Debevoise helps file landmark human rights claim against Ethiopia over Tigray civil war

New York firm joins with non-profits to submit complaint to Africa’s top rights body on behalf of Tigrayan victims
Washington, DC – November 9, 2020: Protesters demonstrating at Black Lives Matter Plaza against the escalating military conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray Province.

A demonstration in Washington DC at the outset of the conflict Shutterstock; Phil Pasquini

New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton has partnered with human rights non-profit Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) and the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU) to initiate a landmark case against Ethiopia for ‘serious’ human rights violations against Tigrayan civilians.

The trio submitted a complaint on Monday before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the continent’s top rights body that reports to the 55-member African Union.

Debevoise said the complaint marked the first time the African Commission has been requested to examine the conduct of Ethiopian troops in their civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the northern region's ruling party. 

It alleges that since the conflict began in November 2020, federal forces in Ethiopia have been responsible for a range of human rights violations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, including military targeting of civilians, mass and extra-judicial killings, gender-based sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention and mass civilian displacement.

The Debevoise team advising LAW is led by partner Catherine Amirfar, co-chair of the international dispute resolution and public international law groups, and counsel Floriane Lavaud. It includes associates Christel Tham and Duncan Pickard, who along with Lavaud are also in the international dispute resolution group, and Michael Pizzi, an associate in the litigation department.

Amirfar said: “We are honored to amplify the voices of Tigrayan victims and to seek accountability for those who perpetrated horrific crimes against them. We call on the African Commission to urge the government to end and remedy the abuses for which it is responsible.”

While reports suggest violations and abuses have been committed by different parties to the conflict, the complaint was submitted on behalf of Tigrayan victims, who Debevoise said ‘constitute the overwhelming majority of victims and have been subjected to horrific violence and crimes as a result of Ethiopia’s killing campaign against its own citizens.’

The complaint asks the African Commission to order Ethiopia to stop all violations and abuses against civilians in Tigray, allow unfettered access of food and humanitarian aid to the region and ensure the protection of the human rights of all Ethiopians, especially in Tigray.

Debevoise said LAW represents victims from Tigrayv who ‘have provided testimony for the case but could not be listed as complainants due to fear of reprisals from the government.’

Antonia Mulvey, LAW’s executive director, said the African Commission has “a unique opportunity to stand by victims and survivors from this conflict, to order emergency measures to stop unlawful killing of civilians trapped in Tigray, and to hold Ethiopia to account.”  

We are keen to work alongside the Commission’s Inquiry, to put an end to the impunity that has allowed these crimes to continue,” she added.

The fighting and continued restrictions on humanitarian access in Tigray has forced more than two million people to flee their homes and left at least 2.3 million in need of assistance, according to Human Rights Watch. Towns in the region have also been looted and destroyed by federal forces.

Donald Deya, chief executive officer of PALU, said the Government of Ethiopia is “obliged by both its Constitution and international law to protect all its citizens and residents from mass atrocities and violations of their human rights.

“Where it is unable or unwilling to uphold the same, as is the case here, we must seek recourse to competent international institutions. Hence, our urgent appeal to the African Commission,” he said.

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