The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will soon decide the future of an independent commission investigating alleged war crimes and other human rights violations in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and other areas. The panel of three experts has identified “grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes” since the November 2020 onset of a brutal conflict pitting Ethiopian government forces, backed by Eritrean troops and Amhara armed groups, against Tigrayan forces.
Despite its importance, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) faces an uphill battle to renew its mandate. The United States and other western governments, which have their own geopolitical and economic reasons for appeasing Ethiopian leaders, argue the Ethiopian government’s draft transitional justice plan renders the commission unnecessary.
But Ethiopia’s path to enduring peace requires real political and legal accountability. Absent that, the risk of recurrence of heinous crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, remains palpable. Even U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a determination in March that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Amhara forces and Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) fighting with them, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) all committed war crimes, and that members of the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity.
The ICHREE noted in its most recent report that “The conflict in Tigray has not ended, with Eritrean troops and Amhara militias engaging in ongoing violations.” It concluded that past and current abuses “demand further investigation,” and that the Ethiopian government “has failed to effectively investigate violations and has initiated a flawed transitional justice consultation process.”
Given the prevailing mistrust in national institutions and their limitations, only a neutral international body like ICHREE can conduct a thorough, independent, and comprehensive investigation into the atrocities in Tigray and other ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia. As the HRC prepares to decide this month whether to extend the commission’s mandate, it has a duty to uphold the core human rights principles on which it is founded. It should enhance ICHREE rather than discontinue it.
Dynamics Between the ICHREE and the HRC
In pressing for further and deeper investigation, the ICHREE’s Sept. 14 report details egregious atrocity crimes and reiterates its call for unrestricted access to areas where atrocities persist. Having been denied access to Ethiopia, ICHREE nevertheless carried out a meticulous investigation based on international standards in situations where access isn’t possible, including conducting interviews remotely and also in person in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. The report is informed by 545 direct interviews, of which 360 are new, and an analysis of more than 570 supplemental documents and pieces of evidence.
However, the investigators encountered numerous hurdles, ranging from lack of access and staffing delays to telecommunication disruptions and concerns about security. The lack of cooperation from the Ethiopian government and from neighboring Djibouti and Sudan, where refugee camps house Ethiopians who fled the war, posed the most formidable challenges. The obstacles extend to the U.N. system itself, particularly the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the OHCHR-East Africa Regional Office (EARO). Some States have leveraged the JIT to argue for the termination of the ICHREE mandate and to validate the Ethiopian government’s questionable transitional justice process set out in the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA), which the Ethiopian government and TPLF signed in Pretoria, South Africa last November. Concurrently, despite ICHREE’s persistent engagement, it has, for the second time, reported experiencing delays when requesting access to information gathered by the Joint OHCHR-EHRC team.
Such political barriers suggest that, while the current report sheds light on some of the gravest violations, it does not encompass the full extent of the atrocities. ICHREE has pinpointed more than a dozen situations warranting additional investigation and has continued to appeal for access to Ethiopia.
Yet, news reports and other authors at Just Security have indicated that the United States and Western countries are ready to end the ICHREE. In March, Ethiopia circulated a motion to terminate the commission during the 47-member HRC’s last session and seemed poised to win the vote, but eventually withdrew its proposal on the understanding that Western countries would not renew the probe when it expires in December. Based on the earlier voting behavior of the current and former HRC members who voted on ICHREE renewal, 13 African HRC members (barring Malawi), 6 of 8 Latin American and Caribbean members, and most Asia-Pacific states will likely vote against extending the ICHREE’s mandate. Thus, the United States, seven Western countries, and six Eastern European states may support the end of the ICHREE investigation.
ICHREE faces continual resistance from the Ethiopian government and its allies in the HRC, even as the African Union terminated a parallel inquiry by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, thus setting a perilous precedent. Moreover, reports of negotiations between global powers and the Ethiopian government further cloud ICHREE’s future: China, Russia, and other HRC members view an investigative mechanism such as ICHREE as an infringement on sovereignty, even though the Council has long created similar fact-finding and investigative mechanisms.
The Tigray War’s Origins and Atrocities
The rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 ushered in a distinct shift in Ethiopia’s political landscape, where power became increasingly centralized, monopolized, and personalized under Abiy’s leadership. A surge in anti-Tigrayan sentiment was amplified both domestically and internationally. At the same time, ostensibly to resolve longstanding tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Abiy reached out to Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, a figure notorious for his animosity towards Tigray. The agreement they reached was lauded as a “peace pact.” In what some saw as a profound irony, Abiy received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize as a result.
In the meantime, tensions escalated, and partisan actions by Western nations, including the United States, “helped pave the road to war.” Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces from the neighboring Amhara region jointly began preparing for war and launched a concerted military campaign against Tigray on Nov. 4, 2020, triggering a severe humanitarian crisis and leading to widespread atrocities. Finally, two years later, on Nov. 3, 2022, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF signed the COHA.
The Tigray conflict has led to an estimated 600,000 deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people, amounting to ethnic cleansing. ICHREE had previously confirmed that the siege resulted in the destruction of livelihoods and the denial of humanitarian access to Tigray, and determined that these actions likely violate the prohibition on using starvation as a method of warfare.
The commission’s Sept. 14 report documented a range of severe human rights abuses, including 49 mass killings of civilians, and more than 10,000 victims of sexual assault occurring between November 2020 and July 2023. ICHREE determined that, during these atrocities, “perpetrators indicated a clear intention to target the group based on ethnicity. This pattern included referring to Tigrayans as ‘cancer,’ expressing a desire to kill men and children or aiming to ‘destroy’ women’s reproductive capacities.”
In addition to Secretary of State Blinken’s March determination of war crimes and crimes against humanity, news reports suggest that the State Department had drafted – but never released – a declaration that actions in Tigray constituted genocide. The Washington Post reported in March that, when a State Department official was asked whether a genocide determination might be made in the future, the official said, the March 20 finding “in no way precludes a future determination if new information becomes available.”
All the more reason to retain the ICHREE and press for more access for investigators. The conflict continues to spread beyond Tigray. Since April, tensions have escalated and clashes have broken out between the ENDF and the Amhara Special Forces and Fano, an Amhara youth militia, both of which once had fought on the Ethiopian government’s side against the Tigrayans.
Still, the conflicts in Ethiopia remain underreported and draw marginal attention from an international community otherwise consumed by the war in Ukraine. For the United States, geopolitical considerations appear to rule in its foreign policy on Ethiopia and the broader African region. The recent admission of Ethiopia to the BRICS alignment of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, combined with Ethiopia’s role as host to the African Union’s headquarters, and the tense negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, highlight the country’s increasing importance to the United States and other great powers, including the European Union. The sixth AU-EU Summit in February 2022 articulated a shared ambition for a more robust cross-continental alliance, and the EU has focused on the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa for heightened engagement based on a range of interests from trade to security.
The result has been a marked tilt in U.S. and EU foreign policy from emphasizing legitimate governance and accountability to a pursuit of security, influence, and economic interests, even if that means partnering with governments accused of grave human rights violations, including Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This change has strengthened authoritarian regimes.
Transition on Paper, War in Reality
Persistent violence and political upheaval in Ethiopia even now suggest neither a peaceful transition nor a transitional political arrangement. The COHA’s accountability clauses remain vague, and there is little political will to address them. Article 10.3 of the COHA requires the Ethiopian government to “implement a comprehensive national transitional justice policy aimed at accountability, ascertaining the truth, redress for victims, reconciliation, and healing, consistent with the Constitution of FDRE and the African Union Transitional Justice Policy Framework.”
In January 2023, the government issued a draft transitional justice policy, known as the “Policy Options for Transitional Justice in Ethiopia” (TJPE). This draft policy outlines potential strategies, including truth commissions and mechanisms to hold individuals accountable for human rights abuses. But it remains mired in controversy, primarily because the Tigray side rejected it, arguing that it would create power imbalances that often benefit the stronger party – in this case, the Ethiopian government.
Addis Ababa’s upper hand over Tigray underscores the need for international oversight through an unbiased entity such as the ICHREE, because national initiatives lack independence, and attempts to unearth facts are frequently swayed by prevailing power dynamics. Moreover, Ethiopia’s law does not explicitly recognize crimes against humanity, complicating the prosecution of perpetrators. The involvement of foreign entities, chiefly Eritrean forces, further muddies the legal waters.
The ICHREE found that the TJPE failed to meet international and AU standards pertaining to justice, accountability, and reparations. Its report observed that while there have been discussions on transitional justice in Ethiopia, these consultations often lacked victim participation and seemed rushed. Significantly, refugees and the displaced community have been conspicuously left out. The consultations lacked depth and inclusivity, failing to encompass all crucial stakeholders. The distrust toward Ethiopian institutions is deeply ingrained, affecting every institution uniformly, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the judiciary.
In its assessment, ICHREE labeled Ethiopia’s tactics as “quasi-compliance” – developing domestic measures to deflect international scrutiny and oversight by the U.N. and AU without sincerely championing accountability and transition. While the government claims to cooperate with human rights organizations, it has imposed restrictions and barred several monitoring groups, even opposing probes by entities like the AU. The ICHREE emphasized that Ethiopia’s reluctance to genuinely investigate breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law requires continued international oversight.
Truth as the Bedrock
Ethiopia’s journey towards lasting peace hinges on the post-war establishment of political and legal accountability, without which the recurrence of heinous acts remains a tangible threat. Two steps are essential. First, it is necessary to establish the truth, which Ethiopians must accept is the foundation for progress; without it, facts will remain contested and weaponized in the interests of power and identity politics. Second, given evident distrust in, and limitations of, national institutions, only an impartial international entity such as ICHREE can provide an objective and comprehensive investigation.
The international community also has an obligation to truth – to respect the commission’s findings and acknowledge the Ethiopian government’s culpability and unwillingness to embrace true justice, lest they be culpable for impunity and ongoing violations by closing their eyes in the interests of short-term geopolitics. Absent documentation of the truth about the wars, Ethiopia’s transitional justice process is most likely to perpetuate denial and grant impunity rather than champion justice, thus increasing the likelihood of its rejection by the Ethiopian populace and heightening the risks of further atrocities.
Given its U.N. mandate, independence, capacity, and experience, ICHREE is uniquely equipped to establish facts to pursue “transitional justice, including accountability, reconciliation and healing,” as its mandate outlines. No alternative body can claim the same credibility, capability, and impartiality for establishing the groundwork for a victim-centered transitional justice process. For the HRC to terminate ICHREE’s mandate now would contravene the HRC’s cardinal mission and risk the perpetuation of a vicious circle of violence and impunity in Ethiopia and beyond. Ending ICHREE would not only further erode the credibility and integrity of the HRC but also set a historically perilous precedent within U.N. investigative mechanisms and international justice.