The Unspeakable IDPs Situations in Ethiopia: The Culture of Impunity

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By- Yohannes Ayalew* and Dejen Messele**

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) situation in Ethiopia is worsening after the recent plight of Gedeo people in Southern Ethiopia. As a result of this displacement, nearly a million ethnic Gedeo’s were displaced from the adjacent Gujji zone of Oromia region following an ethnic conflict between the Gedeo’s and the Oromo’s as the latter also backed by non-State armed actors such as—the Oromo-Liberation Front (OLF) and paramilitary groups operating in the region.

The Gedeo’s displacement placed Ethiopia at number one spot in terms of the total number of IDPs in the world which is an estimate of 3.2 million people displaced surpassing the numbers in Syria and Yemen.

This blog post aims to shed some light on how the unspeakable IDPs problems persisted in recent years as a pressing social need in Ethiopia and ways to make the perpetrators accountable, in turn, end the culture of impunity. Using the recent Gedeo’s displacement as an instance, this blog post questions the government’s intervention to end impunity.

The UN Guiding Principles on the IDPs made in 1998 (Article 2) defined IDPs as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” This instrument requires UN members to provide protection to IDPs on the basis of their national legislation, human rights, and humanitarian principles. Specifically, it includes relocation, local integration, sustainable return, providing adequate compensation and indicting perpetrators.

Similarly, the 2009 African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (aka Kampala Convention) defined IDPs akin to the above terms. It can be recalled that the underlying hallmark to define IDPs seems the displacement has to be occurring within a State’s premise, and the victims have not crossed an international border of a State.

Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Kampala Convention nor having a separate law on IDPs. This makes the condition of IDPs very challenging especially in bringing perpetrators to justice. The unspeakable Gedeo IDPs lamenting situation have been exposed to the international community after disturbing pictures were released on social media, especially many IDPs were also depicted in starvation and destitute situation.

Picture credit: Twitter a Gedeo woman IDP in starvation

In terms of direct aid, the International Committee of the Red Cross(ICRC) and other local NGOs were/are in the area providing assistance. The UN OCHA Humanitarian Bulletin Issue No.5 has stated the unspeakable lamentations of  the IDPs in Gedeo as:

The situation has been particularly dire in Gotiti kebele, Gedeb woreda where, according to interviewed IDPs in the area, “IDPs were deprived of assistance for the past 8 months because humanitarian partners were denied access”. As a result, acute malnutrition worsened and protection and disease outbreak risks heightened

Following a severe criticism of the government from the social media, and after a belated but some qualms of the Abiy administration, the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed along with the Minister of Peace (Mrs.Muferiat Kemil) had visited the IDPs in Gedeo. However, the Prime Minister was nervous and never said a word about ending the culture of impunity and bringing perpetrators to justice forthwith.

I.The ‘Securitization’ of IDPs in Ethiopia: A fait accompli?

These days, the issue of IDPs becoming a national security agenda in Ethiopia. First, it was instrumental for the postponement of the national population and housing census. In other words, one of the reasons forwarded by the National Population Census Commission for rescheduling of the census is the existence of millions of IDPs in different camps.

Second, in some IDP camps, non-State armed actors would be able to enlist child soldiers. In this regard, it can be recalled that IDP camps are fertile ground for militarization, with encampment policies leading to active recruitment of rebel groups and child soldiers. Also within IDP camps, militarization can also happen through the siphoning of humanitarian funding and other resources for small arms sales.

Third, some humanitarian organizations are grappling to address the problem because they do have the existential threats faced by these actors attempting to reach and help the IDPs. In the case of Gedeo, many local and international humanitarian organizations grumbled about getting the IDPs and helping them directly.

Most importantly, the issue of securitization would be raised in connection to the numbers of IDPs. In Ethiopia, more than 3.2 million people are displaced as a result of ethnic conflicts, and non-State armed actors’ displacement measures. If these numbers are said to be true, it will disturb the national security of the State.

Furthermore, in recent IDPs occurred in Somali region where paramilitary groups were partly involved in displacing the Oromo’s in adjacent Somali region. Likewise, non-State armed groups like the OLF allegedly involved in displacing dozens of non-Oromo people. All these incidents could trigger an existential threat to the peace and tranquility of the civilians in Ethiopia.

II.The Abiy’s Policy on IDPs: the same bus different seat?

Since his ascension into premiership position, Abiy Ahmed, is/has been failed to have a bolder policy on IDPs protection. He even treated the IDPs issue as a neglected stepchild of his government agendas. After the mounting of pressures from all directions, he has once tempted to visit an IDP camp and stressed for the need to have humanitarian assistance.

Although his visit to Gedeo has been significant, still regarding ending impunity a lot of works remain to be done. The country’s highest number of IDPs is a puzzle given to the country’s pace in the ‘reformist leader’ which vehemently avowed by the international community. The menaces ensued from this inter-ethnic conflict and violence are despicable. The effects are despicable because the displacements caused the violation of human rights as provided under the core human right instruments in which Ethiopia is a party.

It is evident that IDPs are exposed to multifaceted agony, lamentation, and trouble unless the government intervenes. The agony doubles in the lives of women and children since they are targeted and exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse, and neglect than other ordinary IDPs. This is the reality in the ongoing exodus taking place in Ethiopia. Special attention would have been given to those groups of the IDPs.  The government acted on the alert driven by social media. It was/is unwilling to intervene in the mass displacement of people in proprio motu.

Apparently, the government is unable to respond despite that the number of IDPs rose up significantly. The government is unable to relocate and provide adequate compensation to victims. Even worse, the government is not in a position to indict the perpetrators. Once more the Abiy administration has been demonstrated, the IDPs issue is a mere ethnicity question than a national security issue. With all these, the Abiy administration seems to ride the same bus in a different seat like his predecessors in addressing the IDPs question.

III.The Culture of Impunity: Rule of Law broken?

Up until now, no actor (be a State or non-State) has been perpetrated nor under investigation with the charge of enforced displacement. It can be recalled that enforced displacement is both a war crime and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.

However, the Ethiopian legal order lacks clarity in having a discrete criminal provision punishing enforced displacement. In Ethiopian, displacement is something considered as a mere ethnic question than human rights or criminal matter. The culture of impunity regarding IDPs perpetuated for the following two rationales. First, perpetrators take the shield of their ethnic group as a veil (ethnicity veil) for their criminal acts. This means perpetrators abscond and then go forth to their ethnic belongings as a fugitive. Ridiculously, perpetrators instead of sent to jail get praised as a populist leader in the particular region. Second, in the past few years, the rule of law is broken and the Federal government is unable to arrest some extremist groups and mighty regions. Thus, when the rule of law is broken, it would be unlikely to end impunity.

The Way out

This blog post has identified how the culture of impunity regarding IDPs hinders the protection of IDPs. The writers suggest that perpetrators of displacement should be brought to justice forthwith, and the victims must be compensated. Second, despite the tardiness of the Federal government, there should be revved up measures to assist IDPs. Third, the governing narrative regarding IDPs should be changed from placing the issue of IDPs under the umbrella of ethnicity to a national security issue. Forth, the government must take a precautionary and preventive approach to thwart this kind of situations and the perils ensued therefrom. Finally, human rights civil society organizations(CSOs) and right groups operating in Ethiopia should start strategic litigation before national and regional courts challenging the actions of State or non-State actors, to make perpetrators responsible, and in the end, justice will be served.


*Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew is a lecturer in law at School of Law, Samara University, Ethiopia. Email: [email protected]

**Dejen Yemane Messele is a lecturer in law at School of Law, Wollo University, Ethiopia. Email: [email protected] Currently, the writers are working on a joint project called “Building Resilient Civil Societies(BRICS II) in Ethiopia”