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UN votes for human rights probe into violations in Ethiopia

A boy sits atop a hill overlooking part of Umm Rakouba refugee camp, hosting people who fled the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Keystone/AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

The United Nations Human Rights Council has agreed to investigate rights violations committed during the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Adopted in a special session on Friday, the resolution brought by the European Union condemns violations on both sides of the conflict and mandates an international commission of rights experts to investigate and report back on the situation in the country.

Thousands of civilians have died and millions have fled in the year-long conflict between the federal government and opposing rebellious forces including fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Over nine million people are facing acute food insecurity in the country and more than five million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the Tigray region, where UN access has been limited since July.

The UN has accused both sides of committing severe human rights violations and urged them to cease hostilities.

Speaking at the opening of the session, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif said an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people have been detained, including nine UN staff, under a state of emergency declared by the government last month.

"Many are detained incommunicado or in unknown locations. This is tantamount to enforced disappearance, and a matter of very grave concern," she told the council.

The resolution was supported by 21 countries including the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Slovenia, who co-sponsored the resolution with the European Union.

It was rejected by Ethiopia, who said it “failed to condemn” the abuses of the TPLF and declared the government would not work with any such commission.

“Ethiopia is being targeted and singled out at the Human Rights Council for defending a democratically elected government, the peace and the future of its people,” said Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva Zenebe Kebede.

“The accusations levelled against my country are unfounded,” said Kebede following the vote. “We do not see any merit in this politically motivated draft resolution.”

Ethiopia also accused the resolution of undermining the ongoing investigation conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in coordination with the UN rights office, which released its first report last month.

The joint investigation published last month found that all sides of Tigray’s conflict had committed violations that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The probe faced some criticism as there were concerns it could be constrained by Ethiopia’s involvement, although the UN insisted on its independence.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, chair of the coordination committee of special procedures, cited allegations of “deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and summary executions, arbitrary detentions, forced displacement, widespread destruction and looting of civilian property, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, sexual and gender-based violence” and called for unrestricted humanitarian access which has been limited since the war began.

The resolution was opposed by the majority of countries in the African Group, along with other countries including Russia and China, who called it “an interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia” which “undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the country.

Speaking on behalf of the African Group, the representative of Cameroon said the resolution had “totally ignored its positions and its advice on this delicate situation” in Ethiopia, accusing co-sponsors of “politicization” and neo-colonialism.

The proposed investigative mechanism was "counterproductive and likely to exacerbate tensions," it said, calling for the resolution to be rejected.

A joint investigation by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused Amhara security forces of being responsible for a recent surge of mass detentions, killings and forced expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans in the Western Tigray territory of the country.

“The new onslaught of abuses by Amhara forces against Tigrayan civilians remaining in several towns in Western Tigray should ring alarm bells,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International's director of crisis response.

“Without urgent international action to prevent further atrocities, Tigrayans, particularly those in detention, are at grave risk.”

Slovenia, who presented the resolution on behalf of the European Union, said the establishment of the investigation would build upon the findings of the joint report by the UN and Ethiopia and “serve as a tool to gather evidence and document atrocities and hold all parties to account ”.

“In recent months, the conflict in northern Ethiopia has further worsened and expanded, creating a devastating human rights and humanitarian crisis, undermining the stability of the country and affecting the whole region,” said Slovenia's representative Anita Pipan.

“The gravity and scale of violations and atrocities committed against civilians by all sides, including sexual and gender-based violence and ethnic violence, is unacceptable.”