Ethiopia: UN human rights report sets stage for possible criminal charges against all sides in Tigray

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 3 November 2021 18:39

Switzerland Tigray Human Rights
Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, Chief, Africa Branch, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Francoise Mianda, Section Chief, East and Southern Africa, speak to the media about the Tigray, joint investigation into alleged violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

The United Nations on Wednesday released its long-awaited investigation into atrocities in northern Ethiopia, paving the way for possible international criminal charges.

The 156-page joint report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) detailed a pattern of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture and gang rapes by all sides. It also blamed parties to the conflict for forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes while blocking life-saving humanitarian assistance.

The “devastating” report “has today made clear the terrible toll on civilians of the conflict of Tigray,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva.

“We have reasonable grounds to believe that during this period, all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law,” she said. “Some of this may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The report is particularly significant as it represents the only international human rights investigation allowed in the Tigray region. It comes as Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday as Tigrayan forces drew closer to the capital, threatening to topple the government.

The report covers the period from the start of hostilities on 3 November 2020, to 28 June  2021 when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire. Drawing on 269 interviews, it examined actions by Ethiopian military and its allies, Eritrean forces and Amhara militias, as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Only Ethiopia cooperated with investigators. Eritrea refused to engage, while the TPLF objected to the EHCR’s role in the probe.

Bachelet said it was “impossible to put precise numbers” on human rights abuses, but told reporters that government forces were mostly to blame during the time period under review.

“While the report does not explicitly mention that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were responsible for the majority of the violations,” she said, “we do have a sufficient quantitative and qualitative picture of what happened during the period under review … to suggest that that was indeed the case.”

Abiy claims vindication

The Ethiopian government wasted no time in claiming vindication.

While expressing “serious reservations concerning some aspects of the report,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a statement on Wednesday acknowledged investigators for conducting “professional and credible human rights investigation in very difficult circumstances.”

We are heartened by the fact that the joint investigation dispels some of the insidious and baseless accusations that have been levelled against the Government of Ethiopia.

Abiy claimed the report “clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.” And he pointed out that the report could not confirm “deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.”

“We are heartened by the fact that the joint investigation dispels some of the insidious and baseless accusations that have been levelled against the Government of Ethiopia,” the prime minister said.

Abiy also announced the formation of a “high level inter-ministerial task force” to investigate and possibly prosecute what he called “troubling accounts of violations and abuses that have been committed by some of our troops and regional security forces.” The task force will include the ministers of Justice, Defence, Peace and Social and Women’s Affairs as well as state ministers of Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Finally, Abiy urged foreign governments to reconsider punitive measures predicated on “false news reports” that he said had “greatly undermined our long-standing relations with them.”

Reinforcing the point, Ethiopia’s chief trade negotiator Mamo Mihretu retweeted Abiy’s comments while calling on President Joe Biden to rethink Tuesday’s announcement that he planned to suspend Ethiopia’s duty-free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

“In light of this,” Mamo tweeted, “we regret the decision by the US to remove Ethiopia from AGOA trade benefits effective January 1, 2022.”

Quest for accountability

But Bachelet was not nearly as definitive regarding the genocide claims in her remarks to the media.

We feel that there is a bigger scope of violations of human rights that needs to be investigated.

“In a number of cases, there were disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence,” she said. “The report did not have sufficient evidence to characterise more generally the extent of the nature of the ethnic-based crimes, but they clearly warrant further investigation.”

READ MORE Ethiopia’s Tigray: New frontier for regional interests

“This was a human rights investigation, not a criminal one,” she went on. “As such it doesn’t make findings concerning the criminal responsibility of specific individuals.”

As for Abiy’s claims of vindication on the aid issue, the report “recognises the need for further investigation on alleged violations related to denial of access to humanitarian relief and killings of humanitarian workers.”

Bachelet also questioned Ethiopia’s ability to investigate itself. She said she expects a special session of the UN Human Rights Council to shortly debate next steps.

“We don’t have enough transparency,” she said. “We feel that there is a bigger scope of violations of human rights that needs to be investigated.”

The report argues that a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) “would be an appropriate tool of accountability” if Ethiopia and Eritrea are not willing to hold human rights violators to account (neither is a party to the ICC).

It also states that an ”international, independent investigative mechanism can also be established to collect evidence on the most serious violations committed during the conflict and prepare files for criminal prosecution by either a national or international tribunal.”

We hope that hearing this first-hand account of victims and witnesses will really galvanise all sides and the international community to ensure that the fighting stops.

The report is also expected to inform the Biden administration and Congress as they weigh their next steps. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is currently working on an Ethiopia accountability bill, are expected to meet today at the White House with National Security Council Senior Director for Africa Dana Banks and special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, an informed source told The Africa Report.

Francoise Mianda, the head of the Eastern and Southern Africa section at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters that the report was a call to action.

“We hope that hearing this first-hand account of victims and witnesses will really galvanise all sides and the international community to ensure that the fighting stops,” she said.

“This report should not be viewed as a stumbling block, but rather as a stepping-stone for accountability,” Mianda added. “We’ve heard the voices of victims. It is now urgent to put an end to the suffering and move toward accountability.”

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