The Looming Genocide in Ethiopia – Overview of Facts and Available Legal Framework to Deal with Perpetrators

By Endalew Lijalem

  1. Introduction

Genocide – or ‘barbarism’ as it was called before the term ‘genocide’ was first coined by a Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe2 – is one of the heinous crimes of humanity. History tells us that genocide has been part of long-term human experience that occurred in various parts of the globe and in different types of civilizations and cultures – including early settler genocide and modern time genocide.3 The massacre of the North American Indigenous Indians (at the hands of European settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries), the Armenian genocide, the mass killing of Jewish by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, the 1994 Rowanda genocide, the 1995 Bosnian massacre, the Darfur genocide, and the recent State-led ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, to mention a few, are part and parcel of the historical experiences of genocide.4 We have also witnessed a number of ethnic-targeted attacks and mass killings in the different parts of Ethiopia over the last quarter of the century, and particularly in the Oromia region in most recent times. This triggers debate as to whether these identity-targeted crimes qualify as genocide or not; and what purpose such characterization may have in dealing with perpetrators. This short commentary aims to shed some light on these points by examining the relevant instruments of international law regulating the crime of genocide and the Ethiopian legal framework.

  1. What Constitutes Genocide?

Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ from the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing; thus referring to killings targeting a particular race, tribe, or ethnic group. Lemkin developed the term ‘genocide’ mainly in response to the mass atrocities committed by the Nazi Germany against Jewish during the Holocaust, but also in response to previous instances in history of targeted killings aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people. Later, Lemkin led the campaign to have genocide recognized and codified as an international crime. The 1948 Genocide Convention,5 the first human rights treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly, recognized and codified the crime of genocide. Unlike the narrow definition provided by Lemkin, Article II of the Genocide Convention defines the term ‘genocide’ broadly as follows [G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has adopted this definition verbatim (Article 6), as do the 2014 UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes6 and the national criminal laws of many States.

The above definition makes plain that direct killing is not the only modality by which genocide can be perpetrated, but it also includes other systematic ways to destroy a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. These systematic ways of genocide enumerated under Article II (b-e) are imprecise and open for interpretation; thus their existence should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. To constitute genocide, the victims must be deliberately targeted because of their real or perceived membership to one of the four groups protected under the Convention. This means that the target of destruction must be the group as a whole, or only a part of the group as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area), and not its members as individuals. The Genocide Convention also makes clear that the crime of genocide can take place both in time of war and peace (Article I); and that the perpetrators can be both State actors and non-State actors, such as organized groups or private individuals (Article IV). The other important element worth noting is that international law does not put any standardized numeric requirement for the crime to be considered genocide.

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