Earlier this week, amid growing concerns that its mandate might not be extended, the United Nations-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia published its second report. The report delves into human rights violations perpetrated by Ethiopian and Eritrea forces, Amhara special forces, and, to a lesser extent, Tigrayan forces since the outbreak of the Tigray war in Ethiopia in early November 2020. In no uncertain terms, the report describes these violations as “grave and systematic” breaches of international law, and crimes not limited to Tigray but also to other regions.
The report confirms the use of deliberate starvation, rape, and sexual violence, systematic destruction and looting of social and healthcare infrastructure, and orchestrated mass killings as methods aimed at eradicating members of the ethnic Tigrayan population. During a press briefing held after the report’s release on September 18, 2023, one of the commissioners made the following statement regarding the magnitude of rape and sexual violence in Tigray:
“I have been to many conflicts, Rwanda and many others. This was as bad as it gets… it included cruelty of the worst kind. But I must admit that the worst of this was perpetrated by Eritrean forces in Tigray.”
Moreover, the commission emphasised that almost a year after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in Pretoria, human rights violations persist in Tigray and have escalated to a national scale. The report strongly calls for an impartial international investigation into violations occurring across the country, highlighting that Ethiopia’s push for “domestic mechanisms” is a means to evade international scrutiny, given the government’s historical failure to follow through on such mechanisms.
Since the Ethiopian government has denied the ICHREE access to the ground, the commission relied on remote investigative methods, which inevitably means that the report is fundamentally limited. There are two fundamental problems with carrying out an investigation on experiences of human rights violations and crimes like these witnessed in Tigray remotely. First, while telephone lines and limited internet services were reinstated in the region following the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement, substantial portions of Tigray remain disconnected. In the case of Southern and Western Tigray, they remain completely severed from communication and under the full control of forces that have subjected the population to unspeakable atrocities since the war’s outset. It is evident that not many people from the region have been able to submit evidence of human rights violations that the inquiry team asked for.
Second, even in areas where internet access has been restored, a prevailing experience is that people are both unwilling and unable to articulate the horrors they endured during the conflict. Conversations seldom progress beyond basic greetings and the exchange of limited everyday words. People in the Tigray region often respond with brief statements like “I am fine,” “we are fine,” or “we survived” when asked about their situation. To the uninitiated observer, these words might sound like assurances of their well-being, but to those who understand even a fraction of what these individuals have endured, these phrases carry a completely different meaning. They stem from the recognition that their words cannot alleviate the immense suffering they’ve experienced and the sense of abandonment they feel from a world seemingly indifferent to their plight. After the release of the ICHREE report, I wondered aloud how people in Tigray perceived it and posed a question on X (formerly Twitter). In response, one said:
“I have made peace with the world being blind to injustice in the first few months to the war and never ever since expected a thing from that community. I don’t even follow what they are doing towards our suffering as I feel like they actually want it to be prolonged! In short I don’t feel or expect anything from such institutions and that makes me focus on the things I have control over!”
Another common response from people in Tigray that I spoke to, when asked about their experiences over the past three years, often goes along the lines of, “I find it incredibly difficult to put into words what we’ve been through” (in Tigrigna: “ነቲ ዝነበረ ኩነታት ንምግላፅ ቃላት የብለይን”). They’re not ducking out of a difficult conversation; rather, it genuinely reflects the profound difficulty of conveying the true nature of their experiences. They recognise that any description falls short of conveying the depth and magnitude of the challenges they’ve faced and continue to face. Given the limited access to means of communication, and the depth of trauma and difficulty of articulating their experiences, even the most informed residents in the region could not have been in any condition to provide substantive evidence to the ICHREE inquiry at this stage.
Upon reading the report and knowing the extent of suffering endured, one cannot help but wonder how those residing in Tigray, who have lived through unimaginable horrors and witnessed the ongoing violence, would have reacted to the watered down findings compiled in the report. It is not hard to imagine the profound sense of inadequacy they must feel. For instance, I am aware that nearly everyone who remained (mostly the elderly, sick and disabled) in the villages near my own parents’ residence when Ethiopian and Eritrean troops invaded in October 2022 met tragic fates. However, the report simply fails to reflect the systematic nature of such killings.
An investigation lacking substantial on-the-ground access for the investigative team to directly engage with those who have endured human rights abuses, and neglecting the employment of appropriate methodologies, is destined to inadequately address the gravity of the violence and human rights violations that have unfolded. The limitations of the ICHREE report underscore this stark reality and highlight the profound frustration associated with grappling with data injustice. It becomes patently clear that nothing conducted remotely can genuinely encapsulate the profound nature of a crisis as devastating as the one witnessed in Tigray.
A prime example illustrating this predicament pertains to the ICHREE report’s conclusions concerning the mass killings that occurred in the initial months of the war. The report’s assertion that “All [the killings] were reflective of a manifest pattern, distinctly characterized by undertones of androcide and overwhelmingly targeted at fighting-age civilian males of Tigrayan ethnicity” may indeed align with the incidents scrutinized in their analysis. However, upon closer scrutiny of the killings throughout the entire duration of the conflict, including the early months, it becomes evident that the violence was far more indiscriminate. Victims encompassed not only fighting-age civilian males but also children, women, the elderly, the disabled, religious figures, and political leaders.
To truly understand the full scope of these mass killings, it is essential to view them within the broader context of the manifold forms of violence that indiscriminately targeted the entire Tigrayan population. This comprehensive perspective reveals a harrowing narrative that includes widespread instances of rape and sexual violence, forced mass displacements, deliberate siege tactics leading to mass starvation, and the systematic destruction and looting of civilian infrastructure, which the report also confrims. Importantly, these atrocities affected all segments of Tigray’s population. The conclusion that the killings primarily targeted “fighting-age civilian males” and constituted androcide seems to emanate from the investigation’s focus on the more “spectacular” events that had to some degree garnered media attention.This is not to diminish the team’s extensive efforts in producing this critical report but to emphasize that much more work remains imperative. As one Tigrayan wrote,
“I think we should appreciate their [ICHREE] efforts to investigate the crimes committed in Tigray but [there] is a lot more work to do. Their findings are just the tip of the iceberg. They need more people on the ground, sufficient budget & time so that they can make their work effective.”
I am not trying to impute malice or lack of commitment to do proper instigation to the ICHREE. The terse report it has produced demonstrates that it has tried its best in extremely difficult circumstances. Unlike the previous so-called joint investigation, which was clearly a sham process meant to exonerate the Ethiopian regime, this one is a proper attempt at establishing the facts. The point is that its hands were tied and therefore that its findings were always going to be limited, if not flawed.
Despite the limitations of the current investigation work by the ICHREE, it remains the sole international mechanism for investigating crimes and human rights abuses in Ethiopia. Other initiatives, including one by the African Union, have been terminated due to pressure from the Ethiopian regime. The regime’s diplomatic pressure to shut down any investigative attempts appear to be effective, as even the European Union, which initially supported the establishment of ICHREE, is no longer showing interest in advocating for the extension of its mandate.
The termination of the commission’s term while human rights violations persist in Tigray and have escalated to a national level is deeply troubling and should provoke a strong sense of indignation from all concerned parties. What the ICHREE truly needs is not the termination of its term but rather strengthening and support to ensure full access to victims and survivors of the grave human rights violations in Tigray and across the country. Ethiopia’s pursuit of “transitional justice” and its efforts to halt impartial international mechanisms, as noted by the ICHREE, amount to a “quasi-compliance”. These actions do not stem from a genuine commitment to attaining justice, accountability, and lasting peace; instead, they serve as a means to perpetuate impunity.