ADDIS ABABA/GENEVA (3 November 2021) – A joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Human Rights Office has found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that all parties to the conflict in Tigray have, to varying degrees, committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In a report published today, which examines the devastating impact the conflict has had on civilians, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) details a series of violations and abuses, including unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violations against refugees, and forced displacement of civilians.
The report covers the period from 3 November 2020, when the armed conflict began between the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF), the Amhara Special Forces (ASF), the Amhara militia and Fano on one side, and the Tigrayan Special Forces (TSF), Tigrayan militia and other allied groups on the other, until 28 June 2021 when the Ethiopian Government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
The JIT visited several locations, including Mekelle, Eastern Tigray (Wukro), Southeastern Tigray (Samre and nearby areas), Southern Tigray (Alamata, Bora and Maichew), Western Tigray (Dansha, Humera and Mai Kadra), and Bahir Dar and Gondar in the Amhara region, as well as Addis Ababa. The JIT conducted 269 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged violations and abuses, and other sources; and held over 60 meetings with federal and regional officials, representatives of international organisations, NGOs, community-based committees, medical personnel, and other sources.
The JIT faced several security, operational, and administrative challenges in carrying out its work, in particular being unable to carry out all planned visits to parts of Tigray. The report acknowledges with gratitude the many victims and witnesses who shared their experiences with the JIT, and thanks the Ethiopian and non-governmental entities for their cooperation.
“As the conflict expands with more reports of violations and abuses, this report presents an opportunity for all parties to acknowledge responsibility and commit to concrete measures on accountability, redress for victims and the search for a sustainable solution to end the suffering of millions,” said Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner of the EHRC. “EHRC remains engaged in monitoring the human rights situation since end of June and will be sharing its findings in due course,” Bekele said.
“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,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“As the conflict has escalated, with civilians as ever caught in the middle, it is vital that all parties heed the repeated calls to end hostilities and seek a lasting ceasefire,” said Bachelet, who is today also issuing a separate update on developments since the June cut-off date of the joint report.
Among the JIT’s main findings:
Attacks against civilians and indiscriminate attacks: There are reasonable grounds to believe all parties to the conflict – including the ENDF, EDF and Tigrayan forces – either directly attacked civilians and civilian objects, such as houses, schools, hospitals, and places of worship, or carried out indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties and destruction or damage to civilian objects. Among the incidents detailed in the report, on 28 November shelling fired from a mountain area under the ENDF’s control hit more than 15 civilian facilities in Mekelle, killing at least 29 civilians and injuring at least 34. There was heavy fighting in Humera, with artillery shells reportedly fired by EDF and the Tigrayan forces hitting several populated areas between 9 and 11 November resulting in the deaths of 15 people and injuries to many more. During its visit to Humera, the JIT team saw visible shell marks on walls and craters in the streets.
Unlawful or extrajudicial killings and executions: The JIT concludes that these were perpetrated by the ENDF, EDF and Amhara militia, as well as by the TSF and militias affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The report details how on 9 and 10 November a Tigrayan youth group known as Samri killed more than 200 ethnic Amhara civilians in Mai Kadra. Revenge killings were then committed in Mai Kadra against ethnic Tigrayans after the ENDF and ASF had captured the town. On 28 November, the EDF killed more than 100 civilians, mostly young men, in Axum in central Tigray. “War crimes may have been committed since there are reasonable grounds to believe that persons taking no direct part in hostilities were wilfully killed by parties to the conflict,” the report says. In addition, killings in some instances appear to have been committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack against a selected civilian population and therefore may also amount to crimes against humanity.
Torture: “The torture and ill-treatment of civilians and captured combatants have been an expression of the brutality exhibited by all sides during the conflict,” the report says. Victims were beaten with electric cables and metal pipes, detained incommunicado, threatened with guns to their heads and deprived of food or water. Civilians in Western Tigray were tortured and ill-treated mainly because of their ethnic identities as Amhara. Elsewhere, captured soldiers and fighters, as well as civilians suspected of providing support to them, were tortured. On 2 April in Samre, Eritrean soldiers forcibly paraded at least 600 Tigrayan men who were stripped to their underpants or completely naked, through the town. “Female EDF soldiers mocked us and took pictures of us,” a 70-year-old victim told the JIT. The report also details how Tigrayan forces also subjected captured ENDF soldiers to public view and insults.
Widespread arbitrary detentions, abductions and enforced disappearances: The ENDF detained individuals in secret locations and military camps, in many cases arbitrarily, the report says. Tigrayan forces and groups allied to them arbitrarily detained and abducted non-Tigrayan civilians some of whom were killed or disappeared.
Pillage, looting and destruction of property: The conflict has seen large-scale destruction and appropriation of property by all parties to the conflict. Families whose crops and food were taken have had to rely on community members and humanitarian assistance to survive. Looting of health centres has resulted in civilians losing access to health care. Students across Tigray have seen their education disrupted because their schools were used for military purposes.
Sexual and gender-based violence: There are reasonable grounds to believe that all parties to the conflict committed sexual and gender-based violence, with the ENDF, EDF, and TSF implicated in multiple reports of gang rape. In many cases, rape and other forms of sexual violence were used “to degrade and dehumanize the victims,” the report says. The JIT conducted 30 interviews with women survivors, nearly half of whom had been gang-raped. Many had unwanted pregnancies and were infected with sexually transmitted diseases as a result. Men and boys were also subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. The JIT was told that a 16-year-old boy was raped by nine EDF soldiers in Humera and later committed suicide. Given the stigma and trauma attached to sexual violence, the JIT believes the prevalence of rape was likely much higher than documented. Some of these crimes may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Forcible displacement of civilians: Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee as a result of killings, rapes, destruction and looting of properties, fear of reprisal attacks, and as a result of ethnic and identity-based attacks, which was particularly the case in Western Tigray. The forced displacement of ethnic Amharas from their homes by the Tigrayan Samri youth group in Mai Kadra, followed by the widespread retaliatory displacement perpetrated against ethnic Tigrayans by the ASF, Amhara militia, and the Fano were not carried out to protect the security of the victims nor justified by military imperatives as required by international law. The JIT has reasonable grounds to believe that forced displacements were committed on a broad scale and without lawful justification, in violation of conventional and customary international humanitarian law. Such acts may also amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Refugees: Between November 2020 and January 2021, the TSF and EDF, violated the civilian character of refugee camps in Tigray by their presence in Shimelba refugee camp, which shelters Eritrean refugees. The TSF and EDF put the security and lives of thousands of refugees at risk by fighting around the camp, resulting in the displacement of thousands of refugees, the disappearance of hundreds of refugees, and the destruction of the refugee camp. The EDF violated the fundamental principle of non-refoulement by forcefully returning at-risk Eritrean refugees to Eritrea. Tigrayan forces looted private properties of refugees and of humanitarian organizations.
The report also details the specific impact of the conflict on a range of other human rights, including children’s rights; the rights of older people and people with disabilities; the denial of access to humanitarian relief; restrictions on freedom of movement; as well as constraints on freedom of expression and access to information, with the internet and other means of communication largely cut off.
“The shutdown of communication has caused trauma and distress among civilians in Tigray, as well as families and loved ones residing within the rest of the country and abroad,” the report says. The arrest and intimidation of journalists have threatened independent voices and produced a chilling effect limiting the work of journalists.
The JIT report makes extensive recommendations. These include a call to all parties to the conflict to end all violations and abuses and to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. It calls on them to agree, without preconditions, to immediately end hostilities and end any measures that may exacerbate the already acute humanitarian crisis.
Among its recommendations to the Government of Ethiopia, the JIT calls for prompt, thorough and effective investigations by independent and impartial bodies into allegations of violations and to hold those responsible accountable. Investigations and prosecutions of all reported cases of unlawful or extra-judicial killings and executions should be a priority, with victims and their families of victims being involved and kept fully informed.
The Government of Eritrea should also undertake investigations meeting international standards. It should take immediate steps to ensure all acts of violence by its forces against civilians cease, while removing from active duty those suspected of committing such acts pending investigation. The report calls on the Eritrean Government to immediately release Eritrean refugees detained in the country and ensure their safety and security, as well as their right to seek asylum in accordance with international laws.
There are also numerous recommendations for the international community, including the UN. These include the promotion and support of all efforts to reach a cessation in hostilities and achieve sustainable and inclusive peace, including support for effective accountability measures.
The report highlights the many calls made by victims and survivors to the JIT and for perpetrators to be brought to justice. They conveyed powerful demands for the restoration of their livelihoods and reparations for what they had lost, and for the truth of what happened to their loved ones to be established.
Given the key importance of accountability, the report devotes a specific section on the steps that should be taken in this regard. The report examines the current truth and reconciliation commission, noting the importance of a viable transitional justice mechanism.
The JIT was informed that national institutions have already begun investigations and prosecutions, with some perpetrators already reportedly convicted and sentenced. As an important contribution to accountability and the peace process, the report outlines the possible creation of an international, independent investigative mechanism, citing the examples of Syria and Myanmar. Building on the JIT’s work, this could collect evidence on the most serious violations committed during the conflict and prepare files for criminal prosecution by an independent mechanism, the report says.