Neither Impartial nor Independent: The Joint UN-EHRC Human Rights Investigation in Tigray

Neither Impartial nor Independent: The Joint UN-EHRC Human Rights Investigation in Tigray

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(sites)–By Chidi Odinkalu, Paulos Tesfagiorgis, Alex de Waal and Delia Burns

In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established a joint investigation into alleged violations of human rights committed during the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia. Controversially, the partner as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The decision has been heavily criticized by Tigrayans and members of the international human rights advocacy community, as the EHRC is a government body and based in Addis Ababa.

Remarkably the Attorney General of Ethiopia was invited to make a presentation at the same session. The rationale for this was not explained. It will do little to assuage concerns that the investigation is not impartial.

This blog post takes the form of annotations to the presentations by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, and the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Mr. Daniel Bekele.


Enhanced interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

48th session of the Human Rights Council

Geneva, 13 September 2021

Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

Madam President,

Excellencies,

I thank you for the opportunity to brief this Council on the grave human rights situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, since my last update in June and based on my Office’s global mandate.

Fighting has continued unabated and has expanded to neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions. Together with other pockets of intercommunal violence[1], the conflict risks spilling over to the whole Horn of Africa.

In the last few months, mass detentions, killings, systematic looting, and sexual violence have continued[2] to create an atmosphere of fear and an erosion of living conditions that resulted in the forced displacement of the Tigrayan civilian population[3] on. Civilian suffering is widespread, and impunity is pervasive.

Even with the changing dynamics in the conflict, there has been one constant: multiple and severe reports of alleged gross violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all parties.[4] 

Excellencies,

In the context of this ongoing human rights crisis, I appreciate the Government of Ethiopia’s cooperation with the OHCHR-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission joint investigation.[5]  I also thank the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, led by the Chief Commissioner, and my Regional Representative in Addis Ababa [6] for their leadership in this difficult and complex undertaking and urge them to continue their efforts.

By way of an update, the first two field deployments went ahead as planned to Mekelle, parts of Eastern Tigray and Southern Tigray. However, due to sudden changes in the security situation and in the conflict dynamics, the team had to shorten its stay in Maikadra, and deployments to East and Central Tigray, including Axum, could not proceed[7] .

The joint report, with its findings and recommendations, is expected to be released on 1 November 2021[8]. It is already clear that cases documented comprise multiple allegations of human rights violations, including[9] attacks on civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances among other grave abuses. Sexual and gender based violence has been characterised by a pattern of extreme brutality, including gang rapes, sexualised torture and ethnically targeted sexual violence[10]. I acknowledge the Government’s express commitment towards accountability for sexual violence and I look forward to hearing about the outcomes of any actions taken.

Excellencies,

From my last update to the Council to date, allegations of human rights violations have continued to implicate Government forces and its allies[11] . We have received disturbing reports that local fishermen found dozens of bodies floating along the river crossing between Western Tigray and Sudan in July. Some allegedly had gunshot wounds and bound hands, indications that they might have been detained and tortured before being killed.

There are continued reports of large-scale arbitrary detentions of ethnic Tigrayan civilians in unofficial sites in Western Tigray. Reports also suggest that people of Tigrayan ethnicity have been profiled and detained by law enforcement officials on ethnic grounds, with hundreds having reportedly been arrested in recent security sweeps, mostly in Addis Ababa, and several businesses belonging to ethnic Tigrayans having reportedly been closed[12] .

Incitement to hatred and discrimination, and rising levels of inflammatory rhetoric [13] were also documented targeting people of Tigrayan ethnicity. History has unmistakably taught us the dangers of this kind of rhetoric. De-escalation measures must urgently be put in place[14] .

Threats and attacks on journalists have also been reported, as well as the suspension of media outlets’ licenses and intermittent restrictions and shutdowns [15] of Internet and telecommunications[16] in Tigray.

Excellencies,

Since gaining control of parts of Tigray and expanding to neighbouring regions[17], reports have also identified Tigrayan forces as perpetrators of human rights abuses.

During the period under review, the Tigrayan forces have allegedly been responsible for attacks on civilians, including indiscriminate killings resulting in nearly 76,500 people displaced in Afar and an estimated 200,000 in Amhara.[18] 

More than 200 individuals have reportedly been killed in the most recent clashes in these regions, and 88 individuals, including children, have been injured. On 5 August, Tigrayan forces allegedly attacked and killed displaced people, mainly women, children, and older people, sheltering in a camp in Galikoma Kebele, in the Afar Region[19].

We have also received serious reports of recruitment of children into the conflict by Tigrayan forces, which is prohibited under international law[20].

Excellencies,

While I remain extremely concerned by the human rights situation in Tigray and neighbouring regions, I have taken note of the Government’s earlier commitment to accountability for human rights violations in Tigray. In my meeting with the Attorney General last June, he informed me about some of the measures the Government was taking[21] , including prosecuting sexual and gender-based violence[22]. I look forward to hearing about the Government’s progress in this regard, emphasizing the need for transparency in any such proceedings, as an important part of redress for victims. I also urge the Government of Ethiopia to accept the recommendations of the joint investigation report as part of its efforts to bring about accountability.

International, regional and national human rights and humanitarian actors must be given unhindered access[23].

I also reiterate my call to the Eritrean Government to ensure accountability for alleged widespread human rights violations by their forces in the Tigray region[24].

Beyond Tigray, further efforts are required to put an end to deadly intercommunal violence. And the response cannot be a military one.

I reiterate what I told the Council last June: grievances must be addressed through meaningful peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts to avoid the risk that Ethiopia will be torn apart, with profound implications for the country and the rest of the Horn of Africa.

The solution to the conflict in Tigray can only be found through a political process and dialogue. I commend the African Union’s mediation efforts in this regard[25]. I call on all parties to immediately end hostilities without preconditions and negotiate a lasting ceasefire.

Looking ahead, a sustainable peace will only come through accountability, a genuine inclusive dialogue and a national reconciliation process.

More substantive efforts must be undertaken by all sides to renew the social contract between the Government and its people. Only once this is in place will Ethiopians be able to fully enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Thank you.

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