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Does Ethiopia Need to Start Truth and Reconciliation Process?

Does Ethiopia Need to Start Truth and Reconciliation Process?

By Assefa A. Lemu, November 12, 2018

Introduction: The history of modern truth and reconciliation process goes back to Leipzig War Crimes Trials held in May to July 1921 before the Reichsgericht (German Supreme Court) in Leipzig,  Germany, to prosecute  alleged German war criminals of the  World War I (1914-1918) as  part of the penalties imposed on the German Government under the treaty of Versailles  signed between Germany on one side and Allied Powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, etc.) on the  other side on June 28,1919. Building upon the experience of Leipzig war crimes trials, the Allied Forces (the United States, Soviet Union, United King, and China) who won the World War II (1939-1945), set up the Nuremberg Trials, a series of military tribunals under international law and the laws of war. The main purpose of these trials were the prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, judicial, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in Nazi perpetrated holocaust and other war crimes. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, and called Nuremberg trails. The first and best known of these trials was that of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and held from November 20,  1945  to October 1, 1946 and which was given the task of trying 24 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich/ Nazi Germany  (1933-1945).

After the end of World War II, truth and reconciliations have been held in different countries including Chile after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s rule, Cambodia after the end of Khmer Rouge’s rule, Rwanda after the end of the 1994 genocide, South Africa after the end of Apartheid, and et cetera. The recent truth and reconciliations held in Africa were that held in South Africa following the end of Apartheid (1948-1994)  to bring reconciliation between the black and white communities of South Africa and that held in Rwanda following the end of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (April 7, 1994 to July 1994) to achieve reconciliations between Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Over all, the main objective of truth and reconciliation is to find out truth about what had happened during the specific period of time and inform the people and to bring reconciliation and new relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect. The aim of discovering truth and revealing past wrongdoings is to resolve conflicts resulted from the past history. Reconciliation is about restoring justice and renewing relationships between wounded people and communities and perpetrators.

Experiences from South Africa and Rwanda: The experience of truth and reconciliation of South Africa shows that, to have genuine reconciliation that leads to the unity of citizens, taking the following actions are necessary:

Reconciliation requires the stories from both sides to be heard. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heard confessions from more than 7,000 perpetrators and took about 20,000 statements from victims. It found the African National Congress’ (ANC) armed struggle was legitimate, but that some acts carried out during that struggle were not.

However, some studies show that the truth and reconciliation done in South Africa failed to achieve reconciliation between the blacks and white communities. Very little follow up was done on the findings and recommendations of the TRC and a call for land and resource redistribution, social justice, and equity were not achieved as expected. The truth telling didn’t bring the full reconciliations hoped for. Therefore, the process left many South Africans feeling cheated ( ). Some victims felt bitter as they watched convicted perpetrators walk free, not receiving promised compensation and white people continue to reap the rewards of apartheid. However, as Albie Sachs a former ANC activist who lost an arm and eye in a bombing by apartheid agents put it “It didn’t set out to reconcile everybody in South Africa. That’ll only happen when we end up having real equality in, say, work, housing, health and education, and that’s taking time. It had to deal with sources of extreme pain that were being denied, to bring it out into the open. It had to enable people to discover the bodies of members of their families who’d been secretly buried, to get the bones, to give a dignified funeral, to discover the last moments” ( ).

The case of Rwandan justice and reconciliation is not different. The trials were criticized for not following due process of law and being vulnerable to manipulation, the reconciliation process has been criticized for being a top-down affair that was micromanaged by the Rwandan government.  According to Human Rights Watch’s report, Rwanda’s genocide survivors received no compensation from the state, and little restitution and often overly formulaic apologies from confessed or convicted perpetrators, casting doubt on the sincerity of some of these confessions ( ). Unlike South Africa’s truth and reconciliation which dealt with atrocities on all sides, the Rwandan truth and reconciliation process focused specifically on the genocide against the Tutsis and the accused were almost exclusively Hutu. It also focused on establishing individual perpetrator’s accountability for genocide crime.

Truth and Reconciliation for Ethiopia: Ethiopia is a country where conflicts and injustices accumulated over the years divided its peoples, violation of human rights affected its citizens physically and psychologically, and a country with myriads of disappointments.  That is why Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s slogans “Medemer” and “Yikirta” (unity and forgiveness) caught the attention of many Ethiopians because human beings are interested more in what they don’t have.  Ethiopians are thirsty for justice that protect the rights and punish wrongs in fairness. One of the nine issues identified in a one page dashboard (action plan matrix) of the Government of Ethiopia issued last week under the title of “Ethiopia: A new Horizon of Hope” is “Justice and Democracy”. Under the Justice and Democracy, one of the  actions to be implemented in  years 2018-2019 is to “Build national consensus by preparing and starting implementation of comprehensive national road map for democratization and transition” ( ). However, it is not yet clear if truth and reconciliation is part of the action plan of the Government of Ethiopia for 2018-2019.

Justice could be restorative that focuses on repairing the harm caused to a victim as a result of crime or retributive/punitive that focuses on the punishment of the wrong-doer to provide satisfaction and psychological benefits to the victim. Unlike under punitive/retributive justice, restorative justice process gives a victim an active role to make statements and an offender to confess his/her crimes, to take responsibility for her/his action, to show remorse and ask for forgiveness. Therefore, restorative justice that actively involves a victim and wrongdoer has high probability of leading to reconciliation.  The offender may repair the harm by apologizing, returning stolen property, paying compensation, or doing community services. Therefore, if reconciliation is to come in Ethiopia, the forgivers must be the victims themselves, not the government. The role of the government should be putting legal frameworks in place and facilitating the process of reconciliation.

The situation of Ethiopia is different from the situation of South Africa that clearly saw the end of Apartheid system in 1994 and the situation of Rwanda that clearly saw the end of Rwandan genocide in 1994. Ethiopia is still ruled by the party which has been accused of gross violation of human rights. The change we observed in Ethiopia since April 2018 is that of an individual and not an institutional. Some of the wrong doers and accomplices are still in the top government power. Therefore, handling independent, free, and fair truth and reconciliation process and achieving the intended objective may not be an easy task.

In addition, the period to be covered by the truth and reconciliation process is contentious. Some suggest that the process to go back to 1889, others suggest to start from 1974 and others suggest it should begin only from 1991. The choice of cut of dates is important because the main target groups (victims and offenders) may vary depending on the choice of the time frame.

The criteria for the selection of individuals who will lead the truth and reconciliation process is also another point of contention. In Ethiopia, the hero of one group is the criminal for the other group, the intellectual of one group is biased and partisan for another group. There are long standing mistrusts.

The Way Forward: Finding out of the truth about what had happened in the past and trials of few wrong doers may not bring the desired reconciliation. Reconciliation requires change at the systemic level and commitment from government to implement policies and strategies that bring about freedom and equality to all citizens. Individual citizens and communities must be ready to forgive for what had happened in the past and to build a common better future and renew their relationships. The question is, are individual Ethiopians and communities ready for such reconciliation? Is the government ready to handle the required truth and reconciliation process and has the legitimacy to do that?

Ethiopia cannot afford to start a venture that will be going to fail and provoke another violence and distrust.  Therefore, conducting the necessary feasibility study before starting the reconciliation business is necessary. What are the benefits to be achieved through the truth and reconciliation that could not be achieved through the regular justice system? If the regular justice system fails to do good, can the temporary truth and reconciliation commission bring justice to the victims? Who needs to be reconciled with whom? Will the justice and reconciliation process done at international, national, and local level like Rwanda or at what level?

Furthermore, the issue that divides the peoples in Ethiopia is not only what happened in the past, but also future destination, where the country should head. Therefore, dealing only on the past without establishing common vision and goal for the future doesn’t bring reconciliation. If there is a consensus on the future of the country, it makes the reconciliation process easier because victims may forgive what happened in the past in anticipation of achieving the better future. It facilitates the process of trading justice for reconciliation and exchanging truth to amnesty/forgiveness.

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