Ethiopia has tried to limit a UN human rights investigation into atrocities committed in the blockaded Tigray region, people with knowledge of the probe say.
The joint investigation by the UN human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) may be the world’s only official source of information on atrocities in the war against the Tigray forces that began in November 2020.
The national government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has barred human rights watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as foreign media from entering the embattled region.
The UN human rights office in Geneva said the government’s severing of flights and communications from Tigray during the planned investigation period made it difficult to access key locations both “logistically and from a security point of view”.
Access to Tigray had been granted provided the UN accepted to work with EHRC. The presence of the government agency raised concerns in Tigray, including among the interim Tigray authorities hand-picked by Ethiopia’s government to run the region.
The Tigray administration’s former chief of staff, Gebremeskel Kassa, rejected the investigation under these premises. “We believe this is a tool of the government,” he said of the EHRC.
People close to the investigation who spoke to The Associated Press news agency on condition of anonymity said the head of the EHRC, Daniel Bekele, had underplayed some allegations that fighters from the country’s Amhara region were responsible for abuses in Tigray, and pressed instead to highlight abuses by Tigray forces.
This version of events was in contrast with witness reports that pointed to soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopian forces, and fighters from the Amhara region as the perpetrators of most abuses.
Bekele rejected the accusations saying attempts to influence the investigation came from ”many directions” in such a polarised environment. He added the commission pointed out “serious indications that all parties involved in the conflict have committed atrocities”.
The probe has been lacking the support of the Tigray authorities administering the region since Tigray forces retook much of the area in June.
In September, Ethiopia’s government expelled UN human rights officer Sonny Onyegbula. It has yet to provide legal grounds for the decision.
“We cannot accept the allegation that our staff member … was ‘meddling in the internal affairs of Ethiopia,” the UN said.
Six other UN officials were declared “persona non grata” alongside Onyegbula and given 72 hours to leave the country.
The conflict has been marked by atrocities including gang rapes, mass expulsions, deliberate starvation and thousands of killings.
Investigators have been unable to visit the scene of many alleged massacres in Tigray, including the deadliest known one in the city of Axum, where witnesses say several hundred people have been killed.
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