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Tigray atrocities: UN-ordered probe dies due to disinterest

October 4, 2023

A commission ordered by the UN to investigate possible war crimes in the Tigray conflict will halt its work — with no country calling for it to continue. Thousands died, Tigray and the wider area are still scarred.

Two Tigray war amputees sit and wait to begin rehabilitation therapy exercises at a center in Mekelle the capital city of the Tigray region.
Both sides liberally used landmines in the conflict, the UN's Mine Action Service said this year that more than 700 square kilometers of farmland were still too dangerous to useImage: Ximena Borrazas/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

A special commission investigating allegations of war crimes by Ethiopian, Eritrean or Tigrayan forces in the Ethiopian region of Tigray appeared dead in the water on Wednesday, as a UN website showed that no motion to extend its mandate past October 13 had been made. 

"No draft resolution on Ethiopia was submitted today before 1:00 p.m. (1100 GMT) — the deadline for submitting draft resolutions to the Human Rights Council — and no demand for an extension of 24 hours was requested for Ethiopia," Pascal Sim, spokesman for the UN Human Rights Council, told the AFP news agency.

This comes despite the body saying as recently as last month not only that it was finding ample evidence of past crimes but also evidence of ongoing abuses and the risk of more in the future despite a shaky supposed peace

A young girl carries a jerrycan of drinking water on the outskirts of Mekele, the capital of Tigray. The civil war has led to the depletion and destruction of food storage, forcing millions of Tigrayans into famine.
Safe drinking water is scarce and often children will collect it for their families; this image was taken in Tigray's capital, Mekele, in May this yearImage: Ximena Borrazas/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

It cited recent fighting in the Amhara region and the failure to hold people accountable for crimes in Tigray as reasons why it deemed future war crimes probable. 

The commission found that all eight of the common risk factors for so-called "atrocity crimes" were now present in Ethiopia, plus the majority of the specific risk factors, which include ongoing serious violations, widespread violence and instability, and deeply entrenched impunity.

"We are gravely concerned about the situation in Ethiopia and the potential for future atrocities," said commission chair Mohamed Chande Othman.

What was the ICHREE? 

The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) had been created under a UN mandate in 2021 at the request of the European Union. The Reuters news agency cited diplomatic sources as saying that strong African opposition to the investigation had dissuaded countries from applying for its mandate to be renewed. 

Ethiopia's government denies allegations of abuses and has long rejected ICHREE's presence. It said it was conducting its own investigations into the conflict — an approach the UN commission described as "deeply flawed." 

A woman from a small village near the town of Samre walks near her home. Aid agencies report widespread hunger and hunger-related deaths in Tigray.
While the fighting may have stopped for the most part, widespread hunger and water shortages continue to threaten lives in TigrayImage: Ximena Borrazas/SOPA/ZUMA/picture alliance

What was the conflict about? 

Politicians from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) were long the dominant force in Ethiopian politics on a national level. Their era in power was also marked by a period of highly strained relations with Eritrea, which borders Tigray in northern Ethiopia. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed broke the TPLF's deadlock on domestic politics by winning 2018's elections. He soon started to mend fences with Eritrea and was even honored with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. But tensions with the Tigrayan leadership started to bubble up in tandem.

A year later, his government's forces started moving into Tigray, citing attacks on military facilities by Tigrayan forces as their reason to strike back. Abiy's government at first called the action a "law enforcement operation." 

According to almost all international observers, Eritrean troops also moved into Tigray and remain there to this day — though both Ethiopia and Eritrea's governments deny this. 

The war nominally lasted precisely two years, with a peace deal announced on November 3, 2022. The United States said in March that by its estimation war crimes took place during the fighting

Casualty figures are disputed and were one of the issues the ICHREE was trying to investigate. Ethiopian officials say between 80,000 and 100,000 were likely killed, researchers at Ghent University have argued the actual tally could be as high as 600,000.

Tigray: Sexual violence continues despite peace deal

EU restarting Ethiopian aid 

Since brokering the peace deal almost a year ago, Ethiopia's government has been trying to rebuild strained international ties. 

On Tuesday, the EU announced that it would unfreeze multi-year investment plans worth some €680 million (around $700 million) halted amid the war in Tigray. It said the two sides were "gradually working to normalize relations." 

Reuters news agency cited a European diplomat as saying the EU expected Ethiopia to implement a robust and transparent "transitional justice police, deal with prosecution and enhance accountability, in line with regional and international human rights standards." 

He was quoted as saying Brussels expected "quick and tangible progress in the coming months" and that inaction "could jeopardize" Tuesday's decision to let the money flow once more. 

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (left in photo in red) and French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna (right in photo) with Ethiopia's Justce Minister Gedion Temothewos and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen. January, 2023.
The German and French foreign ministers visited Ethiopia's leaders earlier this yearImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Rights observers aghast 

Lucy McKernan, who follows UN human rights mechanisms for the Human Rights Watch NGO, said on Wednesday that the failure to renew the commission's work was all the more baffling given it had just published such damning interim findings on the continued issues in Tigray almost a year after a supposed peace was brokered. 

"Having no resolution [to extend the investigation] is scandalous in the face of the report of the experts that was just published," McKernan said. 

The New York-based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, meanwhile, was similarly scathing. 

"Without the comprehensive and sustained independent investigation that ICHREE has been providing there can be little hope that survivors, their families and communities can be healed and receive justice," said Sman Zia Zarifi, the group's executive director.

Ending UN Tigray probe would set terrible precedent: Amnesty

msh/sms (AFP, Reuters)