The Flawed Approach of the UN Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia

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The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) is a group of three experts. It was established in September 2022 with its mandate recently extended until December 2023. The ICHREE’s first report, presented in September 2022, found that all armed actors in the conflict in northern Ethiopia had committed war crimes, even drawing up equivalence between the armed rebel movements and the government of Ethiopia, with constitutional mandate to reign-in insurrections.

The ICHREE continues to emphasize the importance of its work for victims of international crimes. It is true that an honest and transparent investigation of violations in merited. But the absence of fairness and nuance in its reports leaves you wondering if the group of experts is viewing things through a politicized lens. A report by Abren criticized the ICHREE’s botched process in its findings published last year. The newest and latest publication seems to continue along similar trends.  

The current members of the ICHREE are: 

  • Mohamed Chande Othman (Chair)
  • Steven Ratner
  • Radhika Coomaraswamy

Former members include: 

  • Kaari Betty Murungi (now resigned former Chair)
  • Fatou Bensouda

Latest Report of September 2023

The ICHREE’s second and latest report on human-rights violations during the conflict in northern Ethiopia was published today (September 18, 2023). Based on the previous report from last year, it would be naïve to expect impartiality now. The report from last year came out after the Ethiopian state had withdrawn from the Tigray region, leaving it in the hands of armed rebels for 15 months, yet the ICHREE held Ethiopia responsible for not providing schooling in Tigray, even while schoolchildren were being conscripted into the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel army.

This year’s report also relies on remotely sourced anonymous witnesses, “documenting” the most diabolical acts, and it sticks to the “starvation-used-as-a-weapon of war” accusation, despite the WFP’s declaration on July 15, 2022 that it had averted a famine. The report also omits former WFP country director Steven Omamo’s detailed testimony about full Ethiopian cooperation with relief aid operations, with nothing about how emergency food and fuel were repeatedly diverted and repurposed for the TPLF’s war efforts.

However, I shall focus on one detail in the report. It will probably be overlooked in all the noise, though it reveals how little its authors care for critical investigation of what they are told by their preferred sources. It is a minor claim in Paragraph 33, aimed at backing up the big-media-inspired context analysis foregrounding primitive tribal rage. It originates from an an accusatory article by Martin Plaut, published on January 21, 2022, and subsequently copied by other media, alleging that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s social affairs adviser, Daniel Kibret, delivered a speech calling for “genocide of Tigrayans”. This conclusion was arrived at by Martin Plaut simply by misconstruing the word “woyane” into “Tigray”, and the ICHREE clearly accepted that, having just established, in the preceding Paragraph 32, that “Woyane” is a pejorative term used against Tigrayan civilians, even though it is actually a part of TPLF’s name in Tigrinya, ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ. No one at the ICHREE bothered to investigate such simple details.

Paragraph 33 of the the UNCREE report published on September 18, 2023

The ICHREE also copy-pastes Martin Plaut’s interpretation of Daniel Kibret mentions the genocide of the Tasmanians at the hand of the British as a call for doing the same to Tigrayans. But if the ICHREE had bothered to check the speech by Daniel Kibret, he likens the British brutality in Tasmania to the marauding TPLF army’s conduct in Shewa Robit, a small town in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.  One may learn this simply by reading the full Google-translated speech on Martin Plaut’s page, see here.

Thus, after one more year of well-funded work, this UN-sponsored human-rights entity submits what once again resembles a rough-patching of the most sensationalist pop journalism and partisan fabrications, a trend that we have repeatedly seen when it comes to reporting on Ethiopia these days. Getting Ethiopia Dead wrong is a natural outcome of basing one’s findings on the plethora of unsubstantiated media reports. Nonetheless, it is remarkably naive to assume the ICHREE lacks knowledge, given the available resources. It begs the question if inconvenient facts are being deliberately omitted and circumvented to reach an intended conclusion.

The question is: what will happen now? Will the West try to have the ICHREE’s mandate extended again? This would ensure that, in one more year, there will be yet another report stating, “reasonable grounds to believe” (the standard applied, which only persuades fellow believers) that Ethiopians and Eritreans are essentially subhuman beasts, thereby souring relations and pushing indignant Ethiopians more into the anti-Western camp. Or does the West finally have the sense to accept the end of the ICHREE? And yes, I say the West, because those are the countries which largely fund the UN human rights commission and by extension the ICHREE’s mission.

It may not even have the votes to extend its mandate but given that there is indeed a lot to investigate, Ethiopia, perhaps under the aegis of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), could instead be offered true forensics and other useful expertise with the aim of proving “guilt beyond reasonable doubt” (a standard that everyone could accept). We will find out in the coming days. But I remain cautious on this possibility, as ICHREE’s press statement was highly critical of the Ethiopia’s own transitional justice mechanism, mauling Ethiopia’s ability and credibility, while offering little in the way of support for capacity building.

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