Truth as War Causality? The Case of Ethiopia

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM, Jan 5 2022 – A brutal drama is unfolding in Ethiopia and it is difficult to find straightforward accounts of what is happening there. However, this does not prevent people from taking a unilateral stand for either of the factions involved in the disaster.

Since November 2020, a ruthless civil war has caused immense misery, especially in the northern parts of the country. Tens of thousands have been killed, about 2 million persons are left homeless, while famine affects 9 million. It has been extremely difficult for journalists to enter the affected areas and the outside world has to rely on information from the warring parties. As is the case of any armed conflict – propaganda, dubious reporting and outright lies are prevalent.

During World War I, the US Senator Hiram Johnson stated that “The first casualty when war comes, is truth” and any armed conflict seems to prove this fact with recent examples from the Gulf War, the conflict between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo, as well as the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Government manipulation is supported by media complicity, as evidenced by the embedding of reporters in military units and an uncritical, openly patriotic coverage of conflicts.

In his history of war journalism, The First Casualty, the Australian author Phillip Knightley stated that ”the age of the war correspondent as hero, appears to be over.” Even if global networks are becoming ever more efficient, making their presence felt all over the world, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to discern what is true or false. Too many vested interests are at stake, though no one can deny that every war is a disaster.

While ingesting scanty news from Ethiopia I am reminded of an interview I in 1997 did with Guatemala’s Archbishop Juan José Gerardi Condera. He was an open-minded and jocular man in charge of a project called Recovering Historic Memory, REHMI, which documented violence against civilians during Guatemala’s 36 years of civil war, in particular the ruthless killing of members of the country’s indigenous population.

One year after our meeting, Bishop Gerardi presented a report entitled Nunca Más, Never Again, which was notably damning to the Guatemalan military. Two days after the release of the report, Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in the garage of his villa. His skull and face were crushed and it was only through his episcopal ring that he could be identified.

During our talk Bishop Gerardi had told me:

    I do not know if we were right or wrong when we began preaching a gospel highlighting human rights. We intended to preach not only through words, but through deeds as well. With the support of the local, rural population we organized development committees which constructed schools, clinics and community centres. I assure you that as soon as you try to improve the physical and psychological well-being of your neighbour, especially our most poor, vulnerable and humble sisters and brothers, you become defenselessly entangled in the nets of politics and are thus destined to make powerful enemies. We started a wildfire. Soon our catechists were being murdered. No respect and mercy whatsoever were shown to the clergy. They called us Communists and several of us were executed. The severed head of one of my priests was found on the steps to his church. If someone takes up arms … violence and injustice cannot be avoided. It does not matter whether murderous measures are considered to be fair or not. The result is always the same – death and misery for all involved, and especially for the wretched ones who happen to be innocent.

On 2 April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was by the Ethiopian parliament sworn in as Prime Minster of Ethiopia. His accession was greeted with cheers and a sense of relief. After three years of massive protests, the ruling political constellation EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, had begun to crack. The head of government resigned and the old guard sought a replacement whom they assumed they could be able control. However, Abiy Ahmed surprised everyone when he signaled resolute action and initiated sweeping reforms. During his first months in power, Abiy’s popularity was tremendous, especially in the capital Addis Ababa. His inspirational speeches were applauded, while his picture could be seen almost everywhere; in shop windows, on restaurant walls, and taped to cars and lorries. Large crowds marched along the main streets, chanting his name, declaring that Ethiopia now had been redeemed after decades of oppression.

Abiy Ahmed appointed a new government with 50 percent women ministers. Thousands of political prisoners were released. The country’s anti-terrorism law, widely perceived as a tool of political repression, was amended. Opposition groups, including those who had fled the country, were welcomed to discuss Ethiopia’s future. A female president was appointed, while democratic elections and a new constitution were promised. The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea was opened and air services between the capitals were resumed.

However, by the beginning of 2020, the cheers had subsided. Pictures of the Prime Minister had been torn down and replaced by others that depicted ancient rulers; like the mythical hero emperor Tewodros, the last emperor Haile Selassie and, strangely enough, the blood-stained dictator Mengistu. What had happened?

During his acceptance speech, Abiy had promised political reforms and an active promotion of unity among the peoples of Ethiopia. He soon reached out to the Eritrean government to resolve the ongoing Eritrean–Ethiopian border conflict, a protracted strife that frequently had exploded in fierce warfare. A free press became permitted, while State monopolies in the telecommunications, aviation, electricity, and logistics sectors were being dismantled and industries were opened up to private sector competition.

Abiy’s attempts at comprehensive reforms was a risky balancing act. Ethiopia is not really a nation-state, it is more of a conglomerate of ethnic entities. Among the country’s 115 million inhabitants, 80 million consider themselves to belong to different ethnic groups. Members of the Amharic population group have, along with the closely related Tigrayans, since the establishment of the medieval kingdom of Abyssinia been state leaders. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group – the Oromos – was incorporated into Abyssinia in the 16th century. Abiy Ahmed bridged ethnicities and religions. His father is Oromo and Muslim, his mother Amhara and Orthodox Christian, while he himself is member of The Ethiopian Full Gospel Believers’ Church, a Pentecostal Movement. He has a Master in Business Administration and a PhD in Peace and Security Studies.

Abiy was initially focused on dialogue between different ethnicities and political fractions, but in step with his reform attempts difficulties arose almost everywhere. Worst has been the situation in the Tigray region, situated along the border with Eritrea. Leaders from that area had for almost 30 years through a superior military power, authoritarian rule, censorship and a tight political system, which nevertheless allowed for a certain ethnical/linguistical autonomy, succeeded in stimulating economic growth and an expanding infrastructure. However after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenaw in 2012, corruption increased and opposition grew stronger.

Abiy’s economic reforms, the release of political prisoners and limitations to censorship worried many of his Tigranian colleagues and some of them were directly affected by a crackdown on corruption. Realizing that Abiy could not be controlled, some Tigranian politicians began moving north to their home region, instead of awaiting trial in Addis Ababa. The Tigrayan suspicion of Abiy increased and the region’s leading party Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refused to join Abiy’s Prosperity Coalition, accusing him of discriminating against Tigrayans and claiming that the agreement with Eritrea was a ”largely unimplemented” scam. When elections scheduled for August 2020 were postponed with reference to a menacing COVID situation, TPLF organized a regional election in Tigray, where they won a landslide victory.

On the night of November 4, 2020, TPLF forces broke into several military bases in Tigray urging soldiers and officers to join TPLF. Those who refused were overpowered, or killed. Weapon stockpiles were looted, among them long-range missiles. The federal government declared that TPLF had committed high treason and ordered the army to go on the offensive. Since then Ethiopia has been devoured by a cruel civil war.

Due to restrictions and censorship, evidence-based information barely seeps out, while a rich flora of rumors is dominating social media and the international press. It has become difficult to distinguish between factual information and abundant exaggerations and distortions. Nevertheless, it is evident that war crimes have been committed by both warring fractions.

The Ethiopian government has lost the information war. Communication to the international media has been scarce, with an emphasis on military success, while civilian abuses are blamed on the TPLF and Eritrean intervention is denied. This while TPLF during its years in government was able to build up a wide network of sympathizers around the world, which has been mobilized during the war, influencing foreign politicians and international media.

TLPF forces were close to reaching Addis Ababa, but in mid-December last year, the Government gained the upper hand, after deploying heavy weapons, including drones, provided by China, Russia and Turkey. On December 19, the TLPF declared itself ready to withdraw its forces to Tigray, hopes for peace negotiations are growing, together with wishes that the suffering of the Ethiopian people finally will come to an end.

I assume my summarized description of Abiy´s reform attempts and the war they resulted in is as flawed as most reporting coming out of Ethiopia, based as it is on media, my own perceptions and especially writings and reports by a friend whose knowledge and insights I esteem. Let us hope that peace is achieved and that the thorny issues that internally harass Ethiopia, as well as this nation’s relations with other countries might find a nonviolent solution.


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Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws in Latin America Stigmatize Adolescent Victims of Abuse

By Barbara Jimenez-Santiago
WASHINGTON DC, Jan 5 2022 – Across Latin America and the Caribbean there is a culture of impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence. Crimes against women and girls often go unpunished and under-reported due to societal misconceptions about victimhood and the nature of sex crimes.

The stigmatization of survivors and the permissive attitude toward abusers is reinforced by discriminatory laws that perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

Equality Now recently undertook an analysis of rape laws across the Americas region and what we found were woefully insufficient laws that failed to adequately prevent sexual violence and ensure justice for women and girls who have been violated. One of the most common yet insidious forms of legal loopholes that we found in Latin America specifically were so-called “estupro provisions.”

Estupro provisions, which provide for a lesser penalty for adults who rape adolescents above the legal age of consent than for children or adult women, are based on the idea that adolescents seduce and tempt older men into assaulting them or that older men seduce impressionable and naive teenagers into sexual acts.

This interpretation suggests a notion of a hierarchy of rape where some perpetrators are deemed less guilty than others for effectively the same crime and some victims are implied to be less harmed by the experience and so less deserving of justice.

These laws are rooted in outdated perceptions about chastity, morality, and female sexuality and enable prosecutors to argue that adolescent victims manipulated their aggressor into abusing them. Estupro laws and provisions perpetuate the idea that a victim is, at least partially, responsible for the crimes committed against her.

Estupro is often wrongly defined on the internet as “statutory rape,” but these two charges are not the same. Statutory rape, used commonly in penal codes of the United States of America, refers to what would otherwise be considered consensual sex, except that it involves a minor whose young age means that the law deems her or him incapable of being able to consent.

The penalty for statutory rape is often higher than for other categories of rape, whereas for estupro there is a lesser penalty.

For our report on rape laws in the Americas, Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting, Women, Girls and Adolescents in the Americas, we interviewed Doña Petita, a woman whose daughter Paola was raped by a school vice principal in Ecuador.

Paola tragically killed herself after she became pregnant and was pressured by her abuser to have an abortion. Her femicide followed sustained abuse and grooming by an adult man who manipulated his position of power and her trust in him.

Doña Petita was unable to get support following the tragic death of her adolescent daughter. Not from the school, not from law enforcement, and not from the courts. Paola’s rapist was a very powerful man in the community who had access to lawyers, resources, and political connections that Doña Petita did not.

Additionally, Paola’s community did not perceive her as the victim that she was, but as an equally culpable actor in the abuse that she suffered. As Doña Petita told us: “Paola was a girl and he was a man in his 60s but people blamed my daughter, saying that she must have seduced him. They didn’t understand that he was an old man manipulating her and not the other way around. She was the victim.”

Estupro laws reinforce the concept of victim-blaming, thus it is not surprising that Ecuador is one of the 17 jurisdictions found in our report to have such provisions. In practice, estupro provisions are often used to circumvent application of the rape offense, thus minimizing the crime and implying that the sex act was not an act of violence.

By applying estupro provisions, prosecutors and judges perpetuate the myth that it is adolescent girls who are treacherously seductive and manipulative, preying on helpless adult men. As demonstrated by the case of Paola, these harmful myths and gender stereotypes have far-reaching impacts.

Justice was elusive for Doña Petita in her home country of Ecuador. She pursued three different courses of legal action, but in each instance her case was dismissed. Her daughter’s abuser fled the country and was never held accountable for his crimes.

Thanks to Doña Petita’s ceaseless determination and the efforts of the non-profit organizations Centro Ecuatoriano para la Promoción y Acción de la Mujer (CEPAM-Guayaquil) and the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held Ecuador responsible for failing to protect Paola and violating her rights to life, personal integrity, private life and dignity; her right to enjoy special protection from the State as a child; her right to equality and non-discrimination; her right to education; and her right to live free from gender violence.

The Court’s ruling is a victory not just for Paola and Doña Petita, but for girls throughout the region. However, Doña Petita should not have had to wait 18 years for justice – she should have been able to rely on national laws to protect her daughter and hold her daughter’s abuser to account. so that.

If that had happened, Paola would have been recognized for the exploitation she suffered and offered support services and she might still be alive today. But sexual violence laws across the region, like the ones that Paola encountered, are failing women, girls, and adolescents resulting in tragic outcomes.

Discriminatory laws, like estupro provisions, not only deny victims justice but they legitimize the practice of victim-blaming by suggesting that an adult perpetrator could be seduced or tricked into have sex with a minor. Latin American governments must act now to repeal any existing estupro provisions.

This reform must be complemented by a complete overhaul of sexual violence laws, including adopting consent-based definitions of rape, to ensure that adolescent girls and all survivors are protected from sexual violence in all circumstances.

Reforming sexual violence laws will both allow survivors of sexual violence access to dignified justice but will play a critical role in shaping the way that society understands sexual and gender-based violence.

Barbara Jimenez-Santiago is Latin American Regional Representative for Equality Now


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