In March 2021, the United Nations (UN) agreed to conduct a joint investigation of the human rights violations committed by all actors during the conflict in Tigray with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Since November 2020, mass atrocities, including war crimes have been committed against innocent civilians by various parties around the region. In order to hold the perpetrators accountable and bring justice to the victims, an independent investigation of the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide is needed. The EHRC is not an independent organization, therefore, a joint investigation will not be impartial or credible.
The EHRC’s lack of impartiality, credibility, and promptness has been evident since the start of the conflict in November 2020. Many reports of atrocities have surfaced since the beginning of the conflict. Some of these atrocities include the massacre of civilians, weaponized starvation, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and destruction and looting of essential infrastructures. Yet, the EHRC has failed to investigate or issue statements on several of these atrocities being committed during the genocidal war in Tigray.
Lack of Impartiality, Credibility and Promptness
Delays in investigations carried out by the EHRC and sharing of findings contribute to the EHRC’s lack of credibility. On February 26, 2021, Amnesty International (AI) reported the massacre in Axum. It was not until after this investigation occurred and the findings were reported that the EHRC visited Axum to conduct their own investigation. The results from this investigation were not released until March 23, 2021, nearly four months after the massacre. This delay is a red flag because the EHRC is not taking initiative to address human rights violations, diminishing the organization’s credibility.
Language used by the EHRC demonstrates its lack of partiality, as it endorses land grabbing, ethnic cleansing, and genocide against Tigrayans. For example, it uses phrases like “Residents of Tigray,” instead of “the people of Tigray” or “Tigrayans.” This is a deliberate attempt to undermine the Tigrayan suffering and identity. Also in referring to Western Tigray as “North-Western Ethiopia,” they are affiliating Western Tigray regions with Amhara region instead of Tigray. Tigrayans are being forced to leave their homes in Western Tigray, as Amharas are now administering the territory, claiming the contested land as their own. It is important that language remains neutral, but the EHRC has not been able to fulfill this basic requirement as an independent body tasked with conducting an impartial investigation.
EHRC as an Institutional Tool to Cover up Atrocities in Tigray
The EHRC is an institutional tool used by the Ethiopian federal government to conceal or downplay its heinous crimes. After the government declared the war was over, the EHRC followed along with this false narrative by discussing post-conflict reconstruction in Tigray. The EHRC would know the war is far from over if it were being truthful in its claims of conducting investigations and “monitoring closely the human rights situation since the start of the conflict on 4 November 2020,” as they have continuously stated. Despite its claims of independence, it closely aligns itself with the Ethiopian federal government and repeats the government’s statements.
The US State Department and many other institutions have repeatedly pronounced that massive ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans has been taking place in Western Tigray, as the Amhara militia either kill or force Tigrayans to flee as they take over their houses and properties. Given the ethnic nature of the war, EHRC employees cannot impartially investigate the gross human rights violations and ethnic cleansing committed by Amhara militia in Southern and Western Tigray. This has already been demonstrated as one report released by EHRC cites Dansha’s (district in Western Tigray) administrator, who was installed by the Amhara regional state, as saying “Tigrayans live peacefully in the area, but those residents who felt at risk were provided with transportation to their chosen destinations.” This is an example of how the EHRC tactically avoids naming the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans that has been taking place in Western Tigray. It is a manipulative and biased account of the experiences of Tigrayans, as it minimizes and invalidates the true situation.
In recent EHRC reports regarding Tigray, the focus has largely been on atrocities committed by Eritrean soldiers, with little mention of the atrocities committed by Ethiopian soldiers. However, according to refugees, the UN, and credible international media outlets, Ethiopian soldiers have taken part in the atrocities being committed in Tigray, alongside Eritrean soldiers and Amhara militia, particularly in SGBV, and extrajudicial killings. This oversight of Ethiopian-committed crimes is intentional and further undermines the EHRC’s credibility.
The attempts to cover up atrocities in Tigray could easily be seen by comparing the Ethiopian government’s response to the EHRC’s investigation of the Mai Kadra massacre with that of Amnesty’s investigation of the Axum massacre. The EHRC provided a biased and incomplete report on the Mai Kadra massacre, only to conclude that ethnic Amharas were targeted in Mai Kadra by Tigrayans. The Ethiopian government did not question the EHRC’s reporting on Mai Kadra, despite other reports of contradicting eye-witness testimonies. In fact, Amnesty was quick to publish the EHRC’s findings, though later amended its conclusions, stating “It’s possible that civilians from both ethnicities were targeted in Mai-Kadra.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration was quick to conclude that Amnesty’s report of the Axum massacre was flawed. They released a statement blaming Tigrayan authorities for the killings of hundreds of Tigrayans in the city of Axum in November 2020. In their view, because the Tigrayan forces attacked the Northern Command, they are now ‘primarily responsible’ for all that has followed since.
The EHRC released their report on the Axum massacre only after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that Eritrean troops were present in Tigray during his address on March 23, 2021. They had conducted a “rapid investigation mission” from February 27 to March 5, 2021, but findings were not released until March 24, 2021. The alignment of the publishing date of the report with the Prime Minister’s address likely suggests the connection between the EHRC and the government of Ethiopia.
EHRC Commissioner is Not Neutral
In addition to the entire EHRC institution, Daniel Bekele, the Chief Commissioner, is neither independent nor neutral. He was appointed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and, therefore, is connected to the Ethiopian federal government. Since the start of the conflict, he has portrayed the Ethiopian military as “peacekeepers,” amidst allegations of the crimes they have committed in Tigray.
His non-neutrality is evident as he has downplayed atrocities during the genocidal war in Tigray. He has also been repeating the government’s narrative that the war in Tigray is over, despite atrocities being committed after the government took control of Mekelle in late November 2020. He has blamed local community members of perpetrating SGBV when there is mounting evidence of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces committing weaponized rape.
The EHRC and its Chief Commissioner have been engaged in the coverup of serious allegations of atrocities. The EHRC did not call for evidence preservation, access, or monitoring. It has simply stated that it has been “unable to access certain areas,” without stating why or if it was refused access to the region. In addition, there has been a lack of transparency in the investigations carried out by the EHRC, including the investigation of the Mai Kadra massacre.
A Call for Independent Investigations
Independent investigations must be conducted by trusted organizations. Human rights organizations are supposed to protect victims of human rights violations. Tigrayans do not trust the EHRC because they are the perpetrators and oppressors of these ongoing mass atrocities. The EHRC is not a trusted entity amongst Tigrayans in Ethiopia or outside of Ethiopia. It is not seen as an entity independent of the Ethiopian federal government.
With lack of trust and witness protection, and fear of witness intimidation, there are also legitimate concerns of non-cooperation with EHRC investigations. Thus, any outcome of the investigation will never be seen as credible by the victims’ communities.
In order to have a fully independent investigation of the human rights violations against Tigrayans, a UN-mandated investigation – without the EHRC – is an essential first step towards the path of peace making in Ethiopia. The inclusion of the EHRC, an organization that lacks credibility, impartiality, and independence, is only going to result in a biased investigation that is unjust for the victims of these atrocities.
Omna Tigray Contributor, June 2021