Canada must defend human rights in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: human rights lawyer

As a lawyer in Winnipeg, over the last 10 years, I have worked with refugee claimants from some of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups, such as the Oromos, Amharas, Tigrays and the Ogaden Somalis — who sought Canada’s refugee protection.

As a Pakistani-Canadian and as a lawyer who is committed to advocating for the human rights and dignity of the vulnerable, the weak and the voiceless, I pause and reflect on the present civil war that is raging on in Ethiopia.

The voices from the civil war — particularly those of the besieged Tigray people on the ground in the Tigray region — have been muted thus far. Likewise, so has their suffering.

The Ethiopian government has minimized this war by labelling it as a “law and order operation” or as a “police action.”

In another civil war in 1971, the people of the Bengali ethnic group in East Pakistan were fed up with the non-Bengali West Pakistani-dominated government, due to many real and perceived grievances. So they practised their naturally understandable and universally acknowledged right of self-determination, and seceded from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

What then followed was a Pakistani military operation with a nine-month long genocide of the Bengali people.

The international community’s initial failure to step in early enough to prevent the loss of life and other mass human rights atrocities — and then its subsequent recognition of the creation of the sovereign state of Bangladesh — is a matter of historical record.

The hostilities in Tigray have seen thousands flee into Sudan. Tensions have been escalating in the region since September, when Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote ‘illegal.’ (The Associated Press)

Earlier this month, after ordering federal troops to attack the remote northern region of Tigray, a region that is 95 per cent Christian, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ordered a very successful media blackout.

He has cut off all communication from inside the Tigray region, as well as sealed the borders of Tigray that touch the rest of Ethiopia.

According to Amnesty International, there are reports of much killing in the Tigray region, as well as large numbers of refugees from Tigray fleeing the war, by going across the international border into Sudan.

Not much more than this is credibly known as to what is happening on the ground.

Fundamental values at stake

The times have certainly changed since Pakistan’s military operation of 1971 against its Bengali population and citizenry.

In the present context of 2020, there are three laws that point to an undeniable reality, which strengthens and supports the Tigray people’s moral and legally sanctioned resolve to struggle against the violence that is being unleashed upon them.

The higher fundamental values that are at stake are freedom, liberty and self-determination of the Tigray people. These values have gained universal recognition by the international community, under international law, under the present Ethiopian constitution and by Canada’s own constitutional interpretation on secession.

This image made from undated video released by the state-owned Ethiopian News Agency on Monday shows Ethiopian military gathered on a road in an area near the border of the Tigray and Amhara regions. (Ethiopian News Agency/The Associated Press)

These higher values give the Tigray people the inherent right to legally secede from Ethiopia, and to control their own destinies.

The Tigray people may well exercise the option to rejoin Ethiopia, after its secession, under the terms of a new federal agreement for its union.

As a matter of principle, the inherent sovereignty of the Tigray people of the Tigray region must be conceded, so that a true lasting peace could take root in that part of the Horn of Africa.

An inalienable right to self-determination

The International Court of Justice (World Court) has judicially pronounced that the right to self-determination is one of the essential principles of contemporary international law.

This inalienable human right was written into the United Nations Charter at Article 1(2), which recognizes respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.

Articles 39 and 47 of the Constitution of Ethiopia grant the rights of self-determination to all people.

These articles give the “nations, nationalities and peoples” the legal right to either create a new state within Ethiopia or to secede from the nation altogether. The constitution of Ethiopia sets out a process for self-determination.

But these provisions are seen to be purely symbolic by the current government; therefore, secession from Ethiopia would never be permitted to occur.

We as Canadians, with our constitutional values that uphold respect for individual and collective rights (as well as for the rule of law) should, through our government, bring our uniquely Canadian approach to bear on the present civil war in Ethiopia.

After the Quebec secession referendum of 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada in Reference re Secession of Quebec [1998], 2 S.C.R. 217 (Can.) ruled that a majority vote, no matter how large the majority, could have legal effect on its own, and that the constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.

If Canada does not take the lead, and the international community does not condemn the actions of the Ethiopian government in the remote region of Tigray, then there is a great risk that Canada will end up supporting an Ethiopian prime minister who will end up governing Ethiopia not by the “rule of law” — but instead through “rule by law.”

And that begs the question, which law?

The law of the Ethiopian constitution, which is informed by Canadian values? Or the law which says that “might is right?”

This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.