Steven Ratner, the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law, is one of three members appointed to a new International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, recently established by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Ratner is the only commissioner from the United States.
“I'm deeply honored to be appointed by the Human Rights Council President for this important and challenging assignment to address a truly horrendous conflict that has led to such human tragedy,” Ratner said. “I'm also looking forward to working with my two distinguished co-commissioners, each of whom are leading figures in the practice of human rights.”
Ethiopia launched a military offensive in its northern region of Tigray in November 2020. The ensuing conflict with separatist forces led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has left thousands dead, nearly two million civilians displaced, and 400,000 on the verge of famine.
Through a resolution adopted at its special session in December 2021, the Human Rights Council established an international commission to conduct an impartial investigation into allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights, as well as humanitarian and refugee law, committed in Ethiopia since the military offensive began. The three-person commission was asked to “establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses; collect and preserve evidence; to identify those responsible, where possible; and to make such information accessible and usable in support of ongoing and future accountability efforts.” The commission also is tasked with making recommendations on technical assistance to the Government of Ethiopia in support of accountability, reconciliation, and healing.
Ratner began his legal career as an attorney-adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. State Department. In 1998, he was appointed by the UN Secretary-General to a three-person Group of Experts to consider options for bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice; in 2010, he was a member of the UN’s three-person Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, which advised the UN Secretary-General on human rights violations related to the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. He also has served in the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.
His fellow commissioners are Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; and Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya.
“It’s very important for all UN bodies to have geographical diversity regarding membership, as well as close connections to the region, which explains why the chair and other member are both distinguished African human rights experts,” Ratner said. “My added value to the commission, I hope, is the combination of academic expertise on international human rights, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law, and practical experience in using these norms in politically sensitive situations, including experience in reaching out to different stakeholders. The project involves not only legal skills, but political and diplomatic ones.”
The project draws comparisons to—and builds on—Ratner’s previous service on the panels that examined human rights atrocities in Sri Lanka and Cambodia. “Both also faced significant political resistance from the state concerned,” Ratner said. “This will be a more challenging project, both because the conflict is ongoing and because this commission has a broad mission to engage in fact-finding, including identifying suspected perpetrators of atrocities. Unlike the earlier two, we also have a mandate from a political body, the UN Human Rights Council, and will be provided with a significant staff to carry out our work.”
While the world’s headlines, at present, are consumed by conflict in Europe, Ratner said it is imperative for people to understand that human rights abuses are ongoing where the spotlight isn’t shining: “For all the catastrophic events in Ukraine, there are many other horrific conflicts in the world creating huge loss of life, displacement, and other suffering. The war in Tigray involves terrible atrocities, and the United Nations has a responsibility to address them as well as other conflicts.”