The UN rights chief says that her office has corroborated grave violations that could amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including by Eritrean troops.
Michelle Bachelet stressed in a statement on Thursday the urgent need for an independent investigation into the situation in Tigray, which has been rocked by months of fighting.
The UN high commissioner for human rights went on to say multiple parties to the conflict had been identified as possible perpetrators, including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara regional forces and allied militia.
“Victims and survivors of these violations must not be denied their rights to the truth and to justice,” Bachelet said in a statement, expressing her fear that violations could continue with impunity.
Her office had “managed to corroborate information about some of the incidents that occurred in November last year, indicating indiscriminate shelling in Mekelle, Humera and Adigrat towns in Tigray region”.
It had also verified “reports of grave human rights violations and abuses including mass killings in Axum, and in Dengelat in central Tigray by Eritrean armed forces”, it said.
A preliminary analysis of the information indicated that “serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict”, the statement warned.
Those actors included the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia, it said.
“With multiple actors in the conflict, blanket denials and finger-pointing, there is a clear need for an objective, independent assessment of these reports,” Bachelet said.
Last week, a report by Amnesty International also alleged Eritrean soldiers fighting in Tigray had killed hundreds of people in Axum last November, in what the rights group described as a likely crime against humanity.
On November 28 and 29, Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in a “coordinated and systematic” manner in order “to terrorize the population into submission”, the report said.
After the massacre, Eritrean forces detained hundreds of residents and threatened renewed killing if they encountered resistance, Amnesty said, citing witnesses and survivors.
Bachelet urged the Ethiopian government to grant her office and other UN investigators access to Tigray “with a view to establishing the facts and contributing to accountability, regardless of the affiliation of perpetrators”.
Pointing out that her office was still receiving information about ongoing fighting in central Tigray in particular, she lamented “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting”.
“Without prompt, impartial and transparent investigations and holding those responsible accountable, I fear violations will continue to be committed with impunity, and the situation will remain volatile for a long time to come,” she said.
Bachelet also voiced concern at the detentions last week of journalists and translators working for local and international media.
While they had been released, she pointed to worrying remarks by a government official that those responsible for “misleading international media” would be held responsible.
There was no immediate response to the UN statement from the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Tigray administration or the TPLF.
Tigray has been gripped by fighting since early November 2020, when Abiy announced military operations against the TPLF, accusing them of attacking federal army camps.
The fighting has killed thousands of people, forced hundreds of thousands from their homes and hit infrastructure badly.
Abiy – who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 – declared victory after pro-government troops took the regional capital Mekelle in late November, although the TPLF vowed to fight on and clashes have persisted in the region.
The presence of Eritrean troops in the Tigray conflict has been widely documented but has been denied by both countries.