The United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia presents its report to the Human Rights Council at a challenging and perilous time for Ethiopia and its people. After a five-month cessation of hostilities, fighting resumed last month between the Federal Government and its allies, and forces backing the TPLF. That fighting appears to be intensifying. Credible sources indicate an escalation in drone attacks employing explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas; the suspension of humanitarian access into Tigray since late August 2022; and reports of involvement by Eritrean forces along the border. Ethiopia’s beleaguered civilian population now finds itself mired, once again, in the intractable and deadly consequences of a war with potential to affect the stability of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. This makes an even more compelling case for an external, independent, and impartial mechanism to address ongoing violations and accountability.
As with all bodies mandated by the Human Rights Council, the Commission has been independent and impartial with no agenda regarding any of the parties to the conflict. We have consistently sought to engage with the Federal Government of Ethiopia, and we were pleased to meet with them and other stakeholders in a visit to Addis Ababa in July of this year. Our meetings were constructive. Yet, despite the Council’s request to all parties to provide the Commission with unhindered access, and the good will expressed during our mission, we deeply regret that the Federal Government did not grant the Commission access to any areas outside of Addis Ababa.
The Commission has conducted a in-depth investigation into three selected incidents and two themes. The incidents examined were the shelling of Mekelle on 28 November 2020 and subsequent attacks on civilians and civilian objects; killings in Kobo and Chenna in late August and early September 2021; and a drone strike on a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit on 7 January 2022. The themes examined were rape and sexual violence and the denial and obstruction of humanitarian access. Following the practices of other investigative mechanisms that were not granted access, it interviewed 185 victims, survivors, witnesses, and other key interlocutors. 104 were women and girls and 81 were men and boys.
The Commission wishes to express respect for and appreciation for the survivors, victims, and witnesses who came forward to provide their testimonies at potential risk to themselves. The Commission also examined additional sources, including satellite imagery, print and audio-visual material, open-source information, and confidential submissions.
Following established practice, the Commission applied a standard of “reasonable grounds to believe” to its factual and legal findings. All of the Commission’s findings met this standard. If information did not meet this standard, we reached no conclusion and in some cases suggested the need for further investigation.
Following this methodology, our report finds reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict have committed serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law since November 2020. We have reasonable grounds to believe that many of these acts amount to war crimes. We also have reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government and its allies have committed crimes against humanity in Tigray region. Some of these crimes are ongoing.
Mr. President, your Excellencies,
We would like to highlight a number of key aspects of our conclusions. First, the report underscores the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray, where the Federal Government and allies have denied some six million people access to basic services, including electricity, internet, telecommunications, and banking for over a year. We have reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government and its allies have looted and destroyed goods indispensable for the survival of the civilian population in Tigray, killing livestock, destroying food stores, and razing crops while also implementing severe restrictions on humanitarian access to Tigray. Based on figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the combined effect of these measures has left 90% of the population in dire need of assistance, representing an 80% increase since the beginning of the conflict. Most of the population in Tigray must now survive on limited and nutritionally inadequate diets. Sources also reported an increase in child marriages and child labour, human trafficking, and transactional sex as desperate means for survival.
We have reasonable grounds to believe that the widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance amounts to the crimes against humanity of persecution and inhumane acts. We also have reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government is committing the war crime of using starvation as a method of warfare. We received information indicating that Tigrayan forces have looted or otherwise misappropriated humanitarian aid.
Secondly, the report finds reasonable grounds to believe that the Ethiopian Air Force committed war crimes, including intentionally directing an attack against civilians, when it struck a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit with an armed drone in January 2022, killing around 60 civilians, including many children.
Mr. President, your Excellencies,
The Ethiopian military’s increasing use of drones to conduct airstrikes over the last year has changed the conflict landscape. In theory, drones should allow for more precise targeting of military objectives; however, our investigation indicates that their use has exposed civilians to new and heightened risks. We have received reports of drone strikes in Tigray in the last four weeks, which have allegedly killed and injured civilians, including children.
Third, we have found reasonable grounds to believe that Tigrayan forces have committed serious human rights abuses, some of which amount to war crimes, including large-scale killings of Amhara civilians, rape and sexual violence, and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property in Kobo and Chenna in August and September 2021. During their searches of homes in Kobo, for example, Tigrayan forces looked for weapons and pulled many men from their homes, executing them, often in front of their families.
Fourth, the Commission also found that rape and crimes of sexual violence have been perpetrated on a staggering scale since the conflict began, with Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and regional militias targeting Tigrayan women and girls with particular violence and brutality. At times, their attackers used dehumanising language that suggested an intent to destroy Tigrayan ethnicity.
Tigrayan forces committed rape and sexual violence against Amhara women and girls and Eritrean refugees. Survivors from all areas face devastating long-term impacts on their physical and mental health, including trauma, unwanted pregnancy, and HIV.
Fifth, we found that the Federal Government committed an indiscriminate attack on civilians when it shelled Mekelle on 28 November 2020. We investigated this incident because the JIT, whose report we were going to build on, did not make a specific legal finding regarding the shelling and because we received additional information regarding the attack. For the next seven months while the ENDF controlled the city, it carried out widespread extrajudicial killings, looting, rapes, and other forms of sexual violence.
With respect to Ethiopian domestic mechanisms, we engaged with the Federal Government’s Inter-Ministerial Task Force and National Dialogue Commission. Our meeting with the task force was constructive, but we were not able to confirm much of the information provided. We recognize that some of the measures they put forth would, if implemented, contribute to transitional justice. The National Dialogue Commission is in the early phases of its work, and as the process becomes more inclusive, we hope that it will contribute to a national dialogue.
Mr. President, your Excellencies,
Our report offers a number of recommendations to the Federal Government, TPLF, government of Eritrea, and other parties to the conflict, which can be summarized as follows.
- First, immediately cease hostilities and violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law; this action will result in the protection of civilians.
- Second, investigate and bring to justice members of their forces who have committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Ethiopia.
- Third, the Federal Government of Ethiopia must ensure full, unfettered and sustained humanitarian access to Tigray.
Mr. President, your Excellencies
Our report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that many of the indicators and triggers contained in the 2014 UN Framework for Analysis of Atrocity Crimes are present in Ethiopia today, including the dissemination of hate speech and politicization of identity. The effect of these sentiments is apparent in the horrific and dehumanising acts of violence committed during the conflict, which seem to go beyond mere intent to kill and, instead, reflect a desire to destroy.
These fears of atrocity crimes make it all the more important that our work is seen as a tool for prevention. Our work thus complements the critical peace process currently led by the African Union, which seeks political, non-military solutions to the conflict in northern Ethiopia. It is our fervent hope that this process will succeed and lead to the restoration of peace, security and full enjoyment of human rights in Ethiopia.