People are seen in front of clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath at the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia on Oct 20, 2021. (PHOTO / AP)
GENEVA/ADDIS ABABA – All sides fighting in the war in Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray committed violations that may amount to war crimes, according to a long-awaited joint investigation by the United Nations and Ethiopia and published on Wednesday.
The report by the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was released the day after Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. Tigrayan forces said on Monday they might march on the capital to topple the government of Africa's second most populous nation.
The report covers most of the year-long conflict, fought by Tigrayan forces against the Ethiopian military and its key allies: forces from Ethiopia's Amhara region and soldiers from the neighbouring nation of Eritrea.
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All sides are accused of torturing and killing civilians, carrying out gang-rapes and making arrests on the basis of ethnicity.
It was not immediately clear whether findings from the report could form the basis for legal action. Ethiopia and Eritrea are not members of the International Criminal Court, so the court has no jurisdiction.
The report recommended a possible international justice mechanism, saying Ethiopian investigations were insufficiently broad, did not always comply with international standards, and were not always transparent.
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 UN aid chief
The report draws on 269 interviews. Many accounts contain graphic details of rapes and mutilations by Eritrean soldiers on military bases.
Legesse Tulu, Ethiopia’s government spokesperson, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the contents of the report. Eritrea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Osman Saleh declined to comment. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) spokesperson Getachew Reda and Amhara regional spokesperson Gizachew Muluneh were not reachable for comment.
Eritrea refused to engage with investigators, the report said, but has denied in the past 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 spokesperson Getachew has previously denied that Tigrayan forces committed abuses but said some "vigilante" Tigrayan groups may have committed violations.
The 100-page report said that 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 then followed by revenge killings of Tigrayans by Amhara.
The report said it was not an exhaustive list of incidents. Reuters and other news organizations, 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 UN has said the government operated a "de facto blockade" of food aid, a charge the government denied.
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 UN 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 and did not involve the Tigrayan leadership.
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"They have kept us in the dark," Getachew said on Tuesday ahead of the full report's publication.
The report said the Tigrayan leadership was reluctant to engage because of the presence of investigators from the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
Among other violations, the report documented allegations that Tigrayan forces had fired on civilians sheltering in a church in the town of Adi Hageray on Nov 3.
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. read more
The conflict has plunged around 400,000 people in Tigray into famine, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 2.5 million people in northern Ethiopia to flee their homes.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet agreed in March to an Ethiopian request for a joint investigation, saying then it was possible war crimes had been committed in Tigray.