UN probe into Ethiopian human rights is ending

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The U.N.-backed inquiry into human rights abuses in Ethiopia is poised to close as no nation has come forward to request an extension, despite reports by the UN body that serious violations persist nearly a year after a cease-fire ended a civil war in the East African country.

Although the European Union was the primary backer of the UN’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), ultimately, no proposal was presented to prolong the tenure of the International Commission’s further scrutiny into Ethiopia, as the deadline passed on Wednesday at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Consequently, the investigation will be dissolved when its mandate concludes later this month.

In what appeared to be a last ditch effort on October 3, 2023, the ICHREE team implored the council to prolong the inquiry, citing ongoing atrocities in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, even while the epicenter of armed combat has since moved into the Amhara region.

According to the team of experts, ‘Eritrean troops, in alliance with Ethiopia’s military, continue to commit sexual violence against women, including acts of sexual slavery in parts of Tigray.’ The ICHREE report also accused Amhara forces of conducting ethnic cleansing in what the experts referred to as “West Tigray”. The Amhara denote the region in question as “Welkait-Tegede”. In addition, the UN experts referred to ongoing clashes in Amhara and Oromo as indicating the need for further investigation.

In an interview given to ABC news, one of ICHREE’s members, Steven Ratner stated, “Ensuring investigations persist is crucial because there is a genuine and imminent risk of further deterioration in the situation. It falls upon the international community to address human rights violations and prevent the gravest tragedies,”

Previously, European nations had endorsed the inquiry to secure accountability for war crimes committed during the two-year insurrection in the Tigray region. It is thus no surprise Tigray featured heavily in the first report, which was published amidst the fighting there in September 2022. However, even while conflict in the Tigray region subsided due to the Cessation of the Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), and has since spiked in other regions, particularly in Amahra, the latest report by ICHREE was mostly concerning the former.  Ethiopian federal forces are currently clashing with militants in Amhara, where the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has sighted atrocities.

Ethiopia has consistently opposed the commission, impeding its experts from conducting investigations within the country and characterizing it as politically motivated and tainted with flawed methodology. It also cites manipulation of testimony data, a constant feature of the conflict that broke out on November 4, 2020. The commission had to operate remotely, based in an office in Uganda.

In their most recent report, the commission’s experts expressed that Ethiopia’s national transitional justice initiative “falls considerably short” of both African and international standards. The government in Addis Ababa refuted this but vowed to continue with its plan, adding measures for reconciliation through the National Dialogue.

Signs of ICHREE’s conclusion became more palpable when the European Union unveiled a 650-million-euro ($680 million) aid package for Ethiopia on Tuesday, marking the bloc’s initial steps toward reestablishing relations with the country, despite prior demands for accountability as a prerequisite.

During a press conference held in Addis Ababa, the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen acknowledged that the bloc had agreed normalize relations, urging the Ethiopian government to ‘establish robust, independent, impartial, and transparent mechanisms to promote transitional justice in light of human rights violations in Ethiopia.’ This means lack of progress in transitional justice could potentially jeopardize the ongoing gradual normalization of relations between the EU and Ethiopia.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had lobbied extensively for the renewal of the UN’s inquiry. Allowing Ethiopia to be removed from the council’s agenda will come as a blow to both organizations, which Addis Ababa accuses of being overtly prejudiced. The two groups viewed the U.N. investigation as the final significant independent inquiry into the Tigray conflict.

In June, the African Union quietly abandoned its own investigation into atrocities committed in Ethiopia during the war, following extensive lobbying by Ethiopia. The country viewed the council as a means to intervene in its domestic political affairs by using human rights as a gateway, and worked to circumvent encroaching on its sovereignty, emphasizing domestic initiatives for transitional justice after the cease-fire.

In the end, a confluence of events caused the ICHREE’s final demise, including geopolitical shifts, and Ethiopia’s skillful diplomatic maneuvering to pivot. But the one that stands out the most is the report’s own contradictions and biases, which ultimately turned off many UN human rights council member countries, particularly those in Africa. Its backers finally concluded there was no support.

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