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AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED

Don’t mention the war: Organisation investigating human rights abuses in Ethiopia shut down

Don’t mention the war: Organisation investigating human rights abuses in Ethiopia shut down
The US and the European Union did nothing to prevent a commission, set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate atrocities in Ethiopia during the Tigray war, from being shut down. (Photos: Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images and Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA-EFE)

The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, which produced a damning report that cited mass killings, rape, starvation, forced displacement and arbitrary jailings during the Tigray war, has been shut down.

The human rights community got a sharp lesson this week in what escalating geopolitical competition means for Africa: no atrocity, even if it rises to genocide, will go unrewarded.

The US and the European Union, who once called for accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, helped to close down an investigation by a commission set up by the UN Human Rights Council into atrocities in Ethiopia.

Only last month, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (Ichree) produced a damning report that cited mass killings, rape, starvation, forced displacement and arbitrary jailings during the Tigray war from November 2020 till November 2022.

Of the more than 10,000 victims of sexual violence that reported to clinics during the Tigray war, there was hardly a single prosecution.

All sides committed war crimes, but the bulk of the atrocities were attributed to the Ethiopian federal army, the Eritrean invaders and ethno-nationalist militias.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refused to allow the commission to gather evidence in Ethiopia, but the group managed to work out of Uganda where they interviewed hundreds of victims.

The commission found that many of the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces were committed this year, after the signing of the Pretoria peace agreement last November.

Killings still under way

There are still reports of killings under way in the Amhara region and the investigation team – led by a Tanzanian and including an American and Sri Lankan – warned that there is a high risk that the situation could deteriorate.

The US and European nations were accused by some members of the human rights community of cowardice and hypocrisy for not lifting a finger to save the commission.

“They gave in to those primarily responsible for the worst crimes committed,” wrote Ethiopian expert René Lefort. “This is the height of cowardice towards the hundreds of thousands of dead, injured, raped and displaced.”

Human rights advocates are sceptical at Abiy’s claim that Ethiopia will carry out its own “transitional justice”, but for now the message is clear: hands off Ethiopia. Don’t mention the war.

Ethiopia was once one of America’s closest allies in Africa. Now the US, European powers, China, Russia and the middle powers are jockeying for influence. Ethiopia, friendly to all, courted by all, is one of the biggest prizes of all. Which gives Abiy considerable leverage.

Ethiopia, for instance, was the only country from sub-Saharan Africa invited to become a member of the BRICS club at the summit in Johannesburg in August.

The northern half of Africa is rapidly changing: the collapse of Françafrique, the rise of jihadist armies, the ups and downs of the Wagner mercenaries, the aggressive scramble into Africa of the United Arab Emirates, the economic shocks and a crisis that, according to the World Bank, will see sub-Saharan Africa grow on average by a measly 2.5% this year.

Three weeks ago, the military juntas from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger gathered to form a Russian-aligned alliance to defend themselves against external threats. This week two of the Francophone countries, Chad and Cameroon, created a defence pact of Franco-friendly nations.

And if anyone is in any doubt about how globalised it is becoming, videos appeared on social media on Friday of Ukrainians seemingly firing at Wagner positions in the Sahel and Sudan.

It is increasingly being left to the international press in collaboration with local reporters and the organisations that loosely form a coalition for truth to keep information flowing from places like Sudan, Ethiopia and the Sahel.

Smear campaign

One small testament of the need for ongoing scrutiny is a report in Bloomberg this week that Abiy’s government intelligence services had concocted a smear campaign against Tedros Ghebreyesus, one of Africa’s most acclaimed international public servants.

As director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros has been at the forefront of the global battle against Covid-19, which has killed almost 7 million people, and against malaria and the diseases of poverty, while ensuring that the world is better prepared for the next pandemic.

But after the outbreak of war in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, Tedros was subjected to a vicious and sustained social media smear campaign, in which he was accused of arms trafficking and of belonging to a terrorist group.

His crime is that he is Tigrayan and that he sent out tweets calling for peace.

There was never much doubt that it was orchestrated in Addis Ababa, but reporting by Bloomberg this week reveals how far the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was prepared to go to destroy Tedros’ reputation.

Ethiopian government documents acquired by the Paris-based Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, and authenticated by Bloomberg, show a financial intelligence unit seemingly trumping up charges of corruption, bribery and sexual misconduct to be used against Tedros.

Through all of this – the harassment, the pandemic, the antagonism with US President Donald Trump – Tedros was haunted by fears for his family, who had been trapped for almost two years behind a blockade in Tigray, unable to communicate with the outside world.

He was only later to discover that his uncle was murdered along with about 50 others by Eritrean soldiers.

Though Tedros is but one individual, his predicament is that of many, many others – the relatives and neighbours of the 600,000 or so who died or the many thousands of victims of rape, who must now feel abandoned by the international community.

“We are gravely concerned about the potential for future atrocities,” Mohamed Chande Othman, chairperson of Ichree, said as his passing shot this week.

“Our report shows that the overwhelming majority of risk factors for future atrocity crimes are present in Ethiopia, including ongoing serious violations, widespread violence and instability, and deeply entrenched impunity.” DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the author of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla.Africa.

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