A Glimpse into the false start and the dangers surrounding the joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation in Tigray

A Glimpse into the false start and the dangers surrounding the joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation in Tigray

My name is Michael Minassie. I was an interpreter/translator for the joint Ethiopian Human Rights Commission – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (EHRC-OHCHR) investigation into the reported human rights violations in Tigray. After ten days of employment, I was forced to resign from my original interpreter/translator position and was instead offered the task of monitoring the human rights situation in Tigray. From my discussions with the OHCHR team, I have come to understand that my removal from the joint investigation team was solely due to the EHRC’s undue interference in the OHCHR’s internal processes.

In this brief, I would like to address three major issues. First, I provide details of why I was forced to resign from the joint investigation. Second, I also give an account of what I witnessed during my short but eventful time as member of the EHRC-OHCHR joint investigation team during the preparations and early days of the joint investigation. Third and most importantly, I discuss why the joint investigation fails to meet the minimum standard of an independent and comprehensive inquiry under United Nations (UN) guidelines.

Spanning three decades, my professional experience in journalism, communications, and public information includes work with the UN Mission in South Sudan/Sudan (UNMISS+UNMIS), where I served as Radio Producer and Programmes Coach. I have previously held roles at the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and Internews. For more than 15 years, I worked at Ethiopian Television, a national TV station with the largest reach in Ethiopia. Chief among the prominent programmes I produced was ‘Worento’ – an investigative programme focusing on human rights violations, abuse of power, corruption, and accountability. I was also the producer and host of a popular interview show in the English language, ‘Mekelle Foresight,’ broadcast by Tigray TV. ‘Mekelle Foresight’ focused on Ethiopia’s politics, human rights, tensions, and how to avert war in Ethiopia. I hosted over 40 high-profile current affairs interviews and documentaries. The show was disrupted a couple of weeks after the declaration of war on Tigray on November 4, 2020. With the imminent takeover of Mekelle by Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s combined forces, I, along with other journalists who feared for our lives, went into hiding outside Tigray’s capital. On December 25, 2020, I decided to return to Mekelle city, and eventually moved to Addis Ababa, where I kept a low profile.

Although I had a Schengen visa at hand, it was difficult for me and many other ethnic Tigrayans to exit Ethiopia after the war on Tigray started. In early May 2021, I began seeking income sources for my family while concealing myself from the watchful eyes of the government and local informants. An opportunity presented itself for me in this dire situation. It all started when I received a call from an acquaintance who I knew during my assignment with the UN Mission in Sudan and South Sudan. He intimated to me of a forthcoming UN job opening and recommended that I apply. 

After applying for the job in mid-May 2021, I was successfully recruited by the OHCHR to serve as an interpreter/translator for the joint (EHRC-OHCHR) investigation into the reported human rights abuses in Tigray. I thought this internationally sanctioned assignment would provide me with some immunity, at least as long as it were to last, which I was told was for three months. Tracking and investigating the widespread persecution, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement and summary dismissals from jobs meted out against Tigrayans throughout the country, I should have known better. I accepted the position, and that is how, on May 16, 2021, I went back to Mekelle. My first day on the job began with a half-day induction on May 17, 2021 when investigators and interpreters of the joint investigation were briefed on the assignment and met with one another. During that meeting, participants who spoke, like myself, made our commitment clear to abide by the rules and remain impartial.

What happened afterwards, however, is strange, to say the least. We were told that the EHRC objected to the involvement of two interpreters, myself included, hired by the UN and demanded that we get removed from our positions. The EHRC team apparently argued with the UN team that we lacked the impartiality required for the task – I say apparently because the discussions happened in the absence of the two of us implicated by the accusation. We only came to know about it from a briefing by the UN team. The accusation that I lacked impartiality was based on my prior work with Tigray TV. For my colleague, it was because of his Facebook profile picture. So, we were not given the opportunity to defend our position. We were informed by the OHCHR Addis Ababa Office that the EHRC opposed our recruitment and that the OHCHR had no other option but to remove us from the joint investigation. In that briefing, we were told the OHCHR tried to defend us against the unjust and discriminatory stand of the EHRC. I would also like to believe that the UN side stood against the EHRC’s undue effort to impose its will on the UN, a body with global legitimacy and an equal partner in the task at hand. To my surprise, the EHRC offered to hire interpreters for the investigation, which the UN apparently refused.

Having been unjustly removed by way of resignation from the joint-investigation team as Tigrayans, the UN eventually offered us, the aggrieved, another job as human rights violations monitors in Tigray. I personally was aware of the pressure the UN side had to endure and understood its caution to avoid being bogged down with wrangling from the start. Despite understanding the difficult situation the UN found itself in, questions still remained as to how and why this situation came to be; the OHCHR did not clearly communicate with us here. So, aggravated by my experience, I started investigating to get to the bottom of our dismissal. Moreover, I also started to gather information informally – informally because we were not issued UN IDs yet and wanted to be as discreet as possible so as not to attract the ire of the security personnel – and look into the human rights issues from sources in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and others affected by the war.

Almost all circumstantial evidence I gathered appears to point to one main reason for our dismissal. It relates to EHRC’s decision to control the probe and steer its outcome in a certain direction. In the course of my research, I found out that the EHRC had ulterior motives to hide or skew critical issues in the human rights investigation in Tigray. The ulterior motive of the EHRC became evident when the joint teams started their investigation work in the IDP camps in Mekelle. For instance, when investigating the atrocities that happened in Mai Kadra, they showed reluctance in uncovering the truth from the Tigrayan victims and survivors, who are still alive and sheltered in IDP camps in Mekelle and Shire or have crossed the border to Sudan. The rest have been evicted from their land due to Amhara forces’ ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans. Instead of going into the investigations without preconceived notions about the atrocities and the identity of the perpetrators, the EHRC was biased from the start–clinging to the findings of the methodologically flawed Mai Kadra report. 

The lead investigator in the November 2020 Mai Kadra investigation, Albab Tesfaye, was also a member of the joint investigation team. And despite Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner of the EHRC, having to admit that Tigrayans were victims in Mai Kadra in June 2021, the joint investigation team came in with preconceived notions based on accounts of the events that were proven false by accounts from Tigrayan refugees in Sudan who recounted their experience of the brutal massacres against Tigrayans in Mai Kadra.

The investigators seem to have made up their mind as to what to expect from the IDPs before having interviewed them. During the half-day induction, one of the EHRC investigators who facilitated the presentation on the code of conduct of interpreters cautioned us that we would come across people who would tell us lies about things that never happened. As a member of the investigation team, he was supposed to be open-minded and not second-guess the response of the victims even before he met them. In essence, he told us to not just interpret word for word what the victims were saying, but instead selectively choose what to translate–something which is not the job of an interpreter. It is up to the investigator to find ways of fact-checking the claim, not the interpreter.

From the information I received from the IDP camp authorities, some EHRC investigators acted like police interrogating alleged criminals. This is incredibly worrying as, according to the sources, the EHRC investigators did not take into account the victims’ traumatic experiences during this period. For instance, when an IDP who fled for his life gives testimony about how his family members and friends were killed after they remained in their areas, one would find it in the investigator’s mandate to try to learn how he came to learn of the killing, record his response, and check the veracity of the testimony through multiple sourcing. Instead, they engaged in arguments trying to corner victims through rigorous cross-questioning and derogating his or her claim. That is overstepping the professional bounds. Their tone, according to the sources, was also intimidating and demeaning. My sources went on to say that anyone appearing on the scene in the middle of the interview would know whether the investigator was part of the EHRC or OHCHR from the interview techniques the respective partners employ.

Even when they faced IDPs in Mekelle, the investigators focused many of their questions on humanitarian aid and the situation in the camps, instead of focusing on reported human rights violations and war crimes. The purpose of this strategy was two-pronged: firstly, it is to deprive the victims of enough time to testify about cases of acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, widespread and systematic rape and other gross human rights violations, which should have been the team’s major preoccupation as per the mandate of the investigation. Secondly, by prodding the IDPs to complain about humanitarian relief and camp management, the EHRC team wanted the blame to be shifted to the international community. It is interesting to note that one of the EHRC investigators criticized the international community for not matching their calls for the Tigray government to allow uninhibited humanitarian access, and in doing so was parroting a narrative that trickled down all the way from the Ethiopian Government. In fact, the lack of humanitarian access has been widely attributed to the Ethiopian government as reported by aid organizations on the ground and credible international media outlets.

Indicative of the power imbalance of the joint investigation, the dismissal of my colleague and myself illustrates just how much power the EHRC has to dictate terms in its work with the independent work of the OHCHR. The OHCHR recruited me and the other interpreter-translator according to the UN’s rules and regulations in line with the standard for staffing investigations. That despite the protest from the OHCHR, the EHRC was allowed, and able to rid of even those recruited by the UN is indicative of a much more dangerous state of affairs and sinister desire to determine the findings of the investigation in a certain way. The crisis of independence and impartiality of the joint investigation can also be corroborated by the fact that the composition of the investigators lacks the diversity of professionals drawn from different parts of the country. Not only was the selection process shrouded in secrecy, but it is also widely believed that key investigators of a desired ethnicity dominated the EHRC team. Some of the remaining interpreters-translators are currently facing illegal interference and pressure from EHRC to resign from their role. The EHRC’s key investigators are intensifying pressure on interpreters/translators that are still working. This also indicates OHCHR intensifying failure to shield itself from unwarranted interference.

In its desperate effort to keep its partnership with EHRC and the Ethiopian Government, the OHCHR has permitted the EHRC to interfere in its staff members’ internal recruitment and retention. Our forced resignations and the composition of key investigators indicate the problems at the core of the joint investigation. OHCHR has sacrificed the independence and impartiality of the investigation for the sake of keeping a partnership with EHRC.

Though short, my exposure to the internal workings of the joint investigation has convinced me that the joint investigation fails to meet the minimum standard of an independent and comprehensive investigation as stipulated under the UN guidelines. 

My observations and my ongoing conversations with those contacted for interviews indicate that confidentiality and anonymity of the victims interviewed may not be ensured. The EHRC and its investigators are appointed to operate under the strict purview and control of the Ethiopian government, which in turn has interfered with the OHCHR’s internal functioning. Because of the highly sophisticated Ethiopian and Eritrean security apparatus, victims and witnesses did not feel safe in telling their stories. They are afraid, reluctant, and unsure about answering questions.

After my forced resignation, I faced more pressure and the threat of persecution. With the reported round-ups of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and travel bans on some who tried to fly out of the country, I started to look for ways to relocate outside of the country. It is horrifying to note that all this time, the EHRC, after depriving us of our right to work based on false accusation and discrimination, did not stop at that. It continued to harass us. I have reason to believe that  the EHRC team leader was working with government security forces, putting us under their strict surveillance. Speaking for myself, I have tangible tips from those concerned about my security that I was closely followed and could have been exposed to some form of harm as a result. Afraid for my safety, I decided to leave my consolation job and fly out of the country. I was lucky to have made it through the airport with its numerous security checkpoints. 

Additionally, I have recently learned that the EHRC team has asked another interpreter to “resign or face the consequences.” This is yet another indication that the EHRC team has continued to flaunt its discrimination and obstruction at whim. The architect of the botched Mai Kadra investigation is again at the centre of all these injustices. The OHCHR has allowed the EHRC to dictate the process of investigation.

The joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation has not established an impartial and independent account of the atrocities in Tigray. There are many reasons for this, but the main ones are the involvement of the EHRC as a proxy for the Ethiopian and Amhara governments and the OHCHR’s decision to succumb to the pressure from the Ethiopian government. The EHRC and its leadership are publicly and broadly perceived as siding with Abiy’s administration among the Tigray populace. The involvement of the EHRC has been counterproductive, as people have decided to not cooperate with the investigations. Tigrayans expect the inquiry to be conducted independently by an UN-mandated body.

So, this is far beyond an attack on my person, a trampling of my right to work. It is about the victims’ right to justice and effective remedies. It is about establishing truth and facts for the sake of dialogue and reconciliation in the country.

The joint investigation has not offered an independent, impartial and credible international report on the egregious violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law committed against the people of Tigray. An independent, UN-mandated commission of inquiry is essential in finding the path of peace making in Ethiopia.

Michael Minassie December 17, 2021