The United Nations Human Rights Council, wrapping up its 54th ordinary session, completed its voting on resolutions Oct. 13, a process that highlights those situations of concern to the council and that it feels deserve its attention as the highest U.N. body solely focused on human rights. But there was a glaring omission — no vote on the situation in Ethiopia, where the bloodiest conflict on the globe continues today.
As we suggested would be likely in an earlier Just Security article, the European Union, penholders for the situation in Ethiopia, decided not to call for a renewal of the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which expires in December. Unfortunately, we were conservative in our prediction – not only was the mandate of ICHREE not renewed, but there was no resolution on the situation of Ethiopia at all. This means that Ethiopia is no longer on the agenda of the Human Rights Council, and conditions there will not be monitored or discussed at the Council despite ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And according to ICHREE, such violations are likely to continue. The day before the deadline for resolutions, ICHREE released an additional report on the risk of future atrocity crimes in Ethiopia. Drawing upon indicators identified in the United Nations Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, the report finds the risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia to be “acute.”
In two previous reports, published in September 2022 and September 2023, the commissioners identified evidence of grave and systematic violations of international law committed in Tigray, Amhara, Afar, and Oromia regions, including mass killings, rape (frequently by multiple perpetrators), and other forms of sexual violence, starvation and forced displacement. ICHREE estimates that more than 10,000 victims of sexual violence sought medical services in Tigray alone – the total number of victims is therefore likely to be higher. The main perpetrators of sexual violence were identified as members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and its ally from across the border, the Eritrean Defense Forces.
Risk of Genocide `Present and Growing’
These findings have been echoed by a number of recent reports that also found evidence of sexual slavery committed by Eritrean forces, including from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, the Organisation for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa, and others. Wairimu Nderitu, the U.N. Special Advisor on Genocide went one step further last week, stating “the risk of genocide is present and growing,” something that Tigrayan communities have been saying for many months.
So how could the U.N. body, established to address human rights violations and situations of concern, allow an ongoing conflict with estimates of 600,000 people already dead, to slide from its agenda?
Following the deadline for resolutions, an article in Le Monde featured an unnamed EU diplomat who asked what would be the point of tabling a resolution that the Ethiopian government did not want? But rarely, if ever, in history have State perpetrators welcomed the scrutiny of the international system to ensure justice and accountability during or after conflict. As Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch put it – imagine an EU diplomat questioning the investigation of Russian atrocities in Ukraine because Putin didn’t want it.
One suggestion is that Ethiopia outmaneuvered the international community with a smokescreen of quasi-compliance by postulating intentions to undertake a transitional justice process domestically. The process of consultations undertaken by the Ethiopia transitional justice process has been criticized as flawed on many levels, and glimpses of the government’s true intentions can be seen in its aggressive denials, even ridicule, of the ICHREE reports. In a side event organized by the government during the Human Rights Council’s session in Geneva, Ethiopian officials referred to the findings of the reports as “entirely unhelpful” and “sensationalized,” clearly undermining the government’s claims that it can deliver justice and accountability for the full extent of the crimes committed. The country’s ambassador to the U.N. also referred directly to an “agreement” made between the EU and Ethiopia in March 2023 to ensure that Ethiopia would not remain on the Human Rights Council agenda following the 54th session. For its part, the EU has suggested that it demurred because a resolution on Ethiopia did not have the support of African member States, and has since expressed surprise that Ethiopia did not table its own resolution, requesting the support of the Council in its transitional justice process.
The Needs of Victims and Survivors
It seems likely, however, that the decision to let the expert commission’s mandate expire was made months ago, long before it was even close to completing its work. And the decision cast aside the wishes and needs of victims. The EU and African members States of the U.N. Human Rights Council have failed in their responsibility to Ethiopian victims.
But victims and survivors cannot and will not be silent. In the absence of appropriate action from the international community, justice will depend on the strength and courage of victims and survivors to come forward, to prevent impunity from prevailing, and the inescapable cycle of violence and insecurity that follows it.
Survivors we represent told us: “There is no justice for us in Ethiopia. All we have is the international community. But if not the Human Rights Council, where can we go? We need to do more.”
They are now turning to the U.N. Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Secretary-General to ensure justice and accountability are delivered and to end the ongoing violations and instability in Ethiopia. They are appealing for measures to:
- Create a mechanism that will be mandated to conduct prompt, transparent, independent, impartial, thorough, credible, effective, and gender-sensitive investigations of all violations and crimes committed during the conflict;
- Collect, consolidate, and analyze evidence of such violations and abuses, including their gender dimension, and to systematically record and preserve all information, documentation and evidence, consistent with international law standards, in view of any future legal proceedings;
- Support efforts on accountability of the perpetrators and justice for the victims and take measures to ensure the protection of victims and witnesses in such processes.
Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council and General Assembly are mandated to protect international peace and security. When regional bodies such as the African Union fail to support them in this task, they can and should undertake all necessary steps to create investigative mechanisms and to support the peaceful resolution of conflict. Given the failure of the Human Rights Council to uphold the basic human rights of people in Ethiopia, it is now for the New York-based organs of the United Nations to protect civilians and ensure that impunity does not prevail.
Now, more than ever, it is crucial that U.N. member States take collective responsibility when, as the U.N. Special Advisor on Genocide stated earlier this week, the risk of genocide is unfolding before their eyes.