GENEVA – All sides in Ethiopia’s yearlong war in the Tigray region have committed abuses marked by “extreme brutality” that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, the U.N. human rights chief said Wednesday, noting “the big numbers of violations” are linked to Ethiopian forces and those from neighboring Eritrea.
The conflict that has killed thousands began in November 2020 after a political falling-out between the Tigray forces that long dominated the national government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s current government. Ethnic Tigrayans across the country have reported being targeted with arbitrary detentions, while civilians in Tigray have described gang rapes, human-caused famine and mass expulsions.
The investigation, a rare collaboration by the U.N. human rights office with the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, was hampered by authorities’ intimidation and restrictions, and didn’t visit some of the war’s worst-affected locations.
The U.N. told The Associated Press the collaboration was necessary for its team to gain access to a troubled region that Ethiopian authorities have largely prevented journalists, rights groups and other observers from entering.
The report was released a day before the first anniversary of the start of the war and as Africa’s second most populous country enters a new state of emergency, with rival Tigray forces threatening the capital, Addis Ababa.
The joint investigation covers events up until late June when the Tigray forces regained much of their region, but it failed to visit some of the deadliest sites of the war, including the city of Axum, because of security and other obstacles. Notably, the report said, obstacles included the Ethiopian government’s failure to release satellite phones procured for the investigation — crucial tools as phone and internet service are cut off in Tigray.
In western Tigray, claimed by forces from the neighboring Amhara region, “it was apparent that the Tigrayans had left most of the areas, as it was difficult to find Tigrayans to interview,” the report said.
The investigation breaks little new ground and confirms in general the abuses described by witnesses throughout the war. But it gives little sense of scale, saying only that the more than 1,300 rapes reported to authorities are likely far fewer than the real number.
Despite the report's shortcomings, Abiy's office said in a statement that it “clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.” Ethiopian Human Rights Commission chief Daniel Bekele said the investigation didn't identify violations amounting to genocide.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, acknowledged the investigators didn’t turn up enough evidence to characterize “disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence” as signs of possible genocide, but did say such allegations warranted further investigation.
The prime minister's statement noted “serious reservations” about the report but claimed it laid “sinister allegations to rest." And it acknowledged the need to “redouble our efforts” to hold perpetrators accountable. A high-level task force will be formed, it said.
Among the investigation’s findings: Several Ethiopian military camps were used to torture captured Tigray forces or civilians suspected of supporting them. Others were detained in “secret locations” and military camps across the country, with detentions arbitrary in many cases. Tigray forces detained some ethnic Amhara civilians in western Tigray in the early days of the war on suspicion of supporting the military, and in some cases tortured them.
“The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable,” Bachelet said. Reports of abuses such as summary executions in Tigray continue, she said.
And yet the report gives little sign that Eritrean soldiers were responsible for many of the atrocities, as witnesses have alleged. Until March, Abiy denied they were even in the country.
Bachelet told reporters that while the report doesn't explicitly mention Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were responsible for the majority of the violations, "I would say that the big numbers of violations of human rights are linked to the Ethiopian and Eritrean defense forces.” She denied the probe came under government pressure.
Ethiopia’s government imposed a blockade on Tigray since the Tigray forces regained control in June, cutting off almost all access for commercial goods and humanitarian aid. That followed large-scale looting and destruction of food and crops that “has had a severe socioeconomic impact on the civilian population,” the report says. In addition, some camps for displaced people didn't receive food rations for months.
The investigation, however, “could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” It called for further investigation.
In a separate statement on events since the investigation, Bachelet expressed deep concern over the state of emergency Ethiopia's government imposed Tuesday with “sweeping powers” of detention and military conscription.
She also said her office has received reports of a “highly organized system” of detaining thousands of Tigrayans in western Tigray in recent months that now encompasses “the general civilian population.”
The Tigray forces since June have moved into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, and Bachelet noted an increasing number of allegations of abuses committed by them, including rapes.
The joint investigation, based on more than 260 interviews with victims and witnesses, said it had received no response from Eritrea’s government or Amhara regional officials. Eritrea's information minister tweeted Wednesday that Eritrea rejects the report's credibility.
The Tigray external affairs office in a statement called the participation of the EHRC “an affront to the notion of impartiality" and said the report was “fraught with problems.” The report acknowledged that the presence of EHRC staffers at times inhibited interviews.
The investigation said Ethiopia's government should “consider” setting up a court to ensure accountability, and expressed concern that “investigations conducted by Ethiopian national institutions do not match the scope and breadth of the violations it has identified.”
“We don't have enough transparency,” Bachelet said.
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.