Ethiopia accused of ‘serious’ human rights abuses in Tigray in landmark case
Source: The Guardian
Lawyers bringing first complaint to Africa’s top rights body over conflict in country say violations ‘could amount to war crimes’
Tigrayan civilians constituted ‘the overwhelming majority of victims’ in human rights abuses, according to lawyers for the complainants.
Press Release here:
Tue 8 Feb 2022 13.10 GMT
Ethiopia has committed a wide range of human rights violations in its war against Tigrayan rebel forces, including mass killings, sexual violence and military targeting of civilians, according to a landmark legal complaint submitted to Africa’s top human rights body.
Lawyers acting for Tigrayan civilians said the complaint, filed on Monday, marked the first time that the African Union’s human rights commission had been asked to look into the conduct of Ethiopian troops in their war with the northern region’s rebel forces.
The alleged violations, “could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but further investigation would be required”, said Antonia Mulvey, executive director of the rights organisation Legal Action Worldwide (Law), which submitted the complaint with the US legal firm Debevoise & Plimpton and the Pan African Lawyers Union (Palu).
“The African Commission [on Human and Peoples’ Rights] has a unique opportunity to stand by victims and survivors from this conflict, to order emergency measures to stop unlawful killing of civilians trapped in Tigray and to hold Ethiopia to account,” added Mulvey.
Reporting to the 55-member African Union, the commission’s role is to investigate alleged human rights violations and make recommendations to heads of state and government. It can also make referrals to the African court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the union’s judicial arm.
The Law-Palu complaint alleges that since the conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) erupted in November 2020, federal forces in Ethiopia have committed widespread violations, including the military targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure; mass and extrajudicial killings; gender-based sexual violence; arbitrary arrest and detention; mass displacement of civilians; destruction of property, food, and religious sites and cultural heritage; ethnic discrimination; and enforced information blackouts.
In a statement, lawyers said the allegations were based on the testimony of Tigrayan victims who could not be listed as complainants due to fear of reprisals from the government in Addis Ababa.
One written testimony, seen by the Guardian, contains allegations that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces carried out killings and rapes in the Shire region of Tigray in November 2020.
“We all heard witness accounts of underage girls and old women being raped and gang-raped by the joint forces. Priests and deacons were slaughtered by the soldiers,” the testimony says.
“The Ethiopian government has called the military operation in Tigray a ‘law-enforcement operation’,” the testimony continues. “But what we saw in Shire … was quite different. We saw with our own eyes that the military campaign was not only about eliminating the TPLF, but also about destroying the people and development of Tigray.”
A joint investigation released in November by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN found there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that all parties to the conflict in Tigray had, to varying degrees, committed human rights violations. Some of those breaches, it added, might amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On Monday, Law said that, while reports suggested that abuses had been committed by different parties, Tigrayan civilians constituted “the overwhelming majority of victims”.
Mulvey, a British solicitor who served on the UN’s fact-finding mission on Myanmar, said Law was keen to work alongside the commission’s existing inquiry into Tigray “to put an end to the impunity that has allowed these crimes to continue”.
Donald Deya, chief executive officer of Palu, said: “The government of Ethiopia is obliged by both its constitution and international law to protect all its citizens and residents from mass atrocities and violations of their human rights.
“Where it is unable or unwilling to uphold the same, as is the case here, we must seek recourse to competent international institutions. Hence, our urgent appeal to the African commission,” he said.
There was no immediate comment on the complaint from the Ethiopian government or the commission, which is based in the Gambia.
Ethiopia is not a state party to the founding statute of the international criminal court in The Hague, in effect making a trial there for alleged war crimes impossible without a referral from the UN security council. That possibility is considered highly unlikely due to objections from Russia and China, which can veto any such motion as permanent members of the council.