Survivors of the conflict in Tigray and other areas of northern Ethiopia are watching the current 54th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council with anticipation. A three-member International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), the only remaining independent investigative body examining the conflict, will deliver its report and findings to the council on Sept. 21, and the council is due to decide next month on whether to renew the commission’s mandate after its scheduled expiration in December.
Unfortunately, advocates for continued vigilance are likely to be disappointed. Even though the conflict has spread and the commission has found that crimes against humanity and war crimes continue in the region, it is widely understood that European member states and the European Union, as pen holder on the situation of Ethiopia at the Human Rights Council, committed to the Ethiopian government in March 2023 that it would not present a resolution renewing the mandate in October. If this is the case, this will be ICHREE’s final report.
The apparent decision not to renew the mandate comes at a time when the situation in Ethiopia is again deteriorating, which the ICHREE report considers not only a risk to Ethiopia itself, but to regional stability and the enjoyment of human rights in East Africa. “The conflict in Tigray has not ended, with Eritrean troops and Amhara militias engaging in ongoing violations,” the commission wrote bluntly in its draft presented at a Sept. 18 press conference at the U.N. The commission cited “grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes committed in Tigray, as well as Amhara, Afar and Oromia,” and wrote that “past and current abuses in these four regions demand further investigation.”
Yet the EU apparently succumbed to Ethiopian lobbying at the previous Human Rights Council session in March 2023, when Ethiopia threatened to present a resolution to terminate the investigative body early. Though the details of this deal remain murky, it seems that, in exchange for Ethiopia withdrawing the draft resolution, the EU would hand over the penship to Ethiopia, on the understanding that they would present a resolution to keep Ethiopia on the Human Rights Council agenda under a different monitoring modality. Now, six months later, Ethiopia has reneged on its side of the deal – explicitly stating that Ethiopia will not remain on the Council’s agenda at all. Despite this, and despite the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country since March, the EU and European member states seem wedded to the deal. In seeking to avoid a precedent of premature termination of a U.N.-established investigation, it instead seems only to have been delayed. The message is clear: independent investigations can be unilaterally thwarted.
Ethiopian influence has already succeeded in quashing other investigations into the conflict. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights quietly disbanded its commission of inquiry in June 2023, with no published findings or reports, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation was discredited when it partnered with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a widely distrusted body.
Message to Victims and Survivors
The Government of Ethiopia may have achieved its aims, and the international community may have facilitated it. But worse is the message that this sends to victims and survivors of this brutal conflict.
Our nonprofit organization, Geneva-based Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), represents a group of Tigrayan victims and survivors in a complaint filed before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, together with the Pan African Lawyers Union and Debevoise and Plimpton LLP, against the state of Ethiopia. The case alleges massive violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Victims and survivors bravely shared accounts of the events they experienced and witnessed: massacres, torture, and extrajudicial killings, including of children. One witness, a doctor, shared details of the more than 70 women and girls they treated over a three-month period – 90 percent of them had been gang raped, and all of them identified Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers as the perpetrators.
The government of Ethiopia has refused to engage with the case or with the African Commission, the foremost human rights body in Africa. Indeed, the African Commission ordered provisional measures against Ethiopia in October 2022, as requested by LAW in our submissions, which the government has breached, based on accounts of the ongoing violations and abuses since November 2022. These are not the actions of a government committed to justice or to subjecting itself to accountability.
Indeed, in the northern region of Amhara, the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) is currently embroiled in another active conflict, this time against the FANO militia, an ethno-nationalist Amharic militia that has been bolstered recently by soldiers defecting from the Amhara regional force, both of which fought alongside the ENDF until November 2022. Reports of ENDF atrocities in Amhara bear all the hallmarks of the atrocities conducted by the Abiy administration in Tigray: house-to-house raids, extrajudicial mass executions of male civilians, air raids, and looting of food stuffs such as grain and cattle.
In addition, violence has continued in Tigray. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the Organisation for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa (OJAH), confirmed in a recent report that conflict related sexual violence, in particular gang rape and sexual slavery, have continued since the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) in November 2022. Another recent report, published by Amnesty International, alleges that Eritrean forces have continued to commit international crimes in Tigray since November 2022, including extrajudicial execution of civilians and sexual slavery. Indeed, ICHREE’s latest report confirms that more than 10,000 survivors of sexual violence sought medical assistance in Tigray alone, between November 2020 and July 2023.
It is against this backdrop of continuing and escalating violations that ICHREE may be disbanded. It was charged in December 2021 by the Human Rights Council with undertaking a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights law, humanitarian law, and refugee law in Ethiopia. As part of that, it was to collect and preserve evidence, to identify those responsible, and to make such information accessible and usable in support of ongoing and future accountability efforts. In October 2022, the Human Rights Council extended the commission’s mandate to December of this year.
Ethiopian Government’s `Flawed’ Transitional Justice Process
The international community has applauded the steps taken by the Ethiopian government since the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed. In particular, the Policy Options for Transitional Justice, published in January 2023, has been praised as a step forward. The Ethiopian government has expressed a commitment to transitional justice, but the paper places far greater emphasis on national reconciliation than justice and accountability and promotes an entirely domestic venture. Well-versed in speaking the language of human rights, the government has leveraged the paper to deflect international attention and in particular any international scrutiny of the crimes committed since 2020.
It is important to recognize that this paper is not a transitional justice policy, it is a paper of options available to the government. ICHREE determined that the Ethiopian government “has failed to effectively investigate violations and has initiated a flawed transitional justice consultation process.”
With nothing concrete yet established or enforceable, it is wholly premature to disband the last independent investigative body and leave it to the government – the party with primary responsibility for the atrocities committed – to dictate the parameters of a process to establish its own guilt.
The views of the victims and survivors that we represent are clear – the Ethiopian government must not and cannot be left as the sole administrator of justice in the aftermath of the conflict. The crimes committed are likely to constitute international crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity – and victims and survivors want accountability for international crimes to include international scrutiny.
While there is no easy solution to the situation in Ethiopia, the next steps are clear: 1) The mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia must be renewed, and it must receive the resources to carry out the investigation and preservation of evidence that it was established to undertake; and 2) Support must be given to all accountability efforts pursued on behalf of victims and survivors of human rights violations and abuses committed in Ethiopia.
As ICHREE concluded, “The continuing presence of Eritrean and Amhara forces in Tigray, in particular ongoing accounts of rape and sexual violence against women and girls, are deeply disturbing. The persistence of this situation more than 10 months after the COHA confirms not only an ongoing pattern of serious violations, but strongly indicates a policy of impunity and tolerance of serious violations on the part of the Ethiopian State.”
We implore the international community – Human Rights Council members, African members states, European member states – this is not a question of justice or peace. Proven time and time again, there can be no prospect of peace when there is no prospect of justice.