In a letter addressed to the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), H.E. Madam Nazhat Khan, and to members of the HRC, as well as Ms Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has expressed its views and concerns on the draft Resolution SS33 on the situation of human rights in Ethiopia.
In the letter, the Commission stated that it is equally distressed by the ongoing human rights and humanitarian law violations in the context of the conflict in Northern Ethiopia and expressed its concerns about some paragraphs of the above-referenced draft Resolution which may be counterproductive to current positive processes and particularly to the right to redress of thousands of victims and survivors. In particular, the letter raises some concerns about the proposal to establish a body with a similar mandate to the JIT and covering a similar period as that of the joint investigation.
The draft Resolution acknowledges that the joint investigation team (JIT) of the EHRC and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) carried out investigations into alleged human rights violations and abuses, international humanitarian law, and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in the context of the conflict in Tigray, covering the period between 3 November 2020 and 28 June 2021.
It is to be recalled that the mandate of the joint investigation was to provide a faithful account of the human rights situation in Tigray including its gender dimension; further the accountability process and advocate for effective remedies; provide clear and actionable recommendations; and identify serious violations to ensure redress for victims and prevent recurrence.
EHRC also recalled in its letter that while the joint investigation report does not purport to be an exhaustive record of all relevant incidents that occurred during this period, it fairly illustrates the main types and overall patterns of violations and abuses over the period in question. The Commission concurs with some of the facts in the preambular paragraphs of the draft Resolution which fully supports the work, findings, and recommendations of the joint investigation report published on 3 November 2021 by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The draft Resolution further commends the OHCHR and EHRC for their impartial and transparent work.
The draft Resolution also notes the various violations identified in the report and stresses the need for investigations and prosecution to ensure accountability, and justice for victims and survivors. The draft further welcomes the State’s decision to set up an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce to implement the recommendations of the report and calls for similar acknowledgments by the Government of Eritrea, the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), and all other parties to the conflict. EHRC is in agreement that all parties to the conflict should acknowledge responsibility and take steps towards implementing the recommendations of the joint investigation report. The operative section stresses that parties should take concrete measures to implement the recommendations with clear timelines and without delay. The operative section also encourages the State to proceed without delay to ensure accountability and redress for victims.
While welcoming these constructive directions which the HRC may communicate to all the parties in a public statement, EHRC’s letter raises some concerns about the proposal to establish a body with a similar mandate to the JIT and covering a similar period as that of the joint investigation. While there is value-added in encouraging OHCHR and EHRC to continue with joint investigation in areas which the JIT could not access due to insecurity, and to cover the period following 28 June 2021 which was not covered by the joint investigation, setting up a new body to investigate the entire period since 3 November 2021 is repetitive, counterproductive to ongoing implementation processes, and further delays redress for victims and survivors.
As highlighted in the preambular paragraphs of the draft resolution and stressed in the JIT report, there is an urgent need to proceed to the next steps which is to carry out criminal investigations and prosecution. In a conflict setting, victims and survivors took considerable risk by engaging with the joint investigation process to tell their stories, and for most, their right to truth as published in the report has been the only redress they have been able to access. The Commission’s letter goes on to underline that, in effect, the draft resolution risks reopening for further deliberation their truth as victims and survivors, while the next step should have been rehabilitation, restitution, and compensation, as well as prosecution of the perpetrators.
EHRC is also concerned that the draft Resolution sends a mixed signal by urging all parties to the conflict to take responsibility and commit to take concrete measures to implement the JIT recommendations while concurrently setting up another body to investigate the same matter and covering the same time period. The Commission has clarified that such a process might set an unfortunate precedent for human rights investigations in which parties implicated in serious and massive human rights and international humanitarian law violations, which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, can “forum shop” by rejecting the findings and recommendations of one investigation over another.
In conclusion, EHRC has stated its concerns that setting up another body to investigate the same matter covering the same time period could be counterproductive as it could delay criminal investigations and prosecution; it would be detrimental to the right to full redress for victims and survivors of violations identified by the JIT; it may halt steps being taken by the State to implement the recommendations of the JIT in light of similar new investigations; it gives parties to the conflict which have not yet acknowledged responsibility and taken steps to implement the JIT recommendations an option to reject the report in light of new investigations; and it may have the effect of undermining the work and voice of independent human rights institutions such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
In view of the above, in the letter, EHRC has put forward the following recommendations:
i. For the Human Rights Council to unequivocally support implementation of the JIT recommendations;
ii. For the Human Rights Council to support the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce in the timely implementation of the JIT recommendations, particularly on accountability and redress for victims;
iii. For all parties to the conflict, particularly the Government of Eritrea and the TPLF, to acknowledge responsibility and take steps towards implementing the recommendations of the joint investigation report, without delay; and
iv. For the Human Rights Council to support OHCHR and EHRC to continue with further joint independent investigations into alleged violations and abuses in areas that the JIT could not access and allegations after the joint investigation cut-off date (28 June 2021).