A continental association of lawyers and a global organisation of human rights jurists have sued the Ethiopian government seeking a halt to what they have termed serious violations against civilians in Tigray.
The Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU) and the Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), through their New York based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, on Tuesday filed the suit at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The organisations allege “serious and massive human rights violations against Tigrayan civilians.”
The case says Ethiopia is responsible for a wide range of human rights violations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which created the Commission. These include military targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure; mass and extra-judicial killings; gender-based and sexual violence; arbitrary arrest and detention; mass displacement of civilians; destruction of property, foodstuff, and religious and cultural heritage sites; ethnic discrimination; and enforced information blackouts.
They want the African Commission to order Ethiopia to stop all violations and abuses against civilians in Tigray, allow unfettered access of food and humanitarian aid to the region, and ensure the protection of the human rights of all Ethiopians, especially in Tigray.”
It also requests the African Commission “[to] immediately order these measures on an interim basis to protect Tigrayan civilians from urgent risk of irreparable harm.”
Donald Catherine Amirfar, Co-Chair of Debevoise’s International Dispute Resolution and Public International Law Groups, which is acting probono in the case, said they are ready “to amplify the voices of Tigrayan victims and to seek accountability” for those who perpetrated horrific crimes against them.
The case, related to the ongoing war in Tigray region would be the first time the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has been called upon to examine the conduct of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in the conflicts.
But it will not be the first test on the relations between the Ethiopian government and the African Union, since the Tigray war was launched on November 4, 2020 as Ethiopian forces responded to an attack on their northern command by the rebels, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
A quasi-judicial body under the African Union Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Commission receives complaints against member states and can take measures to prevent violations or abuses, including a public acknowledgement of those incidents.
Last year, the Commission ran against Ethiopia’s grain after it launched investigations into Tigray violations. Addis Ababa had demanded that the Commission does a joint probe with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
Demeke Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs said the Commission had delayed to join the local agency, and that its investigations would be refused.
“The unilateral announcement of ACHPR on establishing a ‘Commission of Inquiry’ undermines the cooperative spirit and the ongoing efforts of the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to formalise the modalities of the stated investigation.” The Commission never visited the ground to interview victims, although the Ethiopian team did file a report accusing both sides of the war of committing atrocities. It declined to label the violations as genocide.
On Tuesday, Donald Deya, the Chief Executive Officer of PALU said Ethiopia must be made to uphold its obligations on human rights.
“The Government of Ethiopia is obliged by both its Constitution and international law to protect all its citizens and residents from mass atrocities and violations of their human rights.
“Where it is unable or unwilling to uphold the same, as is the case here, we must seek recourse to competent international institutions. Hence, our urgent appeal to the African Commission.”
In this case filed on Tuesday, the organisations say they want an AU organ to lead and provide solutions for the safety of civilians in Tigray. And even though the suit papers admit there have been violations in neighbouring Afar and Tigray regions, the case is specific about defending people in Tigray.
If the Commission finds evidence, it could refer the complaint to the African Court, the judicial arm of the African Union which may order certain actions to be taken by Ethiopia.
According to Antonia Mulvey, LAW’s Executive Director, the African Commission has a “unique opportunity to stand by victims and survivors from this conflict, to order emergency measures to stop unlawful killing of civilians trapped in Tigray, and to hold Ethiopia to account.”
“We are keen to work alongside the Commission’s Inquiry, to put an end to the impunity that has allowed these crimes to continue.”
Ethiopia was yet to respond publicly.