Omna Tigray: Leaked Audio Recording of Tigray Meeting on Weaponized SGBV Held by the Ethiopian Country Offices of Various UN Agencies

On August 12th, Omna Tigray received a leaked audio recording of a meeting held by the Ethiopian country offices of various UN agencies on March 26, 2021. The meeting was held to form a common position and unified response to presumed “sensationalist kind of questioning” from the media following statements by the Office of the Secretary-General  on the role of weaponized rape in the genocidal war on Tigray. The audio was leaked to our organization by a whistleblower on conditions of anonymity. We welcome all efforts to verify its validity. 

The atrocities and weaponized sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) committed against Tigrayan women and girls by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces had been widely documented by various credible international organizations at the time this meeting was held. Yet, the attached audio and verbatim transcription provide insight into 1) a UN procedure in which evidence must be verified and accepted, in this instance, by the Ethiopian government in order to be deemed credible and 2) hesitancy by UN Ethiopia country offices and UN Women to use anecdotal evidence in the pursuit of justice and accountability for Tigrayan SGBV survivors. 

More specifically, the leaked audio exhibits the UN country offices’ stance in that evidence needs to be verified and approved by the Ethiopian state, a belligerent to the conflict that stands accused of all manner of atrocities including the weaponization of rape, extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. This content in the audio compounds existing concerns regarding the UN’s decision to conduct a joint investigation with the state-appointed and state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), whose brazen bias against Tigrayan victims has been laid bare since the onset of the conflict. Involving the Ethiopian government and the EHRC (given the nature of the state influence on the institution) in investigations may introduce biases in evidence evaluation, provide leeway for the institution to decide if or to what extent the Ethiopian state has committed atrocities, and greatly affect the credibility in reporting and the degree of justice for survivors. 

Aside from the stated need for approval in evidence, the audio also shares various UN stakeholders’ hesitancy in utilizing anecdotal evidence for media responses and in pursuing justice and accountability of Tigrayan SGBV survivors. Note, however, this meeting was held at a time when multiple reports and statements regarding weaponized SGBV in Tigray had been shared by credible, international organizations and individuals, including the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Ms. Pramila Patten, as early as January of this year. UN agencies also supported Tigrayan women and girls by providing shelter and care in their safehouses, which offers a small glimpse into the atrocities faced and provides a source for evidence.

It is particularly problematic that the views against usage of individual testimonies were most vocally espoused by UN Women Representative to Ethiopia Letty Chiwara, who can be heard stating, “Until such a time when OHCHR and the Commission for Human Rights (EHRC) have finished their investigations, I would not feel comfortable, as a UN entity or as a whole UN, for us within Ethiopia, to begin to say we have evidence,” deviating from the Secretary General Office’s official position. She also dismisses the gravity of and belief in sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war reported in the media, by referring to it as “media hype.”

Although the meeting was prompted by a need for the country offices to align on a unified position regarding weaponized SGBV in Tigray, it’s clear that this position was implicitly defined. To avoid reporting victim testimony as evidence, it was suggested to instead shift the “conversation away from ‘How many women? What kind of violence?’ to ‘the work that has been done.’” This language dismisses the gravity of weaponized SGBV committed against Tigrayan women and girls and the urgency for action needed in response. 

It is estimated that tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped throughout Tigray in an attempt to demoralize and “cleanse the blood line” of the Tigrayan people. The dismissal and whitewashing of the atrocities committed against Tigrayan SGBV survivors by the UN Ethiopia country offices is appalling and warrants condemnation. 

Alongside our immediate calls to the international community, we continue to urge the UN and its respective agencies to: 

  1. Operate and conduct investigations into the war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other atrocities independently and without influence from the state-appointed and state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission; 
  2. Treat the Ethiopian government as a belligerent to the conflict and the principal party accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other atrocities including weaponized rape; 
  3. Admit first hand accounts from victims as credible evidence alongside other corroborating evidence in efforts to push for action, inclusive of justice, and accountability; and 
  4. Respect, support, and believe Tigrayan survivors of weaponized sexual and gender-based violence.

OMNA TigrayPress Release, August 14, 2021