Abiy Ahmed Photographer: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
All sides in conflict have committed abuses, joint investigation into yearlong war in Tigray
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pledged on Wednesday to bury his government’s enemies “with our blood” as he marked the start of the war in the Tigray region one year ago.
Abiy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, was speaking a day after a state of emergency was declared in the country and with Tigrayan forces threatening to advance on the capital Addis Ababa.
“The pit, which is dug, will be very deep, it will be where the enemy is buried, not where Ethiopia disintegrates,” he said in a speech at an event at the military’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.
“We will bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again.”
Abiy won the Nobel prize for settling Ethiopia’s longtime conflict with Eritrea.
Abiy’s comments came the same day that the UN human rights chief said Ethiopia’s war has been marked by “extreme brutality,” as a joint investigation into alleged atrocities faulted all sides for committing abuses, and “the big numbers of violations” are linked to Ethiopian forces and those from neighbouring Eritrea.
The investigation was hampered by authorities’ intimidation and restrictions and didn’t visit some of the war’s worst-affected locations. It said all combatants have committed abuses which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The report, a rare collaboration by the UN human rights office with the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, was released a day before the war’s one-year mark and as Africa’s second-most populous country enters a new state of emergency with rival Tigray forces threatening the capital.
The UN told The Associated Press the collaboration was necessary for its team to gain access to a troubled region that Ethiopian authorities have largely prevented journalists, rights groups and other observers from entering.
The conflict that erupted in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has killed thousands of people since the government of Abiy allowed soldiers from Eritrea to invade Tigray and join Ethiopian forces in fighting the Tigray forces who long dominated the national government before Abiy took office. Ethnic Tigrayans across the country have since reported being targeted with arbitrary detentions while civilians in Tigray have described gang rapes, famine and mass expulsions.
In western Tigray, claimed by forces from the neighbouring Amhara region, “it was apparent that the Tigrayans had left most of the areas, as it was difficult to find Tigrayans to interview,” the report said.
Tigrayan forces ride in a truck in June 2021 after they took control of Mekele. (The Associated Press)
The joint investigation covers events until late June when the Tigray forces regained much of their region, but it failed to visit some of the deadliest sites of the war, including the city of Axum, because of security and other obstacles. Notably, the report said, obstacles included the Ethiopian government’s failure to release satellite phones procured for the investigation — crucial tools as phone and internet service are cut off in Tigray.
The investigation breaks little new ground and confirms in general the abuses described by witnesses throughout the war. But it gives little sense of scale, saying only that the more than 1,300 rapes reported to authorities are likely far fewer than the real number.
Despite the report’s shortcomings, the prime minister’s office said in a statement that it “clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.” The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission chief Daniel Bekele said the investigation didn’t identify violations amounting to genocide, but the UN didn’t go that far.
The prime minister’s statement noted “serious reservations” about the report but claimed it laid “sinister allegations to rest.” And it acknowledged the need to “redouble our efforts” to hold perpetrators accountable. A high-level task force will be formed, it said.
Cases of torture
Among the investigation’s findings: Several Ethiopian military camps were used to torture captured Tigray forces or civilians suspected of supporting them. Others were detained in “secret locations” and military camps across the country, with detentions arbitrary in many cases. Tigray forces detained some ethnic Amhara civilians in western Tigray in the early days of the war on suspicion of supporting the military, and in some cases tortured them.
“The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable,” said Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights. Reports of abuses such as summary executions in Tigray continue, she said.
And yet the report gives little sign that Eritrean soldiers were responsible for many of the atrocities, as witnesses have alleged. Until March, Ethiopia’s prime minister denied they were even in the country.
Bachelet told reporters that while the report doesn’t explicitly mention Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were responsible for the majority of the violations, “I would say that the big numbers of violations of human rights are linked to the Ethiopian and Eritrean defence forces.”
She also noted “disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence” that warrant further investigation. She denied the probe came under government pressure.
Ethiopia’s government imposed a blockade on Tigray since the Tigray forces regained control in June, cutting off almost all access for commercial goods and humanitarian aid. That followed large-scale looting and destruction of food and crops that “has had a severe socioeconomic impact on the civilian population,” the report says. In addition, some camps for displaced people didn’t receive food rations for months.
The investigation, however, “could not confirm deliberate or wilful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” It called for further investigation.