Viewpoint

Justice will not be served by a joint Ethiopian-UN inquiry into Tigray atrocities

UN human rights investigators should not work with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state-funded institution that lacks political independence.

On 3 November, a military conflict erupted between the Ethiopian federal government and the regional government of Tigray. On 28 November, almost three weeks after the start of the conflict, the federal government announced the conclusion of the war, after it controlled the capital city of the region, Mekele. Despite this, fighting continues. 

Tigray is currently affected by a major humanitarian crisis. More than four million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, over two million have been displaced inside the region, and over 65,000 people have fled to refugee camps in Sudan. 

Although international humanitarian organizations have been granted better humanitarian access to assist victims, there are still a lot of people who need relief. Despite the government disclosing an exaggerated number of aid beneficiaries, many rural areas of Tigray are still without much humanitarian aid

On top of this, credible reports coming from victims, international human rights institutions, the media, and Tigray-based political parties have indicated that serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law have been committed. 

Eritrean forces have engaged in large-scale looting, mass massacres, rampant sexual violence, and crimes against humanity. Amhara forces have also perpetrated ethnic cleansing in the Southern and Western and North-Western zones of Tigray. 

Some 700,000 people have escaped to Central and Eastern Tigray from the west, which is currently controlled by Amhara militias and special forces. Furthermore, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) appear to have used collective rape as an instrument of war.

Human rights organizations, human rights defenders, and activists from Tigray have called for an independent investigation following the perpetrated crimes. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also emphasized the importance of an independent investigation.

The Ethiopian government rejected any form of independent inquiry, on the pretext of sovereignty, for several months. However, following Amnesty International’s report on the Aksum massacre, it began to step back from its initial position and called for a joint investigation

Consequently, OHCHR accepted and announced that it was prepared to carry out a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

However, there are various reasons that make EHRC’s participation in the investigation counter-productive in exposing the truth and bringing about justice and reconciliation. 

EHRC’s structure  

From a structural point of view, although a legally “autonomous” federal institution, the EHRC is part of the government. Its existence depends on state funding and its commissioners are appointed by parliament. Accordingly, there are few reasons to assume that it would be impartial when conducting investigations into suspected serious violations of international criminal law by state actors. 

From a legal standpoint, the EHRC reports to the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The parliament is meant to represent all the people of the federation. However, currently, the people of Tigray are not represented in the parliament. It is concerning that the commission is reporting to parliament about crimes committed predominantly against members of a particular ethnic group without that group having any political representation in the parliament. 

Bias

Since the early days of the Tigray war, the commission has issued three preliminary reports, and all of them have been harshly criticized for good reasons.

In the first report on the Mai Kadra massacre two weeks after the incident occurred, the commission blamed TPLF and Samri, a youth group allegedly affiliated with the TPLF, for attacking ethnic Amharas. EHRC could have deployed a team of investigators to uncover the truth and investigate in depth over several weeks. But, instead, it came out with a one-sided preliminary report that presents ethnic Amharas as the sole victims. The report, therefore, completely disregarded alternative accounts of Tigrayans who fled to other parts of Tigray and neighboring Sudan. 

In a subsequent interview, the Chief Commissioner of EHRC, Daniel Bekele, has, without any investigation, yet with certainty, accused some refugees of being perpetrators of the Mai Kadra massacre, and said there is a need to be cautious about their testimonies. The Chief Commissioner’s accusatory statement is consistent with what the Prime Minister said to the parliament. Daniel didn’t stop there but went on to further downplay the grave human rights violations taking place in Tigray.  

Furthermore, the commission that reported the preliminary investigation on the Mai Kadra incident a fortnight after the incident failed to conduct a prompt preliminary investigation into the atrocities committed in various parts of Tigray such as Dengelat, Bora, and Debre Abay. Its preliminary report on the Aksum massacre did not come until four months after the incident.

Accordingly, this long and disappointing silence on these tragic events has put its credibility and independence into question.

A review of the content of the preliminary reports conducted by EHRC on the Tigray war also reveals serious inconsistencies and prejudices with regard to indicating accountability. In its controversial Mai Kadra report, the commission concluded authoritatively that Tigrayan elements were solely responsible for the massacre. However, it did not unequivocally place responsibility on the Ethiopian government for atrocities committed by members of ENDF in other reports. 

Furthermore, despite the fact that the commission published findings of 108 rape cases in Ayder and Adigrat hospitals in Mekelle, it has not specified responsibility. But, the victims, the media, independent human rights institutions, and the interim administration officials of Tigray have given testimonies accusing Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces. 

This pattern of bias says a lot about the overall independence and integrity of the institution.

Lack of trust 

If we are to have an independent, credible investigation, it has to be victim-focused. That is, survivors’ and victims’ testimonies have to be at the heart of the investigations. However, it appears that Daniel’s EHRC is not fully trusted by Tigrayan victims. That is why the announcement of a joint investigation was met with fierce opposition from Tigrayans.

Ethnicity also plays a role in this mistrust as many Tigrayans feel that the EHRC has a bias against Tigrayans. EHRC’s one-sided Mai Kadra report has intensified this concern and created, among Tigrayans, the perception that EHRC is a pro-Amhara organization that cannot be trusted.

Accordingly, an investigation that involves EHRC might be tantamount to sidelining victims and survivors—the very group of people that should be at the heart of the investigations.

Institutional Capacity 

EHRC’s organizational reform is still underway and it has not yet demonstrated its institutional capability. Indeed, its record with regards to human rights inquiries over the last three years has been unremarkable. Ethnic conflicts and massacres in different parts of Ethiopia such as Guji, Gedeo, Konso, Shashemene, and Metekel were not investigated promptly and in-depth. 

The process of conducting investigations into grave atrocities such as the one in Tigray is a complex task that requires first-rate institutional capacity. 

There is a process of collection and verification of information, thorough registration of events, and preparation of documentary evidence for further investigation or prosecution. The process also includes recommending actions to correct breaches, provide justice and redress to victims, and hold perpetrators accountable.

However, on top of the challenge of bias and integrity, the EHRC does not have the capacity or experience to conduct such a wide-ranging, sensitive, and intricate investigation. 

Related to this, it is worth noting that the UN’s decision to conduct a joint investigation with the EHRC is unusual. The UN has never allowed national human rights institutions, like the EHRC, to jointly investigate allegations of serious international crimes, including ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Accordingly, although an independent investigation is critical, it should be noted that a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an organization that is effectively part of the government, wouldn’t bring about justice and reconciliation. Indeed, this flies in the face of the principles of justice, independence, and fairness. 

Therefore, the OHCHR should review its decision and launch a genuinely independent investigation that victims, survivors, and the broader Tegaru community could trust.  

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Palais Wilson, headquarters of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Geneva, Switzerland; August 2010; UN

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About the author

Getachew Gebrekiros Temare

Getachew has a law degree and is a graduate student of conflict resolution. He is a human-rights defender and is active on the rights of disabled people.

8 Comments

  • From

    GETACHEW REDA (Ethiopian Semay)

    Dear Getachew Gebrekiros;

    It made me wonder how many Tigrayans were really worried about “human atrocity” carried for the last over 44 years in territories taken by force from the Amhara “kilil” incorporated to Tigray. Though, I have no problem with your current concern, I just want to ask you as a trained lawyer, have you ever mentioned any concern of atrocity done by TPLF and is puppet machineries placed in those disputed areas of Welkayit and its surrounding other disputed places during the TPLF hegemony and TPLF era of governance? I have never heard a single Tigrayan (perhaps one? I have no idea!) showed concern on the genocide, the atrocity, the humiliation, the looting, the repression carried against Amhara in those places before this current war. Have you?

  • Excellent. This is one of the struggle methodology apary from facebook.
    In my opinion it is better to incorporate in your research the idea is DENIAL. As you know the EHRC had already announced that the mass killing of Maikadra was not conducted by Amhara militants. In addition to denials it also labeled and taged on tigray. Before months,The EHRC had already concluded its report that the Maikadra massacred was conducted by Tigrian group called Samri.
    In addition I preffered to incorporate about the EHRC is not not only an indipendent to Tigray but also other regions of Ethiopia. Because this paper has also maintained its independency to third party stakeholders.
    Thank you

  • I agree. As i stated many times in my comments here, Ethiopia human right commision is a partial body under the full control of its creator – Abiy. Basic logic proves that truth & false = false. No exception for this.

    UN should invistigate what happened in Tigre region by itself; that is if any meaning full result is the objective.

    Reply

    • I have read it in detail and want to say you thank you for your great Analysis .

      I advice evey body to read it and get the realty what is going on in Tigray.

      Once again thank you !!!

  • EHRC is obviously being used as an agency to deflect and diminish responsibility. Mai Kadra and all the other atrocities committed, the truth can only be determined if the US and the EU choose to use their influence for a full invesigation of all the atrocities they have described as crimes against humanity.

  • In the past 5 months, both, the Ethiopian government and the EHRC have demonstrated their inability and unwillingness to pursue a meaningful path towards accountability for serious human rights violations in Tigray, Oromia, Benishangul and other parts of Ethiopia unless the victims are from Amhara ethnic group. On multiple occasions EHRC is demonstrated to be not a credible partner to conduct an investigation into mass atrocity and crimes perpetrated in Tigray (check https://twitter.com/TsenatSaba/status/1371620414263296007) . It fails in the criterions of independence, integrity, impartiality, thoroughness, promptness, transparency, and effectiveness.

    In addition to that, Commissioner Daniel Bekele shows his sophistication of atrocity cover-up by admitting report on an atrocity only when it is no longer feasible to hide it such as in the case of Axum massacre. He used his years of experience in Human rights watch in a very negative way. When EHRC reports on atrocities it can no longer hide, it portray the violence as retaliation, and thereby create the perception that this a conflict between equals rather than government against civilians as is shown in his recent interview with Dawit Kebede of Awrambatimes regarding the MaiKadra massacre and in how the EHRC report tried to justify the unjustifiable Axum massacre as a retaliation to militia resistance. In all the reports of EHRC under Daniel Bekelle so far, under no circumstance is blame attributed to the Federal government rather is conveniently pushed to Eritrea, TDF, OLA etc. EHRC so far has also focused on damage control and tries to appear independent by adopting a critical stance, but only on the least sensitive issues.

    This pattern of concealing human right violations is perpetuated and encouraged by the consistent influence of the Ethiopian government in trying to use the EHRC as an institutional tool to downplay or cover war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    What’s more, Amnesty International has reported that “EHRC reports didn’t comply with internationally recognized standards of methodology and impartiality and has yet to clarify how its work could facilitate viable mechanisms of accountability.”

    If UNHuman rights and Michelle Bachelet decide to work with EHRC, they will only be discrediting themselves. As “Trust is built & maintained by many small actions over time” and EHRC has maintained its Untrustworthiness by many not so small actions over time!! My simple advice to UNHuman rights and Michelle Bachelet is that “Reputation is easier kept than recovered” and don’t loose your reputation over this!!

    Because this will be a futile effort. Any investigation, that hasn’t gained the trust of the victims will not go anywhere. The people and government of Tigray have clearly spoken against involvement of EHRC in investigations. And if the victims say no, there will be no investigation!! UNHuman rights and Michelle Bachelet will only be loosing their reputation for nothing.

  • Thank you Getachew for the nice piece you have contributed. It has indeed uncovered who Ethiopian human right commission is and its record in the last years of Ethiopia’ dismay. The commission had clearly demonstrated its partisanship to the ruling party in Ethiopia in many instances as Getachew has listed them pretty well. One thing to add is its commissioner is a hand picked by the PM and finally approved by the patliament.Therefore, no soul would expect the commissioner dare to make his master accountable.Despite this fact few people argue the independence of this commission merely Dr Daniel had worked for international human right watch dogs. No, though individual capability of leaders contribute for a successful delivery of an institution , the situation in Ethiopia is totally differrent. Let alone a gov’t funded institution, civic/civil instititions including the religious institutions are univocally amplifying what the ruling clique desires to be disseminated. In short, Ethiopia nowadays is under a one-man rule.

  • Thank You, for the well articulated message Dear Getachew. I completely agree that EHRC can not conduct any independent investigation in Tigray.
    EHRC should rather in of itself be investigated for:

    • its role in echoing dehumanizing narratives that created an environment permissive to atrocities of the caliber unleashed on Tigrayans.
    • Its reporting’s and misreporting’s where it justifies occupation of Western and Southern Tigray and where it denied and downplayed the indiscriminate shelling of Humera, Shire, Adigrat, Axum and other cities in Tigray.
    • engaging in performative gestures towards the fulfillment of its organizational mission by issuing reports conveniently timed to relieve international pressure from the Federal Government.
    • continuously attempting to diminish atrocities committed against the people of Tigray by presenting them as not having been as devastating and as pervasive as they initially feared.
    • repeatedly engaging in attempts to deny or otherwise diminish the scale of crimes by discrediting the testimonies of refugees from Tigray.
    • making statements insinuating Eritrean refugees, who were previously, safely housed in Tigray, were consensually repatriated to Eritrea — no evidence was provided as to what changes could have induced refugees to return to a state from whose repression they sought refuge in the first instance.

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