Ethiopia: UN Commission is a Victory for the Cause of Justice and Accountability

By Getachew Reda

Posted on December 21, 2021 09:58

Cows walk past a tank damaged in fighting between Ethiopian government and Tigray forces, near the town of Humera
Cows walk past a tank damaged in fighting between Ethiopian government and Tigray forces, near the town of Humera, Ethiopia, March 3, 2021. Picture taken March 3, 2021. To match Special Report ETHIOPIA-CONFLICT/EXPULSIONS REUTERS/Baz Ratner – RC2M3M9F0XEP

The resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council establishing an International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia on 17 December will go a long way towards securing justice for the victims of the genocidal war on Tigray by holding the perpetrators accountable.

It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. Nevertheless, in this particular case, the adage “better late than never” more aptly captures the significance of this resolution.

The Government of Tigray has persistently called for the international community to take its responsibility seriously and punish those that have unleashed devastating cruelties on the people of Tigray, violating the core tenets of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

This momentous decision, which represents a critical milestone in the year-long quest for justice and accountability, is consistent with repeated calls by the international community for an independent investigation into any and all atrocities committed since the commencement of the genocidal war on Tigray, to be conducted by an impartial international entity. It is to be recalled that the Government of Tigray has also repeatedly called for such a process. It is, thus, no surprise that the Government of Tigray has accepted the resolution.

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The latest resolution is a critical step in a genuine effort to ensure justice for the numerous victims of the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries as well as allied Amhara forces in Tigray and other victims elsewhere. In this regard, the people and Government of Tigray are appreciative of the European Union’s principled, humane and morally informed position on the genocidal war on Tigray. In particular, we are grateful for the EU’s consistent calls for an independent investigation into all atrocities and following up on that by asking for the convening of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Ethiopia.

Tigrayans are grateful to member states, which voted “yes” on the resolution and even those that abstained for not impeding the passage of the resolution. At the same time, it is notable that a disturbing number of countries appear to have been outright opposed to the quest for justice for the people of Tigray and other victims and holding perpetrators accountable, as evidenced by their emphatic “no” vote on the resolution. All the same, the resolution garnered a critical mass of support from nations that take their moral and legal obligations seriously.

Those that objected to the resolution couched their objection in terms of its inconsistency with the principle of state sovereignty. In reality, the invocation of sovereignty cannot serve as an all-purpose defense against external scrutiny of a state’s actions within its domestic jurisdiction.

This rigid interpretation of sovereignty is radically at odds with normative shifts that have taken place in the international system over the past 3 decades, particularly with regards to the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P). When a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens, or, worse, when the state itself is knee-deep in the violations of internationally recognized human rights, the international community has a duty to intervene and bring perpetrators to justice. Sovereignty is responsibility, not a prescription for evading accountability. A state that deliberately represses its own citizens has forfeited the right to use sovereignty as a shield against external scrutiny of its actions.

It has been a little over a year since the Abiy Ahmed regime, in collaboration with Amhara regional forces and the Eritrean military, launched a genocidal war on Tigray. It is a well-documented fact of the war on Tigray that these forces have committed unspeakable atrocities against Tigray and its people. They have systematically raped women and girls, plundered Tigray’s wealth, destroyed socio-economic institutions, murdered innocent civilians, used hunger as a weapon of war, and vandalized service-providing infrastructures.

In fact, the US State Department had in no uncertain terms called what these invading and occupying forces have been doing in Western Tigray a clear act of ethnic cleansing for they have systematically killed, maimed and displaced hundreds of thousands of innocent Tigrayans. This abominable ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans has gotten worse since the State Department’s declaration months ago.

These horrific crimes are now being eclipsed by a different tool of mass murder: the weaponization of starvation—a war crime under international law. Millions of people in Tigray have been condemned to live without electricity, fuel, telecommunications, banking services, ground and air transport, and dwindling supplies of basic commodities.

Families across Tigray in emergency desperately trying to take their loved ones to the hospital cannot because ambulance services have been drastically cut as the vast majority of ambulances were looted and destroyed and because severe fuel shortage has forced emergency service providers to scale back their services, and, in some cases, discontinued services altogether. Families cannot make an emergency phone call due to a total telecommunications blackout.

To many people around the world, these horrific conditions may represent life in an imaginary dystopia. To millions of Tigrayans, there is nothing imagined about this wretched, dehumanized existence for it is their daily life under the total blockade erected by the genocidal regime of Abiy Ahmed. Indeed, it has been nearly six months since the imposition of a total blockade on Tigray.

Following the routing of the Ethiopian military in late June, the regime hastily left most parts of Tigray, including Mekelle. Since then, it has churned out a prepackaged narrative to ‘explain’ away the Ethiopian military’s sudden departure from most parts of Tigray. At the heart of this self-serving narrative is the presentation of its hasty departure as an act of mercy—a humanitarian gesture to facilitate farming and give the people of Tigray much-needed respite from the sound of gunfire.

That manufactured narrative, designed to hide its humiliating defeat, was targeted at its gullible supporters, who continue to be fed a constant diet of lies and to whom the truth would be a hard pill to swallow. This fable is also belied by the regime’s inhumane blockade on Tigray, which clearly flies in the face of its incessant claims about a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire.

A principal component of the Abiy regime’s genocidal blueprint, this devastating siege on Tigray is designed to starve the people of Tigray into submission—an outcome that has eluded the genocidal forces on the battlefield. Millions are at risk of man-made famine. Thousands of Tigrayans have been exposed to otherwise preventable deaths due to the scarcity of critical medical supplies. Hundreds have died of hunger, while thousands are likely dying of hunger without the world and even their own government being aware of it, since the consequences of Abiy’s siege—telecommunications blackout, lack of cash, and severe fuel shortage—have made it virtually impossible to accomplish such simple tasks as providing and receiving timely reports.

Thus far, the international community’s response to the aforementioned atrocities has not gone farther than strongly worded statements of concern, thereby emboldening the genocidal actors to ratchet up their depravities against the people of Tigray. A regime that has deliberately placed a deadly chokehold on its own citizens cannot be swayed by strongly-worded statements of concern alone.

As innocent Tigrayans perish due to hunger and easily treatable diseases, and as the regime’s genocidal project comes into sharper focus—exemplified by its indiscriminate aerial assaults on Tigrayan cities and town targeting civilians and civilian installations—the international community continues to deploy euphemistic language, such as “famine-like” conditions to refer to the presence of widespread, man-made famine across Tigray, even as high-level UN officials refer to the crisis as “a stain on our conscience.”

The international community’s failure to live up to its pledge of ‘Never Again’ has meant that the people of Tigray remain subject to unimaginably cruel atrocities. The latest decision to initiate an independent investigation into all atrocities in Tigray and elsewhere is a welcome corrective to the miscarriage of justice up to this point.

Since October 18, the genocidal regime has ratcheted up its aerial bombardment of cities and towns across Tigray, including Mekelle, far from the frontlines. These indiscriminate aerial assaults have killed hundreds of people, and wounded several people. On December 16, the criminal regime once again used its fleet of drones and jets to bombard an open-air marketplace in Alamata town in the Southern Zone of Tigray, killing 28 people and wounding 78 others. On December 17 and 18, the criminal regime was back again terrorizing civilians.

The total number of those killed now stands at more than 50. The total number of fatalities is expected to rise owing to the lack of life-saving medications. The regime, as part of its devastating siege on Tigray, has persistently denied the entry of medical supplies, among a number of other things. A predictable outcome of this cruelty is that even people that sustain normally non-life-threatening injuries are at an elevated risk of dying.

The international response to Abiy’s aerial assaults on civilians has not fared better than its response to the use of hunger as a tool of war. Indeed, a number of countries, such as the UAE and China have provided the regime with lethal weapons, including drones that are being used to terrorize civilians. External powers, such as China have also moved heaven and earth to shield the criminal regime from accountability on various international forums, ignoring their legal and moral obligations to protect civilians by not being complicit in the commission of genocide.

The regime’s repeated aerial assaults on civilians exemplify its pathological contempt for basic rules and norms governing the conduct of states. Allowing such governments to flaunt international law with impunity would set a dangerous precedent that would incrementally but surely lead to the unraveling of the architecture of global governance.

In spite of staunch efforts by a cabal of authoritarian regimes to shield Abiy Ahmed from accountability, this time a group of democratic nations in the UN Human Rights Council prevailed, paying the way for the passage of a resolution establishing an international commission to conduct independent investigations.

True to form, the criminal Abiy regime objects not only to the resolution itself but also to the very idea that a concerned community of nations can scrutinize a state’s actions so long as the defense of those actions is cloaked in the language of sovereignty. The Abiy regime had, of course, agreed to an “independent” investigation conducted jointly by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The involvement of the EHRC enabled the regime to steer the investigation in its preferred direction and escape accountability.

The criminal regime opposes the latest resolution by the UN Human Rights Council not because justice has already been served or that the facts on the ground have appreciably changed. Rather, its objection to the resolution can be explained in terms of its reasonable assumption that it won’t be able to influence and interfere with the investigative process and, if need be, tamper with the final report, as it did with the joint report of the EHRC/OHCHR.

The EHRC’s involvement in the joint investigation team (JIT) had seriously undermined the integrity of the investigative process and the credibility of the findings. Indeed, the EHRC’s parroting of the Abiy regime’s prepackaged talking points confirmed the peril of involving a state-appointed entity in the investigation of crimes allegedly committed by the appointing state.

The only legitimate mechanism for getting to the bottom of atrocities committed over the course of the genocidal war on Tigray has always been the creation a genuinely independent international entity that would conduct independent investigations with the utmost integrity. In fact, we had asked the OHCHR and the UN human Rights Council to convene a special session on the genocidal war on Tigray and establish a fully mandated independent and impartial Commission of Inquiry (COI) into all systematic human rights violations committed during the genocidal war on Tigray. The people of Tigray are grateful to the EU—a club of liberal-democracies—for calling for the convening of such a session.

In that spirit, the Government of Tigray will fully cooperate with the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia as it undertakes its independent investigation. The Government of Tigray will also ensure the security and personal safety of members of the investigative team while they conduct on-site investigations in Tigray.

Despite the long delay, the creation of an independent panel of experts to conduct investigations into all atrocities committed in Tigray and elsewhere is a victory for the cause of justice and accountability. Tigrayans across all walks of life are ready and willing to extend a cooperative hand to these experts as they work towards delivering a measure of justice for the countless victims of the genocidal atrocities unleashed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries as well as allied Amhara forces.

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