Report from Special Prosecutor’s Office of Ethiopia: Half-way Transitional Justice

By Luelseged Degu -February 2010


Communism might have yield to being past history but its cruel effect is still haunting humanity in several countries in Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America which are still digging to lift themselves up from the mud. As part of this effort, reportedly soon after the down fall of the Dergue, the Woyanne Government established a Special Prosecutors’ Office (“SPO”) charging it to prosecute the Dergue Junta officials. The international community knows this and other similar processes as Transitional Justice.

Purpose of Transitional Justice

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) does not consider transitional justice as a special form of justice but justice adapted to societies transforming themselves after a period of pervasive human rights abuse. In some cases, “these transformations happen suddenly; in others, they may take place over many decades.” Observers continuously attest that in Ethiopia whatever has been done under TPLF has not helped in healing the past wounds; rather, it created new wounds. The approach that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mainly in response to political changes in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe and to demands for justice is a far cry from achieving a real result in Ethiopia because the approach taken by the rest of the world doesn’t come close to the one which has been conducted by TPLF.

Action in line with Transitional Justice

The Office of the Special prosecutor was established on August 8, 1982 by law (Proclamation No. 22/1992) with a mandate “to establish for public knowledge and for posterity a historical record of the abuses of the Mengistu’s regime and to bring those criminally responsible for human rights violations and/or corruption to justice.”

Basically, the intention behind establishing SPO would have been commendable had it been true for its root-cause. What the international community had in mind was that this office had been established in response to Dergue’s “systematic or widespread violation of human rights” in its 17 years rule. However it seemed ambitious and broad the fact that the TPLF government became willing to accept its international legal obligations to investigate and bring to justice those involved in human rights crimes and embark on a policy choice regarding how a society can productively deal with past abuses to create a more democratic future was applauded by international human rights activists. Be this as it may, having witnessed the political limitations to do whatever it took in El Salvador, Haiti, Chile and Argentina, the international community did not hide its doubts that TPLF would be able to deliver as it had promised via Proclamation No. 22/1992.

To the disappointment of the international human right activists, the policy decision taken by TPLF left desirable and theoretically the most beneficial to the construction of a society based on the rule of law on paper. TPLF has become no different from the Dergue. It is not that the international community failed to see this ambitious nature of the decision to embark on such transitional justice had both risks and benefits, but the disappointment came from what TPLF came short in meeting the least expectations from the international human rights community, the donor community, and in the Ethiopian community, and here is why:

  1. The international community expected SPO to mirror UN War Crimes Tribunal so that it would pull together the most well-respected scholars and practitioners throughout the globe/ country. Common factoring human suffering, it was ruled and believed that the task facing the SPO and the UN Tribunal had been similar in scope and complexity. In order to secure efficiency and pragmatism, the involvement of the international community was thought would be necessary for the project to function. However, TPLF did not in a way let the international community and well-seasoned Ethiopians to be part of this project. Instead, its cadres and people like Paul Henze have been contacted and involved in the process. Henze famously suggested in the aftermath of 2005 election to limit Ethiopians’ movement in their country which he enjoys pursuant to US constitution. The result? Incomplete, if not failed, result of transitional justice…

  2. The government of TPLF itself, which did establish SPO, has been engaged in its own killing frenzy, mainly through its OPDO‘s massacring innocent citizens in Arba Gugu and Jimma. Its former ally OLF reportedly slaughtered innocent civilians including women and children in Grawa, Asebot, Assossa, and Bedno. Some say TPLF itself has been highly engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing mainly in Amhara and Oromo regions. The massacre in Ogaden, Awassa, Gambella, Addis Ababa, Somali and Amhara and Oromo regions are one of the most recent heinous crimes committed against humanity. Therefore, the government which established SPO in seeking recognition for victims of Dergue and promoting possibilities for peace, reconciliation and democracy has created its own victims all over the country, and yet it is still in the making.

Ethiopian Style Transitional Justice

The successful and exemplary transitional justices in several corners of the world have been highlighted in addressing the systematic abuses by former regimes but without endangering the political transformations that were underway. However, in Ethiopia from the outset, it started with ceding the Northern Province, alienating ethnic Amharas as chauvinists and oppressors and Oromos as narrow nationalists. People from the central and southern part of Ethiopia were displaced in mass for being Amhara, and from the Northern Province for being “non-Eritrean.” The displacement is still being carried out by TPLF and pro-TPLF political parties/fronts and hailed by Media outlets like Aigaforum and Ethiopiafirst. The massive displacement was conducted during the 1998-200 Ethio-Eritrean senseless war.

Criminal Prosecutions of the Dergue (People involved in the red-terror).

Criminal prosecutions are part of the transitional justice. They are judicial investigations of those responsible for human rights violations. ICTJ states that prosecutors frequently emphasize investigations of the main perpetrators, actors “considered most responsible for massive or systematic crimes.” However, SPO prosecuted about 5119 people and out of which 3583 were convicted and sentenced to death, life in prison, and prison for a number of years. SPO admitted about 656 innocent people were languishing in prison for years, but are freed now. This admission confirms in part that the US Department of State report which noted that opposition groups alleged that some of the persons detained by the SPO were held for political reasons, an allegation that the TPLF denied, was correct.

A couple of days ago, without embracing the past injustice in its entirety and trying to stop the current injustice (for lack of mandate or other reason), SPO reportedly presented its long awaited report to the Parliament of Ethiopia; while other countries adopted many of what became the basic approaches to transitional justice, the report by the SPO was mainly focused on the criminal Prosecution of the Previous Government Officials.

  1. The report did not include if there was an organ like Truth Commission which was effective in South Africa. Such a commission of inquiry could have the primary purposes of investigating and reporting on key periods of red/ white terror and other past abuses. Even though it could have been official state body that would make recommendations to remedy such abuse and to prevent its recurrence, we have not seen such commission in Ethiopia.

  2. Except the Tigrai region, other regions like Ogaden (which was affected in Ethio-Somali war) have not been considered for reparations programs. In fact, the report did not mention reparations programs. As reparations are often state-sponsored initiatives that help repair the material and moral damages of past abuse, it is not clear the one TPLF applied in Tigrai will continue in Ogaden, Arba Gugu, Bedeno, Grawa, Awassa, Gambella, Assossa, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Asossa, Addis Abababa and other cities, towns and rural areas.

  3. TPLF has reportedly distributed a mix of material and symbolic benefits to the victims of Dergue in Tigrai. Woyanne has also established business moguls like EFFORT for the benefit of the people of Tigrai in line with financial compensation programs of transitional justice. In his recent article, Abebe Gelaw of Addisvoice stated that the TPLF government and deserters of this group unanimously agree that EFFORT has been established for the benefit of the people of Tigrai. However, Gelaw belived that EFFORT is only benefiting the ruling ethnic-junta and not the people of Tigrai. According to him and other reports, if true, even Tigrai is yet to benefit from financial compensation of the transitional justice programs. Some people say that the only reparation which seemed other countries’ reparations was the one conducted for Eritrea which included financial compensation and official apologies. The government of the former Prime Minster Tamrat Layne officially apologized to Eritrea. Eritrea even benefited from wealth succession of the 1991-1993 ceded country, between Eritrea and the Ethiopia-proper, according to the international principles of successions of states.

  4. Furthermore, Ethiopia is yet to catch up in full with gender justice, efforts to challenge impunity for sexual and gender based violence and ensure women’s equal access to redress of human rights violations and security system reform, which mainly are controlled by ethnic-Tigrians. TPLF has not yet made an effort to transform the military, police, judiciary and related state institutions from instruments of repression and corruption into instruments of public service and integrity.

  5. On the other hand, TPLF has erected memorials in Bahir Dar, Meqelle, and Nazareth; even a memorial has been erected for Dessalegn, a donkey which helped to transport money robbed by TPL from Ethiopian government banks during their guerrilla years.


Full-fledged Transitional Justice in Ethiopia has not been entertained. Any effort without national reconciliation and participation of all stakeholders seem futile. If we are to embark on democracy, the transitional justice process has to be in our to-do list. Whatever SPO has conducted did not go far enough and even its effort has been curtailed as a result of TPLF’s aggression towards humanity.

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