Committee dissatisfied with official’s response
Officials of the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice are scrutinized by the United Nations for failing to investigate allegations of human rights violations related to the war in northern Ethiopia and for failing to uphold human rights principles during detention, interrogation, and incarceration.
The Ministry’s delegates are in Geneva to update the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) on Ethiopia’s human rights situation. The UNCAT was created to hold states accountable for human rights violations by systematically investigating reports of torture. The 76th session of the UNCAT is being held from April 17 to May 12, 2023.
During its month-long session, the Committee is reviewing the reports of Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, and Slovakia.
On May 3 and 4, the Ethiopian delegation, composed of state ministers, several directors, experts, and security force officials, including the Federal Police Commission, presented its reports. The reports have focused heavily on achievements, progress, human rights legislation, and reforms made since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power.
Human rights issues covered in the report ranged from unlawful detentions, rape cases, and illegal migration to torture during detention, human trafficking, extrajudicial killings, and allegations of ethnic cleansing during the northern Ethiopian civil war.
Members of the UNCAT criticized the Ethiopian government for denying reports of ethnic cleansing in Tigray and failing to provide established facts regarding the involvement of Eritrean forces, extrajudicial killings, and unlawful detentions, among others.
The Ethiopian delegation was also scrutinized for denying access to the International Commission of Experts on Human Rights in Ethiopia (ICHREE).
The report presented by the Ethiopian delegates unsatisfied the rapporteurs and members of the Committee, including Sebastien Touze, a French professor and vice chair of the UNCAT.
“You [the Ethiopian government] denied allegations of ethnic cleansing in Tigray. But there are pieces of information, videos, and public statements campaigning for targeting ethnic cleansing of the Tigrayan population. These are pending questions. We cannot just throw it under the rug. What is the progress regarding ensuring accountability for the extrajudicial killings?” he asked.
Touze says he understands “why you mentioned that ICHREE is politically motivated. The GoE denied authority to the ICHREE to visit the ground. There is one particular concern relating to the figure of deaths in prisons and detention centers.”
The Professor stated that 83 Tigrayan prisoners perished in prison near Mirab Abaya in 2022. “The figures provided do not correspond with other sources we have. Four new detention centers were built to hold 40,000 prisoners. We have no information about where they are located or how many detainees there are,” he added.
Another member of UNCAT, Todd Buchwald, stated that the Ethiopian government failed to provide adequate information regarding Eritrean involvement in the northern Ethiopian war. He says the delegation’s response about the involvement of Eritrean forces was not well received.
“The response is not a well-established fact. You need some practical mechanisms and data on the ground. There is legislation, but that does not mean it is implemented. Violence and arrests of journalists and civil organizations are documented,” Buchwald said.
Ethiopian officials attempted diplomatic responses to circumvent the allegations raised.
“There are allegations that Eritrean forces participated in the conflict in northern Ethiopia. We will look into it, investigate, and ensure accountability for the perpetrators of the violations, if any,” responded Misikir Yirefu, chief of staff at the Ministry of Justice and member of the Ethiopian delegation present at the UNCAT.
Misikir stated that the allegations of ethnic cleansing cannot be confirmed until the investigation is concluded.
“The conflict in the north, to some extent, has an ethnic character. The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) did not conclude that an ethnic cleansing act was committed. Amnesty International’s allegations that ethnic cleansing amounts to crimes against humanity cannot be taken as they are. Such allegations are made without conducting a proper investigation on the ground.”
The delegation also asserted that the Ethiopian government denied access to the ICHREE because its establishment was politically motivated, duplicated national efforts, and lacked impartiality. “The GoE has offered the possibility of cooperation with ICHREE. Now that time has lapsed, Ethiopia’s decision is irreversible,” Misikir said.
The delegation urged the Committee to respect Ethiopia’s decision and leave the investigation to national mechanisms under the initiative for transitional justice, JIT, and the Inter-ministerial Taskforce (IMT).
A team of investigators established by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has also gathered evidence regarding a number of extrajudicial killings.
Especially the IMT has designed and implemented three tracks of strategies. The first plan involves conducting investigations in the Amhara and Afar regions. The second region comprises Welkait, Tsegede, and Humera. The third is investigating the alleged crimes committed by ENDF and regional forces in the regions of Amhara, Tigray, and Afar.
The IMT has made progress on the first track while awaiting the establishment of security in Tigray before initiating the second and third plans.
Under the first plan, the IMT compiled 2,831 cases of extrajudicial killings of civilians, 1,315 cases of serious bodily injuries, 2,212 cases of rapes and other forms of sexual violence, 442 cases of inhuman and degrading treatment of civilians, 36 cases of enforced disappearances, and 2,516 cases of damage to and looting of public infrastructure.
The IMT collected 10,029 testimonies, 9,552 witnesses, and thousands of video and audio records and medical documents under the first track.
The majority of the research for the first track was conducted in Amhara Regional State. The investigation in Tigray is expected to progress as peace prevails in the region and the IMT sends its experts.
It is also expected that the transitional justice system will share the evidence gathered by the IMT. Under the transitional justice initiative, the investigation and accountability for the atrocities committed during the northern Ethiopian war will be completed.
Zelalem Mengistie, deputy commissioner of the Ethiopian Federal Police, stated that Ethiopia does not tolerate torture and inhuman treatment. “We turned old torture centers into museums. We allowed detainees to be visited by family and lawyers.” He says the government is also planning to install cameras in interrogation rooms.
At the conclusion of the session on May 4, Alemante Agidew, state minister of the MoJ and leader of the Ethiopian delegation in Geneva, vowed to implement the Committee’s recommendations.
“The GoE did not conclude its investigation. So we need time. The first track of the investigation indicated there are some categories of crimes against humanity,” Alemante said, adding that acts of torture and extrajudicial killings were committed.
“We will take this homework and go back to Ethiopia to finalize the investigation and ensure accountability through the transitional justice system. Accountability should be taken as a domestic initiative.”