OPINION byhe ongoing gross violations of international laws in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, perpetrated by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces, have shocked the international community. Powerful states such as the US and international actors like top UN officials have denounced the crimes. T
The massacres, rapes, forced displacements, and coordinated expropriation and destruction of private and public property across Tigray have also attracted global media attention.
Reputable entities such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the EU, and the UN have called for action, as their reports highlight that the Eritrean and Ethiopian armies, as well as forces from the Amhara region, have committed heinous crimes against Tigray’s civilians.
Starve and subjugate
Following the US call for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray, Amhara factions delivered an ultimatum to some Tigrayans to leave their homes in Western Tigray or face the consequences, according to local sources. This has been accompanied by more forced evictions, killing, and intimidation.
Despite this and the announcement made by the federal-appointed Tigray interim administration that “one million people are missing” from western Tigray, the federal government appears to be complicit—or perhaps a protagonist.
In the rest of Tigray, as part of a campaign to starve and subjugate the people of Tigray, crops have been vandalized, farmland burned, and animals killed by Eritrean and Amhara forces. Despite some increase in relief as a result of international pressure, perhaps
The sovereignty shield
The Eritrean and Ethiopian regimes, along with the Amhara elite, are in denial of the crimes committed, the impending famine, and the involvement and abhorrent behavior of Eritrean troops. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed even went as far as claiming on 30 November that not a single civilian had been killed during the intervention to remove Tigray’s government.
Indeed, in the name of sovereignty, federal policy has been to deny all wrongdoing, hinder impartial aid delivery, and limit access to the media and investigators.
Oddly, Ethiopian government supporters have now resorted to anti-colonialism slogans that were symbols of justice and equality to oppose western or UN demands regarding atrocities. This does not make any moral or legal sense, as the regime is violating the very foundations of global justice and the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people by, for example, willfully letting Eritrean soldiers commit atrocities against Ethiopian civilians.
Smoke and mirrors
A leaked briefing note from 2 March sent by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its diplomats recognizes the build-up of pressure on the regime and its partner in crime, Eritrea, at the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Security Council, and the African Union, and urges them to explain about two new “policy changes.”
The first is that Ethiopia has accepted the demand for unfettered access for aid agencies. Related to this, the document contains the unsubstantiated claim that over three million people in Tigray have received assistance.
The second policy asserts that Ethiopia has accepted a joint investigation of “alleged” crimes with international partners. It further claims that the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Police have begun inquiries. Basically, it says that while the Ethiopian regime will be in charge of the investigations, other agencies are allowed to tag along.
The document, however, falls short in addressing the biggest diplomatic failing: the nosediving reputation of the government as a result of the repeated lies. Examples include lying and misinforming the UN Secretary-General on Eritrea’s involvement and Abiy’s bizarre claim to parliament that no civilians were killed in the intervention.
The Economist and other renowned media and human rights groups have said that the Ethiopian authorities and its partner in crime, Eritrea, have used starvation as a weapon, as the pervasive and organized looting and destruction of property indicates.
Furthermore, the government’s aid delivery record is woeful. Notably, the practice of looting aid resources and the deliberate diversion of humanitarian aid by the Amhara and Eritrean forces for their own purposes is well-documented.
Although investigations are essential, the Ethiopian government should not be in charge of them for the following reasons:
A. Ethiopian leaders, along with their security officials, are the prime suspects in the crimes being committed in Tigray. It is a foundational principle of criminal justice that likely defendants must be excluded from participating in investigations, let alone leading them. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Police, along with other federal security agencies, are implicated in the mass arrests, abuses, purges, and intimidation that have been part of the ethnic profiling of Tigrayans across Ethiopia.
B. The Foreign Ministry’s note, as well as their campaign and statements issued by diplomats such as Fitsum Arega, the ambassador to the US, deny crimes in Tigray. This has been reinforced by the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK, Teferi Melesse Desta, when he tried to defend indefensible atrocities. They do this partly by systematically attacking rights groups, reputed media, and governments who exposed and opposed the grave offenses.
C. Finally, the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara authorities are working to destroy, distort, and conceal evidence by intimidating and evicting victims, witnesses, and residents of mass crimes. Hence, both victim and witness protection, as well as the interests of justice, necessitate not allowing Ethiopian authorities to be involved in any way with an impartial criminal investigation into their own crimes.
From here, it is necessary to take the following steps:
First, as explicitly proposed by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, “prompt, impartial, and transparent investigations” must be conducted.
Second, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other monitors must get access to Tigray, with a view to establishing the facts and contributing to accountability, as proposed by Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and subsequently endorsed by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. The best way forward for victim and witness protection is, however, to establish and dispatch a Commission of Inquiry, or to refer the case to the International Criminal Court without delay.
The bottom line is that those who are implicated in committing and condoning possible war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, either through extreme violence, or through starving the population, must not be in charge of the investigation of themselves, nor be in control of providing support to victims.
This is what the people of Tigray and their friends are expecting from tomorrow’s UN Security Council meeting—standing for justice and averting famine, and not being on the wrong side of history.
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IMAGE: Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during the annual press conference of the non governmental organization in Berlin, Germany, January 21, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)