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Tigray conflict marked by 'extreme brutality': report

November 3, 2021

The UN-led report on human rights violations in Ethiopia's Tigray holds all parties — government troops and Tigrayan forces — responsible for committing gross abuses. It even warned of possible "crimes against humanity."

Abeba Gebru, 37, from the village of Getskimilesley, holds the hands of her malnourished daughter, Tigsti Mahderekal, 20 days old, in the treatment tent of a medical clinic in the town of Abi Adi, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on May 11, 2021.
The UN warns 100,000 children in Ethiopia, mainly in Tigray, are at risk of malnutrition in the coming yearImage: Ben Curtis/AP Photo/picture alliance

All sides fighting in the  civil conflict in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region committed violations that may amount to war crimes, according to a long-awaited report published on Wednesday.

It is among the first such investigations into the human rights abuses committed during the conflict. Since fighting broke out between Ethiopian government soldiers and Tigray forces in November 2020, thousands of people have been killed and over a million have been displaced.

The report was led by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the state-formed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

The report comes a day after the Ethiopian government declared a nationwide state of emergency amid fears Tigrayan forces were preparing to march on the capital, Addis Ababa.

The origin of the civil conflict lies in the animosity between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. TPLF soldiers consider Abiy a bitter enemy. Before he became the leader of Ethiopia in 2018, the TPLF dominated national politics for nearly 30 years.


Report points to executions, torture, sexual violence

The 100-page report found evidence of "serious abuse and violations" by all sides in the conflict.

It outlines extra-judicial executions, torture and sexual violence, including testimonies from women who accused Eritrean soldiers of raping them. The abuses could amount to "crimes against humanity and war crimes."

The report covered the period from November 3, 2020, through June, 2021, when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral cease-fire, which it was subsequently accused of breaching. It draws upon information gained from 269 interviews.

"Big numbers of violations of human rights [in the report] are linked to the Ethiopian and Eritrean defense forces," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said at a press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.

"But we have seen that since the cease-fire [in early July 2021] there has been huge allegations of abuses by the Tigrayan forces and [these] continue until today," the human rights chief said.

Bachelet added in a statement that the conflict had been "marked by extreme brutality."

She insisted on the need to bring perpetrators of a vast array of rights abuses to justice: "The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable on all sides."

Ethiopian PM, TPLF slam findings

The office of the prime minister said in a press statement that it had some "serious reservations concerning some aspects of the report," but "we recognize and accept the report as an important document."

It said the report "clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the TPLF in Tigray criticized the findings as flawed, given that investigators did not visit several sites where violence occurred.

Investigators, however, said that they had faced significant security risks and administrative challenges and were unable to carry out all planned visits in parts of Tigray. 

The Ethiopian government has banned almost all human rights watchdog organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It has also barred international media from entering the country.

The involvement of Ethiopia's state-created human rights organization has also stoked fears among some parties that it has been influenced by government authorities.

Those fears deepened after Ethiopia expelled seven UN officials last month, including one of the UN rights office's investigators.

Ethiopia's human rights chief: All parties 'credibly implicated'

The chief of Ethiopia's Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, told DW on Wednesday: "The conclusion is that all parties in the conflict, which includes the Ethiopian forces and Eritrean forces and the Tigrayan forces, along with their allied militia, are credibly implicated with serious human rights violations and abuses, including targeting civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture and displacement, as well as quite brutal sexual and gender-based violence."

He called on parties to "commit to concrete measures on accountability, redress for victims and sustainable solutions to end the suffering of millions."

Journalist Samuel Getachew told DW from Addis Ababa that the views of displaced people in the Ethiopian regions of Afar and Amhara and elsewhere were "really highlighted in this [UN-led] report."

"While it focuses on Tigray, they're accusing the other side of again committing the same kind of crime. In all places I've been to in Ethiopia, the accusations seem to be uniform. Both sides are accusing the other side of committing crimes. But ultimately, will the UN or Ethiopia commit enough resources to investigate? Because there are many, many victims that this conflict has produced since the beginning of the conflict just a year ago."

How has the international community responded?

Following the release of the report, German Foreign Office spokesperson Christopher Burger told DW's Richard Walker that fighting parties must find a political resolution: "The conflict has played out in an armed fashion for over a year and from the latest developments it is apparent that there can be no military resolution. All parties must set aside hostilities and instead seek a political solution to the conflict. Ethnically motivated hate and discriminatory rhetoric are particularly dangerous to Ethiopia's unity."

Eva Grambye, deputy executive director at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which is working closely with Ethiopia's Human Rights Commission on their reform process, told DW: "I think it seems to be a very important piece of documentation, a systematic and a strong indication that this report actually can become an important document also for future prosecution."

Report backs similar findings

Amnesty International published a report in August, 2021, saying that the "severity and scale of the sexual crimes committed" were particularly shocking and amounted to "war crimes and possible crimes against humanity."

The UN has also previously raised concerns several times about the government blocking aid to regions or the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. It estimates that malnutrition could affect more than 100,000 children in the next year.

The Ethiopian government has denied blocking aid and said that it has tried individual soldiers for abuses, though it has not provided any details.

Over 7 million people, including 5 million in the Tigray region, are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UN figures. Phone, internet, and banking services remain cut off.

kmm, rm/msh (Reuters, AP)