'Troubled region': UN report emphasizes horrors of Ethiopia's war

Ethiopia’s yearlong war has seen alleged atrocities from all combatants, says a U.N. report. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the investigation revealed “disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence.”

Ben Curtis/AP
Tigrayan women roast coffee beans in a classroom at the Hadnet General Secondary School in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 5, 2021. The school has become a makeshift home to thousands displaced by the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict.

The U.N. human rights chief said Wednesday that Ethiopia’s yearlong war has been marked by “extreme brutality” as a joint investigation into alleged atrocities faulted all sides for committing abuses, and “the big numbers of violations” are linked to Ethiopian forces and those from neighboring Eritrea.

The investigation was hampered by authorities’ intimidation and restrictions and didn’t visit some of the war’s worst-affected locations.

It said all combatants have committed abuses which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The report, a rare collaboration by the U.N. human rights office with the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), was released a day before the war’s one-year mark and as Africa’s second most populous country enters a new state of emergency with rival Tigray forces threatening the capital.

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 conflict that erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has killed thousands of people since the government of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed allowed soldiers from Eritrea to invade Tigray and join Ethiopian forces in fighting the Tigray forces who long dominated the national government before Mr. Abiy took office. Ethnic Tigrayans across the country have since reported being targeted with arbitrary detentions, while civilians in Tigray have described gang rapes, famine, and mass expulsions.

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 joint investigation covers events 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.

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, the prime minister’s office said in a statement that it “clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.” The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission chief Daniel Bekele said the investigation didn’t identify violations amounting to genocide, but the U.N. didn’t go that far.

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,” said Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. 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, Ethiopia’s prime minister denied they were even in the country.

Ms. Bachelet told reporters that while the report doesn’t explicitly mention that 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 also noted “disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence” that warrant further investigation. 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, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Wednesday 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,” Ms. Bachelet said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Cara Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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