Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict marked by ‘extreme brutality,’ possible ‘war crimes’

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GENEVA/ADDIS ABABA, Nov 3 (Reuters) – All sides fighting in the war in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray committed violations that may amount to war crimes, according to a joint investigation by the United Nations and Ethiopia published on Wednesday.

The report accuses all sides of torturing and killing civilians, carrying out gang-rapes and making arrests on the basis of ethnicity.

It was released the day after Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. Tigrayan forces said on Monday they might march on the capital to topple Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.

The investigation was carried out by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

It covers from November to June during the year-long conflict fought by Tigrayan forces against the Ethiopian military and its allies – forces from the Amhara region and soldiers from the neighbouring country of Eritrea.

“We have reasonable grounds to believe that during this period, all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It did not determine the proportion of offences by each side, saying investigators could not make an exhaustive list.

Bachelet said most violations in the period covered by the report were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but since they they had seen an increase in reports by Tigrayan forces as well as continuing abuses by the Ethiopians and Eritreans.

“Eritrean forces were the main (party) responsible for violations of human rights,” she said.

It was not clear whether the report’s findings could form the basis for legal action. Ethiopia and Eritrea are not members of the International Criminal Court, so it has no jurisdiction.

The report draws on 269 interviews, many containing graphic details of rapes and mutilations by Eritrean soldiers on military bases.

Prime Minister Abiy said he accepted the report despite some “serious reservations” and said it did not accuse the government of genocide or using food as a weapon. He said a civil-military taskforce would be established to investigate all the allegations in the report.

Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh declined to comment. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson Getachew Reda and Amhara regional spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh were unreachable.

Eritrea refused to engage with investigators, the report said, but has previously denied that its forces carried out rapes, despite extensive documentation, including by Reuters. Ethiopia has said some individual soldiers are on trial for rape and killing. Amhara has denied abuses.

TPLF’s Getachew has previously denied that Tigrayan forces committed abuses but said some “vigilante” Tigrayan groups may have.

The report said Eritrean soldiers had killed around 100 civilians in the city of Axum, that Ethiopian soldiers had dragged about 70 men from their homes and killed them in three villages in southern Tigray, and that Tigrayan forces had killed around 200 Amhara civilians in the town of Mai Kadra, a crime followed by revenge killings of Tigrayans by Amhara.

Reuters and other news organisations, rights groups, and civil society groups have documented many more killings of civilians that were not mentioned.

YEAR OF CONFLICT

The report also accused Eritrean soldiers of forcing Eritrean refugees living in Tigray to return, in violation of international law.

The report accused all sides of blocking aid at different times and said it could not verify whether starvation was used as a weapon of war, as had been previously alleged by the United Nations aid chief. The United Nations has previously said the government operated a “de facto blockade” of food aid. The government denies this.

The report mentioned investigators were often hindered in their work, particularly areas controlled by Amhara forces, or unable to visit certain areas due to insecurity. It did not mention that Ethiopia deported a U.N. investigator working on the report in September.

The TPLF, which controls most of Tigray, has said the report was incomplete because investigators did not visit many areas.

The report said the Tigrayan leadership was reluctant to engage due to the presence of investigators from the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

The war began a year ago after regional forces and Tigrayan soldiers in the national army seized control of military bases across Tigray. They said the central government was about to move against Tigray after the region held its own elections despite a government directive delaying them.

The conflict has left about 400,000 people in Tigray facing famine, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 2.5 million people in northern Ethiopia to flee their homes.

Photo – Ethiopian refugees from Tigray region at the Um Rakuba refugee camp some 80 kilometers from the Ethiopian-Sudan border in Sudan. EPA-EFE/ALA KHEIR

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