Yemaneh Zereaye chairs the Commission of Inquiry on the Tigray Genocide, formed more than a year ago during the ongoing Tigray War. The Commission aims to assess the impact of the conflict on Tigray’s civilian population. Yemaneh spoke with The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale, who had been in Tigray covering the war’s humanitarian effects and Tigray’s post-war prospects, as the two discussed the vital task ahead for the Commission to comprehensively capture the full scale of atrocities and human rights violations against the people of Tigray, determine accountability for the perpetrators, and recommend actions to bring justice and help rebuild in the conflict’s wake.
The Reporter: After enduring a two-year-long war, the region is now faced with the daunting task of assessing the extent of the destruction. Can you share the Commissions progress so far in this regard?
Yemaneh Zereaye: The extent of devastation in Tigray is difficult to accurately convey. The conflict impacted all aspects of society without being confined to a particular area or group. Given the war’s scope, it is challenging to pinpoint a specific event and provide statistical data to illustrate the level of destruction in Tigray.
We have identified several issues in the region. The first one is the ‘damage to humanity,’ which is related to sexual or gender-based violence. The second issue is the ‘economic sector damage.’
The third level includes physical and infrastructural damage, while the fourth level covers damages to governmental institutions and societal values. Societal-based damages encompass religion-based values, societal norms and customs, rituals, artifacts, and beliefs. For example, the Tigray people’s celebration of ‘Ashenda’ – a ritual that has not been observed in three years – is an example of societal-based value damage.
Religious sites, historical landmarks, and valuable artifacts have suffered significant damage as a result of the war. The region’s biodiversity and natural habitats have also been severely impacted. Large areas of forests were destroyed as the conflict approached, possibly due to intentional acts aimed at prolonging the adverse effects or as a means of survival for those affected by the war. Unfortunately, this has set Tigray back by several decades. The region is now plagued by frequent floods that have not been seen in years, exacerbating the damage caused by the conflict.
The impact of the war in Tigray is not limited to physical damage. Chemical effects from the conflict have ruined the atmosphere and contaminated drinkable water sources, posing a significant threat to society. Previously productive farmlands have also been damaged, exacerbating food insecurity and threatening the livelihoods of the people. As a result, individuals are experiencing health-related issues and being exposed to diseases.
Accurately assessing the extent of damage in the region is challenging but crucial for acknowledging past mistakes and promoting peace and stability. The investigation must be factual and truthful to reveal the actual situation on the ground for Tigray, neighboring communities, future generations, and the world.
However, we face challenges in obtaining the remaining 60 percent of the data due to security threats, administrative and technical difficulties, particularly in inaccessible areas of Western and Eastern Tigray, as well as the Southern region. Despite collecting 40 percent of the data, a deep investigation is necessary to fully understand the gravity of the situation.
Statistical projections are not official numbers, and it is important to approach the impact of war with care and diligence.
There seems to be a lack of clarity around the precise number of casualties due to conflicting reports. What conclusions can be drawn from this situation?
The war has affected everyone. We need to distinguish civilian from combatant casualties, or those who died from starvation. Many have lost loved ones and child mortality has increased. Reports should clarify direct and indirect war consequences.
We cannot accept figures from different sources without independent verification. Accurate statistics must be revealed to serve justice and truth. We ask all to wait for confirmation since numbers could impact peace efforts. Once confirmed, we can decide on the next steps toward reconciliation.
We initiated orientation sessions for officials and the media to ensure accurate, unbiased reporting on Tigray’s destruction. These avoid blanket statements and enable responsible reporting.
Although reconstruction and relocation efforts aim to normalize the situation, they only address part of the problem. How do you plan to comprehensively address the ongoing humanitarian crisis and what will your overall approach entail?
We’re analyzing data from different regions, but need more evidence to reach a conclusion. We’re concerned about sensationalized media reporting on infrastructural damages without acknowledging the human toll. It’s important to differentiate between infrastructural and human damage, as the latter is much harder to repair.
It is crucial for all to comprehend the severity of the situation. Regional officials were advised during their orientation to be cautious with their statements, as the harm caused to humans is not easily summarized in just a few words. The magnitude of the damage cannot be fully conveyed through words. Therefore, it is imperative to exercise caution, as the impact of the situation is far-reaching and complex, affecting nearly everyone.
Rape is widespread everywhere, and although it is condemned by many, gang rape is a new occurrence in Ethiopian society and history. Women in Tigray have been subjected to gang rape in front of their parents and communities, which is a unique ethical violation in the region. Tigrayans, Eritreans, and Amharas share similar ethical values and practices, but the scale of the atrocities in Tigray is unprecedented and difficult to comprehend.
While it is important to investigate the patterns and effects of such atrocities, our focus should also be on healing and progress, despite limited resources. Ongoing investigations and damage assessments are being carried out.
Considering the crucial role of Transitional Justice in promoting peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia, particularly after the Pretoria peace agreement, what steps does the regional government intend to take to hold accountable those who have committed human rights violations?
Implementing the Transitional Justice Framework in Ethiopia to bring justice for past atrocities is a positive step, but it can be challenging to manage within traditional legal systems given the severity of the crimes committed.
Before implementing it, it’s crucial to have a clear purpose in mind. While the justice policy has flaws, it offers options to move forward. However, it’s unrealistic to expect it to solve all of Ethiopia’s problems at once as it currently lacks focus and direction.
At this stage, the idea is promising, but the approach needs to be improved. It lacks specificity and a problem-oriented approach, which renders it ineffective. Each region has unique challenges, and it is crucial to address them accordingly rather than treating them with the same degree of importance. Understanding the root cause of the problems in Tigray and other regions is necessary for effective solutions.
The implementation of the Transitional Justice policy is one way to address the aftermath of the war in Tigray.
However, it is concerning that the framework doesn’t mention Tigray by name. It is like trying to solve the wrong problem without acknowledging its source. Therefore, the focus should shift towards identifying the root cause of the issue.
Prioritizing truth-finding is crucial for peace, reconciliation, and accountability. But transitional justice has limitations, especially for international atrocities. In evaluating Tigray, it’s essential to consider the involvement of actors and how to address the case of Eritrea. In situations like this, it’s unreasonable to expect the people of Axum to simply forget and forgive those who have wronged them. Ultimately, people in Axum need answers about what to forget and whom to forgive.
The atrocity in Axum City involved forces from Eritrea, Somali, and other groups, with locals aware of their involvement. The involvement can be categorized into religious perspectives and civilization issues. Over 1,000 people were killed in a single day, with most buried three days later. Given this level of violence, how can we expect the people of Axum to forget and forgive as if nothing happened?
The crimes committed in Tigray are a matter of international concern and violate human rights conventions. The global community must hold those involved accountable and ensure justice based on international standards.
It’s not within our jurisdiction to resolve the issue through national means, as it involves an international element that requires investigation and adjudication according to international standards.
What are your plans and intentions once the investigation is completed, and what outcome do you expect?
As mentioned earlier, we are currently investigatigating. Upon receiving the results, we will evaluate them and determine our next steps to create a plan for the future. This process will require extensive discussion, cooperation, and trust-building.
What is the status of UN Human Rights Commission’s involvement in the situation in Tigray?
As of now, we have not received any communication from the commission. However, citizens of Tigray are appealing to global organizations and religious institutions to acknowledge their pain and struggles. As someone involved in this matter, I am aware of both the advantages and drawbacks of the situation and am keeping up-to-date with its progress.
It’s unfortunate that the pursuit of justice has become overly politicized, and there are debates over the resolution of the Commission’s findings and who will assume responsibility. Even if they were to come and assess the situation firsthand, their mandate will expire in September.
Our next steps will require internal deliberation, but in the meantime, we have thoroughly reviewed our stance and shared our thoughts during our meeting with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
The concept of Transitional Justice is centered on the victim and their survival, rather than consultation or participation. Unfortunately, we have not been consulted or given the opportunity to participate in any of these cases.
We believe that Tigray should be the focal point of the commission as well as the committee, with the final say. When this occurs, both national and international players may be involved. The commission should prioritize the Tigray matter, but Tigray, on the other hand, is not represented in any commission bodies or Transitional Justice Committee.
It’s important to consider the views and inputs of those affected, and we hope that there will be opportunities for us to participate in the process moving forward.
Do you have the power to implement the changes you are advocating for?
For me, this is part of the political dialogue, and while the interim administration may lack the mandate and time to create a full governing law, political negotiations should continue to achieve long-term peace. We are capable of bringing peace, and the rifles have been silent, but we are only halfway there.
For example, over a million people in the region are still displaced. The minimum that can be done is to return them to their homes and continue with the rehabilitation, followed by political affairs.
However, the success of these efforts ultimately depends on the commitment of the federal government.
Based on our discussion, it appears that the situation in Tigray has both regional and structural dimensions. What steps do you plan to take next to address this situation?
As we have discussed, the situation in Tigray has regional and structural dimensions require a comprehensive approach. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that the conflict has global implications.
The war in Tigray has revealed many unusual practices and deeds that further complicate the situation. For instance, France and China provided military support simultaneously during the Tigray war, which is a rare occurrence in the international community.
Additionally, UAE and Iran supported the Ethiopian government by flying drones, highlighting an unusual intervention in the conflict.
Despite these developments, the international community has remained relatively quiet, even though the situation has significantly impacted our political economy.
It is evident that the domestic political situation is highly polarized, and there are clear indications of international involvement and interests in the situation in Tigray. What do you think is the driving force behind what happened in Tigray?
In my opinion, the situation in Tigray is primarily a domestic political affair, with international involvement and interests being influenced by our vulnerability. However, it’s possible that some international involvement could be attributed to historical relationships. Ethiopia was not colonized, but the process of nation-building led to a form of colonization, and our civilization has also been under control.
While the federal system was introduced to address some of these issues, it was unable to completely resolve the underlying problems.
If we consider the political landscape in Ethiopia, we can see that there are two camps: the federalist and the unitarist camps. However, it’s difficult to say which one clearly defines Ethiopia.
These two camps are not necessarily polarized forces in Ethiopia. A true federalist would take a middle stance that considers the interests of all regions and ethnic groups.
However, what we currently have in our country is a political force that prioritizes personal interests or follows a single pattern without considering the diverse needs of different regions and groups.
Are you saying that both don’t exist?
For me, yes.
The Ethiopian Policy Study Institute published a study on constitutional amendment in Ethiopia. Given that this issue is still being debated, could the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have felt that the federal system was under threat, which led to their actions and contributed to the conflict in Tigray? Did the TPLF see the conflict as an opportunity to protect their regional interests and achieve their political goals?
I haven’t read the publication, but I don’t believe that constitutional amendments alone can fix everything. While we have made some progress, we are still far from our destination, and there are many problems to deal with. Although the guns have been silenced, we need cautious techniques and strategies to identify the root causes of the problems and address them effectively.