An Opening for Transitional Justice in Ethiopia and Eritrea

Deputy Executive Director and Director of Programs


The announcement by the Executive Committee of Ethiopia’s ruling party that the country will implement the 2002 Algiers peace agreement and decisions of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) brings hope that a 20-year war that divided families and communities is finally over. It is the government’s first unconditional acceptance of the EEBC decisions and an explicit commitment to end the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and “to maintain peace between people of the two countries.”

Eritrea reciprocated the Committee’s decision on June 20, after which Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki dispatched his Foreign Minister and Senior Presidential Advisor “to gauge current developments directly […] and chart out a plan for continuous future action.” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s subsequent visit to Eritrea — the first such visit by an Ethiopian head of government since 1998 — was an initial step toward the reestablishment of diplomatic and trade ties, resulting in a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship.

Despite the arguments at the core of both countries’ propaganda, a sudden but critical change in Ethiopian politics has brought forth the unthinkable. While both parties have indicated that the process is still delicate and third-party involvement is premature, a foundation for peace will have been laid if these efforts continue and are successful. Reportedly, Ethiopians took advantage of the first flights from Addis Ababa to Asmara, dismissing any fear of hostility from the Eritrean government or society. And the bilateral announcement was followed by a flood of telephone calls across the border, indicating the eagerness of many to re-establish contact with family, friends, and communities.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed belongs to the Omoro ethnic group, which, similar to other ethnic Ethiopian groups, was virtually excluded from power since the end of the war with Eritrea. This unprecedented change in leadership has two immediate implications: (1) a more inclusive and representative power sharing in Ethiopia, and (2) the possibility to develop justice processes as part of the restoration of the relationship between the two countries and their efforts to consolidate peace.

While the developments are preliminary, a wide range of options for pursuing peace are at the disposal of leaders in the two countries. For Ethiopia in particular, an honest and expert analysis of how one group gradually monopolized power and the related consequences of the stalemate with Eritrea would certainly be beneficial. For both countries, documentation of the victims and the violations committed during the conflict could be envisaged, with a view to acknowledgment, recognition, and reparations.

Both countries’ human rights records are highly problematic. Particularly in Eritrea, authorities have justified repressive measures based on the doctrine of “no peace, no war” with Ethiopia.

Generally, Ethiopia has had a better record, although not ideal. Violations were committed mainly by those in political power who consolidated authority by suppressing any dissent.

It might be easier for the current governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea to make genuine efforts to address victims’ rights and the impact and consequences of the violations if these efforts are a complement to the normalization of their relationship. This, in turn, could create an opening to advance human rights and rule of law.

PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerk embrace at the signing of the joint declaration in Asmara, Eritrea, on July 9, 2018. (Reuters/Visafric/Ghideon Musa Aron)