There is need for a truly independent probe into Ethiopia abuses

The joint OHCHR/EHRC investigation into alleged atrocities in Tigray failed to establish a path towards accountability and justice for victims.

Tigrayans stand in line to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 9, 2021 [AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File]

A pig and a chicken open a breakfast restaurant together, and their speciality is bacon and eggs. What’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. For the chicken, it’s just an easy day’s work to lay a few eggs. But for the pig, it’s a lifetime’s commitment to provide the bacon.

This well-known business fable is perhaps the best illustration of the dynamics behind the joint Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into “alleged violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in the Tigray region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia”.

Like the chicken, the UN’s human rights office was merely “involved” in this investigation – by way of appearing to be doing something to deliver some justice to the victims of the bloody conflict. The EHRC, on the other hand, was truly committed. After all, although a legally “autonomous” federal institution, the EHRC is part of the Ethiopian government – its existence depends on federal funding and its commissioners share the vision of the Ethiopian government. In other words, for the EHRC, it was undoubtedly a lifetime’s commitment to defend the Ethiopian government in this investigation.

Due to this perception, many in Ethiopia and abroad – especially those who are not buying into the Ethiopian government’s narratives about the war – opposed from the very beginning the UN’s decision to involve the EHRC in its investigation into Ethiopia’s war. In response to questions about why it opted for a collaboration with the EHRC in Tigray, the OHCHR said it agreed to this arrangement because it was the only way for its investigators to gain access to Ethiopia and assess the situation on the ground.

This argument, however, did not ease concerns. People rightfully questioned what purpose an investigation into atrocities could serve if it is conducted with the help of and under the conditions set by the alleged perpetrators. Some went as far as to argue an investigation involving the EHRC would be little more than a whitewashing exercise for the Ethiopian government. Pointing to the reliable reports of systemic sexual violence, starvation, extensive looting and infrastructure destruction coming from Tigray, the critics said an investigation involving the EHRC would not be able to get uncensored testimonies from victims afraid of government reprisals and thus would not even come close to establishing the truth let alone naming perpetrators.

The report of the joint investigation published on November 3, sadly, proved its critics right.

The report, inevitably, found evidence of serious abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, it did not even come close to exposing the full extent of the devastation experienced by the Tigrayans at the hands of the Ethiopian government forces and their allies since last November.

The report talked of “extrajudicial killings and executions, widespread sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, arbitrary detentions, violations of economic, social, and cultural rights, and denial of access to aid”, but it largely failed to establish the specifics, and the vast scope, of these crimes.

There was one apparent reason behind the report’s inability to talk in detail and with certainty about the atrocities alleged to have been committed in Tigray: The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), despite EHRC’s involvement, had no access to the geographic area that it was purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed.

Indeed, due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the JIT was unable to access most atrocity zones. As a result, it either underreported or failed to consider all credible reports of atrocities coming from areas like Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adigrat, Hawzen, Gijet and Mariam Dengelat.

And even in areas, the JIT had access to, the victims were reluctant to speak – they did not believe in the impartiality of the investigation team and feared they may face retribution from the government if they mentioned the crimes it committed against them in the presence of EHRC personnel.

Indeed, the report itself mentions, as one of the challenges the JIT faced in collecting evidence, “the perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray.” The report goes on to explain that “some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”.

Moreover, the extensive interviews the UN officials conducted with Tigrayan refugees in Sudanese refugee camps in November-December 2020 have not been included in the final UN/EHRC report. The UN has referred to these interviews in its routine regional updates, but has so far not offered any explanation as to why it decided to exclude these important testimonies from the UN/EHRC report.

By not visiting all atrocity zones, not interviewing a large number of victims from different localities, and not including the testimonies of Tigrayan refugees in Sudanese camps in its final report, the UN violated the cardinal principle of centring investigations into abuses and atrocities around victims.

The primary ambitions of independent investigations into atrocities should be to establish the truth of what happened, give a voice to victims, create the conditions for perpetrators to be held to account, and end impunity.

The UN/EHRC investigation into human rights violations in Tigray, however, achieved none of these goals. It not only failed to give a voice to the majority of this conflict’s victims, but it also laid the ground for the Ethiopian government to evade accountability for the atrocities committed in Tigray by its forces and allies.

Indeed, more paragraphs in the final UN/EHRC report call for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than demand accountability, attribution of culpability, and an end to impunity.

Moreover, the report seems to take the Ethiopian government’s word that its “independent” institutions will hold all perpetrators – including the government itself – accountable for the atrocities committed in Tigray. “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms,” the report states. “In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.”

It is bizarre that the UN appears to believe that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the attorney general of the government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the attorney general, like the EHRC, has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

The UN does not lack experience in conducting independent, balanced investigations into brutal, complex and multi-faceted conflicts. It has established countless independent commissions of inquiry and international fact-finding missions around the world and tasked them with investigating atrocities and recommending corrective actions based on their findings. From Burundi, South Sudan and Gaza to Syria, Libya, and Lebanon such investigations allowed victims an opportunity to voice their truth, and ensured legal and political accountability for perpetrators. Moreover, the comprehensive reports these investigations produced served as historical records of grave crimes, withstood the test of time, and inhibited revisionist tendencies.

In Ethiopia’s conflict, however, the UN’s efforts to unearth the truth and call for accountability fell short of all of its established standards. The UN/EHRC report not only failed to establish the truth of Ethiopia’s bloody and ongoing conflict, but it also caused many affected by these atrocities to lose any trust they had in the UN.

But it is not too late for the UN to make up for its many failings in Ethiopia.

The joint report itself points to the need for further investigations and accountability. Now the UN should start working towards establishing and supporting a fully independent, international commission of inquiry that can conduct a meaningful investigation, listen to all – not some – victims, establish unassailable historical records, preserve evidence for future trials and facilitate genuine accountability and remedies.

Tigrayans, and Ethiopians at large, deserve nothing less.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.