The United Nations Human Rights Council has voted to launch an international investigation into abuses in Ethiopia’s 13-month conflict amid warnings of looming “generalised violence”.
The resolution, brought by the European Union and backed by Western states, passed on Friday despite objections from Ethiopia’s government, which accused the UN body of being used as an “instrument of political pressure” and pledged not to cooperate.
The vote at the 47-member forum in Geneva was 21 states in favour, 15 against including China and Russia, and 11 abstentions.
The African Group of countries had also called for the resolution to be rejected, saying that the proposed investigative mechanism was “counterproductive and likely to exacerbate tensions”. Six African countries, including Senegal and Sudan, broke ranks and abstained.
A three-member panel of experts will have a year to “establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses, to collect and preserve evidence, and to identify those responsible”, according to the resolution.
Earlier, Nada al-Nashif, the deputy rights chief, told the council the UN was continuing to receive “credible reports” that all sides in the conflict between government forces and fighters from the northern Tigray region have been committing severe human rights violations.
Al-Nashif warned that the risk in Ethiopia “of increasing hatred, violence and discrimination is very high”, which could lead to “generalised violence, [with] major implications, not only for millions of people in Ethiopia, but also across the region”.
An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people are detained, including nine UN staff, under a state of emergency and its “excessively broad provision” declared by the government last month.
“Many are detained incommunicado or in unknown locations. This is tantamount to enforced disappearance, and a matter of very grave concern,” al-Nashif said.
Ethiopia had earlier slammed the decision to hold the special session and had urged countries to vote against the draft text.
“We call on all council members to … stand against short-sighted interests and refuse the politicisation of human rights by rejecting this resolution,” said ambassador Zembe Kebede, accusing the Geneva-based body of having been “hijacked”.
The government said in a later statement that it “will not cooperate with the established mechanism imposed upon it against its consent”.
“No more to double standards; no more to unilateral coercive measures; and no more to meddling in internal affairs under the pretext of human rights,” it said, adding it was “extremely disappointed”.
Ethiopian authorities have launched their own investigation into the crimes and have taken part through Ethiopia’s human rights commission in a joint investigation by the UN rights office.
Last month, the joint investigation concluded that possible war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by all sides during the conflict that erupted in November 2020.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed concern at the time over a “troubling lack of transparency” by Ethiopian national institutions during the investigation.
“A key concern of our report is accountability,” the UN official said, calling for an independent investigative mechanism.
The Ethiopian ambassador said the government had set up an “inter-ministerial task force” in response to the report.
The government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission acknowledged in a statement this week that there was “value added” in encouraging the joint investigation to continue, but said the creation of a new body “is repetitive, counterproductive to ongoing implementation processes, and further delays redress for victims and survivors”.
The EU delegation to the UN in Geneva welcomed the adoption of the resolution. “A number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity, and urgently require further investigations by independent experts,” it said in a statement.
Ethiopia’s conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced more than two million and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine, according to UN estimates.
Ethnic Tigrayans across the country have reported being subject to arbitrary detention, while civilians in Tigray have described gang rapes, human-caused famine and mass expulsions.
The Tigrayan forces have also faced a growing number of allegations of abuses, including killings and rapes, after taking the fighting into Ethiopia’s neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions in recent months.