Another Toothless International Organization: the African Union’s Response to Human Rights abuses in Ethiopia

Much of the international community has passively watched millions of people endure widespread human rights abuses in Ethiopia for over two years, perhaps worst of all being the African Union (AU) who is well-positioned to address such violations of fundamental liberties.  Since November 3, 2020, a violent conflict has been devastating northern Ethiopia as the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ethiopia), the State of Eritrea (Eritrea), and local Amhara militias have waged war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Although the AU have a relatively robust human rights legal framework, they have taken no meaningful actions to address the massacres, forced displacement, and genocide being committed on all sides. With auspicious negotiations recently concluding on November 2, the AU must begin taking action against the myriad of human rights abuses and hold perpetrators accountable, otherwise there is no reason to believe that such atrocities will stop.

Within the AU, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) is the primary human rights mechanism, yet the prioritization of non-intervention in member states’ affairs renders the ACHPR useless despite the circumstances. Ratified by Ethiopia in 1998the ACHPR provides all Ethiopian citizens, including Tigrayans, with comprehensive protections, including the rights to life and personal integrity, movement, and health. Despite these legal rights, the warring parties in Ethiopia have been violating the ACHPR rights listed above among countless others.[i] Where there are rights not explicitly mentioned in the ACHPR, legal decisions can set new precedents, such as the 2001 SERAC v Nigeria ruling, in which the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) established the right to food from the pre-existing rights to life and health. This fundamental right to food has been one of the gravest violations of human rights in the war, with Ethiopia and their allies starving Tigrayans by manufacturing conditions of famine through their “unilateral ceasefire.” Regardless of these protections, the AU’s human rights system is toothless and consistently eclipsed by national authority and the fundamental standard of non-interference within the AU.  

Indisputable evidence implicates two AU member states, Ethiopia and Eritrea, as perpetrators of ACHPR violations throughout the war in Ethiopia, yet the AU has taken no steps to hold these nations accountable. Without entry requirements based on human rights, the AU can accept states as members despite them having a dismal record of human rights abuses.[ii] However, the AU does has the authority to punish member states who violate human rights through suspension of membership and sanctions; nonetheless, this authority has never been used to suspend a member state. Non-interference and protection of national leadership are fundamental, understandable pillars of the AU, yet these can exist simultaneously alongside the AU’s objective to “promote and protect human rights in accordance with the ACHPR.” With a system already in place to punish nations and leaders that violate the ACHPR, the AU should consistently and impartially enforce these consequences to establish a new standard of behavior expected of its member states, beginning with Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In addition to ignoring its member states’ blatant violations of the ACHPR, the AU has also been slow, or completely absent, from acknowledging the atrocities affecting millions of people throughout Ethiopia. From the beginning of the conflict, the human rights abuses happening in Ethiopia have been clear and ubiquitous, yet it was not until July 2021 that the AU took steps to mediate the conflict and commence investigations into allegations of “ethnic cleansing” through the Commission of Inquiry. No further information has been released nor actions taken. To date, the AU has still not condemned the horrific crimes being wielded by the war’s belligerents nor called for Eritrea to remove their troops from Ethiopia.[iii] The AU’s slow and underwhelming response to the war in Ethiopia is a setback in realizing the full potential of the AU as an international organization that can facilitate African solutions to African problems.

For over two years, millions of people have been enduring unimaginable circumstances, and for over two years the AU has failed them by not leveraging its authority and position. From the war’s onset, atrocities unraveled across northern Ethiopia. From November 9-10, 2020, forces loyal to the TPLF reportedly killed hundreds of people in Mai-Kadra, located in western Tigray. Consequently, Tigrayans in Mai-Kadra have experienced revenge killings, detention, and looting. From November 28-29, 2021, Eritrean forces massacred scores of people in Axum, an event confirmed by Ethiopia. Local ethnic Amhara militias, loyal to Ethiopia, have been committing genocide against Tigrayans, and the TPLF have been responding with extrajudicial killings of Amhara civilians. The violence has spread beyond Tigray, escalating in other regions like Oromia where there was a massacre of 230 Amhara civilians. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces committing gang rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported for years. The result of two years of undeniable human rights abuses are 500,000 people killed, 70,000 refugees in Sudan, 2.2 million displaced within Ethiopia, thousands experiencing sexual violence, 350,000 enduring famine, and continuous reports of genocide.

On November 2, 2022, the AU took their most meaningful action in protecting human rights in Ethiopia by convening auspicious negotiations which ended with a truce between Ethiopia and Tigray, effectively ending the war. Regardless, the AU’s negligence of human rights abuses during the war is indicative of their priorities going forward. Tasked with monitoring and implementing much of the truces’ provisions, the AU is now responsible to “ensure accountability, truth, reconciliation, and healing.” How the AU intends to ensure accountability and reconciliation after their underwhelming response to widespread human rights violations remains unclear. For the AU to not further undermine the ACHPR nor their capabilities in mediating African conflicts, they must being to respond immediately to continued hostilities with critical rhetoric and punitive actions against the perpetrators. Their first opportunity to rectify their failures rests in addressing the continued reports of violence and restricted humanitarian

Ryan Miller is a graduate student pursing his Master of Arts in International Affairs Policy and Analysis from the School of International Service at American University. Previously, he received his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and History from the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Ryan Miller is the Technology Operations & Program Associate at the Warnath Group, a specialist firm for public and private sector leaders offering smart, innovative and effective professional education and advisory services to identify and prevent modern slavery in our communities and in the production of goods and services worldwide. He has years of experience working with refugees, migrants, and victims of human trafficking within the public, private, non-profit, and consulting sectors. Most recently, he has been working internationally with criminal justice actors in Costa Rica and Jamaica to identify and prosecute cases of child sex trafficking.


[i] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/05/ethiopia-tepid-international-response-to-tigray-conflict-fuels-horrific-violations-over-past-six-months/

[ii] https://www.oxfordlawtrove.com/display/10.1093/he/9780198767237.001.0001/he-9780198767237-chapter-23;jsessionid=B2D9FD75411FB1EB6B5C43DAD2B4CA44

[iii] https://theconversation.com/tigray-war-two-years-on-the-au-has-failed-to-broker-peace-and-silence-the-guns-192420

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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