Author: Marishet M. Hamza
Recently, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group operating in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF),the rebel group in the ongoing non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in Tigray, have announced their alliance that is aimed at making military cooperation in the fight against the government of Ethiopia. .
OLA, also known by the government as Shene group, is the breakaway faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political party that had been fighting against the government until it returned to peaceful political struggle in 2018. OLA is formed by a, a faction that broke away from the OLF’s military wing. It has been fighting against the government mainly in the western and southern parts of Oromia region.
In May 2021, the federal government proscribed both TPLF and OLA as terrorist groups.
OLA military activities
Very little is known about the organization and functioning of OLA. The number of fighters it has, its military capabilities, and whether it has control over territories is not clearly known. Also, less is known about its military engagement. Whereas the government accuses OLA of waging heinous attacks against civilians and local administrators. For instance, according to the government, in 2020/21 alone OLA killed 463 people including civilians, police officers, local militia members and local government leaders. The group is also blamed for destroying civilian properties. Although such facts might indicate a certain level of intensity of the violence OLA engaged in, OLA nonetheless vehemently denies those accusations. Overall, despite reportsthat suspect the involvement of members of OLA in the alleged atrocities, the information available remains inconclusive.
Classification of the conflict
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) a NIAC exists if the armed group involved has a modicum of organization and the violence is sufficiently intense (ICTY, Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadić, 1995, para.70). These two thresholds – of organization and intensity of violence – have to be met for IHL to apply to an internal conflict.
The paucity of information on the organization of OLA and the nature of the violence it has engaged in obscures establishing whether the two thresholds are met and determining the existence of a NIAC between OLA and the government forces.
Indeed, as crystallized by the ICTY jurisprudence, the thresholds of organization and intensity of violencecould be discerned from other indicative factors such as control over territory by an armed group or where the government is obliged to use military force against insurgents instead of regular police forces, respectively. Also, declaration of a state of emergency or derogation from human rights obligations could be considered in assessing the thresholds (Sivakumaran, 2012, p.168)
Though the two thresholds ‘must be present cumulatively’, inference can be drawn from one to the other; for instance, the existence of a ‘highly intense hostility’ may indicate the level of organization (Updated Commentary GC III, para.468).
In its fight against OLF, the Ethiopian government deployed the national defence force and the Oromia Special Police Force (a regional paramilitary force). There is also a de facto state of emergency in the western and southern districts of Oromia where OLA actively operates. These facts, along with the casualties and destruction as mentioned above are of some help to discern the intensity of violence and might also shed some light on the organization of OLA. Whereas considering the sporadic nature of the violence, OLA’s vehement denial of involving in the casualties, and lack of concrete information that could indicate the ‘highly intense’ nature of the violence so far, it remains difficult to conclude that OLA possesses the requisite level of organization. That, in turn, makes the available facts inconclusive to prove the existence of a NIAC based on the bilateral belligerent relationship between OLA and the government forces.
The effect of the TPLF-OLA alliance
As mentioned at the outset, the conflict in Tigray between TPLF and federal government forces is a NIAC. It is taking place in the northern part of Ethiopia. Whereas OLA is fighting predominantly in the southern and south-western parts. Though the two conflicts are geographically apart and involve two different rebel groups, the armed groups have a common enemy, i.e., the federal government. Now, the rebels have agreed to ally their forces against their ‘common enemy’.
Conventionally, the thresholds of NIAC are assessed in each bilateral belligerent relationship between parties to a conflict. However, recently, the ICRC and some scholars have suggested aggregation of the level of violence where two or more organized armed groups form a coalition (ICRC Report, 2019; Kleffner, 2019). In such circumstances, the threshold of intensity can be assessed on the cumulative violence caused by the armed groups in the coalition provided that the conflict occurs in ‘a geographical and temporal continuum’ (ibid). According to other commentators as well, when organized armed groups join forces for common purposes or against a common enemy in a geographical and temporal continuum, the level of intensity can be assessed on the aggregated violence (Nikolic et al, 2020; and Chiara, 2021). The baseline to these formulations is that each armed group involved in the conflict must individually meet the threshold of organization. It should also be noted that this new approach is more relevant in the context where the existence of a NIAC is not yet established as regards any of the allied groups.
In our case, TPLF and OLA regard the government as their common enemy, and militarily overthrowing the government is their shared goal. Arguably, the temporal and geographical considerations might also be proven; particularly, considering the government’s allegation that OLA fighters are spotted in the conflict in Tigray as well as TPLF military personnel are providing training to the OLA. Then again, since there is no conclusive information on the organization of OLA, it will remain difficult to establish a NIAC following the formulation above. In other words, this entails a conclusion that while IHL applies to the conflict between the federal government forces and TPLF, it will not apply to the conflict with OLA.
In my opinion, such a tricky conclusion will rather lead to a conundrum. For instance, from the perspective of the government, considering the alliance between the belligerent groups, it is infeasible to expect that the government will apply only the law enforcement paradigm with OLA while applying both the law enforcement and conduct of hostility paradigms with TPLF.
Such intricate circumstances require finding a pragmatic solution that reflects reality. To that, one need to reconsider and give weight to the following facts. On the one hand, there is already an ongoing NIAC between TPLF and the government. On the other hand, though sporadic, OLA has already engaged in active hostilities. Now, the TPLF-OLA alliance is struck to support each other and defeat the government. In view of these, it is important to give weight to the support-relationship the alliance brings about and its implications on the nature of the conflict between OLA and the government.
In conclusion, considering the military alliance along with other facts as mentioned hereinbefore, that should now be sufficient to trigger the applicability of IHL to the conflict between OLA and the government.
Marishet M. Hamza is a Ph.D. Student at the International Law Department, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genéve