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Statement by Mr Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, at the thirty-third special session of the Human Rights Council on the grave human rights situation in Ethiopia

17 December 2021

Madam President, distinguished Members and Observers of the Human Rights Council,

I have the honour of addressing you today on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures.

We recognise the importance of convening this special session on the grave human rights situation in Ethiopia.

Excellencies,

It has been over a year since the conflict in the Tigray region erupted in November 2020. Despite the Prime Minister proclaiming victory at the end of the same month, fighting has persisted for over thirteen months and recently escalated dramatically. We are deeply concerned at the ongoing crisis in which, as reported by the joint investigation conducted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, all parties to the conflict have perpetrated violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Some of these acts may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, as allegations submitted to the Special Procedures point to patterns of such violations committed by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Amhara Regional/Special Forces, Amhara militia, Eritrean Defence Forces, Tigrayan militia, and the Tigray Special Forces. The allegations before us include the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and summary executions, arbitrary detentions, enforced or involuntary disappearanes, forced displacement, widespread destruction and looting of civilian property, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, sexual and gender-based violence.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, ethnic Tigrayans have been subject to widespread discrimination, with hundreds of arrest warrants issued by federal authorities against them, including civilians, under claims of involvement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. They have suffered from harassment, arbitrary arrests, house searches without warrants, suspensions from their jobs and seizure and destruction of property.

We have received information that thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been arbitrarily detained in facilities monitored and controlled by soldiers and other State agents who guard and torture them and execute some of them. The consistent allegation before us is that these victims are targeted mainly due to their ethnic identity. These mass detention centres are reportedly spread throughout Western Tigray, Addis Ababa and the Afar region. There are allegations that armed guards at these detention centres do not provide detainees with food, water, or access to toilet facilities. Those who have escaped from these detention centres have reported that they lived in constant fear for their future.

In Addis Ababa, there are also reports that ethnic Tigrayans have been forcibly disappeared. The police are allegedly arresting these victims on the streets and in cafes, workplaces, and other public spaces, claiming that those arrested are connected to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

In addition, Eritrean Defence Forces have also been involved in the conflict. According to a Tigrayan survivor who recounted her experience to the Joint Investigation Team, Eritrean Defence Forces’ soldiers said that “you ill-treated the Eritreans for 20 years, now for 50 years you will starve, then we will kill your men and rape your women. We were sent to clean out Tigrayans, they will be replaced by real Ethiopians; we are cleansing this country of people like you.”

Excellencies,

We are gravely concerned about the widespread gender-based and sexual violence committed against women, girls, men and boys in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. Such crimes have been attributed to all parties to the conflict: agents of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean Defence Force, Tigrayan Forces, Tigrayan militias, the Amhara Regional Special Force, and the Amhara Fano militia. The Joint Investigation Team has documented that women and girls have been subjected to rape, including in some cases gang rape, with many of these heinous acts resulting in physical and mental health impact including unwanted pregnancies and getting infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

These acts described constitute egregious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. They appear to have been used as part of a deliberate strategy to terrorise, degrade and humiliate the victims and the ethnic minority group that they belong to with acquiescence of State and non-State actors. These brutal acts have devastating physical and psychological impact on the victims and are exacerbated by the lack of access to assistance, support and redress for survivors.

The estimates are shocking. According to information at our disposal, from November 2020 to June 2021 over 2,200 survivors reported sexual and gender-based violence to health facilities across the Tigray region. One of the one-stop centres reported that the victims in over 90 percent of cases were minors and estimated that visits to the centre had quadrupled since the conflict erupted a year ago. It is important to keep in mind that these figures are an underestimation of the true extent of the sexual and gender-based violence being perpetrated and its consequences, which give rise to further violations. This type of violence is severely under-reported and unaddressed due to fear and stigma, and, in this context, inaccessibility to health or support centres.

Acts of violence have been perpetrated in both rural and urban areas, in the victims’ homes or the places where they were sheltering. In some cases, women and girls have allegedly been raped because of their perceived or actual political affiliation, to pressure them to reveal the whereabouts of their male relatives, or as acts of revenge.

Internally displaced women and girls in Ethiopia and Eritrean refugee women and girls living in the Tigray region have reportedly been particularly exposed to sexual violence. Eritrean refugee women and girls, specifically, have been seriously affected by the conflict and doubly victimized. In October 2020, Ethiopia was hosting 149,000 registered Eritrean refugees, many of whom living in the northern Tigray region and housed in four camps. Between November and December 2020, some of these camps were reportedly occupied by the 35th Division of the Eritrean Army and attacked by Tigrayan militias. Eritrean forces allegedly destroyed shelters and infrastructure available in the camps, forcing refugees to move towards the border and eventually back into Eritrea. Eritrean women and girls were also reportedly raped by the Tigrayan militia while they were escaping from the camps in December 2020.

The militarization of the Tigray region with a high presence of armed persons, as well as increasing mass mobilisation into fighting contributes to an environment where gender-based violence will inevitably increase. The presence of soldiers at road checkpoints and near or inside health facilities has also reportedly prevented victims of gender-based violence from seeking treatment and support promptly.

The humanitarian situation has reached alarming levels and continues worsening by the day. International organizations have reported that no humanitarian supplies have arrived in the Tigray region since 18 October 2021; movement of humanitarian workers in and out of Tigray by road has been denied since 28 October 2021; movement within Amhara and Afar regions remains restricted. While delays in the provision of humanitarian assistance have been partially linked to active conflict, lack of cooperation and obstructions via setting up of checkpoints and roadblocks by all parties has also been reported. In addition, The lack of prioritization of essential sexual and reproductive health services as urgently required by victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence is an inherent problem linked to humanitarian assistance and will contribute to the worsening of the situation.

Excellencies,

We call on State and non-State actors parties to the conflict to respect and protect human rights, and to prevent violations in any territory under their jurisdiction or effective control, whether by State or non-State actors. The Special Procedures are concerned by the scale and seriousness of the violations and abuses committed by all parties and reaffirm the urgency to hold perpetrators on all sides to account.

In particular, we reiterate the recommendations made by the Joint Investigation’s report to all parties to the conflict to immediately end all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, and to issue clear, public and unequivocal instructions to all armed forces and groups that sexual and other gender-based violence is prohibited and punishable on the basis of direct and command responsibility. We also call on Ethiopia to take immediate measures to protect women and girls from rape and other forms of gender-based violence. They must provide redress to victims, facilitate immediate access to adequate health care, including the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, and psychosocial support. They must also ensure proper documentation and investigation of all instances of sexual violence by independent and impartial bodies. Finally, we call on all parties to allow and facilitate unrestricted and unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance.

I thank you.