Misery had been the defining feature of the conflict in the northern part of the country since it started on the fateful night of November 3, 2021. Following an attack by the Tigray Special Forces on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) announced that he had ordered the military to engage and defend its grounds.
While arguments arise as to what led to the military confrontation between the federal government and the Tigray regional government, many had been pointing out indicators that the feud between the federal government and the Tigray regional government, congruently, the Prosperity Party and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) could lead to military confrontations. An August 2020 briefing from the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that the feud intensified as a result of the postponed sixth general elections which the Tigray region was determined to conduct. ICG assessed that the feud was “edging toward confrontation.” Accordingly, it called for international and continental heavyweight politicians’ intervention to avoid potential war, which, before it even started, exhibited traits of devastation as military parades and display of forces were rife from both sides.
Although the federal government vowed not to enter into war with the Tigray regional government and the TPLF, the leadership in Tigray repeatedly rang the alarm bell that they are being encircled for a potential decimation. This was repeatedly downplayed by the federal government and even Prime Minister Abiy once said, he would prefer to send a face mask to Tigray to help fight the coronavirus pandemic than a bullet.
Since the early days of the conflict though, gross reports of civilian sufferings started to fill the air from Mai Kadra to Axum; from Wukro to Hawzien and from Humera to Tembien. Cries of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings of civilians, torture, rape and sexual violence against women, looting and destruction of property were coming out from both local and foreign actors.
Although media reports and party and government statements told different versions of the same story reporting on the atrocities, calls for independent investigation into the claimed atrocities that could constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes were rampant. Entities such as the Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International as well as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had produced reports on some of the claimed atrocities including the Mai Kadra massacre and the Axum indiscriminate killing of more than 100 civilians by Eritrean forces. The Federal Attorney General, now the Ministry of Justice, also produced a report on the said transgressions during the course of the war. However, as Getachew Reda, the Executive Committee member of the TPLF told BBC Hard Talk months ago, they did not conduct investigations because of lack of capacity. But many sides raised issues to question the reports produced by different bodies at different times.
Later, on March 10, 2020, the EHRC requested the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct a joint investigation into the alleged human rights violations and abuses since the war started. The UN body accepted the request within two days and terms of reference for the investigations were developed. The objective of the investigation was “to conduct a comprehensive investigation into allegations of human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed by all parties in the context of the conflict in Tigray.”
The investigation was doubted from the outset from the Tigray side which said the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is not independent. In a letter Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), chair of the TPLF, wrote on September 14, 2021, responding to the OHCHR, the chairman assured his “commitment to facilitate an independent investigation based on the principles of impartiality and objectivity” and “staunchly opposed the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and its commissioners’ role in the investigation” as “they have engaged in whitewashing atrocities and impeded the investigation.”
The report released on November 3, 2021, pushed by two days from the original release schedule, indicated that all parties in the conflict have committed violations in the war. This included the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Amhara Special Forces, the Amhara militia, the Eritrean Defense Forces, the Tigray Special Forces, Tigray militia, Tigray police as well as organized or spontaneous and armed groups of individuals such as Samri and Fano.
The atrocities committed by these bodies are found to be attack on civilians and civilian objects, unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, abduction, and enforced disappearances, sexual and gender-based violence, violation on civilian character of refugee camps, forced displacement of the civilian population, deprivation of internally displaced people of adequate food, nutrition, water, healthcare, sanitation and hygiene, restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of expression and access to information, pillage, looting and destruction of property, denial of access to humanitarian relief, undermined economic, social and cultural rights, children subjected to sexual and gender based violence, physical injuries and killings, and lack of protection to the elderly and persons with disabilities.
In conclusion, the joint investigative team concluded that it has, “reasonable grounds to believe that a number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, which require further investigations to ensure accountability. The primary responsibility for addressing the violations rests with the State, as part of its obligation to respect and protect human rights.”
Implicating individuals involved and finding out their roles in the atrocities committed is not within the scope of the investigation. The report states that failure on the part of Ethiopia and Eritrea to deliver justice could prompt the UN Security Council to refer the case to the ICJ. Adam Kasse, a lawyer based in the Hague, notes that the chances of the investigation leading to an international trial are low.
Despite previous arguments, especially from the Tigray side, that genocidal campaigns were unleashed up on the people of Tigray by the administration of PM Abiy, Daniel Bekele (PhD), Commissioner for the EHRC, indicated during a press conference at the launching of the report that there were no findings to corroborate such claims.
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for her part said, “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 on all sides.”
Daniel also added: “As the conflict expands with more reports of violations and abuses, this report presents an opportunity for all parties to acknowledge responsibility and commit to concrete measures on accountability, redress for victims and the search for a sustainable solution to end the suffering of millions.”
Though criticized by some individuals who had reported on the atrocities, the report came somehow a vindication for the central government in Addis Ababa, which in a statement following its release said, it accepts the report as an important document although the government had “serious reservations concerning some aspects of the report.”
The statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on November 3, 2021, also reads: “despite the concerns we communicated to the JTI, we are heartened by the fact that the joint investigation dispels some of the insidious and baseless accusations that have been leveled against the Government of Ethiopia. The JTI findings have clearly established the claims of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis. The report also concluded the often-repeated allegations that the Government used hunger as a ‘weapon of war’ is without merit. Specifically, the report stated it did not find evidence to support the claim of ‘deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.’ We have always known these allegations were false but our enemies have worked tirelessly to mislead the international community.”
While acknowledging that the report findings are consistent with government findings, the government criticized that the “temporal and geographic scope of the report is very limited” and the cut off point for the report, June 2021 when the government declared humanitarian ceasefire, left out atrocities committed in Amhara and Afar.
In a statement issued on November 3, 2021, a statement from a TPLF leadership, said even before the report was released that “Whatever its ‘findings’, the report is fraught with a number of problems” including failure to cover all the “heinous crime spots in Tigray,” “involve all the stakeholders,” and the “involvement of the EHRC as a partner in the investigation,” which is “an affront to the notion of impartiality.”
Kindeya Gebrehiwot (Prof.), the former President of Mekelle University and member of the TPLF, also stated “Findings of the joint investigation report of the UNOHCHR and the EHRC proved us right that it will not be independent and impartial. We have aired our concerns right from the beginning of such setup. Hence, it is null and void, and be rejected.” He also said that while the report was pre-submitted to the government in Addis, no efforts were made to reach them.
On November 4, 2021, Human Rights Watch’s Horn of Africa Director Laetitia Bader criticized that “the report does not give well-documented trends the attention they deserve. It makes scant mention of the abuses committed by Amhara regional forces and militia against Tigrayans in western Tigray. It documents brutal sexual violence by all warring parties but fails to acknowledge the scale of the abuses, including sexual slavery, by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces targeting Tigrayan women and girls.” Therefore, she called for an international investigation that identifies the pattern and scale of abuses.
Speaking on ETV on the evening of November 4, 2021, Minister of Justice, Gedeon Timoteos (PhD) said that the report included the reservations that the government expressed to the team of investigators.
While mobilization from all sides has continued, the report calls for cessation of hostilities and ceasefire to avoid further human rights violations and protect civilians from suffering. It also calls for cooperation with regional and international organizations to ensure that the atrocities committed are accounted for.