Authors: Eyuel Zelalem and Michael Mengistu
Studying the history of existing laws helps in understanding its relationship with its subjects. When it comes to International Humanitarian Law (hereafter IHL), it is equally important to understand the laws and customs of war of the past to understand the contemporary normative rules of war. In this regard, there is a well-established research in the history of the laws and customs of warfare in Europe where the modern humanitarian laws emerged. Researches on traditional rules of warfare in some African States such as Somalia have also been carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, very little is known about old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. This blogpost explores the Ethiopian experience to motivate readers to conduct further research on the issue. It does so by first discussing the laws and customs of war that existed in Europe and other civilizations that flourished in various parts of the world such as the Pacific Islands and Africa.
Laws and customs of war in Europe, the Pacific Islands and Africa before the 19th century
Due to the recurrence of war and violence in ancient times, long before the development of modern international legal and institutional framework for IHL, societies had to come up with limitations on the conduct of war which is often called “cultural regulation of violence”. These self-imposed codes of conducts/limitations of war originate from cultures of the war-making societies. When it comes to Europe, these limitations, having their roots from the codes of chivalry and rules of Christendom, were existent since ancient times. For example, Western scholars in European medieval and classical period were concerned with defining what a just war (Jus ad bellum) was and developing the principles of just war which are still applicable to this day.
In general, having a look at the development of the laws and customs of war in Europe point to three principles that contributed to its growth. First, the principle that a belligerent should be justified in applying force which is necessary for the realization of the purpose of war. Second, the principle of humanity at work which says that all such kinds and degrees of violence which go beyond overpowering the opponent should not be permitted to a belligerent person. Third and lastly, the principle of chivalry which arose in the Middle Ages and introduced a certain amount of fairness in offence and defense, protection of non-combatants from pillages, and a certain mutual respect.
The origins of these principles, however, are not confined to Europe but were also evident as the customs of war of other ancient civilizations. Ancient civilizations such as the pacific societies had imposed limitations on the conduct of war that resembled the modern principles of IHL. For example, the Fijian society used weapons as a means of attack only when “this was deemed necessary upon provocation”. Similarly and interestingly, African tribes that lived in the present days of Ghana, Somalia, and the Sahel region had traditional customs of war that were almost similar to the rules of IHL under the Geneva conventions. Were there similar laws and customs of war in Ethiopia?
Laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century
Ethiopia is a party to the four Geneva Conventions on the laws and customs of war and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions. However, very little is known about the rules of war that used to exist in Ethiopia before the ratification of these Conventions in 1969. In order to understand the rules of war that existed in the country before the 20th century, we believe that researchers need to look at the history, governance systems, and laws – both customary and written – of the various civilizations that flourished in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the first document that should be studied to understand these laws and customs of war, we believe, is the Fetha Negest (Law of the Kings) since it served as the law of the courts of the Emperors of Ethiopia who had the final say in all matters including warfare and justice.
The Fetha Negest says little on the rules of warfare. However, it tries to govern some aspects of war in a haphazard manner such as the treatment of captives of war. For example, it states: “At the beginning of creation, all men were free. But war and raids bring them to serve others, since the law of war is that conquest makes the conquered slaves of the conqueror”. This reads as if the rules of war in the courts of Ethiopian emperors were opposed to the laws and customs of war that we have now. But can we reach conclusions about the old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia based on the Fetha Negest? Albeit the fact that the Fetha Negest incorporated such kinds of provisions, research show that customs of war that resembled contemporary normative rules of armed conflict existed in Ethiopia. For instance, Donald N. Levine wrote that during the Gondarine period (1632 – 1769 AD):
[The] Echage Bet [of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church] was reserved for the … monk who served as administrative head of the Church. […] The Echage Bet and the church compounds were considered sanctuaries and thus, in theory at least, were secure from plunderers. The Gondares and wealthy people from the country used these areas as a safety vault for their valuables.
This customary understanding of the rules of war is in line with today’s customary international humanitarian law protection of religious buildings from military attack. In addition, according to Nega Ewnetie, some Emperors of Ethiopia even tried to reform the rule of the Fetha Negest that concerned captives of war in favor of humanitarian concerns. For instance, Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868 AD) tried to abolish the practice of selling captives of war into slavery. He also mentions that Emperor Tewodros’s court decisions over war related cases considered aspects that we have under normative IHL rules. Moreover, if we turn to Western Ethiopia, we will find that the Nuer of the Gambella region observed a rule of war that protected villages which are “home” to Nuers’ god of war, Wiw, from forceful eviction even if the dwellers of the villages were defeated in battle. As a result, there may have been a mix of modern and old understandings of the laws of warfare, at least in some parts of Ethiopia, before the ratification of the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, further research on this issue is needed to bring a clear understanding about the history of laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. In conclusion, various research show that there were laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century. Some of these rules might not have been in line with today’s humanitarian law while other customs resembled contemporary armed conflict rules. However, thorough research has to be conducted in order to clearly understand the regulation of hostilities that used to exist in Ethiopia before the 20th century.
 Michael Howard “Constraints on Warfare” in Michael Howard, George J. Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), p.2.
 Id. p.1.
 Lassa Francis Oppenheim, International Law: A Treatise: War and Neutrality, Volume II, (1912), p. 226.
 See ibid.
 Id, p. 227. See also Robert C. Stacy “The Age of Chivalry” in Michael Howard, George J.Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), pp. 34 – 36.
 International committee of the Red Cross, Under the Protection of the Palm: War of Dignity in the Pacific, (2009), p.9.
 Ibid p.14.
 International committee of the Red Cross, African Values in War: A tool on Traditional Customs and IHL, <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/african-customs-tool-traditional-customs-and-ihl> last accessed on 28 July, 2021.
 A.L. Gardiner, “The Law of Slavery in Abyssinia”, Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, vol. 15 no. 4, (1933), p.196.
 Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, (1965), p. 41.
 Nega Ewnetie Mekonnen, “የዓለም አቀፍ የሰብአዊነት ሕግጋትና መርኆች በዳግማዊ አጼ ቴዎድሮስ የጦር ሜዳ ውሎዎችና ውሳኔዎች ውስጥየነበራቸው ቦታ”, Bahir Dar University Journal of Law, Vol. 6 No. 2, (2016), p.347.
 See ibid.
 Dereje Feyissa, “Customary Dispute Resolution Institutions: The Case of the Nuer of the Gambella Region” in Alula Pankhurst and Getachew Assefa “Grass-Roots Justice in Ethiopia”, <https://books.openedition.org/cfee/494> last accessed on 27 July, 2021.
Eyuel Zelalem Abebe: Eyuel received his LL.B. from Addis Ababa University in 2018. He is now working as a Desk officer at the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations for Elections (CECOE).
Michael Mengistu Woldeyes: Michael received his LL.B. from Addis Ababa University in 2018. He is now studying for his master’s in human rights law at the University of Groningen.
One thought on “Looking Back to Old Laws and Customs of War in Ethiopia: Establishing Groundwork for Further Research”
Such an interesting article! And very relevant given the ICRC’s recent launch of the Tool on African customs in war. It was fascinating to read about Ethiopian customs that possibly pointed to protection of cultural property and prohibition of forced displacement in times of war. I’d be so interested to follow any future research on customs and traditions from Ethiopia that reflect principles of contemporary IHL, as well as from Africa generally. Hopefully your call for future research on the regulation of hostilities before the 20th century will be answered! Thanks again for this interesting read.
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