UN, Ethiopia rights agency to conduct joint Tigray probe

Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, UN say investigation of all parties is part of the ‘much-needed accountability process.’

Ethiopian soldiers watch as a pick-up truck with militiamen passes by at the Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

The United Nations and an Ethiopian rights agency have said they agreed to carry out a joint investigation into abuses in the embattled region of Tigray, where fighting persists as government troops hunt down the region’s fugitive leaders.

A probe of all parties to the conflict is “part of the much-needed accountability process” for victims, the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on Thursday.

“With multiple actors involved in the conflict and the gravity of the reported violations, an objective, independent investigation is urgently required,” the statement said, adding deployment of investigators will start as soon as possible for an initial period of three months.

The announcement came a day after the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) reported its staff on Tuesday saw Ethiopian government troops kill at least four civilians in Tigray.

Three MSF staff members alleged they witnessed the extrajudicial killings when they were travelling ahead of two public minibuses stopped by soldiers on the road from Mekelle, the regional capital, to the city of Adigrat.

“The soldiers then forced the passengers to leave the mini-buses. The men were separated from the women, who were allowed to walk away. Shortly afterward, the men were shot,” according to MSF, which said in a statement late on Wednesday the “horrific event further underscores the need for the protection of civilians during this ongoing conflict”.

The killings came after an apparent ambush of a military convoy by an armed group. MSF’s statement said Ethiopian military vehicles were on fire at the scene of the executions.

‘Accountability is key’

Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, a spokesperson from Ethiopia’s Office of the Prime Minister, told Al Jazeera in a statement: “Allegations will be looked into for veracity. The Prime Minister [Abiy Ahmed] has made it clear in this parliamentary session on Tuesday that accountability is key.”

Abiy told lawmakers earlier this week atrocities have been reported in Tigray, his first public acknowledgement of possible war crimes in the country’s northern region.

Abiy also admitted, after repeated denials by authorities, that troops from neighbouring Eritrea have gone into Tigray, where their presence has inflicted “damage” on the region’s residents.

Concern continues to grow over the humanitarian situation in the region that is home to six million of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people. Authorities have not cited a death toll in the war.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

The Tigray conflict began in November when Abiy sent government troops into the region after an attack there on federal military facilities.

The United States has characterised some abuses in Tigray as “ethnic cleansing”, charges dismissed as unfounded by Ethiopian authorities.

The US has also urged Eritrean troops, who are fighting on the side of Ethiopian government forces, to withdraw from Tigray.

The Ethiopian prime minister, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to make peace with Eritrea, has been under pressure to end the conflict in Tigray, as well as to institute an international investigation into alleged war crimes, ideally led by the UN.

It remains unclear if the joint investigation announced on Thursday will satisfy the demands of opposition groups.

Humanitarian officials, meanwhile, warned a growing number of people might be starving to death in Tigray.

The fighting erupted on the brink of harvest in the largely agricultural region and sent an untold number of people fleeing their homes. Witnesses have described widespread looting by Eritrean soldiers as well as the burning of crops.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies