Human Rights Watch asks Biden to hold war criminals in Ethiopia’s Tigray region accountable and back International Criminal Court

Human Rights Watch on Thursday called on the Biden administration to help bolster accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, as well as crimes against humanity and acts of genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and other atrocities committed elsewhere.

Joseph BIDEN, President of the United States of America, at the US-EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 15, 2021
Joseph BIDEN, President of the United States of America, at the US-EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 15, 2021

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More broadly, the human rights organization called on the United States to reaffirm support for justice for victims of grave international crimes around the world.

It asserted that as the Biden administration renews the United States’ commitment to multilateralism, it should ensure that support for accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide is a key component of a human-rights-focused foreign policy.

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In the 27-page report, Essential Proposals to the Biden Administration to Advance International Justice, the organization outlined five areas in which the United States can demonstrate a consistent commitment to justice for victims of atrocities.

The report detailed how the US government can advance that objective for specific countries like Ethiopia and Myanmar.

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It also urged the US government to support the International Criminal Court (ICC), other international or hybrid institutions like the Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic, and national prosecutions, including those brought under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

“President Biden has signaled a renewed commitment to work with allies and participate in multilateral institutions,” said Liz Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Supporting justice for victims of the most serious international crimes should be at the forefront of the administration’s commitment. As a component of the rule of law, international justice strengthens cooperation across governments and is central to the fight against impunity worldwide.”

On Wednesday, the United States said it was “gravely concerned by reports that dozens of civilians were killed or injured during a bombing of a village market in northern Tigray on June 22.” 

“We strongly condemn this reprehensible act,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement from Washington D.C. on behalf of the Biden administration.

Department Spokesperson Ned Price holds the Daily Press Briefing at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett
Department Spokesperson Ned Price holds the Daily Press Briefing at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett

Price added that “there are also credible reports that security forces denied medical personnel access to the victims of this terrible attack.”

“Denying victims urgently needed medical care is heinous and absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “We urge the Ethiopian authorities to ensure full and unhindered medical access to the victims immediately.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali address the media briefing at the conclusion of the Official Visit by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the Union Buildings in Tshwane. January 12, 2020

“We also call for an urgent and independent investigation, as well as remedial action, to hold those responsible for this attack accountable. The United States again urges an immediate ceasefire in Tigray, unhindered humanitarian access, and protection for civilians,” Price added.

Credible reports said on Wednesday that an airstrike killed dozens of people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region on Tuesday and health workers were blocked from traveling to the scene.

The airstrike hit a busy market in the village of Togoga with some reports citing more than 80 civilians bombed to death.

Human Rights Watch said the ways to support human rights violations around the world, including in Ethiopia, include supporting UN-mandated investigative mechanisms and US reengagement with the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has an essential role to play in promoting justice.

“Promoting accountability through criminal prosecutions is critical for victims and their families to obtain justice and plays a role in ending cycles of violence,” the organization said, noting that the US support has been critical to effective justice processes in countries around the world, from Bosnia to Sierra Leone.

Human Rights Watch asserted that “despite expressed bipartisan support for international justice, the US position on the ICC, the centerpiece of this evolving system, has changed over the last several administrations. It has ranged from initial hostility under the George W. Bush administration to more open support and cooperation under the Obama administration. Under the Trump administration, the US levied punitive measures against ICC staff, including financial sanctions and entry bans, in an effort to thwart investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine.”

It added that when President Biden “removed these unprecedented penalties in April 2021, he began what could be an overdue process of restoring US credibility on international justice.”

“As the court of last resort, the ICC has a critical role to play and the Biden administration should not allow narrow concerns about certain investigations to undermine its broader commitment to accountability,” Evenson said. “The Biden administration should demonstrate it is serious about a human-rights-centered foreign policy by standing with its allies in supporting justice for victims of serious international crimes and making ICC cooperation the rule.”

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