The Tainted UN Human Rights Council on Ethiopia

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, seen earlier this year during a presentation on the conflict in Syria. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that the U.S. will be withdrawing from the council.
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Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International express concern the 54th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is poised to disband the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), and that European member states and the European Union are failing to act against ongoing violations in Ethiopia.

Both Amnesty and HRW have advertised their reports on northern Ethiopia as veritable, longing for readers to accept them as true. Yet nearly all their allegations depended on remotely sourced information, documenting the most diabolical acts. This method however has a serious defect. Any layperson in Ethiopia would tell you the challenges of tenuously collected witness testimony in the Tigray region, where the authorities have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to orchestrate witness reports throughout the duration of the war, from November 2020 to November 2022.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is notorious for staging atrocities and massacres to fit its political narratives. This knack extends to the 1980s, and even throughout its tenure as the leading political party (1991 to 2018). For example, a report by journalist Alistair Thompson, who visited the region in November 2022 indicated the extent to which combatant war casualties were consciously buried in mass graves by TPLF. In a separate article, the same author warns, “All reports from Tigray claiming to have found mass graves containing evidence of massacres and human rights violations need to be read in the light of the fact that there is very clear evidence in Alamata of an active effort by the TPLF to create fake evidence of massacres”.

The staging of false evidence of atrocities was so rampant, deserters from Tigray frequently invoked their experience. In one instance, journalist Elias Michael, who worked for Dimitsi Woyane  testified “Tigrayan sex workers in Mekelle were being paid to pose as university students and tell rape stories to foreign NGOs and media” In his book, Getting Ethiopia Dead Wrong, long-time correspondent, Rasmus Sonderris recounted a litany of similar fabricated stories meant to invoke tribal rage. Lamentably, most mainstream media shied away from reporting stories debunking accusations of “rape as a weapon of war”. After all, in the post “Me Too” and “woke-culture” we live in, even an accurate statement denying rape would be labeled as an insensitive defense of sexual assault.

The ICHREE report, like that of Amnesty’s leans heavy on another routinely misrepresented narrative, namely that of “starvation-used-as-a-weapon of war” accusation, despite the WFP reporting in July 2022 that it had prevented famine. Later, WFP country director for Ethoipia, Steven Omamo would write a book discussing the full Ethiopian cooperation in distributing food in difficult conditions.

Another similar arrangement was when CNN reported, ‘victims of ethnic cleansing in Tigray were killed and dumped in the Tekeze river, with their bodies floating down river,  and later recovered in Sudan’. This story was doctored a few times, with CNN providing a silent edit weeks later to improve its plausibility. The primary CNN source for the floating-corpses story was Gebretensae Gebre­kristos, or ‘Gerri’. He is seen in the interview video wearing a ballcap with the TPLF’s founding date and insignia. Abren wrote a report showing he was a TPLF fixer. But his co-conspirators were pro­bably not supposed to reveal they knew exactly how many bodies to collect downstream.

These are just a few of many cases in which evidence is cooked up, sensationalized, and twisted to paint a narrative meant to generate fury. The latest ICHREE report features similar pitfalls. It even sites several mistranslations, such as calling the word “Woyane” a pejorative for Tigray. It might not even secure the necessary votes for an extension of its mandate. However, considering the substantial scope for investigation, Ethiopia could potentially receive valuable forensic and expert assistance through the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), aimed at establishing “guilt beyond reasonable doubt,” a universally accepted standard. The outcome of this proposition will become apparent in the upcoming days. Nonetheless a sense of caution is warranted, given that ICHREE’s press statement  criticized Ethiopia’s internal transitional justice mechanism, undermining it credibility while providing limited support for capacity development.

There is no reason to suggest Ethiopia would accept an international team of human rights experts to do an investigation on the ground, especially not after three years of manipulated data obstinately digested by the experts and regurgitated by mainstream media with fanfare. The evidence so far indicates even worse reporting is in order if these organizations are allowed on site. in light of this, renewing the mandate of the ICHREE would only serve to corroborate everyone’s deep suspicions that the group of experts and their backers have a political axe to grind, a matter that will do more to drive indignant Ethiopians more into the anti-Western camp.

Finally, the ICHREE gives scant attention recent turmoil in the Amhara region, with conflict largely between federal forces and Amhara regional militia known as Fano. In comparison Tigray is relatively calmer and beginning to normalize. This is credit to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which seems to be holding up. The EHRC has recently reported on several arbitrary mass detention and killings in Amhara. Violations in Oromia are ongoing, with all sides accused of atrocities.

The ICHREE report is nowhere near in addressing the complex nature of recent human rights events in Ethiopia. As mentioned, it has several deep flaws of methodology that need to be addressed. A few recommendations as follows.

1. Commitment to Accountability: Contrary to the ICHREE’s premise, Ethiopia has understood its commitment to accountability, and that accountability is a means to a true transition. While the government seeks steps towards transitional justice, as evidenced by the Policy Options for Transitional Justice published in January 2023, the ICHREE has ridiculed this endeavor. It also criticizes the government’s emphasis on national reconciliation, instead of acknowledging that transitional justice is a complex process that requires a balance between justice and reconciliation.

2. Role of ICHREE: While disbandment of ICHREE is possible, it’s important to consider the commission’s role in supporting Ethiopia improve its internal mechanisms. ICHREE was tasked with investigating violations and abuses of international human rights law, humanitarian law, and refugee law in Ethiopia, as well as identifying those responsible. However, it is equally important to recognize that its mandate was set to expire in December 2023. The UN human rights team should focus on capacity building in Ethiopia.

3. African Initiatives: The ICHREE overlooks the fact that African initiatives are also addressing the situation in Ethiopia. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights initiated a commission of inquiry, and while its findings may not have been made public, it indicates a regional commitment to addressing the issues in Ethiopia. This underscores the importance of regional efforts in resolving conflicts.

4. Ongoing Challenges: The situation in Ethiopia is undoubtedly challenging, with conflicts in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo regions. Nevertheless, characterizing Ethiopia’s efforts as a failure is an oversimplification. Contending with multiple internal conflicts poses difficulty, and measures to restore stability requires addressing the political dimension, hence the need for national dialogue.  

5. Accountability and Justice: The ICHREE rightly highlights the importance of accountability for international crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the path to achieving this accountability must involve a multi-faceted approach that includes a domestic processes, regional initiatives, and international support. The call for the renewal of ICHREE’s mandate should not be viewed as the sole solution but as part of a broader strategy to achieve justice.

In conclusion, disbandment of ICHREE should not however mean the end of criticism for Ethiopia’s human rights record. An honest and transparent investigation into violations is merited. However, it is essential to consider the complex nature of the situation. Commitment to transitional justice and regional initiatives should be acknowledged, and efforts to achieve accountability and justice should encompass a comprehensive approach. The international community must continue to engage with Ethiopia to support its endeavors in achieving a just and peaceful resolution to the conflicts in the country, but it must do so as a partner, not as judge and prosecutor all at once.

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