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A Symphony of Voices Yearning for Transgenerational Justices in Ethiopia

Transgenerational Justices Ethiopia
Near Alamata during the war between TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s government ( credit : JusticeInfo)

(By Tibebu Taye)

Introduction

On a fateful day the 5th of May, the virtual corridors of Twitter reverberated with passionate discourse surrounding the ‘#TigrayGenocide’. Diaspora-led twiterati groups, fuelled by a blend of outrage and empathy, gathered around a 120-page report that laid bare the ‘harrowing truth’: Ethiopian forces had allegedly committed genocidal acts during the two-year-old Tigray war (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/6/4/strong-evidence-that-ethiopia-committed-genocide-in-tigray-war-report). For Tigray sympathizers, this report was more than ink on paper; it was a validation of their lifelong quest for justice on behalf of the victims. However, as the digital flames of indignation flickered, a ‘defender’ of international law stepped into the fray expressing their frustration with the ‘politicization’ of the term “genocide” and emphasising the elusive quest for ‘intent’ in claims of genocidal acts ignited a heated exchange. The question hung in the virtual air, as the ‘’defender’ poses a question, if the sympathizers of Tigray genocide “have a clue what genocide means?” One twiterati’s resolute response echoed through the pixels: “”Exactly what I mean by saying do not waste your time with genocide deniers. no amount of evidence, visuals, reports or even if it gets there, convictions will convince these vile people.” As the debate raged, it became clear that this clash was emblematic of the timeless struggle between objective and subjective interpretations of justice.

The Tug-of-Justice: Objective vs. Subjective Evidence

In the digital amphitheatre, where hashtags wield power and retweets echo like applause, the battle lines were drawn. On one side stood those who demanded objective, irrefutable evidence—a smoking gun that would leave no room for doubt. For them, justice was a mathematical equation: a sum of verifiable facts, testimonies, and documented atrocities. On the other side, the subjective warriors brandished narratives, emotions, and the weight of collective memory. Their justice was a tapestry woven from the threads of pain, trauma, and historical context. As I followed their impassioned exchanges, I realized that justice, like a multifaceted gem, refracts differently depending on one’s socio-cultural, political, academic, and economic vantage point. What constitutes justice for a survivor of violence may differ radically from the legal scholar’s interpretation. The challenge lay not only in defining genocide but also in bridging the chasm between these divergent perspectives. How do we reconcile the objective pursuit of truth with the subjective cries for retribution? Can justice be both blind and compassionate?

The Quest for ‘Just?’ Justice: A Journey Beyond Definitions

As the digital dust settled, I embarked on an intellectual odyssey—an exploration of justice that transcended twitter discourses and the legal codes and courtrooms. What does it mean to achieve a ‘just’ justice? Is it merely the application of laws, statutes, and precedents, or does it extend beyond the cold calculus of legal systems? In the heart of this labyrinth, I have encountered stories of survivors who yearned not only for accountability but also for healing. Their justice was not a zero-sum game; it was a delicate balance between retribution and restoration. The Tigray war, with its scars etched into the land and souls of its people and amongst us, became my case to keep in mind—a canvas on which the hues of justice blended and clashed. 

As I navigated the twists and turns, I grappled with questions that defied easy answers: Can justice be both punitive and transformative? How do we honor the past without perpetuating cycles of violence? And, above all, can we forge a path toward ‘just’ justice that transcends hashtags and Twitter debates and the legal codes and courtrooms? Ensure the delicate dance between objectivity and subjectivity, attending all modalities of quest for justice? Since this is not my academic or expertise domain, it would be academically unfair to investigate it further. Therefore, I shall defer to the appropriate experts to address this issue. In this article, I examine the existing discourses on modalities of justice inquiry in Ethiopia. 

Significance of Considering Various Modalities of Justice

Research about justice itself implies questions of who in societies raises questions about justice, how justice raisers get their discourses developed and circulated, and what discourses are circulated. Each of these concerns is very relevant to understanding which persons, economic sectors, and ethnic or political groups are capable of influencing the shape actual governance takes. It also raises issues about the pursuit of justice, which may involve an active role in ongoing discussions in order to change the balance of power and justice deliberations. The primary question of who in societies develops and raises justice discourses implies a quest of ethnic and political groups, civil society organizations, the government, religious or faith groups, research institutes, and intellectuals (Kiflu & Nigussie, 2023; Weldemikael, 2024). 

By navigating various groups’ visions of justice, we can understand the variety of justice discourses and determine how they inform us about addressing all calls in a future-proof manner. It gives the chance for those on the periphery (often unnoticed) of mainstream discourses that either challenge or consolidate dominant views of justice (Kiflu & Nigussie, 2023; Liben, 2022). 

Context of Justice Discourses in Ethiopia

Ethiopia, the question of what justice is and in what constellation justice is realized has been and is currently a fundamental ethical-political question (Srivastava, 2021; Amdemaryam, 2020). The ongoing quest or longing for an established democratic system in multi-ethnic Ethiopia makes issues of justice more and more salient and urgent. Justice, in its simplest and direct essence, is concerned with some moral claims in society. Such a theoretical conception has implications for the concept of justice, which in turn has implications for political education, legal justifications, and into our everyday communications. This sort of conviction is a mixture of seeing the world in general terms of, for example, ideal forms or creations of divine or supernatural entities, and one’s place is being in that ideal-like reciprocal world, like the case of the Twitterati I discussed earlier. Thus, it is very common to find a life committed to conformity with those ideas of justice. When a need or acts are done on behalf of those ideas, that person is named, via moral concepts, as a virtuous, clairvoyant, sympathetic, merciful, and devoted person (Melkamu & Teshome, 2023; Tadege et al., 2022; Gabriel, 2022). 

The discourse on justice in contemporary Ethiopia is multifaceted, reflecting the diverse aspirations and historical experiences of its society. Here is an outline of the various modalities of justice as called for by different segments of Ethiopian society:

A Call for Transitional Justice

According to OHCHR, Transitional Justice “covers the full range of processes and mechanisms” projected to address the legacy of large-scale past injustice practices and conflicts to ensure justice, establish accountability, and bring about reconciliation.

Advocated by the government, civic organization, and foreign powers. The government has formulated an ‘independent’ Transitional Justice Working Group of Experts in Ethiopia aiming to address the legacy of human rights abuses and establish a foundation for democratic governance. 

After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Dr.) came to power in April 2018, 

  • Revisions were made to some laws to deal with past violence and grievances that had been criticized for enabling human rights violations, accompanied by the acknowledgement of the violations committed by the pre-2018 EPRDF regime.
  • In December 2018, the government established the Reconciliation Commission, which was given the mandate to address multi-layered grievances; identify and ascertain the nature, cause, and dimension of recurring gross human rights violations; and provide both victims and perpetrators a platform for truth-telling and acknowledgment. 
  • In November 2022, the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice) initiated a national process to develop a comprehensive transitional justice policy framework that is anchored on the pillars of justice, accountability, reconciliation, and redress. 

As part of the last process, an ‘independent’ Transitional Justice Working Group of 13 Experts was established in November 2022 under the Ministry of Justice. I put independent in quotation given the presence of strong objections and dismay expressed by different groups. 

The policy claims to address current and past violations and grievances and aspires to steer the country toward lasting peace and democracy. 

CSOs initiatives such as Transitional Justice Consortium-Ethiopia (TJC-Ethiopia) and OHCHR are also stepping to fill the gap in the implementation process. 

  1. A Call for a Transitional Government

A transitional government, also known as an interim or provisional government, is a convention for temporary governance to manage forces for political change and the political parties at the crossroads of political shifts (UN Peacemaker). This call often occurs after significant events such as a state collapse, revolution, civil war, or a combination of these situations. 

Calls for transitional government in Ethiopian politics, as mostly initiated and supported by the majority of opposition parties and dissidents in the diaspora, calls for a transitional government are rooted in the desire for a political reset that paves the way for ‘democracy’ and ‘national reconciliation’.

The earliest that comes to mind is Prof. Berhanu Nega’s 2015 appeals for the “formation of an all-inclusive transitional government in Ethiopia.” (Prof. Berhanu calls for the formation of an all-inclusive transitional government in Ethiopia « ETHIOPIA 360). One is when he was the Chairman of the Patriotic Ginbot 7 Movement for Unity and Democracy, and later when he was a coalition member of the Ethiopian National Movement (ENM). At the outset of the Tigray war, following the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed’s declaration of a six-month state of emergency in Tigray state and orders Ethiopian government troops into the Tigray region of Ethiopia, OLLAA joined other international communities in calling for immediate action to defuse the situation. The closing section of their statement read, “to save Ethiopia from completely disintegrating and further ethnic tension and civil war, OLLAA supports the call for a transitional and inclusive government” (OLLAA Press Release). The latest one by Former leader of Ethiopian Democratic Party- Ato Lidetu Ayalew’s proposal circulated for media discussions calling for an “all-inclusive transitional government” (Ethiopia’s political crisis can not be solved by the ruling party, says Lidetu Ayalew (borkena.com). This is not the first time that Lidetu was calling for an interim government, back in 2020, he along with other extant political parties had issued a statement stating that,

… the incumbent must not stay even for a single day beyond its mandate of five years; leading opposition figures, including Jawar Mohammed and Lidetu, claim the government would have no legitimacy beyond 5 October. Instead, they proposed an extra constitutional alternative: a transitional government to include all political parties registered to partake in the election (Ethiopia needs an inclusive two-year transitional period – Ethiopia Insight (ethiopia-insight.com). 

Whereas this call is usually evoked on events of state collapse, revolution, civil war, such individuals and bodies use it to express their distrust towards the existing government. This modality boldly seeks to replace the current regime with an interim governance structure that can oversee the transition to a more representative political system. Due to the contentious nature of ethnic politics in the country, this group is struggling to gain widespread support. Many people suspect that they are trying to exploit the convention to advance their own version of ‘justice,’ which prioritizes their own group’s political agendas.

  1. Initiative for Restorative Justice: 

Restorative Justice (RJ) is an alternative way of apprehending crime and justice which views crime as a violation of a relationship among victims, offenders, and community, and which allows the active participation of the crime’s stakeholders (Endalew Lijalem, 2022).

This is a least form of call for justice in the case of Ethiopian politics mostly discussed in the academic sphere. This is perhaps the most anthropological understanding of justice often inspired after the communitarian ways if life that is most common in Africa and inspired by practices such ubuntu to gacaca- and of course from Ethiopia’s rich culture of traditional dispute-resolution from the urban settings such as Addis Ababa’s Merkato, to ‘Shmglina’, ‘Jaarsumma’, ‘Affini’, ‘Abo Gereb’, ‘mada’a’ and more. 

One of the main differences between this form of justice to the formal Ethiopian criminal justice is that the latter views crime as an offence against the state and its prosecutor charges the suspect for punishment. However, this system does not allow the participation of the victim and the community and win-loss outcome. To fill these gaps scholars discovered Restorative justice, which views crime as a violation of a relationship among victims, offenders, and community instead of putting a state as a sole victim (Negesse Asnake, 2020).

Ethiopia’s current peacebuilding initiatives – the dual dialogue and transitional justice processes – have brought traditional justice into focus. The National Dialogue Commission (NDC) is expected to use traditional knowledge and values in dialogue processes, although it’s yet to explore how to do so effectively (Tadesse Simie Metekia, 2023). 

Through its initiative for Transitional Justice (TJ), the Ethiopian government and its allied parties, with potential backing from the USA, advocate for restorative justice along with transitional justice as a means to repair the harm caused by criminal behavior through reconciliation and restitution (Semir Yusuf, 2023; ). This approach emphasizes on the importance of healing for victims and reintegration of offenders into society.

  1. A Quest for International Justice

Article 13.2 of the Ethiopian constitution emphasizes the alignment of Ethiopian law with international human rights standards. The provision states,

The fundamental rights and freedoms specified in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner conforming to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants on Human Rights and International instruments adopted by Ethiopia.

In this domain of justice, the Ethiopian government (through its ratified constitution), international bodies (regimes and organization), Human Rights Organization, expertise, and victims all call for justice action measures, by the designated bodies of international law, for crimes committed in Ethiopia. 

My observation on the coupling between international and domestic legal orders can be put as showing a dialectical one, which also highlights the shortcomings of both approaches in ensuring justice. This is where the case of discourse on genocide among the twitterati also situates. The first is that although international law demands to be obeyed and applied, asserting its superiority over domestic law, the specific methods of compliance are typically left up to the states. Their relationships are complicated by the inconsistent application of international law, its violations, its lack of transparency, and its refusal to incorporate Security Council resolutions into domestic legislation. A good example here is The Ethiopia–Tigray peace agreement, commonly called the Pretoria Agreement [A] or the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), a peace treaty between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that was signed 2 November 2022. 

Be that as it may, there are still ongoing calls by those who identify as victims, particularly in the context of the Tigray War and recently by ‘Fanos’ members. They call out international organizations and media to enforce international justice, seeking accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity through international mechanisms (in 2021; in 2023; in 2024). 

  1. A Call for a Historical Justice

Ethiopia’s pursuit of historical justice is a complex process with many facets, obstacles, and goals. The national dialogue commission’s central goal of a just and peaceful Ethiopia depends on establishing common ground, however, the vital roles played in revibrating these calls by prominent academicians and leaders of ethnonationalist movements should not be left out. 

Historical justice, at its core, is a quest to acknowledge and rectify past injustices that have far-reaching consequences for individuals and communities. It is about confronting the pain of the past and working toward a fair and just future (Reference, Historical Justice: Ben Crump’s Fight for Reparations).

The Ethiopian constitution, and prominent ethnonationalist forces, and now the national dialogue commission primarily champion the call for historical justice, which seeks to address historical grievances and systemic inequalities that have marginalized certain ethnic groups. In the preamble section of the Ethiopian constitution, it is read as, 

We the Nations, Nationalities and People of Ethiopia: Fully cognizant that our common destiny can best be served by rectifying historically unjust relationships and by further promoting our shared interests.

This form of justice is often tied to broader demands for autonomy and recognition of cultural rights. Nearly every ethnic group in the nation now actively supports calls for historical justice, which would make it challenging to find a resolution because the constitution does not explicitly address how we go about resolving these issues.

Voices in this modality of justice quest, emphasise land dispossession, resource allocation, and political marginalization as historical injustices and call for reparations, both symbolic and material, to address historical wrongs. This includes restitution for confiscated land, acknowledgment of cultural heritage, and official apologies.

  1. A Call for Affective Justice

Affective justice goes beyond legal frameworks and procedural fairness. It recognizes the profound impact of Affect: emotions, feelings, and psychological well-being in the pursuit of justice. In Ethiopia, where historical grievances, ethnic tensions, and civil war and human rights abuses persist, affective justice plays a crucial role. Calls for affective justice in Ethiopia transcends legal proceedings. It involves convictions, prayers, goodwill, deeds, love, and emotional healing.

Ethiopian Bishop Teshome Fikre Woldetensae emphasizes that religious leaders must act as mediators to heal the nation’s political and social divisions. By remaining neutral and free from ethnic sectarianism, they can promote peace and reconciliation (May, 2024). On the holy day of Ethiopian Epiphany, the Patriarch conveyed his message of peace to all Ethiopians both at home and abroad and pleaded with them to avoid conflict and sustain peace through “sincerity, reconciliation, brotherly love and complete obedience” (Molla Mitiku, Jan, 2023).

Some individuals and media anchors are reckoning emotionally, confronting guilt, acknowledging their role in the past conflicts, and seeking redemption for their complicity in past crimes. Affective justice requires them to. This process involves emotional reckoning. 

  1. My Call for ‘Future-Proof’ Justice: Intergenerational Justice

In the discourse on justice, various modalities emerge, each with its distinct merits and limitations. These modalities intersect, sometimes blurring their boundaries in practical applications. Their temporal dimensions, constituent elements, and overarching objectives exhibit significant variation. Amidst this diversity, a fundamental tenet remains steadfast: procedural justice—the bedrock of equitable legal processes.

As we all aspire crime, inequality, discrimination free nation, let us infuse our pursuit of justice with future-proof philosophy. Anticipating evolving challenges—technological, social, and environmental—will fortify our endeavours. Justice, like time, must adapt and endure.

The Ethiopian constitution was not drafted with the future in mind, I argue; therefore, it lacks a clear plan for averting future disasters such as a civil war. Because of this, it is deficient in two areas: the first is how to deal with post-conflict justice (including how we go about with rehabilitations); and the second is how to make sure that does not happen again in the future. As a matter of bad luck, should it occur, let us discuss how to ensure justice in Ethiopia after ‘justice’ has been served.

The concept of Future Justice is a forward-looking approach that seeks to ensure that decisions made today do not adversely affect the rights and well-being of future generations, even in our aspirations of all forms of justices today. As we claim that what brought us here is an intergenerational injustice, our today’s notion of justice must be rooted in the principle of intergenerational justice, which emphasizes the importance of protecting long-term interests and maintaining a sustainable social environment for the future. 

In essence, Future Justice in Ethiopia calls for a ‘just’ justice system, as procedural justice already is safeguarded, that goes beyond all modalities, mentioned in this piece and others too, and addresses all forms of violations, ensuring that every individual has the opportunity to seek and obtain a fair remedy. It is about creating a justice system that not only looks at the present but also safeguards the rights and interests of future generations.

Declaration

I am an independent thinker and writer, educator, and peace activist. Trained as an anthropologist and my interest spans as an affect reader, a cultural analyst, and science and technology researcher. I am willing to collaborate with any governmental or independent organizations in areas of positive youth development, modulating political affect, and policy recommendations. 

Justice for Ethiopia and Justice for all its kind and much deserving citizens!

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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