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African Union, Ethiopia, and new developments on transitional justice in Africa

African Union, Ethiopia, and new developments on transitional justice in Africa
May 13
12:54 2024

The African Union (AU) Transitional Justice Policy was officially adopted in February 2019 by the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This framework serves as a continental guideline for AU Member States to develop their own context-specific policies, with the aim of fostering peaceful and democratic societies in Africa and promoting socio-economic transformation on the continent. The Policy defines transitional justice as a range of policy measures and institutional mechanisms, both formal and traditional, that societies adopt through an inclusive consultative process. These measures are intended to address past human rights violations, divisions, and inequalities, and to create conditions for security, democracy, and socio-economic transformation.

The Policy also outlines common concepts and principles that are useful for strengthening peace agreements and transitional justice institutions and initiatives in Africa. It provides pathways for consolidating peace, reconciliation, and justice processes to prevent impunity. Further, the policy offers guidance on ending repressive rule and conflicts, and promoting sustainable peace through development, social justice, human and people’s rights, democratic rule, and good governance.

Additionally, the Policy establishes African Union benchmarks for assessing compliance in efforts to combat impunity on the continent. The African Union TJ policy consists of two critical phases: the development phase and the implementation phase. It is important to note the extensive discourse regarding the policy’s development and the experts that contributed to it, however, its implementation has received relatively little attention. As stated in the Preface to the AUTJP, a policy is only a piece of paper; its true value lies in its implementation and the impact it has on people and society. I am delighted to report that the unique strategy and approach adopted for the effective implementation of the Policy, outlined in the Roadmap for implementation of the AUTJP, has yielded significant results. These include meaningful resource mobilization, the use of the policy to influence the development of transitional justice policies in Gambia, Ethiopia, and Uganda, the establishment and operationalization of the African Youth for Transitional Justice and African Women for Transitional Justice Platforms, and the creation of the first-ever Master’s degree in Criminal and Transitional Justice in Africa, offered by the American International University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Before I discuss recent developments in transitional justice in Ethiopia, let me briefly highlight other new transformations in the transitional justice arena on the continent. The first of these is the establishment of the African Transitional Justice Legacy Fund (ATJLF), a fund created by the MacArthur and Wellspring Foundations to support civil society organizations and the African Union in implementing the AUTJP. In addition to providing technical support, the Fund is currently at the forefront of supporting the international reparation agenda of the African Union.

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While the transitional justice agenda in South Sudan has experienced setbacks, the same cannot be said for the Gambia, Liberia, and Ethiopia. Liberia, in April 2024, passed a Bill to establish a War and Criminal Court that will prosecute those that committed war and other related crimes in the country. Other AU member states that currently prioritize the implementation of transitional justice in their agendas include the DRC, CAR, Lesotho, Libya, Zimbabwe, and others. Meanwhile, countries like Sudan, currently engulfed in armed conflict, will need to prioritize transitional justice sooner rather than later. The following are reference points and destinations for learning experiences in transitional justice implementation on the continent: South Africa, Rwanda, Morocco, the Gambia, and to some extent, Sierra Leone.

At the regional and sub-regional levels in Africa, the AU, UN, and the South Sudan Hybrid Court agenda for South Sudan continue to experience challenges due to the unique and challenging political environments in the country. This is unlike the Hybrid Court for the Gambia, recommended by the Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission. ECOWAS is taking the lead in this regard, and a multi-stakeholder Committee on the establishment of the Hybrid Court has been formed. The AU is also playing a critical role in this regard. Additionally, IGAD, with support from the African Union and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is providing technical assistance for the institution to develop a sub-regional protocol and framework on transitional justice and human rights, using the AUTJP.

Furthermore, ECOWAS is currently working towards the development of an ECOWAS transitional justice framework. The rationale behind this sub-regional policy intervention is rooted in the fact that national transitional justice policies are insufficient, especially when conflicts and human rights violations occur across national boundaries. A good example of this is the Ethiopia and Tigray conflict, which has external implications for Eritrea and Sudan. A sub-regional transitional justice mechanism will be crucial in addressing human rights violations and the challenges faced by victims in such circumstances.

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The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is one of the African Union member states that has witnessed significant transitional justice experiences, although not without challenges. However, the recent conflict between the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), along with the peace agreement facilitated by the African Union, which was brokered in Pretoria, South Africa on November 2, 2022, ending the two-year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia, has created a new opportunity for a comprehensive national transitional justice program for the country. Specifically, Article 10(3) of the referenced peace agreement calls for the implementation of a comprehensive national transitional justice policy by the Government of Ethiopia. This policy aims to ensure accountability, ascertain the truth, provide redress for victims, promote reconciliation, and facilitate healing, in line with the Constitution of the FDRE and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework. The transitional justice policy was developed with inputs from all stakeholders and civil society groups through public consultations and formal national policy-making processes.

At this juncture it is important to indicate that the Government of Ethiopia, through the Ministry of Justice facilitated a national process that birthed the new transitional justice policy that was adopted by the Council of Ministers on April 17, 2024. The adoption and launching of the Policy for impactive implementation is a testament to the implementation of article 10 of the Ethiopia and Tigray peace agreement. While it’s crucial to acknowledge that there has never been a flawless transitional justice process globally, it’s important to note that this does not justify the issues that may have plagued the process, ultimately culminating in the development and adoption of its 2024 policy. We should commend the process despite its imperfection.

In line with the referenced peace agreement, the Ministry of Justice established an independent Committee of technical experts to lead the development of the policy. Fifty national consultations were reportedly carried out and the draft policy was presented to the Council of Ministers for review and adoption. It is essential to note that the African Union collaborated with the Ethiopian government, including supporting the convening of an international expert workshop on transitional justice policy options for the country in 2023. It also collaborated with the Transitional Justice Working Group of Experts, through the provision of technical support and partnership to facilitate a national policy that was developed and owned by the people and government of Ethiopia.

The Policy, according to the Ministry of Justice is anchored on ten (10) indicative elements. These include truth telling, national reconciliation, accountability, reparations, traditional justice mechanisms, and institutional reforms, amongst others and they are all embeded in the traditionally known four pillars of transitional justice as elaborated below.

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Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC): Central to the transitional justice process is the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This body will be tasked with investigating human rights abuses, documenting atrocities, and facilitating truth-telling processes. By shedding light on past injustices, the TRC will seeks to promote healing and understanding among Ethiopians.

Reparations: The framework prioritizes the provision of reparations to victims of human rights violations. Through financial compensation, rehabilitation programs, and symbolic gestures, the government aims to address the suffering endured by individuals and communities affected by past atrocities. Hopefully a national Victim Centre with decentralized offices will be established.

Judicial and traditional Accountability: Ensuring accountability for past crimes is paramount to the success of Ethiopia’s transitional justice efforts. The framework includes provisions for prosecuting perpetrators of human rights abuses through fair and impartial judicial processes. By holding individuals accountable for their actions, the government seeks to deter future violations and uphold the rule of law through formal and traditional accountability mechanisms..

Institutional Reforms: Recognizing the need for structural changes to prevent the recurrence of violence and injustice, the transitional justice framework includes measures for institutional reforms. These reforms aim to strengthen democratic governance, promote inclusivity, and safeguard the rights of all Ethiopians.

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While Ethiopia’s adoption of transitional justice policy is a significant milestone, it is not without its challenges. Building trust among diverse ethnic and political groups, ensuring the independence and effectiveness of transitional justice mechanisms, and navigating complex historical narratives are among the hurdles that lie ahead. However, amidst these challenges, there are great opportunities for progress and reconciliation.

Ethiopia’s commitment to confronting its past and building a more just and inclusive society sets a positive precedent for other nations grappling with similar legacies of conflict and oppression. As Ethiopia embarks on its journey towards transitional justice, it signals a beacon of hope for a brighter future built on the pillars of truth, accountability, and reconciliation. By confronting its past with courage and determination, Ethiopia paves the way for healing, justice, and sustainable peace for generations to come.

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In conclusion, situating the people of Ethiopia at the heart of the TJ process, prioritizing their transitional justice aspirations, and meeting the needs of the victims of human rights violations is key to realizing the objectives of the Policy. Also, IGAD should prioritize the finalization and adoption of its Transitional Justice and Human Rights framework to fill the regional component gap of TJ that the current policy may unable to address.

Ikubaje, Principal Transitional Justice Officer and Head of Transitional Justice Unit, African Union Commission, can be reached at [email protected].

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