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Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the grave human rights situation in Ethiopia

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Statement by Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

17 December 2021

Madam Vice-President,
Your excellencies,
Colleagues and friends

I thank the Council for convening this Special Session to discuss the situation in Ethiopia, where our concerns continue to deepen – particularly in regard to the ongoing conflict, its increasingly severe impact on humanitarian needs, and the state of emergency that was adopted last month.

Conflict

The conflict in the Tigray region has, in recent months, extended to other areas of the country. It now involves an even wider range of actors, with serious impact on civilians. 

The Council will recall that the report of the Joint Investigation on Tigray, issued by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and our Office on 3 November, found that all parties to the conflict – including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Tigrayan Forces and Eritrean Defence forces – had committed, to varying degrees, human rights violations and abuses, as well as violations of international humanitarian law and refugee law. Some of the incidents investigated could potentially amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report advanced a number of recommendations to the Government of Ethiopia and other actors, including calls on all parties to the conflict to end all violations and abuses; to take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure; and to agree, without preconditions, to immediately end hostilities and end any measures that may exacerbate the already acute humanitarian crisis.

While the Government of Ethiopia expressed some reservations regarding the joint investigation's findings, it committed to undertake comprehensive and impartial investigations into the alleged serious violations, and to implement some of the report's recommendations. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean Government entirely rejected the report and its findings. The Government of Ethiopia followed up its own commitment by establishing an Inter-Ministerial Task Force, and both our Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission were invited to discuss the Government’s plans for implementation of the joint report's recommendations. The Task Force has indicated areas in which it expects to require substantive support from the United Nations (UN) and intends to reach out formally to UN partners and the international community for specific forms of support, including with respect to investigations and prosecutions.

Meanwhile, the conflict has continued, with ongoing fighting beyond the borders of Tigray. Our Office continues to receive credible reports of severe human rights violations and abuses by all parties.

The humanitarian impact of the conflict is increasingly dramatic. Acute food insecurity now affects more than 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia, according to OCHA. Within Tigray, 5.2 million people – roughly 90 per cent of the population – are in need. Only limited UN-organized humanitarian supplies have been able to enter Tigray since July, including food and vital medical supplies. In June, OCHA estimated that at least 400,000 people in Tigray were living in famine-like conditions; given the difficulty of access, no recent estimates have been released, but the situation now is likely to be even worse. The lack of access has been compounded by harassment of humanitarian workers, including NGO workers, accompanied by widespread anti-humanitarian rhetoric. Attacks against medical facilities and other essential civilian structures are extremely troubling.

At least 2 million people across Tigray, Amhara and Afar have been forced to leave their homes due to the conflict – and many of them are not receiving the assistance they need to stay alive. There are also concerns that internally displaced people might be pressured to return or relocate to areas that may be unsafe. I am also concerned about the situation of Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, many of whom express fear of retaliation by Eritrean forces operating in the country.  Highlighting the potential regional impact of the conflict, more than 50,000 Ethiopians have fled the Tigray region for East Sudan, mostly between November and December 2020 – further stretching Sudan's scarce resources.

State of emergency

The nationwide state of emergency announced on 2 November is leading to significant human rights concerns, on a broad scale.

Notably, the state of emergency authorises the arrest, search and detention of anyone suspected of supporting the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army, designated "terrorist groups" in May 2021. This excessively broad provision has led to mass arrests and detentions of thousands of Ethiopians, including United Nations staff, and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 14 journalists. Most of those arrested are ethnic Tigrayans.

Such arrests have continued in recent days. Earlier this week, OHCHR received reports of the detention of some 83 people, including four women, in Guji zone in the Oromia region, in connection with the state of emergency. Last week, on 8 and 9 December, about 1,500 people of Tigray and Gumuz ethnicity were reportedly detained in Asosa, Benishangul-Gumuz region, also under the state of emergency.

While some of those arrested over the past six weeks have been released, we estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 remain detained, including 9 UN staff members. Many are detained incommunicado or in unknown locations. This is tantamount to enforced disappearance, and a matter of very grave concern.  Access by independent monitors has been a major challenge. Reportedly, many have been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and extreme overcrowding, in addition to their prolonged detention without charge, access to lawyers or any other form of due process.

I also deplore increasing hate speech and incitement to violence by federal and regional authorities, as well as other public figures, particularly targeted against Tigrayans and members of the Oromo community. Like the nation-wide sweeps, house-raids and arrests, this rhetoric – in public speeches, broadcasting and social media, including Facebook and Twitter – intensifies a climate of fear. The risk of increasing hatred, violence and discrimination is very high, and could escalate into generalized violence. This could have major implications, not only for millions of people in Ethiopia, but also across the region.

Excellencies,

All parties to the conflict must take immediate action to end the conflict, to protect civilians and put an end to the continuing human rights violations and abuses being committed against the people of Ethiopia.

Humanitarian workers must urgently be permitted rapid, safe and unimpeded passage to assist all civilians in need in Tigray and other conflict-affected areas. Their dignity, impartiality and independence should be respected, and discussions of humanitarian needs and assistance should be de-politicised. Any form of harassment of humanitarian workers should be condemned.

I strongly urge reassessment by all parties of the immediate and long-term damage that is being done to a nation that is justly proud of its unique place in human history, and its recent advances in infrastructure, development and human dignity. I encourage all parties to pull back from a posture of war, and, for the sake of the lives and human rights of Ethiopia's people, to immediately end hostilities without pre-conditions. I also urge all parties to participate in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue at national level – both through the National Dialogue Commission, once it has been formally established, and in the context of the African Union's mediation efforts.        

I reiterate that the Government should take immediate action to ensure that measures under the state of emergency fully comply with the country's commitments under international human rights law. Recent actions by the authorities in the context of the state of emergency appear inconsistent with the Government’s expressed commitment to implement the recommendations of the joint investigation report. Our Office, for its part, is ready to assist the Government with specific guidance in these areas. Notably, all people detained under the state of emergency must continue to be treated fully consistently with international standards, including knowledge of the grounds of detention, as well as of any charges against them, and prompt and fair trial. Independent monitors, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, should be permitted access to all detention facilities.

 The Government's establishment of a domestic mechanism to implement human rights recommendations is a step forward, and it will be important to operationalize and give genuine effect to this stated commitment for meaningful accountability for victims. I note that, for example, stated commitments to investigate cases of sexual and gender-based violence, and prosecute perpetrators, have fallen short, both in transparency and effectiveness.

We will continue to work with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and to support genuine efforts by the authorities to advance accountability for violations committed in the context of the conflict, in Tigray and elsewhere across the country.

The onus is on the State to discharge its primary responsibility to deliver fair and independent proceedings that address the full range of violations identified – not only isolated individual instances – and take into consideration applicable command responsibility. Without significant accountability efforts, an international mechanism could be an important complement.

Thank you.