Atrocities on All Sides in Ethiopia, U.N. Says as Rebels Advance
NAIROBI, Kenya — As the civil war in Ethiopia draws closer to the capital and Africa’s second most populous nation continues to fracture, a report by the top U.N. human rights body released on Wednesday offered evidence that all sides had committed gross human rights violations, including killings of civilians, sexual violence and attacks on refugees.
But the report, written in conjunction with an Ethiopian government human rights commission, was written under significant government constraints that included restrictions on visits to sites where serious violations were said to have occurred. Investigators stopped short of saying which side had committed the most atrocities, even as they presented a grim portrait of an atrocity-laden war.
“A number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” the report found, pointing to “appalling levels of brutality” in acts of sexual violence frequently intended to “degrade and dehumanize an entire ethnic group.”
But rights activists protested that the report appeared to equate the atrocities committed by Tigrayan forces, mostly in the early weeks of the fight, with a far greater number of serious crimes by Ethiopian forces and their allies over the following eight months. The report does not include testimony from any of the 60,000 Ethiopian refugees at camps in Sudan.
In a wide range of interviews with U.N. investigators, witnesses described a litany of horrors that unfolded in the war, which started in November 2020, when a simmering political feud between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigrayan leaders culminated in Mr. Abiy sending his forces into the country’s northern region of Tigray. Ethiopian troops were bolstered by fighters crossing the border from Eritrea, the neighboring country to the north.
A woman abducted from a bus said she was gang raped over 11 days by 23 Eritrean troops who left her for dead. Tigrayan fighters are documented as having killed 200 ethnic Amhara civilians, many with axes and machetes, over two days in western Tigray.
Days later, witnesses said, the Amhara fighters carried out revenge killings. At least 600 Tigrayan men were paraded naked through a village by Eritrean troops who mocked and photographed them, interviewees said.
The report was released a day after the Ethiopian government declared a countrywide state of emergency, as Tigrayan rebels advance south toward the capital.
In an alert describing the rapidly worsening security situation in Ethiopia, the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa advised American citizens to immediately make preparations to leave the country.
The U.N. report highlighted the widespread atrocities that have become a feature of the conflict, but also the difficulties in gaining access to give a full picture of what has happened.
Presenting the report in Geneva, the United Nations’ human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, denied that her team had been swayed by the Ethiopian government, whose federal human rights body jointly investigated and wrote it.
“Of course it is impartial,” she said. “The report stands for itself. I can say it was done very seriously.”
But she also acknowledged that the investigation was hampered by intimidation, harassment and restrictions that prevented officials from visiting sites of what rights groups say may be some of the worst atrocities of the conflict.
Ms. Bachelet noted that a U.N. human rights officer who helped to compile the report was among seven U.N. officials expelled from Ethiopia last month on accusations of “meddling in internal affairs” — accusations that she strongly denied.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the report but said it was “not an exhaustive account” of wartime atrocities in Ethiopia, and that a more thorough, independent investigation was needed.
The report declined to pass judgment on an Ethiopian government blockade of Tigray, where 5.2 million people urgently need help and at least 400,000 are in famine-like conditions. Other U.N. officials have likened the blockade, which has resulted in just 15 percent of needed trucks entering Tigray since July, to the use of starvation as a weapon of war.
The joint investigation “could not confirm deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war,” it said. It called for further investigation into the denial of humanitarian access.
Even so, in the news conference, Ms. Bachelet cited evidence that appeared to support those conclusions. No aid trucks have been allowed to enter Tigray since Oct. 18, she said, and U.N. flights into the regional capital, Mekelle, stopped after Ethiopian warplanes carried out strikes as a U.N. flight came in to land on Oct. 22.
Since the Tigray war erupted, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, as well as allied militias from Amhara, have faced the most serious accusations — by aid workers, diplomats and witnesses — of rights abuses. The U.N. report documents some of those atrocities but also highlights potential war crimes by Tigrayan forces and allied militias.
These include civilian deaths from indiscriminate Tigrayan shelling in the early days of the war; a massacre of at least 200 Amhara civilians in the town of Mai Kadra on Nov. 9; and sexual assaults on the wives of Ethiopian soldiers.
A section on Mai Kadra described members of a youth group known as Samri going house to house killing ethnic Amharas and other minorities with machetes and knives and looting their property.
The report does not quantify the scale or proportion of atrocities committed by either side — in other words, who bore greater blame — although during the news briefing Ms. Bachelet did point to Eritrean and Ethiopian troops.
The United Nations investigated and wrote the report in conjunction with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission — a necessary compromise, the U.N. said, in order to gain access to Tigray during a major conflict.
The Ethiopian body is led by Daniel Bekele, a former political prisoner in Ethiopia who later ran the Africa division at Human Rights Watch from 2011 to 2016.
Several Western diplomats familiar with the work of the U.N.-led investigation acknowledged it had been hampered by its limitations, including some imposed by the Ethiopian government. But they noted that, as the only official account so far of abuses during the war, it could lay the foundations for prosecutions of those responsible for abuses.
Ethiopian authorities said they had convicted seven soldiers of rape and put another 20 on trial. But Ms. Bachelet said those proceedings lacked transparency and did not meet international standards.
She said she backed other options, including the creation of an international investigative body for Ethiopia along the lines of those already working on war crimes and atrocities in Syria and Myanmar.
Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva.