By Awol K Allo
Since November 9, the Ethiopian government has arrested more than 60 leading figures from the National Intelligence Service and Security (NISS) and the state-owned conglomerate Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC). They stand accused of committing egregious human rights and participating in organised corruption.
This is the biggest campaign of mass arrests targeting powerful figures from the security and military establishment since the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power seven months ago.
Days after the top leadership of two of the most powerful institutions in the country were charged, Ahmed’s cabinet approved draft legislation on the establishment of a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission with the objective of healing the deep social wounds left by years of repression under previous Ethiopian governments. While Ethiopia certainly needs both accountability and reconciliation to come to terms with its violent and divisive past, it is not clear how the government aims to reconcile the two processes.
While legal accountability and reconciliation are not incompatible, they are nevertheless separate processes, with their own unique procedures and different goals. Prosecution emphasises punishment and vengeance, while reconciliation underscores healing.
Prosecution is governed by the strict rules of criminal procedure and focuses on an uncovering the truth about a particular crime and delivering individualised justice. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is not governed by strict legalistic procedures and its primary aim is to help the entire nation confront the past by producing as complete a picture of what happened as possible.
Pursuing prosecutorial justice while at the same time promoting reconciliation of a highly divided society, particularly in a highly fragile setting in which decades of state-sponsored acts of terror and violence resulted in the gradual rupture of the social fabric, requires a strategic and holistic integration of the processes, as well as careful planning…
As a country undergoing a complex period of transition, Ethiopia should hold to account those who perpetrated these detestable crimes which have torn apart the nation.
Under these conditions, the legal prosecution can be an integral part of a multipronged institutional response to state-sponsored acts of violence and organised plunder. It can contribute to the creation of a culture of accountability and strengthen the rule of law.
Reconciliation or justice?
However, the legal prosecution of these criminals would not heal the deep wounds and repair the social fabric ripped apart by decades of violence and antagonism. In her seminal book titled, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence, Martha Minow writes, “when the societal goals include restoring dignity to victims, offering a basis for individual healing, and promoting reconciliation across a divided nation, a truth commission again may be as or more powerful than prosecutions.”
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