The United Nations on Wednesday condemned possible “war crimes” uncovered in a joint investigation into the bloody year-long war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The highly anticipated report was published almost a year to the day since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against Tigray’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Twelve months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, displaced more than 2 million people from their homes, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.
Now, with combined rebel forces edging closer to Addis Ababa, fears are growing that the conflict could spiral into all-out war.
The joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission (EHRC) released on Wednesday offers the most comprehensive look to date into the conflict’s impact on civilians, detailing extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement.
The investigation draws from interviews with 269 victims and witnesses of alleged violations, who detail horrific abuse:
A 26-year-old woman in Adet, who said she was gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers in front of her 3-year-old daughter. A man in Mai Kadra attacked by a Tigrayan youth group with machetes, shot in the back and thrown into a fire. A Tigrayan fighter who said she saw Ethiopian soldiers torture prisoners at a military camp with electric cables, plastic-covered metal rods and wooden sticks.
It is the only human rights probe to have been allowed into the blockaded Tigray region since fighting broke out, and may be the best shot that the international community has at establishing the facts on the ground.
Yet the UN and EHRC stopped short of calling the conflict in Tigray a genocide or laying blame for human rights violations at the feet of one group, saying that all parties to the conflict had “committed violations of international human rights” which “may amount to war crimes.”
The joint investigation is a rare partnership that has raised eyebrows among Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers, who have flagged concerns about its independence from government influence. But the UN on Wednesday reaffirmed its impartiality.
“Of course, it is impartial … the report stands for itself,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said during the Geneva news conference, adding: “We did not come under pressure from the government.”
But she acknowledged that investigators were hampered by restricted access to some sites in Tigray, where eyewitnesses and rights groups say some of the worst atrocities of the conflict have been perpetrated.
Bachelet also confirmed that a UN human rights officer who worked on the report was among seven UN officials declared “persona non grata” and expelled from Ethiopia last month on accusations of “meddling in domestic issues” — a claim that she rejected.