In February 2019, the Ethiopian parliament adopted a landmark proclamation establishing a national reconciliation commission, the first-ever such institution in Ethiopia. Six months on, the commission has developed a three-year plan and begun consultations. But the body was formed without broad-based political consensus regarding its mandate, so has yet to win the critical trust of Ethiopia’s many social and political groups. Dr. Solomon Ayele Dersso discusses the mandate of this body, the challenges ahead, and how the commission could help build peace in Africa’s second most populous country.

Supporters of the ruling party, Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, rally in cars with the national flag in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 19, 2010. (Ed Ou/The New York Times)
Supporters of the ruling party, Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, rally in cars with the national flag in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 19, 2010. (Ed Ou/The New York Times)

Why does Ethiopia need a reconciliation commission?

Numerous social and political conflicts and a history of human rights violations remain causes of polarization and violence in Ethiopia. The reconciliation commission could be a mechanism for nation-building and the formation of popular consensus as the political transition that began when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018 continues.

There are different approaches to reconciliation and transitional justice; this commission provides victims with the opportunity to be heard, but only within the context of attempts to achieve reconciliation rather than criminal accountability. Amid great national upheaval, there has been no systematic transitional justice process in the country since the 1990s, when the Red Terror Trials brought former officials of the Derg military regime, which ruled from 1974 to 1991, before the courts. These trials examined a particular set of time-bound incidents and were punitive in nature.

Today, what is needed is different; instead of treating violations in isolation, the commission is expected to place the violations in an historical, political and socio-economic context, and consider the root causes of these violations. In this context-specific application of transitional justice, national ownership can be realized through hearing the voices of victims and documenting as accurately and fully as possible the history of social and political conflicts in the country.

What is the mandate of the reconciliation commission?

The commission has two principal pillars in its mandate. The first concerns reconciliation, peace and national cohesion. Specifically, the proclamation establishing the commission defines this as “establishing values of forgiveness for the past, lasting love, solidarity and mutual understanding by identifying reasons of conflict, animosity that are (sic) occurred due to conflicts, misapprehension, developed disagreement and revenge.” Yet, unlike institutions established in other countries, such as South Africa, where the term truth featured prominently in the organization’s title, this is not as explicit in the Ethiopian case. Clearly, there is not a single truth about conflicts in Ethiopia. And truth does not consist only of factual, forensic, and scientific truths; it can also consist of personal, narrative, social and restorative truths. For the commission to succeed in this part of its mandate, it will need to find ways to establish and articulate the various, and perhaps competing, truths about the past, and the causes and evolution of societal disagreement and conflicts.

The second pillar is to identify “the nature, cause, and dimension of the repeated gross violations of human rights” as a means to ensure respect for human rights and to promote reconciliation. But what constitutes gross human rights violations is not defined. While international law provides some guidance—gross human rights violations are often associated with systematic and large-scale abuse of civil and political rights related to life and liberty of the person—this definition may not fully encompass what is needed in this context.

Given that in Ethiopia human rights violations have often taken on identity dimensions, the violation of group rights should also be taken into account in the commission’s work. This would mean the commission should consider socio-economic rights violations, such as ethnically based displacement, land dispossession, grand corruption, and the embezzlement of state resources. Acts such as extra-judicial execution, torture, forced disappearance, and sexual and gender-based violence authorized, condoned, or facilitated by the state or its agents should also be examined in the commission’s work.

What challenges does the commission face in the implementation of its mandate?

As noted earlier, there is no broad-based political consensus on the mandate of the commission; all of the seats in Ethiopia’s parliament are held by the ruling party or its affiliates. This means that the commission has yet to win the confidence and support of Ethiopia’s diverse social and political groups. Further, there was no public participation in the development of the commission’s enabling law, nor in the nomination and appointment of the commission’s members. These deficiencies could imperil the commission’s legitimacy. To address them, the commission should pay close attention to enabling public participation, consultation and input in the development of its regulations and working practices and build popular support for its work, on an ongoing basis.

A key question is at what point in history should the commission begin its study? The answer depends, in part, on what the commission seeks to achieve. To what moment can the country’s social and political conflicts and gross human rights violations be traced? If the formation of the unitary state structure in Ethiopia is a key point of departure, then it may be necessary to consider human rights violations as far back as the period of the post-Italian invasion, in the early part of the 20th century. This is also the period when Ethiopia became a founding member of the United Nations and first subscribed to the principles of the international human rights regime.

Another point of departure could be the period beginning in 1974, after the Ethiopian military toppled Emperor Haile Selassie. While some may argue that such a long temporal scope is not realistic for a single institution to consider, the time span is similar to those considered by the analogous commissions in South Africa and Kenya, for example. There may be ways to address the challenges that arise from such a long-time scale, perhaps by focusing on investigating the major incidents of gross human rights abuses rather than trying to exhaustively document all possible cases of such violations over time.

How can the commission support national peace?

In one sense, the commission is oriented to the future and the task of facilitating and contributing to nation building. As the enabling proclamation states, one of the powers of the commission is to codify shared “principles and values which will be [the] base for national reconciliation by making discussion[s] with groups of society which have different view[s].” On the other hand, the commission is primarily tasked to address events prior to its establishment, and therefore is not meant to operate as a firefighter that can extinguish blazes wherever and whenever they may break out. At the same time, it may be prudent to leave the door ajar for looking into issues prior to, or after, whatever time period is specified in the yet-to-be adopted regulations and directives of the commission, as was the case for Liberia’s truth and reconciliation commission.

The commission will also have to find a way to interact with ordinary judicial institutions. This could happen in three ways. First, such judicial institutions could be sources of information and evidence for the reconciliation commission. Second, existing judicial institutions could provide technical expertise and legal advice to the commission. Finally, existing judicial institutions could themselves be subjects of investigation, as some may have failed to discharge their obligations for protecting victims or ensuring the protection of their rights. All three approaches could be part of the commission’s examination into the reasons for human rights violations within the framework of the proclamation.

The proclamation does not empower the commission to prosecute offenders, nor refer individuals for prosecution. The commission is mandated to make recommendations, which could include institutional reforms that may pertain to the constitution or other legislation. The commission may take “appropriate measures and initiate recommendation[s] that enable … lasting peace and … prevent the future occurrence of such conflict.” While reconciliation is the raison d’être of the commission, its legacy may well be in the measures it initiates to sustain peace and prevent future conflicts.

Dr. Solomon Ayele Dersso is a legal scholar, commissioner of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, adjunct professor at Addis Ababa University, and founder of Amani Africa. This article was adapted from a speech Dr. Dersso delivered to the Dialogue Forum of the Justice Sector Joint Forum held on August 2, 2019 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and was adapted for publication by Aly Verjee.

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