The War in Tigray: Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law

Photo Credit: UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty

Author: Lea Mehari Redae

On the night of November 4, 2020 Abiy Ahmed (PhD), Prime Minister of Ethiopia reported the news of an attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). He also stated that the ENDF has been ordered to carry out a military offensive. The same night, all communication services (phone, SMS and Internet) were shut down until the mid-December, in what the government continually referred to as a “law enforcement operation”. 

Notwithstanding, the facts on the ground show for the purposes of the application of International Humanitarian law, the intensity of the confrontation between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF as well as the organization of the latter (through what has been referred to as the Tigray Defence Force/TDF), have met the necessary threshold to deem the situation a non-international armed conflict.  

After months of various credible reports of the involvement of Eritrean troops in the war in Tigray on the side of the Ethiopian government but denial from both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Prime Minister has acknowledged their involvement on March 23, 2021. However, the involvement of Eritrea does not change the armed conflict from a non-international armed conflict to an international armed conflict, for the purposes of International Humanitarian Law, as the support of Eritrea is to and with the consent of the Ethiopian government. 

Ever since November 4, 2020 and even after November 28, 2020 when the Prime Minister announced that the “law enforcement operation” was concluded, there have been various reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law. Some examples of these violations are massacres of civiliansextra judicial killingssexual violence and sexual slaverystarvation of the civilian populationattacks against hospitalslooting of civilian objects and objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian populationhindering of humanitarian relief, and attacks against cultural and religious property. The parties to the armed conflict have been placing the blame on each other to advance their political or propaganda agenda, but there has been no concrete answer or accountability as to who the real perpetrators are. 

It is important to have effective investigations into these credible claims of IHL violation and for the proper application of the law (Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Law, Policy and Good Practice, Geneva Academy and ICRC, p. 2). For international armed conflicts, treaty laws such as the Geneva Conventions (Art. 49, Art. 50, Art. 129 and Art. 146 of Geneva Conventions I-IV) obliges states to investigate violations. Rule 158 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law Database place an obligation of investigation into possible war crimes in non-international armed conflicts. This obligation can also be found for any killing by the State in International Human Rights law treaties, which continue to apply in situations of armed conflict. (Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Law, Policy and Good Practice, Geneva Academy and ICRC, p. 4)

Many international organizations, such as the United Nations, have been calling for investigations into the violations. Without physical access to the Tigray region, Amnesty International has undertaken a research on the Axum massacre by interviewing refugees and phone interviews with witnesses and which it corroborated with satellite imagery before the investigation was carried out by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The Bellingcat investigation team and BBC Africa Eye have also used satellite imagery, 3D topographic information and social media to locate the massacre at Mahbere Dego where it was reported that uniformed men led a group of unarmed men to the edge of a cliff, shooting some at point blank range, and pushing dead bodies over the cliff. 

However so far, the only organization that has had access to the region for such an investigation is the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (herein after EHRC). Particularly with regards to the war in Tigray, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has only investigated the massacre of civilians in Mai Kadra and Axum, as well as visiting the conditions of suspects detained in connection with the war in Tigray. All other possible violations of IHL have not been investigated. On the 25th of March 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have agreed to collaborate on the investigation of the human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties to the armed conflict in Tigray. 

With ethnic polarization at an all-time high in the country, all sides of the armed conflict have been claiming that the reports that incriminate their side are “fake news” in an effort to discredit them. In different cases, the parties to the armed conflict have also refused to co-operate with these organizations (e.g. Amnesty international has stated the lack of response from Ambassador Redwan Hussien  Ethiopia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs and Spokesperson for the Emergency Taskforce in the Ministry of Foreign) (Amnesty International, p. 5) 

Impartiality or at least the lack of the perception of impartiality has been a major criticism of the existing investigations. The EHRC in particular has been criticized for lack of impartiality based on its accountability to the Parliament and the nomination for appointment of the chief commissioner by the Prime Minister. There are claims that other international organizations and media have not been able to investigate the potential violations as the government-imposed lockdown in the Tigray region made access to the region extremely difficult. Local journalists and fixers have also been harassed, detained or killed.  

Amid  the controversy on the impartiality of the investigations, there are “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us, as well as reports of continued fighting in central Tigray in particular,” as stated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

It continues to be imperative to have impartial and independent investigation. Not only to score points in public relations but also as a matter of legal duty. Here is where the author believes the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission (herein after referred to as IHFFC) can play a great role in investigating the violations of IHL in the Tigray region. 

Logo of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission

The IHFFC is a commission established on the basis of Art. 90 of the Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (herein after API), to which Ethiopia is a signatory. This commission consists of 15 expert members with “high moral standing and acknowledged impartiality”. The IHFFC’s main tasks are to investigate alleged violations of the International Humanitarian Law during armed conflicts and facilitate the respect of IHL. It also reports the findings of its investigations to the states and recommends possible solutions that are deemed appropriate.  Its role is limited to establishing facts with regards to serious violation of IHL. It does not render judgements on the matter. 

Although API applies to situations of international armed conflicts, the IHFFC has clearly expressed its willingness to investigate alleged violations of IHL in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) so long as the parties consent. This has been the case in Ukraine where the IHFFC investigated the death of a paramedic and the injury of two others who were part of a patrol of the Organization of Security and Co-operation of Europe (OSCE) Special Mission to Ukraine due to an explosion in the Luhansk region where the government was involved in a non-international armed conflict.

For international armed conflicts, the commission can only begin its inquiry when it receives a request from states that have recognized the Commission’s competence. It is important to highlight that the member states that can make the request do not have to be parties to the conflict. A list of the current member states can be found here

The Commission can only investigate whether there has been a commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (which are only applicable in international armed conflicts) or other serious violations of the Geneva conventions. As an investigative body, it invites the parties to the armed conflict to support it by presenting or challenging evidence. 

On December 29, 2020 the IHFFC, offered its services to the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia with regards to the armed conflict in Tigray. The investigations would begin when the parties to the conflict in Tigray consent to it. 

The investigations on alleged violations of IHL in the Tigray region by the IHFFC have five main advantages: 

First, the members of the commission are persons whose impartiality is acknowledged internationally. This has also been acknowledged by independent and impartial humanitarian organizations. They will not take sides of any party to the conflict during their investigation.  The utilization of the IHFFC’s fact finding services helps restore respect for IHL and deter a vicious circle of violations from all parties. 

Second, as compared to NGOs who would possibly have to respect the interest of their funder, the IHFFC has no such duty and therefore remains independent (Charles Garraway, p. 815). As it is a treaty based international body, it also won’t have the same type of partiality or perception of partiality that might exist with the EHRC, a body accountable to the highest legislative body of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s. 

Third, the IHFFC brings with it an expertise of the rules of IHL that would determine whether there was a violation of IHL. As it currently stands, there is a conflation of the Human rights and IHL in the war in Tigray. Although both branches of law serve to protect civilians, there are differences in assessing the notions of necessity, distinction and proportionality of each attack/ operation. As the current situation in Tigray is that of an armed conflict, it is important that it is analyzed and investigated by experts that are able to apply rules and principles of IHL as well as other applicable laws. 

Fourth, the work of the IHFFC is based on confidentiality (Charles Garraway, p. 815). As mentioned above, the report of the IHFFC remains confidential unless the parties request the commission to make it public. The commission’s goal is to ensure respect of IHL by solving the dispute, not naming and shaming. 

Fifth, investigation by the IHFFC would prove the truthfulness or falsity of the allegations that have been made thus far and the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the military operations done by all parties during this conflict. This would ultimately change the narrative that IHL is always violated leading to the risk that they may be repeated or create an environment where such violations become more acceptable.  Lack of independent and impartial investigations by a commission such as the IHFFC in these circumstances could also lead to a vicious circle of violations of IHL as retaliation. 

In the early 2000’s Ethiopia was a pioneer in accepting the jurisdiction of the Boundary Commission and Claims Commission on the basis of the Algiers Agreement to resolve the disputes following the termination of the military hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It should also now take the pioneering role by accepting the offer of the IHFFC to investigate the violations of IHL in the war in Tigray. The various reports of serious violations of Tigray require an immediate independent and impartial investigation. Especially for reasons of partiality or perceived partiality of other national and international organizations, and the particularly sensitive nature of the conflict, its important to have the only permanent international treaty body set up to investigate violations of IHL, investigate the situation in Tigray. 

It is imperative that all violations of IHL committed in the Tigray region in the past six months are investigated independently and impartially to ensure respect for IHL. Such an investigation will also aid in providing remedy for the victims and preventing of future violations of IHL. There is, however, a challenge into accepting the proposal of the IHFFC to investigate the violations of IHL in Tigray, Ethiopia. As stated in Art. 90(7) of API, the parties to the conflict are expected to advance the necessary funds for the expenses of the investigation. This is especially difficult to do in a non-international armed conflict where the other party to the conflict is a non-state armed group. Notwithstanding, this challenge could be solved by the financial support of other states or international organizations that have been calling for investigations into the violations of International Humanitarian Law in Tigray. 

Lea Mehari Redae is the founder of the Addis Ababa University International Humanitarian Law Clinic. She is an Assistant Lecturer at Addis Ababa University School of Law. She studies at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.