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Project Ethiopia/Eritrea: Peace in the Horn of Africa

Three groups maintain laws of war

by Barbra Lukunka

picture
These three women fled their comfortable lives
in Asmara,Eritrea to live in their home country
of Ethiopia. They live as street beggars because
of the conflict in 1991.

Armed conflict has disturbed the lives of many. Men are killed in combat, women are raped, property is destroyed and children become orphans. Among the many organizations that work to help those that suffer from the effects of war, there are three, the International Community for the Red Cross, Ethiopia-Eritrea Claims Commission and Ethiopian Women's Lawyer Association, whose aim is to maintain the efficacy of law.

I spoke with the Protection Officer of the ICRC, who enlightened me about humanitarian law as well as the role of the ICRC during the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict.

The ICRC can be seen as the organization that monitors and makes sure the Geneva Convention is adhered to by all countries who sign it. The Geneva Convention is the legal document that countries sign as a guide to the proper treatment of prisoners of war, non-combat individuals and ICRC officials. It also gives detailed information on how to handle the bodies of those who die during armed conflict; it also reads families have the right to know about the whereabouts of their family members who die during armed conflict.

The ICRC is the organization that has many humanitarian aid programs, but it is also an organization unlike any other that has the inside information of the human rights violations countries engaged in armed conflict might commit. The symbols of the cross or the crescent signify the safe haven it provides for those whose rights are infringed.

When war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, ICRC was responsible for reminding the armies what the Geneva Convention policies are, especially concerning the treatment of deportees and prisoners of war. Since Ethiopia had signed the Geneva Convention before the conflict, it was easy for the ICRC to work with the Ethiopian government. Eritrea on the other hand, signed the Geneva Convention after the tensions subsided. The ICRC official said this made it difficult for the ICRC to work with Eritrea and to implement the necessary humanitarian programs.

One of the main programs the ICRC has been working on is the repatriation of deportees and refugees. Crossing the border is virtually impossible unless one has the help of the ICRC. One of the passages the ICRC uses to repatriate people from one country to the other is the Mereb Bridge on the Mereb River.

The ICRC is not the only organization involved in upholding the law regarding the conflict. The international community created two commissions in December 2000 when the Peace Agreement was signed; the Boundary and Claims Commissions. The Boundary Commission was created for the purpose of creating a border between the two countries that was just, based on international law. The Claims Commission on the other hand is the commission that takes into consideration all the claims filed by both countries and decides which country is liable for the claims. The Claims Commission is composed of five commissioners, four Americans and one Belgian.

Thomas Snider is an American lawyer currently representing the Ethiopian government in its dealing with the Claims Commission. Snider, 29, has been representing the Ethiopian government since 2000. He works for a law firm in Washington, D.C. called Hunton and Williams. Snider's job is to present a legal plea on behalf of the Ethiopian government for anything the Claims Commission says Ethiopia is liable for.

According to Snider, the Claims Commission does not take into consideration individual claims; it considers group claims.

"The way that claims are approached is by looking for patterns," Snider said.

The first claims the commission dealt with was the prisoner of war claims. In July 2003, the commission issued its decision concerning the prisoners of war, and it seemed as though Ethiopia was favored in the decision. Eritrea was found liable for severe violation, as well as failure to prevent the killings of prisoners of war at the war front. In contrast, the Ethiopian government was liable for merely delaying the repatriation of prisoners of war. The next claims the commission dealt with were those pertaining to the noncombatants who were affected by conflict, such as those who were displaced, raped, hurt by landmines and other war induced casualties. Snider's job is to do some research and write a legal plea for the Ethiopian government. The ICRC and the Claims Commission have been helpful in the conflict. There is, however, one other organization I was impressed with.

The Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association is an organization that has tried to promote women's rights. I was interested in its role in the conflict and how it helped women who had their rights violated during and after the conflict.

Meaza Ashenafi, the founder and executive director of the organization, said Ethiopia and Eritrea faced the same problems in terms of women facing violations during the conflict. I asked her to describe the women who had been raped. She said the majority of them were women who worked as domestic maids in either Ethiopia or Eritrea. The organization receives about 50 cases per day, and a small number of these cases are of women who were abused or violated during armed conflict.

"We have not had a lot of cases pertaining to women being raped or violated during armed conflict because many of these women are not educated, and they are unaware of the legal help they can get from organizations like the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association," Ashenafi said.

She said one of the cases the EWLA worked on was about a girl who was raped at the border. The young girl was a maid in Eritrea, and when the conflict started in 1998 she was deported. During her flight as a deportee from Eritrea, trying desperately to reach Ethiopia, she was raped by man who impregnated her.

"It was hard to work on this case because the girl didn't know who the man was," Ashenafi said.

Even though the organization is independent, it has collaborated with the government to promote peace. Before the war started, the EWLA and the government held a peace rally of more than 100,000 women.

These three organization, the ICRC, Claims Commission and the EWLA, are important because they attempt to bring justice and ensure those who violate human rights and commit war crimes during and after armed conflict do not go unpunished.

War brings many horrifying circumstances, but that does not mean individuals, not even the government of any country, should go unpunished for the atrocities they are responsible for.

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