An international commission of experts mandated to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuses by all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia is likely to face stiff opposition from the government, which rejected the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that set it up, especially now in the wake of its perceived victory over Tigrayan forces, which it has pushed to retreat from the Amhara and Afar regions and call for a ceasefire.
The government has this week scuttled hopes of an end to the 13-month conflict that has killed thousands, displaced millions, and created a humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia when it dismissed a ceasefire offer by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The resurgent government that seems to have turned the tide of the war, forcing the rebels back and liberation the areas they had taken.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokesperson Billene Seyoum cast doubt on the motives of the TPLF, saying the rebels had in the past rebuffed government ceasefire offers.
“The resolution of this phase is something that we’re committed to in terms of ensuring that it’s done in a peaceful way and through a political means. Nevertheless, any political solution will always be centred on justice, will be centred on accountability, and also in dialogue,” CNN quoted Billene telling reporters in Addis Ababa.
She was responding to a letter Debretsion Gebremichael, the leader of Tigray’s region, had written to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UN Security Council President Abdou Abarry, saying he had ordered his units to withdraw to Tigray.
The rebel leader said he hoped that his group’s “bold act of withdrawal” would lead to a cessation of hostilities and open up peace negotiations.
He asked the UN to support the ceasefire efforts and the establishment of a no-fly zone to hostile aircraft over Tigray; impose an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea; and ensure the resumption of relief supplies to the starving people of Tigray.
But Billene criticised the international community and media, accusing them of supporting the narrative put forward by the rebels and “amplifying” their message, and said Ethiopian forces do not need external validation for the sacrifices they have made for the current gains to be achieved.
Her tone echoed that of ambassador Zembe Kebede when he voiced his government’s opposition to the special session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) that had been convened to discuss the situation in his troubled country.
“My government will not cooperate with any mechanisms that may be imposed on it because this is … a deliberate destabilisation effort,” he said
After the resolution was passed on December 17, the Ethiopian government expressed its disappointment in a statement reiterating its position, saying it “will not cooperate with the established mechanism imposed upon it against its consent”.
“No more to double standards; no more to unilateral coercive measures; and no more to meddling in internal affairs under the pretext of human rights,” it said.
Urging members of the HRC to vote against the draft resolution, Zembe was quoted as saying: “We call on all council members to … stand against short-sighted interests and refuse the politicisation of human rights by rejecting this resolution.”
He accused the council of having been “hijacked” and used as an “instrument of political pressure”.
Speaking as the concerned country during the one-day special session, the Ethiopian delegation rejected the resolution and accused the Geneva-based council of allowing itself to be used for political interest.
Zembe further claimed that the HRC had not condemned “the pillage, destruction of property, rape and sexual abuse, use of child soldiers by these rebel forces, the TPLF”.
He added that the fighters of TPLF, which he described as a “terrorist group”, had commandeered “more than 1,000 trucks delivering humanitarian supplies to the people in Tigray region and used them for military purposes”.
The Tigrayan separatists had also destroyed food warehouses, schools, health facilities, and industrial parks, but “the initiators of this special session would not care less”, the Ethiopian ambassador said.
The African group of countries at the HRC supported the Ethiopian government’s position and called for the rejection of the resolution. They said the investigative mechanism was “counterproductive and likely to exacerbate tensions” and voted against the resolution. However, six African countries, including Senegal and Sudan, abstained.
The European Union asked for the special session on December 13 due to the recent escalation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia which has threatened to destabilise the whole country and the wider Horn of Africa region.
According to the resolution, the new team should comprise three human rights experts, all appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council.
It will investigate all alleged human rights violations since the conflict erupted on November 3, 2020.
Outlining the duties of the experts, the resolution, adopted with a vote of 21 countries supporting, 15 against, and 11 abstaining, seeks to collect and preserve evidence; identify those responsible; and ensure accountability for perpetrators.
The investigators’ mandate also directs them to provide guidance on transitional justice to the Ethiopian government in the areas of accountability, reconciliation, and healing, and to update the Human Rights Council at its 50th session in June 2022.
The experts will be mandated to work for one year but subject to renewals.
The resolution calls on all parties to the conflict to halt “direct attacks against civilians…including based on their ethnicity or gender”.
In addition, it asks for an end to attacks against communities’ crops, livestock, and medicines, and “to refrain from incitement to hatred and violence, to avoid further damage to critical civilian infrastructure, and to end any measures that may exacerbate the already acute humanitarian crisis”.
“The international inquiry’s work will complement that already undertaken by the Joint Investigative Team involving the UN human rights office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into alleged violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in Tigray,” said United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif.
Last month, the joint investigation concluded that possible war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by all sides during the conflict that erupted in November 2020.
Speaking during the HRC’s 33rd special session – and the fifth this year – Al-Nashif noted with concern that the nationwide state of emergency announced on November 2 had led to mass arrests of those believed to be sympathetic to the TPLF.
She stated that thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been detained, along with more than a dozen journalists and UN staff.
“While some of those arrested over the past six weeks have been released, we estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 remain detained, including nine UN staff members. Many are detained incommunicado or in unknown locations. This is tantamount to enforced disappearance, and a matter of very grave alarm.”
The UN deputy human rights chief urged the government of Ethiopia “to deliver fair and independent proceedings that address the full range of violations identified…Without significant accountability efforts, an international mechanism could be an important complement”.
She encouraged all parties to the conflict to participate in a “meaningful and inclusive dialogue” through the National Dialogue Commission and in the context of the African Union’s mediation efforts.
Simon Manley, the United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, told the council that the UK “is fully committed to supporting the peace process and African Union High Representative Obasanjo’s efforts for national reconciliation”.
He added: “A sustainable peace requires respect for human rights. Yet all parties to the conflict have reportedly committed violations or abuses. There are clearly deep divisions in Ethiopian society and an alarming level of mistrust between communities, which creates a high risk of further deterioration. That is why it is so important to create an independent and impartial human rights mechanism and to take the necessary steps to prevent more atrocities.”
Last month, Amnesty International, DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and Human Rights Watch petitioned the council to convene a special session to discuss the human rights crisis in Ethiopia and set up an investigative mechanism.