Transitional Justice, Ethiopia, Red Terror, Accountability, Trials

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At the end of the state perpetrated largescale violence, two important puzzling questions need to be addressed by post-conflict states. The first one chiefly concern how to ensure accountability or fight impunity, and the second is concerned with how to transform a society wrecked by prolonged conflicts into a durable peace in a non-violent means (Jarstad & Sisk, 2008). One such effort to deal with these questions was implementation of a transitional justice measures which evolved to encompass broader themes in addition to criminal accountability and it has shown a considerable relevance and expansion since the end of Cold War. After the demise of Marxist military junta of Derg regime in 1991, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia attempted to respond to the Derg-era atrocities of Red Terror through the establishment of Special Prosecution Office (SPO) in 1992. Ethiopia’s SPO undertook one of the most extensive criminal investigations after Nuremburg trials by its own resources and domestic tribunals and the mass trials lasted for nearly two decades. However, the assessment about its significance for domestic political transformation and its legacy remained largely untold. The aim of this paper is to make a critical review of available works on the ‘red terror trials’ and reconsider its achievements and pitfalls and to interrogate as to whether it can still provide important lessons for today’s reality. By critically reviewing available literatures and official reports, the paper found that the efforts of Red Terror trials partly succeeded in ending impunity, averting tendency of summary executions and revenge killings, and in eliciting some ‘truths. However, the measure was affected by severe limitations including the adopting the narrower model of transitional justice measures chiefly focusing on criminal prosecutions, and also questioned legitimacy of trials amidst human rights violations by the new regime itself. These limitations coupled with other factors constrained the capacity of the Derg’s Red Terror trials so that it remained short of being translated into a lasting legacy in terms of meaningful political transformation.


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