A commission of independent U.N. experts examining rights violations and atrocities in the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region says that without an end to the fighting, the risk of further atrocity crimes is growing.
“Atrocity crimes are imminent unless there is a cessation of hostilities,” commission member Radhika Coomaraswamy told reporters Friday at the United Nations.
The U.N. International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia warned in their report delivered Thursday to the General Assembly committee that deals with human rights, that Ethiopian, Eritrean and Tigrayan forces have all committed violations in the hostilities that began two years ago. Commission Chair Betty Murungi said several of these violations rise to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The report outlines the dire humanitarian situation in the northern Tigray region, where 6 million people have been cut off from supplies and services by the federal government’s blockade.
“We focused first on the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray and found that the widespread denial and obstruction of access to food, medicine and basic services amounted to a crime against humanity, as well as the war crime of using starvation as a method of warfare,” said commission member Steven Ratner, an American law professor.
The three-member commission created by the Human Rights Council last December also found that the federal government targeted civilians in Tigray with shelling, air strikes and drone attacks.
Addis Ababa has rejected the commission’s report.
Ethiopia’s U.N. ambassador, Taye Atske Selassie, told the General Assembly committee Thursday the report is “incoherent and sketchy” and is intended to intensify political pressure against his government.
“The commission is merely an instrument that will later serve as justification for intervention and sanctions,” Selassie said.
The commission found that Tigrayan forces also committed serious crimes, including large-scale killings of Amhara civilians, rape and sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture, looting and destruction of civilian property.
“To the degree that there have been allegations of isolated wrongdoing by Tigray forces, the Government of Tigray takes those allegations seriously and will ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice,” the regional authorities said in a statement when the U.N. commission’s report was first published in September.
The report says rape “has been perpetrated on a staggering scale” since the fighting began in November 2020. Survivors in Tigray have implicated the Ethiopian National Defense Force, Eritrea Defense Forces and the Amhara militia, Fano. Women were raped, gang raped, held as sex slaves and violated with objects.
Sexual violence by Tigrayan forces was documented in areas of neighboring Amhara, where some survivors testified that their rapists told them they were avenging the rape of Tigrayan women and girls.
While the commission said grave violations of international law have been carried out, they did not go so far as to deem it a genocide.
“We didn’t have a pattern in which we could at this point say that genocide was happening or could not be happening,” said Coomaraswamy, a lawyer who has investigated atrocities in her native Sri Lanka and in Myanmar.
“But we do say that because of the indicators that are now present at this particular moment in Ethiopian history, and with what is going on at the moment, that there is a possibility that atrocity crimes — that could include genocide — can happen unless the international community, the African Union, stop the cessation of hostilities,” she said.
On Tuesday, African Union-mediated peace talks began in South Africa between the federal government and Tigrayan leaders. The commission welcomed the talks, saying it hopes they will lead to an end to the fighting, the resumption of humanitarian access and the return of peace and security for the people.
The commission spent a week in Addis Ababa in July and hoped to receive permission for “unfettered access” to Tigray, which regional authorities support. But the Ethiopian federal government so far has not granted their request.
“A war without witnesses, as you know, can be terrible,” commission member Coomaraswamy emphasized.