UN report warns about crimes against humanity in Ethiopia

 Togoga

People who were injured in their town Togoga in a deadly airstrike on a market, wait on a bench for medical treatments at Mekelle General Hospital in Mekele, on June 24, 2021.

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

Africa and the world are staring at serious crimes against humanity in the Tigray region of  Ethiopia, UN investigators, local and regional observers have warned.

The groups say the Ethiopia National Defence Forces (ENDF), Eritrea Defence Forces (EDF) and allied militias on one side and the Tigrayan forces have separately committed atrocities against civilians that violate international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law populations, with Tigrayans bearing the brunt of the attacks.

A report from the United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia released at the UN General Assembly on Thursday reveals that rights violations have been committed since fighting erupted in Tigray in November 2020.

“The report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations, such as extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence, and starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare have been committed in Ethiopia since 3 November 2020,” the report says.

“The Commission finds reasonable grounds to believe that, in several instances, these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The continued blockade of the Tigray region by the ENDF that has blocked access to essential services such as food, healthcare, telephone, banking and restricted humanitarian assistance, and the shelling of farmlands have left more than 20 million people in need of assistance and protection, the investigators said.

The UN commission was convinced that the blockade was deliberate, and that the denial of food and healthcare to the Tigray population violates the prohibition against the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, as well as the obligation of each party to a conflict to allow and facilitate the delivery of impartial humanitarian relief.

UN chairperson of Ethiopia Commission Betty Murungi describes the humanitarian crisis in Tigray as “shocking, both in terms of scale and duration”.

“The widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance is having a devastating impact on the civilian population, and we have reasonable grounds to believe it amounts to a crime against humanity,” she said.

In an attempt to uncover what is going on in Tigray, a region closed to local and international media since the war started, Nation.Africa on Thursday hosted a Twitter Space discussion with researchers, human rights activists, the media, and security experts on the challenges facing Ethiopia.

Since the war resumed on August 24 after five months of a humanitarian truce, most of the speakers concurred that the world does not know the exact suffering of the people of Tigray.

“What the world is listening to is basically from the government side, which exposes only what it believes favours them. Not much is known about the war in Tigray,’ said Basha Desta, a Tigrayan human rights activist.

Local militias

“For two years, the people have experienced intense war waged against them by the federal government, the Eritrean army, and the local militias from Amhara. The Tigray people are fighting to defend themselves and their survival, which they are entitled to.”

The federal government under Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy initially allowed international journalists into Tigray, only to kick them out after they exposed widespread human rights violations, said According to Meaza Gebremedhin, an independent human rights researcher and advocate.

“The government has intimidated both local and international media by insisting that the Tigray region is a war zone and they could not guarantee their safety. What we are seeing is an intended genocide, where Eritrean has joined hands with the federal government in an effort to exterminate the people of Tigray.”

She added: “They now want to invade all parts of Tigray and are using drones to attack even hospitals and kindergartens on top of the hate speech that is being spread around against the people of Tigray including national television stations.”

She argued that the government used the five-month humanitarian truce to regroup.

While those from Tigray, such as Mr Desta, insist that the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is a political party that has no military capabilities, those supporting the federal government argued that TPLF is a criminal organisation that triggered the war by attacking the ENDF in the northern command on November 4, 2020.

“Calling TPLF a criminal and vile organisation does not amount to hate speech, because TPLF is not the people of Tigray, who are our sisters and brothers,” said MIMI, an Ethiopian national.

Eritrea re-entered the war after allegedly withdrawing last year but experts say its forces never actually left the Tigray region.

There are questions about the real interests of Asmara in the Ethiopian civil war. Some analysts believe Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is taking advantage of the situation to take revenge against his arch-enemy, the TPLF, which frustrated him during the two-year war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000 over the border town of Badme.

When Dr Abiy made peace with Eritrea after coming to power in 2018, many of the Tigrayans saw this as an ominous sign, said William Davidson, a senior researcher on Ethiopia for the International Crisis Group.

“President Afwerki saw this as a good opportunity to [take] revenge against TPLF. What we are seeing is that Tigray nationalism cannot coexist with Eritrean nationalism. Many in Tigray see Eritrea as the real threat and the power behind Dr Abiy,” he said.

The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia only serves to complicate matters and to inflame an already tragic situation, Mike Hammer, the US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa told a digital media briefing on September 20.

Despite the release of the UN commission report, Mr Davidson said, the Ethiopian government is highly resistant to any investigation or judicial process, given that the government has been implementing a siege regime and using starvation as a weapon.

“There will be no form of cooperation, even if the government said they had said they will cooperate with independent investigations,” he said.

“We are seeing lip service to the concept of accountability, which also extends to the Tigray regional administration, which has also been accused by the commission of committing atrocities. The only hope is if the UN agency comes back with the intention to bring the culprits to book.”

Dr Abiy has set up an inter-ministerial task force to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity.

He has also established a National Dialogue Commission to resolve the “difference of opinions and disagreements among various political and opinion leaders, and also segments of society in Ethiopia on the most fundamental national issues … through broad-based inclusive public dialogue that engenders national consensus”.

However, UN investigators and speakers in the Nation Twitter Space forum concurred that the steps taken by the Addis Ababa administration appear to be mere “PR exercises”, with the UN team punching holes in their composition and the execution of their mandates.

On the inter-ministerial commission, the investigators said: “The Commission was not able to corroborate the number of interviews, prosecutions, trials, and convictions; nor that the redress measures regarding victims are under way.

“The draft new transitional justice policy, while a potentially important initiative, is not public nor was it shared with the Commission. The Commission was also unable to confirm that the training of investigators or military personnel is in progress”.

The transitional justice process, which should be transparent and open to the public is opaque, the team found.

It its report, the Commission said: “The IMTF did not include critical information regarding transparency in the presentation of its work, such as information about the ethnicities and genders of interviewees or convicted persons; the methods by which it obtains preliminary information about events in Tigray; and how it is obtaining information from victims and witnesses who have left the country”.

Dr Muliro Nasongo, who lectures on international relations and security at Technical University of Kenya, said the continued conflict in Ethiopia bodes ill for the stability of the Horn of Africa.

He noted that Ethiopia is not just any other African country as it hosts the headquarters of both regional and continental bodies, including the African Union.

If Ethiopia disintegrates into small states, he said, it would have a domino effect on countries that are federal states such as Somalia.

Secondly, it could exacerbate the problem of refugees in the region and see a rise in transnational crimes such as money laundering, and human and drug trafficking that feeds into terrorism.

“There had been hopes that stability in Ethiopia and Kenya would consolidate Somalia and South Sudan because Khartoum is already fragile. Instability in Ethiopia will contribute to violent extremism that contributes to terrorism,” he said.

Dr Nasongo’s main concern is that the region should address the issue of the regional interests of global powers scrambling for resources in Africa, given that Ethiopia is one of the epicentres in the scramble.

He says the US, China and countries in the Middle East have a hand in what is going on in Ethiopia.

“While we might handle Ethiopia with kids' gloves because it is a major ally in the war against terrorism, there is the challenge which most African countries suffer from, because to the global players, the state and the stability of the country are more important than anything else, so other aspects such as human rights abuses might be neglected,” Dr Nasongo said.

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