The UN human rights chief said on Wednesday that Ethiopia’s years of war have been marked by “extreme brutality” as a joint inquiry into alleged atrocities blamed all sides for the abuses but avoided saying who was most guilty.
The investigation was hampered by the authorities’ threats and restrictions and did not visit any of the war’s worst affected places.
The report, a rare collaboration by the UN Office for Human Rights with the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, was released a day before the war’s one-year mark and when Africa’s second most populous country enters a new state of emergency with rival Tigray forces threatening the capital.
The UN told The Associated Press (AP) that the cooperation was necessary for their team to gain access to a troubled region that Ethiopian authorities have largely prevented journalists, rights groups and other outside observers from entering. The conflict that erupted in Ethiopia Tigray region has killed thousands of people since the government of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed allowed soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to invade Tigray and join forces with Ethiopian forces in the fight against the Tigray forces that long dominated the national government before. Abiy took office.
Ethnic Tigrayans across the country have since reported being subjected to arbitrary detention, while Tigray civilians have described gang rapes, starvation and mass deportations.
“In western Tigray, it was obvious that the Tigrayans had left most areas, as it was difficult to find Tigrayans to interview,” the new report says.
The joint investigation covers events until the end of June when the Tigray forces recaptured much of their region, but it failed to visit some of the war’s deadliest sites, including the city of Axum, due to security and other obstacles. Notably, the report says, these obstacles included the Ethiopian government’s failure to release satellite phones purchased for the investigation.
The inquiry says all sides, including forces from the nearby Amhara region that has claimed western Tigray, have committed atrocities, which could amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. It breaks some new ground and generally confirms the abuses that witnesses described throughout the war. But it gives little sense of scale, and only says that the more than 1,300 rapes reported to the authorities are likely to be much less than the actual number.
Among the results of the investigation: Several Ethiopian military camps were used to torture captured Tigray forces or civilians suspected of supporting them. Others were imprisoned in “secret places” and military camps across the country, with arbitrary detentions in many cases. Tigray forces captured some ethnic Amhara civilians in western Tigray during the early days of the war, suspected of supporting the military, and in some cases tortured them.
“The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The seriousness and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold the perpetrators accountable on all sides,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report gives little indication that Eritrean soldiers were responsible for many of the atrocities, as witnesses have claimed from the earliest days of the war.
Until March, Ethiopia’s prime minister denied that they were even in the country.
“Some of the absolute worst violations were committed by Eritrean defense forces,” Jeffrey Feltman, the envoy to the United States of Africa, said on Tuesday. The Ethiopian government has imposed a blockade on Tigray since Tigray forces regained control in June, blocking almost all access to commercial goods and humanitarian aid. It followed large-scale looting and destruction of food and crops across the region that “has had a serious socio-economic impact on the civilian population,” the report said.
In addition, some camps for displaced people who fled the war did not receive food rations for months. And yet the joint inquiry “could not confirm the deliberate or deliberate denial of humanitarian aid to the civilian population of Tigray or the use of famine as a weapon of war.” It required further investigation.
The new report, based on more than 260 interviews with victims and witnesses, said it had not received a response from the Eritrean government or Amara’s regional officials, and Tigray forces expressed opposition to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s intervention.
The report acknowledged that the presence of EHRC staff sometimes hampered interviews. The inquiry says that the Ethiopian government should “consider” setting up a court to ensure accountability and that the international community should “support” the government in restoring stability. The Ethiopian government has said it will seek accountability to the perpetrators, but the new report expresses concern that “investigations conducted by Ethiopian national institutions do not match the scale and breadth of the violations it has identified.”