NAIROBI, Kenya -- The findings of the only human rights investigation allowed in Ethiopia’s blockaded Tigray region will be released Wednesday, a year after war began there. But people with knowledge of the probe say it has been limited by authorities who recently expelled a U.N. staffer helping to lead it.
And yet, with groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International barred from Tigray, along with foreign media, the report may be the world's only official source of information on atrocities in the war, which began in November 2020 after a political falling-out between the Tigray forces that long dominated the national government and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's current government. The conflict has been marked by gang rapes, mass expulsions, deliberate starvation and thousands of deaths.
The joint investigation by the U.N. human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, or EHRC, is a rare collaboration that immediately raised concerns among ethnic Tigrayans, human rights groups and other observers about impartiality and government influence.
In response to questions from The Associated Press, the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said it wouldn't have been able to enter Tigray without the partnership with the rights commission. Although past joint investigations occurred in Afghanistan and Uganda, the U.N. said, “the current one is unique in terms of magnitude and context.”
But Ethiopia’s government has given no basis for expelling U.N. human rights officer Sonny Onyegbula last month, the U.N. added, and without an explanation “we cannot accept the allegation that our staff member ... was ‘meddling in the internal affairs’ of Ethiopia.”
Because of those circumstances, and the fact that the U.N. left the investigation to its less experienced regional office in Ethiopia, the new report is “automatically suspect,” said David Crane, founder of the Global Accountability Network and founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal.
“What you need when you go into an atrocity zone is a clean slate so outside investigators can look into it neutrally, dispassionately,” Crane said. “You want to do these things where you don’t build doubt, distrust from the beginning," including among people interviewed.
The investigation might be the international community's only chance to collect facts on the ground, he said, but because of its setup, it may disappear "in the sands of time.”
People close to the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, asserted that the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, underplayed some allegations that fighters from the country’s Amhara region were responsible for abuses in Tigray and pressed instead to highlight abuses by Tigray forces.
That’s even though witnesses have said the perpetrators of most abuses were soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, Ethiopian forces and Amhara regional forces.
In response to AP's questions, Bekele asserted his commission’s independence, saying it is “primarily accountable to the people it is created to serve.” Attempts to influence the investigation, he added, can come from ”many directions” in such a polarized environment.
Bekele said he and the commission have consistently cited “serious indications that all parties involved in the conflict have committed atrocities.”
Observers say a major shortcoming of the investigation is its failure to visit the scene of many alleged massacres in Tigray, including the deadliest known one in the city of Axum, where witnesses told the AP that several hundred people were killed.
Bekele said the investigation lacked the support of the Tigray authorities now administering the region after Tigray forces retook much of the area in June, about midway through the joint team's work.
The U.N. human rights office, however, said the government’s subsequent severing of flights and communications from Tigray during the planned investigation period made it difficult to access key locations, both “logistically and from a security point of view.”
Even the interim Tigray authorities hand-picked by Ethiopia’s government to run the region earlier in the war rejected the joint investigation, its former chief of staff, Gebremeskel Kassa, told the AP.
“We informed the international community we wanted an investigation into human rights but not with the EHRC because we believe this is a tool of the government,” he said.
The U.N. has said Ethiopia’s government had no say in the report’s publication, though it was given the chance to read the report in advance and to point out “anything it believes to be incorrect."
Late last week, Ethiopia’s government and a diaspora group released the results of their own investigations focusing on alleged abuses by Tigray forces after they entered the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar four months ago in what they called an effort to pressure the government to end its blockade on Tigray.
The ministry of justice said it found 483 non-combatants were killed and 109 raped in parts of Amhara and Afar that were recaptured by federal forces in recent weeks. It also found “widespread and systematic looting” of schools, clinics, churches, mosques and aid groups' offices.
A separate report by the Amhara Association of America said it found that 112 people were raped in several districts covered by the ministry's findings. The diaspora group drew on data from offices of women's and children's affairs as well as interviews with witnesses, doctors and officials.
The diaspora group asserted that the Tigray forces “committed the rapes as revenge against ethnic Amharas, whom they blame as responsible for abuses in their home region.”
The spokesman for the Tigray forces, Getachew Reda, said the allegations aren't worth “the paper they’re written on.” Accusations of rapes and killings by Tigray forces are “absolutely untrue, at least on a level these organizations are alleging,” he said.