Pan-Africanism or impunity? The divisive Tigray crimes issue

Tuesday December 28 2021
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the UN Zenebe Kebede

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the UN Zenebe Kebede (on screen) during an extraordinary meeting on Ethiopia at the UN Human Rights Council on December 17. PHOTO | AFP


When Fijian diplomat Nazhat Shameem, the current President of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), decides to name the panel of experts to investigate alleged atrocities in Ethiopia, two things may happen: Blanket rejection of the team, denying it cooperation it needs to check violations in the country; or Ethiopia and Africa in general could be isolated on the sensitive issue of who has committed more atrocities in the Tigray war.

The signs were on the wall last week after the Council endorsed a European Union-led proposal to investigate human rights violations in Ethiopia, much to the anger, rejection, and criticism of Addis Ababa and backing from Africa’s members of the HRC.

In the end, the proposal passed, despite lacking a single backing of a vote from Africa. Twenty-one of the 47 members of the Council voted to support the EU proposal fronted by Slovakia.

Divided House

Ten abstentions, including Senegal, Mauritania, Libya, Malawi, and Sudan, refused to block the proposal but may have stayed away from the vote after lobbying from Ethiopia, which had rejected the special sitting that called the vote in the first place.

Also, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Somalia, Gabon and Namibia rejected the proposal and voted No. They were joined by China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Philippines and Venezuela.


Africa’s members refused to support the call for investigations because it could violate Ethiopia’s sovereignty including that a joint investigation between the local human rights commission in Addis with the UN Human Rights office had already concluded no genocide happened, even though it blamed both sides.

“Russia consistently opposes politicisation of the situation in Ethiopia at the HRC. Further promotion of this topic in the HRC is counterproductive and does not contribute to the settlement of the military and political crisis in the country,” said a note from the Russian mission in Geneva, on why it voted no.

“We firmly and consistently reject any imposition of unilateral approaches.”

The African Union’s effort, the efforts of High Representative Olusegun Obasanjo, have failed to see the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) agree to dialogue with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. In November, Obasanjo told reporters the war was a result of “failed politics in Ethiopia.”

And Dr Abiy, who has racked up crucial victories against the TPLF, has refused to negotiate with “criminals,” instead continued with aerial raids.

This week, Debretsion GebreMichael, TPLF leader wrote to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saying his forces had withdrawn from the neighbouring regions in search for peace.

Yet it is what the war has left behind that will be the subject of investigations. Killings, rape, displacements and other violations have been noted on both forces and their allied militia, as well as Eritrean forces. The Panel of three experts is supposed to investigate, preserver evidence for prosecution and identify those to be prosecuted.

“It's shameful that some African governments would reject a UN investigation of war crimes by all sides in the Ethiopian conflict while doing next to nothing to curtail the slaughter,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director for Human Rights Watch.

“That's not ‘African solutions.’ It's African abdication,” he charged.

Rashid Abdi, a Kenyan researcher on the Horn of Africa argued Africa;s decision was in fact a violation of the vision set by original panafricanists including former Ghanaian President Kwameh Nkurumah, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela, who all vouched for Africans’ rights.

“If Nkrumah, Lumumba, Nyerere, Mandela saw what has become of Pan Africanism, how it has been debased, how AU has become instrument of subjugation, covers up mass state violence, they would lead a popular revolt,” he said after the vote.

In the days leading to the controversial resolution, Ethiopian diplomats rallied African countries to reject interference and oppose the session. Ethiopia Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on members of the Council “to categorically reject and vote against the special session and its politically motivated outcome.”

“What should have been a priority for the Council instead was the urgent task of carrying out investigation into the violations of human rights and atrocities committed by the TPLF terrorist group in the Afar and Amhara regional states. It is unfortunate to witness that no such call has come forth from some in the Council.”

Ethiopia’s call though ignored findings already in public domain, that their forces as well as Eritrean troops also looted, killed or committed other atrocities against civilians. Addis Ababa, however, in early December launched a joint ministerial taskforce to start implementing recommendations of the joint Ethiopia-UN Human Rights Office report including prosecutions. That taskforce though may not handle atrocities that have followed the war which continues to date.

At the session on Friday, Nada Al-Nashif, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights said incessant violence had led to nearly 90 percent of the population in Tigray facing famine.

At the Council, Ethiopia came under attack for its mass arrests which has seen more than 5,000 people including journalists detained without charge under the controversial state of emergency policy. Those arrested and detained have been accused of supporting the TPLF, a former ruling party that has since November 2020 been fighting the government.