The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12 September - 7 October 2022
Item 4: Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
Interactive Dialogue on the Oral Update of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia
22nd September 2022
By Patricia Mutebi Jjuuko / GICJ
The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia submitted its first report to the Human Rights Council (HRC), which discusses violations committed in the country that amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 51st regular session. On 22nd September 2022, the 18th meeting of the 51st session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) held an Interactive Dialogue with the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia chaired by Ms Kaari Betty Murungi. This first report submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-33/1, presents the initial findings of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. The report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations, such as extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence, and starvation of the civilian population have been committed in Ethiopia since 3rd November 2020.
The government of Ethiopia reaffirmed to continue taking concrete measures to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and will continue working with the OHCR in Ethiopia and other international partners. However, they highlighted that the report submitted by the Commission was of substandard quality and its allegations are unsubstantiated.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) strongly condemns the human right violations occurring in Ethiopia against civilians. The government of Ethiopia must give the team of International experts unfettered and unhindered access to the interior of the country. GICJ calls on the international community and investigative teams to ensure that all perpetrators are held accountable for any crimes committed.
Following four years of anti-government protests, Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) chose Dr Abiy Ahmed from its Oromo wing as its new Prime Minister (PM) in April 2018. The new PM took office promising political and economic reform, amid great optimism and with strong international support. He was lauded for quickly making peace with neighbouring Eritrea. A comprehensive amnesty saw EPRDF’s political and armed opponents return to Ethiopia from exile, including in Eritrea, or released from jail.
It is alleged by Federal government spokespersons and their supporters that TPLF veterans masterminded a series of violent attempts to sabotage or undermine the government, accusations they deny. Others claim the growth of vigorously anti-TPLF sentiment in government statements and government-aligned media. Related narratives drew on anti-Tigrayan ethnic slurs that had surfaced in Eritrean propaganda during the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000), in nationalist rhetoric around contested elections (2004-2006), and in Oromo (and Amhara) activism (2014-2018).
Hate speech against Amhara and Oromo communities also proliferated in a newly competitive and ethnicized political environment. Political conflict erupted into inter-communal violence and religious tensions. In January 2019, the ENDF launched a counterinsurgency including airstrikes against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in western Oromia, in a conflict that has since continued and escalated. New leaders were installed in four regional states, and when a national Prosperity Party was established in December 2019, the TPLF (and some ruling Oromo politicians) declined to join.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, the Federal Government postponed elections. Influential Oromo opposition leaders were arrested after further ethnic violence. The TPLF then pressed ahead with elections in Tigray in September 2020. Federal and Tigray regional governments declared one another’s actions ‘unconstitutional’ and fighting erupted on 3-4 November 2020.
Report by International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia
In her report, Ms Betty Kaari Murungi the Chairperson of the UN Commission of Human Rights Experts in Ethiopia highlighted that the violations and abuses of international human rights, and humanitarian law were alarming. The spread of violence and the dire humanitarian crisis was made worse by the civilian population’s lack of access, in some areas, to humanitarian assistance including medical and food aid, the obstruction of aid workers, and persistent drought, which exacerbated the suffering of millions of people in Ethiopia and the region.
The Chairperson confirmed that an in-depth investigation into three selected incidents and two thematic areas was carried out. The incidents examined include the shelling of Mekelle on the 28th of November 2020, along with subsequent attacks on civilians, the killings in Kobo and Chenna in late August and early September 2021, and finally a drone strike on a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit on the 7th of January 2022. The Commission examined selected themes of rape, sexual violence, and the denial and obstruction of humanitarian aid. The Commission expressed concern over their investigation's findings, which reflect profound polarisation and hatred along ethnic lines in Ethiopia. Ms Murungi pointed out that this has created a cycle of extreme violence and retribution which is a threat of further pronounced atrocity crimes.
The Chairperson noted that the Commission had made progress on several fronts including initiating a process of dialogue and engagement with the Government. In May 2022, the Commission met with the Minister of Justice and senior officials of the Government of Ethiopia in Geneva and requested access to Ethiopia for investigators to allow for sites of violations to be identified, and to contact survivors, victims, and witnesses. The Ethiopian government responded positively, “with a view to agreeing on modalities for cooperation with the commission.”
Ms. Murungi pointed out that the Commission began significant engagement with other stakeholders, including other regional governments, non-governmental actors, and academic experts. She further noted that access is central to their work and as such, the Commission is seeking access to survivors, victims, witnesses, and stakeholders in countries neighbouring Ethiopia including those hosting refugees from the conflict.
Despite the progress made, Ms. Murungi underscored the limited number of staff available to carry out their mandate. The latter includes the collection and preservation of evidence to support accountability efforts, which require adequate resources. She gave an example of recent events in Western Oromia, that clearly fall within the mandate of the Commission and require immediate, urgent, and thorough investigations, yet the Commission lacks the capacity to do so.
The Chairperson reiterated that they were extremely alarmed by ongoing atrocities against civilians, including events reported in the Oromia Region. Any spread of violence against civilians, fueled by hate speech and incitement to ethnic-based and gender-based violence, were early warning indicators and a precursor for further atrocity crimes. These matters and the protracted humanitarian crisis including blockades to food and medical aid, supplies and services posed a grave risk to the Ethiopian civilian population and the region.
Ms Murungi underscored that the Commission can contribute to furthering accountability for violations of International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law and International Refugee Law committed since the 3rd of November 2020 and which are still ongoing.
In concluding her statement, the Chairperson called on the continued support of Member States, including those to whose territory access is sought; national State Governments; international and non-governmental organisations, and the donor community. She noted that the Commission needs countries’ support as members of the Council, both political and otherwise, to assist with the work of the Commission and to achieve the Council’s goals of fostering peace, justice, and national reconciliation within Ethiopia.
Statement by Ethiopia (Country Concerned)
Mr Zenebe Kebede Korcho speaking on behalf of the government of Ethiopia stated that Ethiopia has been the subject of unfair scrutiny by the Commission for more than a year. He alleged that the activities around the Council seem to be driven by a politically motivated and slanted narrative. Mr Korcho stressed that such a misguided campaign against Ethiopia must stop and highlighted in his statement that Ethiopia abides by its international human rights and international humanitarian law obligations and remains firmly committed to human rights.
The country’s representative stated that the report submitted by the Commission was of substandard quality and its allegations are unsubstantiated. He further stated that the practice of targeting countries like Ethiopia ultimately undermines the authority and credibility of the Human Rights Council. Mr Korcho reiterated that the report is selective and discriminatory, and its conclusions are politically motivated.
Mr Korcho confirmed that the TPLF blatantly violated humanitarian principles by reigniting the conflict by stealing fuel intended for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Commission then made the government the culprit in this scenario. The country representative stressed the need for accountability and safeguards to ensure that humanitarian aid will not be diverted to advancing the aggregation of the TPLF. He further reported that the Commission completely overlooked the use of child soldiers and the forced recruitment of fighters by the TPLF including in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
The country representative concluded by stating that the government of Ethiopia was taking concrete measures to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and will continue working with the OHCR in Ethiopia and other international partners. He reiterated Ethiopia’s commitment to peacefully resolving the conflict under the auspices of the African Union. He called on the members of the Council to reject the report and asked that their mandate not be extended.
In the ensuing Interactive Dialogue, the European Union expressed concern about the human rights situation stating that there is no military solution to the conflict. The European Union described the announcement by the government of Tigray of its commitment to an AU-led peace process as a positive sign. They further encouraged an immediate end to hostilities by engaging in direct talks with the aim of reaching a cease-fire agreement and a permanent political solution.
The EU underscored that the humanitarian situation was further exacerbated by hostilities such as sexual and gender violence, ethnic violence, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and the forced displacement of people. They welcomed the Ethiopian government’s willingness to meet with the Commission and the steps taken to implement the recommendations of the joint investigation. While concluding their statement, they called on all parties to cooperate with the Commission and allow independent investigations as a complement to ongoing national efforts in order to contribute to building trust in the accountability process and to prevent further atrocities.
Denmark on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries welcomed the efforts of the commission which they stated is an important complement to national efforts to ensure accountability. Comprehensive, transparent, and independent investigations are central to ensuring a credible accountability process without which there will be no sustainable peace or justice for victims. They further welcomed previous commitments by the Federal Ethiopian government as well as the recent announcement by Tigray authorities of immediate cessation of hostilities and to commit to an AU-led peace process without preconditions. Additionally, they called for all parties to end hostilities immediately and urged them to seek a negotiated political peace settlement, ensure unhindered humanitarian access and respect the human rights, security, and safety of civilians. They concluded their statement by asking the Commissioners, how they will pursue cooperation with relevant stakeholders going forward, including the government of Ethiopia, regional state governments, and the government of Eritrea.
Côte d'Ivoire on behalf of a group of African States highlighted that the Commission went beyond its mandate and made statements on issues that were not within its mandate. The delegate underscored that the protection and promotion of human rights is the responsibility that lies first and foremost with states and that the international mechanisms should play a complementary role but not substitute national mechanisms. In this context, they emphasised that the Commission should not undermine the measures of accountability undertaken by the Ethiopian government. The delegate further encouraged the Commission to use its mandate to investigate the abuses committed in the North of Ethiopia that are not covered by the joint mechanism and to ensure that accountability is upheld.
Eritrea reiterated its position that states have the primary responsibility to safeguard human rights. The representative noted that the security and human rights challenges currently witnessed in Ethiopia are the consequences of an unprovoked and premeditated war unleashed by the Tigrayan Liberation Front at the Northern command of the Federal forces of Ethiopia in the 1st week of November 2020. He underscored that the current report ignored the hideous crimes committed by the TPLF. The delegate strongly rejected the recommendations by the international experts.
South Sudan underscored that the Commission had failed to implement its mandate in an impartial and objective manner as it had relied on issues that were already covered by the joint investigation committee team. The delegate encouraged all parties to participate in inclusive dialogue in order to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ethiopia.
NGO representatives concurred that Ethiopia has committed grave violations against Tigrayans. As a matter of urgency, they called on member states to recognise the right of all victims to live free from violence and persecution. They further requested that the Commission of experts extend their investigation to consider whether there is evidence that genocide is being committed against the Tigrayan population. NGO representatives called on the Ethiopian government to cease all forms of intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists.
In her closing remarks human rights expert Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy reiterated that the Commission’s work is complementary and supportive of the AU processes, and it hoped that the peace process led by the AU will be a success. Ms Coomaraswamy pledged that the Commission will work with all partners but also maintain their impartiality and independence. She noted that the events unfolding required everyone to respect their different mandates but to remain in dialogue and constructive interaction with each other. She further urged the Human Rights Council to remain vigilant of these issues and scrutinise the events that are unfolding in Ethiopia. In her remarks, Ms Coomaraswamy pointed out that wars without witnesses produce atrocity crimes therefore we see our report not only as a tool of justice but also as a tool of prevention. As such, she urged the Human Rights Council and its members to work towards helping the cessation of hostilities and working for justice. She also called on members to use bilateral persuasion to make the parties adhere to international norms of human rights and humanitarian law. Finally, Ms Coomaraswamy stated that the Commission pledged to work with national processes and regional processes such as the AU Commission, and maintain an effective dialogue with those processes.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) is deeply concerned about the Commission’s findings. We strongly denounce the abuses and human rights violations carried out in Ethiopia which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. GICJ calls on all parties to the conflict to immediately cease hostilities and end all violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, notably against civilians.
We call on the government of Ethiopia to fully cooperate with the UN mechanisms and allow the team of International Experts to access the areas that they need in Ethiopia. We further call on the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa who is mandated by the AU to intensify engagement with all relevant stakeholders. This will ensure peace and stability within Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa.
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