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Tigray: UN says all sides committed rights abuses

People sit with sacks of food and containers of cooking oil after it was distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP) at a site in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia, August 2021. (Keystone/Claire Nevill/WFP via AP)

All sides to the year-long conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region have committed violations that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to an investigation by the United Nations and Ethiopia released on Wednesday.

"We have reasonable grounds to believe that...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, addressing a press conference in Geneva.

The report accuses Tigrayan forces and the Ethiopian military and its allies – forces from the Amhara region and Eritrean soldiers – of atrocities including torturing and killing civilians, rape and arbitary detentions of Ethnic Tigrayans.

The findings were published two days after Ethiopia’s government declared a six-month state of emergency and called on its citizens to take up arms against the advance of Tigrayan forces towards the capital Addis Ababa. It was based on more than 260 interviews with victims and witnesses.

The report is the result of a rare joint investigation carried out by the UN human rights office and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)  from November 2020 to June 2021. There were concerns the scope of the inquiry could be constrained by Ethiopia’s involvement, but Bachelet insisted on its independence. She told journalists that the involvement of the EHRC was necessary for investigators to gain access to the rejoin.

Investigators said the report received no response from Eritrea’s government or from Amhara region officials, and that it faced opposition from Tigrayan forces about the involvement of the EHRC. It said the presence of EHRC personnel occasionally hampered interviews.

Bachelet said most violations in the period covered by the report were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but that there had since been an increase in reports of crimes by Tigrayan forces. There have been reports that Eritrean soldiers were responsible for many of the atrocities since the start of the conflict, despite Prime Minister Abiy denying their presence in the country until March this year.

“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 on all sides,” said Bachelet.

The report also accused all sides of blocking aid to Tigray, cutting off access for commercial goods and humanitarian aid. But investigators could not verify whether blocking humanitarian assistance or starvation was being used as a weapon of war, as alleged by former UN aid chief Mark Lowcock.

Bachelet said the investigation was hampered by authorities' intimidation and restrictions, preventing investigators from visiting some of the locations worst affected by the war. The report also said the Ethiopian government failed to release satellite phones procured for the investigation. It said further investigations were needed.

The UN rights boss also said she expected to present her findings to the Human Rights Council in a special session, during which a resolution on Tigray would be discussed.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy said in a statement he accepted the report despite some "serious reservations," and that a civil-military task force would be established to investigate all allegations.

The TPLF, which controls most of the Tigray region, said the report was incomplete due to investigators being unable to visit some places.

The war in Tigray erupted one year ago when forces loyal to the TPLF seized control of military bases in the region, prompting Prime Minister Abiy to send troops to the region. The Prime Minister then allowed soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea to invade Tigray to join Ethiopian troops fighting Tigray forces.

The conflict has since pushed 400,000 people in Tigray into famine, killed thousands of civilians and forced over 2.5 million people to flee their homes.