UN human rights investigators should not work with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a state-funded institution that lacks political independence.
On 3 November, a military conflict erupted between the Ethiopian federal government and the regional government of Tigray. On 28 November, almost three weeks after the start of the conflict, the federal government announced the conclusion of the war, after it controlled the capital city of the region, Mekele. Despite this, fighting continues.
Tigray is currently affected by a major humanitarian crisis. More than four million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, over two million have been displaced inside the region, and over 65,000 people have fled to refugee camps in Sudan.
Although international humanitarian organizations have been granted better humanitarian access to assist victims, there are still a lot of people who need relief. Despite the government disclosing an exaggerated number of aid beneficiaries, many rural areas of Tigray are still without much humanitarian aid.
On top of this, credible reports coming from victims, international human rights institutions, the media, and Tigray-based political parties have indicated that serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law have been committed.
Eritrean forces have engaged in large-scale looting, mass massacres, rampant sexual violence, and crimes against humanity. Amhara forces have also perpetrated ethnic cleansing in the Southern and Western and North-Western zones of Tigray.
Some 700,000 people have escaped to Central and Eastern Tigray from the west, which is currently controlled by Amhara militias and special forces. Furthermore, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) appear to have used collective rape as an instrument of war.
Human rights organizations, human rights defenders, and activists from Tigray have called for an independent investigation following the perpetrated crimes. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also emphasized the importance of an independent investigation.
The Ethiopian government rejected any form of independent inquiry, on the pretext of sovereignty, for several months. However, following Amnesty International’s report on the Aksum massacre, it began to step back from its initial position and called for a joint investigation.
Consequently, OHCHR accepted and announced that it was prepared to carry out a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
However, there are various reasons that make EHRC’s participation in the investigation counter-productive in exposing the truth and bringing about justice and reconciliation.
From a structural point of view, although a legally “autonomous” federal institution, the EHRC is part of the government. Its existence depends on state funding and its commissioners are appointed by parliament. Accordingly, there are few reasons to assume that it would be impartial when conducting investigations into suspected serious violations of international criminal law by state actors.
From a legal standpoint, the EHRC reports to the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The parliament is meant to represent all the people of the federation. However, currently, the people of Tigray are not represented in the parliament. It is concerning that the commission is reporting to parliament about crimes committed predominantly against members of a particular ethnic group without that group having any political representation in the parliament.
Since the early days of the Tigray war, the commission has issued three preliminary reports, and all of them have been harshly criticized for good reasons.
In the first report on the Mai Kadra massacre two weeks after the incident occurred, the commission blamed TPLF and Samri, a youth group allegedly affiliated with the TPLF, for attacking ethnic Amharas. EHRC could have deployed a team of investigators to uncover the truth and investigate in depth over several weeks. But, instead, it came out with a one-sided preliminary report that presents ethnic Amharas as the sole victims. The report, therefore, completely disregarded alternative accounts of Tigrayans who fled to other parts of Tigray and neighboring Sudan.
In a subsequent interview, the Chief Commissioner of EHRC, Daniel Bekele, has, without any investigation, yet with certainty, accused some refugees of being perpetrators of the Mai Kadra massacre, and said there is a need to be cautious about their testimonies. The Chief Commissioner’s accusatory statement is consistent with what the Prime Minister said to the parliament. Daniel didn’t stop there but went on to further downplay the grave human rights violations taking place in Tigray.
Furthermore, the commission that reported the preliminary investigation on the Mai Kadra incident a fortnight after the incident failed to conduct a prompt preliminary investigation into the atrocities committed in various parts of Tigray such as Dengelat, Bora, and Debre Abay. Its preliminary report on the Aksum massacre did not come until four months after the incident.
Accordingly, this long and disappointing silence on these tragic events has put its credibility and independence into question.
A review of the content of the preliminary reports conducted by EHRC on the Tigray war also reveals serious inconsistencies and prejudices with regard to indicating accountability. In its controversial Mai Kadra report, the commission concluded authoritatively that Tigrayan elements were solely responsible for the massacre. However, it did not unequivocally place responsibility on the Ethiopian government for atrocities committed by members of ENDF in other reports.
Furthermore, despite the fact that the commission published findings of 108 rape cases in Ayder and Adigrat hospitals in Mekelle, it has not specified responsibility. But, the victims, the media, independent human rights institutions, and the interim administration officials of Tigray have given testimonies accusing Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces.
This pattern of bias says a lot about the overall independence and integrity of the institution.
Lack of trust
If we are to have an independent, credible investigation, it has to be victim-focused. That is, survivors’ and victims’ testimonies have to be at the heart of the investigations. However, it appears that Daniel’s EHRC is not fully trusted by Tigrayan victims. That is why the announcement of a joint investigation was met with fierce opposition from Tigrayans.
Ethnicity also plays a role in this mistrust as many Tigrayans feel that the EHRC has a bias against Tigrayans. EHRC’s one-sided Mai Kadra report has intensified this concern and created, among Tigrayans, the perception that EHRC is a pro-Amhara organization that cannot be trusted.
Accordingly, an investigation that involves EHRC might be tantamount to sidelining victims and survivors—the very group of people that should be at the heart of the investigations.
EHRC’s organizational reform is still underway and it has not yet demonstrated its institutional capability. Indeed, its record with regards to human rights inquiries over the last three years has been unremarkable. Ethnic conflicts and massacres in different parts of Ethiopia such as Guji, Gedeo, Konso, Shashemene, and Metekel were not investigated promptly and in-depth.
The process of conducting investigations into grave atrocities such as the one in Tigray is a complex task that requires first-rate institutional capacity.
There is a process of collection and verification of information, thorough registration of events, and preparation of documentary evidence for further investigation or prosecution. The process also includes recommending actions to correct breaches, provide justice and redress to victims, and hold perpetrators accountable.
However, on top of the challenge of bias and integrity, the EHRC does not have the capacity or experience to conduct such a wide-ranging, sensitive, and intricate investigation.
Related to this, it is worth noting that the UN’s decision to conduct a joint investigation with the EHRC is unusual. The UN has never allowed national human rights institutions, like the EHRC, to jointly investigate allegations of serious international crimes, including ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
Accordingly, although an independent investigation is critical, it should be noted that a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an organization that is effectively part of the government, wouldn’t bring about justice and reconciliation. Indeed, this flies in the face of the principles of justice, independence, and fairness.
Therefore, the OHCHR should review its decision and launch a genuinely independent investigation that victims, survivors, and the broader Tegaru community could trust.