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Northeast African Studies 6.1-2 (1999) 83-140

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Italian Fascist War Crimes in Ethiopia: A History of Their Discussion, from the League of Nations to the United Nations (1936-1949)

Richard Pankhurst
Addis Ababa University


The 1935-36 Italian fascist invasion and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia were accompanied by numerous atrocities: the use of mustard gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, the execution of captured prisoners without trial, the Graziani massacre, the killings at Däbrä Libanos monastery, and the shooting of "witch-doctors" accused of prophesying the end of fascist rule. These acts are historically interesting, not only in themselves, but also in that they were brought to the international community's attention on two separate occasions: to the League of Nations, when they were committed, and later, to the United Nations.

Fascist atrocities, though widely condemned by individuals and organizations, passed officially unnoticed by the League of Nations and were the subject of judicial consideration only after Italy's entry into the European World War in 1940. The question of these crimes was then reopened, in the newly established UN War Crimes Commission. Though based on power politics and political opportunism, the founding of this body reflected a shift in international thinking and re-shaping of international law.

The present article, which throws incidental light on changing international attitudes to Ethiopia, attempts to trace the tortuous history of these war-crimes discussions, and to examine why the efforts of the Ethiopian government to have war-criminals tried were less successful than those of other Allies. [End Page 83]

The League of Nations: Initial Reports

The Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs supplied the League of Nations with irrefutable information on Fascist war crimes, including the use of poison gas and the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, from within a few hours of the Italian invasion on 3 October 1935 to 10 April of the following year. 1 Further charges were made by Emperor Haylä Sellasé, to the League's General Assembly on 30 June. 2 Later, on 17 March 1937, he requested the League's Secretary-General to appoint an Inquiry Commission to investigate crimes committed in Ethiopia. 3 Such appeals made a deep public impression, but the League took no official action on the matter.

The European War: Growing Interest in War Crimes

The September 1939 outbreak of the European war was followed, in June 1940, by Fascist Italy's entry into the conflict. Continental Europe was soon occupied by the Axis powers, Germany and Italy, which reportedly committed many atrocities. The shocked Allies developed a keener interest in "war crimes" than when these had been perpetrated in far-off Ethiopia.

The "war crimes" question was first raised by the European refugee governments, established in Britain, who spoke on behalf of nine countries: France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Ethiopia, it should be noted, had by then been liberated, but was under British occupation. The representatives of these countries participated at a London meeting, on 13 January 1942, and condemned Nazi Germany's "regime of terror," resolving that those responsible be brought to justice. 4 This declaration was accepted by the United States, which had entered the war a month earlier. President Franklin Roosevelt declared on 21 August that those "committing barbaric crimes" should, at the end of the war, be "subjected to due process of law." 5 On 7 October, he announced that the United States would "co-operate . . . in establishing a United Nations Commission for the investigation of war crimes," and promised that "just and sure punishment" would be meted out to those "responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons" and "the commission of atrocities violating every tenet of Christian faith." 6 [End Page 84]

The war crimes issue came further to the fore as evidence of Nazi atrocities against the Jews filtered out of occupied Europe. On 17 December 1942, a declaration was read out in the...


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