Rights report on Ethiopia suspects war crimes in Tigray conflict
By Robin Gomes
A day after the Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency against fears the advancing forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) are threatening to take the capital, a devastating human rights report on Wednesday pointed to serious abuses in the strife-torn northern region of Tigray.
A joint investigation carried out by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) appointed by the federal government, indicates that all parties to the conflict, have, to varying degrees, committed violations of international human rights, and humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The report, released at a press conference on Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, examines the devastating impact that the Tigrayan conflict has had on civilians. The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) details a series of violations and abuses, including unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence (including gang-rapes), violations against refugees, forced displacement of civilians, attacks on refugees and their camps, and arbitrary arrests on the basis of ethnicity.
The report covers the period from 3 November 2020, when the armed conflict began between the federal government’s Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF), the Amhara Special Forces (ASF), the Amhara Fano and other militias on one side, and the Tigrayan Special Forces (TSF), Tigrayan militia and other allied groups on the other, until 28 June 2021 when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
The JIT visited several locations in Tigray, including the regional capital Mekelle, as well as the national capital Addis Ababa, and conducted 269 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged violations and abuses, and with other sources. Despite several security, operational, and administrative challenges, the team held over 60 meetings with federal and regional officials, representatives of international organizations, NGOs, community-based committees, medical personnel, and other sources. Many of these accounts contain graphic details of rapes and mutilations by Eritrean soldiers.
Need for accountability
Speaking at the release of the report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable on all sides.”
EHRC Chief Commissioner said that the report “presents an opportunity for all parties to acknowledge responsibility and commit to concrete measures on accountability, redress for victims, and the search for a sustainable solution to end the suffering of millions.”
“As the conflict has escalated, with civilians as ever caught in the middle, it is vital that all parties heed the repeated calls to end hostilities and seek a lasting ceasefire,” Bachelet urged.
The conflict has plunged around 400,000 people in Tigray into famine, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 2.5 million people in northern Ethiopia to flee their homes.
Risks of state of emergency
The Ethiopian government on Tuesday declared a six-month state of emergency. It followed a declaration by the forces of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north saying they were gaining territory and were considering capturing the capital Addis Ababa soon. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Monday urged citizens to take up arms to defend themselves against the TPLF. Residents in the capital have been asked to register their arms and prepare to defend their neighbourhoods.
Bachelet expressed deep concern that the state of emergency “risks compounding an already very serious human rights situation in the country.” She said, “Further restrictions on access could also push an already extremely difficult humanitarian situation over the edge.”
“While international law allows certain emergency measures in response to significant threats to the life of the nation,” she said, “strict requirements must be met, and key rights cannot be limited at all.”
Bachelet said that measures such as sweeping powers of arrest and detention will deepen divisions, endanger civil society and human rights defenders, provoke greater conflict and only add to the human suffering already at unacceptable levels.