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UN slams atrocities carried out in Tigray conflict, as Ethiopia announces state of emergency

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The investigation — which is the only human rights probe to have been allowed into the blockaded Tigray region since fighting broke out between the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Ethiopian government last year — did not lay blame for hostilities and human rights violations at the feet of one group.

Instead, it said that all parties to the conflict, including forces from Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region allied with the government, had “committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” to varying degrees.

Among the violations that may amount to war crimes, the report detailed extra-judicial killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement of civilians.

The joint investigation by the UN Human Rights Office and the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, or EHRC, is a rare partnership that has raised eyebrows among Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers, who have flagged concerns about its independence from government influence. But the UN has reaffirmed its impartiality.

“We did not come under pressure from the government,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Wednesday during a news conference on the report, adding that restricted access to some areas of Tigray made it difficult for the team to quantify abuses.

The investigative team visited several locations, including the Tigray capital Mekelle, but did not appear to go to areas where some of the worst atrocities carried out in the war have been reported.

Investigations by CNN, Amnesty International and others uncovered evidence of massacres carried out by Eritrean forces in the Tigrayan village of Dengelat and holy city of Axum late last year. Another CNN investigation revealed details of a massacre committed by Ethiopian soldiers in the Tigrayan town of Mahibere Dego in January. It is not clear that the joint investigative team traveled to any of these towns.
People in a temporary internally displaced people (IDP) camp receive their first bags of wheat from the World Food Programme in Debark, Ethiopia, on September 15.
Bachelet previously told the UN Human Rights Council that deployments to east and central Tigray, including to Axum “could not proceed” due to “sudden changes in the security situation.”

The report covers the toll on civilians from early November 2020, when the armed conflict began, until June 2021 when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire — a ceasefire that has not held. It draws from interviews with 269 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged violations and abuses.

The witnesses recounted horrifying experiences. A family of four killed in Mekelle as their house was shelled. A 26-year-old woman in Adet, who said she was gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers in front of her 3-year-old daughter. A man in Mai Kadra attacked by a Tigrayan youth group with machetes, shot in the back and thrown into a fire. A Tigrayan fighter who said she saw Ethiopian soldiers torture prisoners at a military camp in Mekelle with electric cables, plastic-covered metal rods and wooden sticks.

When asked pointedly whether Bachelet could attribute the majority of atrocities to one armed group or groups fighting in Tigray, the UN human rights chief said that, during the period of the investigation, “big numbers of the violations of human rights are linked to the Ethiopian and Eritrean defense forces, but we have seen that since the ceasefire there have been huge allegations of abuses by the Tigrayan forces and continue until today.”

Bachelet called the report “devastating.”

Shelters at a newly installed IDP camp  in Mekelle in June.

“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,” she added.

Among its recommendations to the Ethiopian government, the joint investigative team has called for investigations by “independent and impartial bodies” into alleged human rights violations and “to hold those responsible accountable.”

Reacting to the findings, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the report “clearly established the claim of genocides as false and utterly lacking of any factual basis.”

CNN’s Stephanie Halasz, Sharon Braithwaite and Schams Elwazer contributed to this report.

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