The UN rights chief on Wednesday slammed the “extreme brutality” of the year-long war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, voicing alarm that a recent state of emergency would inflame the situation.
Speaking in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet insisted on the need to bring to justice perpetrators of a vast array of rights abuses, including horrific killings and the gang rape of mothers in front of their children.
“Civilians in Tigray have been subjected to brutal violence and suffering,” she told reporters.
The “extreme brutality” underscores “the need to hold perpetrators accountable on all sides,” she said.
A joint investigation by her office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into abuses warned of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all sides during the Tigray conflict.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into the northern region in November 2020 to detain and disarm the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom he accused of attacking army camps.
Since then, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of others have been forced into famine-like conditions, according to the UN.
Wednesday’s joint report, which covers the period from last November through June, when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire, found evidence of “serious abuses and violations” by all sides.
There were “reasonable grounds to believe that a number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” it added.
Bachelet voiced alarm that the situation has since deteriorated, particularly since Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday amid fears Tigrayan rebels were heading for the capital.
– ‘Over the edge’ –
“This risks compounding an already very serious human rights situation in the country,” Bachelet said.
“The risks are grave that… these extremely broad measures … will deepen divisions, endanger civil society and human rights defenders, provoke greater conflict and only add to the human suffering already at unacceptable levels.”
Bachelet said most of the violations documented in Wednesday’s report were carried out by Ethiopian forces and Eritrean troops, who have provided military support to Addis Ababa.
But since June an increasing number of violations by the TPLF had been documented, she said.
In response, Abiy said his government took “seriously” the “troubling” allegations of violations committed by Ethiopian forces and was “committed to bringing perpetrators to justice” but rejected allegations of genocide.
The findings “have clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis,” he said.
Bachelet insisted further investigation was needed.
Investigators say they faced significant security, operational and administrative challenges and were unable to carry out all planned visits in parts of Tigray.
– Gang rapes –
The TPLF branded EHRC involvement “an affront to the notion of impartiality,” before the report came out.
Ethiopia expelled seven UN officials last month, including one of the UN investigators.
The report, based on 269 interviews with victims and witnesses, described endemic torture, people beaten with electric cables and metal pipes, intentionally starved, and the gang rapes of children, men and women.
It detailed how thousands of civilians were forced to flee as a result of killings, rapes, destruction and looting of property, fears of reprisals and ethnic and identity-based attacks, particularly in western Tigray.
The report highlighted abuses carried out by Eritrean troops who forcefully returned Eritrean refugees in Tigray to Eritrea.
The investigators reported that a 16-year-old boy was allegedly raped by nine Eritrean soldiers and later committed suicide.
The report urged Eritrea to release all Eritrean refugees forcibly returned to the country and recommended that the UN consider creating an international team tasked with gathering evidence for possible future criminal prosecution.