In addition to the widely reported sexual violence, restricted humanitarian aid, food, and communication blackout particularly in Tigray negatively affected survivors of sexual violence. The lack of medical supplies and trauma kits further characterize the dire situation in all regions where the conflict took place. As investigation indicate, in all places the conflict took place, women who were raped have reportedly experienced mental health problems. A significant number of girls were also forced to leave their schools early. Access to lifesaving aid including treatment for HIV and STD transmission, contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis as well as psychosocial programs continue to be limited in Tigray. These problems spread widely to Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia after the conflict reached these places. Women’s livelihood and sources of income were highly impacted due to the conflict as many women were forced to abandon them.  Research discussing justice for women impacted by conflicts underline that women who survive rape experience trauma and are usually stigmatized by their own communities. As a result, many women could be reluctant to report rape. Limited safe spaces for women and girls also added misery to the negative experience they had to go through as a result of the conflict.

Tigrayan women who were subjected to sexual violence also fled to Sudan, where the conditions of women particularly in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and along the Blue Nile are still impacted by the prolonged civil war and ongoing governance challenges. An increase in the number of women who migrated to Sudan was documented after the conflict expanded its reach to Amhara and Afar.

Calls to actions

As it stands now, Ethiopia’s priority should be women and girls caught in the conflict whose plights can only be addressed through broader efforts including a sit down with all concerned actors, an effective law enforcement, and criminal prosecution. It is also important that Ethiopia’s post conflict-justice priorities for women and girls focus not only on Civil and Political rights but also on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights.

In the short term, the following critical actions need to be taken:

  1. End the pain and suffering of women, and girls through pledging for unconditional ceasefire, and arms embargo; design effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes and ban arms proliferation in the different regions of Ethiopia;
  2. Take appropriate legal and institutional measures to protect women and girls at risk of sexual violence, including internally displaced and refugee women belonging to affected ethnic groups;
  3. Take appropriate legal, institutional, and financial measures to ensure the provision of comprehensive services for survivors of sexual violence including but not limited to medical, psychological, and social services necessary for their rehabilitation and reintegration with their community;
  4. Establish multipurpose community centers that link immediate assistance to economic and social empowerment and reintegration, and mobile clinics in places where the conflict ensued;
  5. Mitigate the costs of the war on women and girls through collaboration with civil society.
  6. Avail women’s rights defenders and experts working with survivors of sexual violence with counseling services and on job trainings to help them cope with stress and trauma.

In the long term, the following actions need urgent attention:

  1. Collaborate with local and international fact-finding missions to ensure that all perpetrators of sexual and other violence against women during the conflict are properly identified and prosecuted. This task includes designing prosecutorial strategies and policies that help in identifying particularly those who face greater responsibility;
  2. Build the capacity of the judiciary in Ethiopia including in the context of transitional justice mechanisms, to ensure its independence, impartiality and integrity including through technical cooperation with experts and key stakeholders;
  3. When possible, constitute a separate court that can adjudicate cases of sexual violence, and design non-judicial remedies such as truth commissions and reparations. Despite the long-standing challenges within the Judiciary, Ethiopia never had special courts to investigate and prosecute human rights violations;
  4. Protect women’s rights defenders from state or non-state attacks that undermine their equal and meaningful participation in political and public space;
  5. Ensure that legislative, executive, administrative and other regulatory instruments do not restrict women’s participation in the prevention, management and resolution of the conflict. Increase the number and ethnic composition of women commissioners under the newly established Commission for National Dialogue;
  6. To promote inclusion and transparency under the National Dialogue Commission, the government must constitute an advisory committee for the newly established Commission for National Dialogue and include survivors of sexual violence in the discussions;
  7. Plan specific interventions to contribute to opportunities for women’s economic empowerment including through promoting their right to education.

About the Author:

Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn is a human rights lawyer who has been working with the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights where she coordinated the Center’s work on Ethiopia through close collaboration with Ethiopia’s Democracy and Human Rights CSOs to ensure human rights are prioritised and protected within the criminal justice system.  She has previously worked with Amnesty International USA as an Almami Cyllah Fellow, the UN OHCHR East Africa Regional Office, the United Nations Agency for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Dunia also taught law at Haramaya University Law School other universities in Ethiopia. In 2016, she was named as the first Ethiopian/African woman to receive a National Security LLM with distinction from Georgetown University’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Program.  She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Bahir dar University, Ethiopia and a Master’s degree in Human Rights from Addis Ababa University. Dunia also co-manages an NGO called EmpowergirlsNow that focuses on raising awareness on FGM in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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