The United Nations human rights chief has said a highly awaited joint investigation into abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict was unable to deploy to the site of one of its deadliest attacks, the alleged massacre of several hundred people in the holy city of Axum.
Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council on Monday that deployments to eastern and central Tigray, where witnesses have accused Ethiopian and allied forces from neighbouring Eritrea of some of the worst abuses of the 10-month war, “could not proceed”.
She cited “sudden changes in the security situation and in the conflict dynamics”. She did not give details.
The war saw a dramatic shift in late June when the Tigray forces retook much of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and Ethiopian and allied forces withdrew.
The shift in the war occurred about midway in the work of the joint investigation by the UN human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, carried out between May 16 and August 20.
The joint report will be published on November 1, a delay from its once-expected release this month.
“It is already clear that cases documented comprise multiple allegations of human rights violations, including attacks on civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances among other grave abuses,” Bachelet said.
“Sexual and gender-based violence has been characterised by a pattern of extreme brutality, including gang rapes, sexualised torture and ethnically targeted sexual violence.”
Bachelet added that during the period under review, Tigrayan forces had allegedly been responsible for attacks on civilians, including indiscriminate killings resulting in nearly 76,500 people being displaced in the Afar region and an estimated 200,000 others in Amhara.
More than 200 individuals have reportedly been killed in the most recent clashes in these regions, and 88 individuals, including children, have been wounded, she said.
“We have also received serious reports of recruitment of children into the conflict by Tigrayan forces, which is prohibited under international law,” Bachelet said.
A joint statement last week said the team conducted investigations in the Tigray regional capital of Mekele, as well as the communities of Wukro, Samre, Alamata, Bora, Maichew, Dansha, Maikadra and Humera in the southern and western parts of the region.
The team also carried out investigations in Gondar and Bahir Dar in the neighbouring Amhara region along with Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Conflict ‘risks engulfing Horn of Africa’
Northern Ethiopia has been mired in conflict since November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray to remove the regional governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps. The TPLF said federal forces and their allies launched a “coordinated attack”.
The fighting has dragged on, with multiple reports of mass killings and other alleged war crimes, and hundreds of thousands suffering famine.
In June, Tigrayan forces retook Tigray’s capital Mekelle and federal forces largely withdrew. Since then, the Tigrayan forces have launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and triggering allegations of summary executions and indiscriminate shelling.
The Tigrayan forces have denied those charges, saying they are trying to break what they describe as a humanitarian blockade on Tigray and prevent pro-government forces from regrouping.
Noting the spread of the fighting in Ethiopia, Bachelet said the conflict risks spilling over “to the whole Horn of Africa.”
“If the situation does not improve Ethiopia will be the scene of a human tragedy on a scale unparalleled this century,” British Ambassador Rita French told the human rights council, adding that Ethiopia’s government is “presiding over a de facto blockade of Tigray” where 400,000 now face famine conditions.
Ethiopia’s attorney general, Gedion Timothewos Hessebon, told the council that because of the cutoff date of the joint investigation, the team did not probe recent reported killings in places such as the Amhara community of Chenna Teklehaymanot.
The attorney general also criticised a separate investigation by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an African Union body, as unilateral and “hence not recognised by the government of Ethiopia”.
That body’s report will be available by the end of the year, the commission of inquiry’s vice chairman, Remy Ngoy Lumbu, told the council.