A pig and a chicken together open a breakfast restaurant, and their specialty is bacon and eggs. What is the difference between chicken and pork? The chicken is involved, but the pig is dedicated. For the chicken, it’s just an easy day’s job to lay a few eggs. But for the pig, it’s a lifetime’s commitment to supply the bacon.
This well-known business fable is perhaps the best illustration of the dynamics behind the joint office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’s investigation into “alleged violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all parties” to the conflict in the Tigray region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia ”.
Like the chicken, the UN Human Rights Office was merely “involved” in this investigation. It has much to gain – in that it has apparently done something to do justice to the victims of the bloody conflict – but little to lose. The EHRC, on the other hand, was really committed. After all, although a legally “autonomous” federal institution, the EHRC is part of the Ethiopian government – its existence depends on federal funding and its commissioners share the vision of the Ethiopian government. In other words, for the EHRC, it was undoubtedly a lifetime’s commitment to defend the Ethiopian government in this investigation.
As a result of this perception, many in Ethiopia and abroad – especially those who do not buy into the Ethiopian government’s war stories – have from the outset opposed the UN’s decision to join the EHRC in its investigation into Ethiopia’s war. involve. In response to questions about why he opted for a collaboration with the EHRC in Tigray, the OHCHR said it agreed to this arrangement because it was the only way for its investigators to gain access to Ethiopia and the situation on the ground. assess.
However, this argument did not alleviate concern. People have rightly questioned what purpose an investigation into atrocities can serve if it is conducted with the help of and under the conditions set by the alleged perpetrators. Some have gone so far as to argue that an investigation involving the EHRC would be little more than a whitewashing exercise for the Ethiopian government. Referring to the credible reports of systemic sexual violence, famine, extensive looting and destruction of infrastructure coming from Tigray, critics said an investigation involving the EHRC would not allow uncensored testimonies of victims fearing government retaliation. do not get and therefore will not even come close. to establish the truth, let alone to name transgressors.
The report of the joint investigation published on November 3, unfortunately proved his critics right.
The report inevitably found evidence of serious abuse, some of which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, it did not even come close to exposing the full extent of the devastation that the Tigrayans have experienced at the hands of the Ethiopian government forces and their allies since last November.
The report spoke of “extrajudicial killings and executions, widespread sexual violence, torture, forced displacement, arbitrary detention, violations of economic, social and cultural rights, and refusal of access to assistance”, but it largely failed to elaborate. to determine, and the extent of these crimes.
There was one apparent reason behind the report’s inability to speak in detail and with certainty about the atrocities allegedly committed in Tigray: The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), despite EHRC’s involvement, had no access to the geographical area allegedly committed. to cover and where most of the crimes were allegedly committed.
Indeed, due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the JIT could not gain access to most atrocity zones. Consequently, it failed to take into account all credible reports of atrocities coming from areas like Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adigrat, Hawzen, Gijet and Mariam Dengelat.
And even in areas to which the JIT had access, the victims were reluctant to speak out – they did not believe in the impartiality of the investigation team and feared they would face retaliation from the government if they mentioned the crimes that they committed against them in the presence of EHRC staff.
Indeed, the report itself cites, as one of the challenges the JIT faced in gathering evidence, “the perceptions of prejudice against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray.” The report goes on to explain that “some potential interrogators refused to be interviewed by the JIT due to the presence of EHRC staff”.
In addition, the extensive interviews that UN officials conducted with Tigrayan refugees in Sudanese refugee camps in November-December 2020 were not included in the final UN / EHRC report. The UN has referred to these interviews in its routine regional updates, but has so far given no explanation as to why it decided to exclude these important testimonies from the UN / EHRC report.
By not visiting all atrocities, not carrying a large number of victims from different places, and not including the testimonies of Tigrayan refugees in Sudanese camps in its final report, the UN violated the cardinal principle of investigations after abuse and atrocities centered around victims.
The primary ambitions of independent investigations into atrocities should be to establish the truth of what happened, to give a voice to victims, to create the conditions for offenders to be held accountable, and to end impunity.
However, the UN / EHRC investigation into human rights violations in Tigray did not achieve any of these goals. Not only did it fail to give a voice to the majority of the victims of this conflict, but it also laid the groundwork for the Ethiopian government to evade accountability for the atrocities committed by its forces and allies in Tigray.
Indeed, more paragraphs in the final UN / EHRC report call for cessation of hostilities, reconciliation and capacity building than for demanding accountability, allocation of guilt and an end to impunity.
It further appears that the report accepts the Ethiopian government’s word that its “independent” institutions will hold all perpetrators – including the government itself – accountable for the atrocities committed in Tigray. “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms,” the report said. “In this regard, the JIT has been informed that national institutions such as the Office of the Attorney General and military judicial bodies have begun proceedings to hold offenders accountable, with some offenders already convicted and sentenced.”
It is strange that the UN seems to believe that the Ethiopian National Army and the Attorney General of the Ethiopian government can be held accountable. The Ethiopian National Army is a major party in the war, and the Attorney General, like the EHRC, has no independence from the prosecution to hold Ethiopian government officials accountable.
The UN has no shortage of experience in conducting independent, balanced investigations into brutal, complex and multifaceted conflicts. It has established countless independent commissions of inquiry and international fact-finding missions around the world, instructing them to investigate atrocities and recommend affirmative action based on their findings. From Burundi, South Sudan and Gaza to Syria, Libya and Lebanon, such investigations provided victims with an opportunity to express their truth, and ensured legal and political accountability for perpetrators. The comprehensive reports that these investigations have yielded have, moreover, served as historical records of serious crimes, withstood the test of time, and inhibit revisionist tendencies.
In Ethiopia’s conflict, however, the UN’s efforts to find the truth and demand accountability did not meet all of its established standards. Not only was the UN / EHRC report able to establish the truth of Ethiopia’s bloody and ongoing conflict, but it also caused many affected by these atrocities to lose any confidence they had in the UN.
But it is not too late for the UN to make up for its many failures in Ethiopia.
The joint report itself points to the need for further investigations and accountability. Now the UN must start working to establish and support a fully independent, international investigation mechanism that can conduct a meaningful investigation, listen to all victims, not some, preserve evidence for future hearings and facilitate real accountability.
Tigraye, and Ethiopians in general, deserve nothing less.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.