The joint investigation by the UN human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will release its findings on Wednesday, a year after the government’s war in Tigray began.
The work of the UN and EHRC is the only human rights investigation allowed in Ethiopia’s blockaded Tigray region, but people with knowledge of the probe say it has been limited by authorities who recently expelled a UN staffer helping to lead it.
The report may be the world’s only official source of information on atrocities in the war, which 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.
The conflict has been marked by gang rapes, mass expulsions, deliberate starvation and thousands of deaths.
International rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are barred from Tigray, along with foreign media.
The joint investigation by the UN and EHRC is a rare collaboration that immediately raised concerns among ethnic Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers about impartiality and government influence.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, the UN human rights office in Geneva said it wouldn’t have been able to enter Tigray without the partnership with the rights commission.
Ethiopia’s government has given no basis for expelling UN human rights officer Sonny Onyegbula last month, the UN added, and without an explanation “we cannot accept the allegation that our staff member … was ‘meddling in the internal affairs’ of Ethiopia.”
Because of those circumstances, and the fact that the UN left the investigation to its less experienced regional office in Ethiopia, the new report is “automatically suspect,” said David Crane, founder of the Global Accountability Network and founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal.
“What you need when you go into an atrocity zone is a clean slate so outside investigators can look into it neutrally, dispassionately,” Crane said. “You want to do these things where you don’t build doubt, distrust from the beginning,” including among people interviewed.
The investigation might be the international community’s only chance to collect facts on the ground, he said, but because of its setup, it may disappear “in the sands of time.”
People close to the investigation asserted that the head of the EHRC, Daniel Bekele, underplayed some allegations that fighters from the country’s Amhara region were responsible for abuses in Tigray and pressed instead to highlight abuses by Tigray forces.
That’s even though witnesses have said the perpetrators of most abuses were soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopian forces and Amhara regional forces.
In response to AP’s questions, Bekele asserted his commission’s independence, saying it is “primarily accountable to the people it is created to serve.” Attempts to influence the investigation, he added, can come from “many directions” in such a polarized environment.
Bekele said he and the commission have consistently cited “serious indications that all parties involved in the conflict have committed atrocities.”
Observers say a major shortcoming of the investigation is its failure to visit the scene of many alleged massacres in Tigray, including the deadliest known one in the city of Axum, where witnesses told the AP that several hundred people were killed.
Bekele said the investigation lacked the support of the Tigray authorities now administering the region after Tigray forces retook much of the area in June, about midway through the joint team’s work.
The UN human rights office, however, said the government’s subsequent severing of flights and communications from Tigray during the planned investigation period made it difficult to access key locations, both “logistically and from a security point of view.”
Even the interim Tigray authorities hand-picked by Ethiopia’s government to run the region earlier in the war rejected the joint investigation, its former chief of staff, Gebremeskel Kassa, told the AP.
“We informed the international community we wanted an investigation into human rights but not with the EHRC because we believe this is a tool of the government,” he said.
The UN has said Ethiopia’s government had no say in the report’s publication, though it was given the chance to read the report in advance and to point out “anything it believes to be incorrect.” (Source: Arab News)