Oral Update on the situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and on progress made in the context of the Joint Investigation
49th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
7 March 2022
Colleagues and Friends,
My update today will cover the period between our informal briefing on 22 November 2021, and 28 February 2022.
During this period, Ethiopia’s human rights and security situation deteriorated significantly, in large part due to extension of the conflict in Tigray to other parts of northern Ethiopia. Our Office continued to receive reports of severe and wide-scale human rights violations in the context of expanding conflict in Afar and Amhara regions, as well as in Tigray.
Multiple air strikes, apparently carried out by the Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF), in Tigray – and to a lesser extent in Afar – resulted in civilian deaths and casualties and the destruction of civilian property. The Office has recorded 304 killings, and injuries to 373 people, resulting from aerial bombardments during the reporting period.
In separate incidents in December 2021, some 120 civilians were reportedly killed and 145 were injured in the Tigray region, including when a market and hotel in Alamata town were hit by ETAF air attacks. In January 2022, two air raids carried out in Tigray by the ETAF hit the Mai-Aini refugee camp and the Dedebit site for internally displaced people. These attacks killed 60 people and injured 169.
Attacks on civilians and civilian objects were also carried out by other parties to the conflict, including Tigrayan forces and the Oromo Liberation Front-Shene, primarily in Afar and Amhara regions. In Afar, the Tigray forces reportedly attacked civilian areas in Erebti, Abala, Berhale and Megale during an offensive on 24 January 2022 that deployed heavy weaponry. Credible sources indicate that there were severe civilian casualties. Although insecurity impeded confirmation of exact numbers, hospital records indicated that some 844 people had received treatment for wounds,mostly resulting from explosives and heavy weapons. The number of deaths could not be determined, and I would note that we could not confirm whether all of those wounded were civilians.
During the reporting period, our Office received reports of 306 rape incidents by Tigrayan forces in the Amhara region between 1 November and 5 December 2021. Most of the reported survivors were women; a small number were men. Most survivors have not received any form of support since their ordeal.
In addition, we have obtained credible reports of, and have ourselves physically observed, severe damage to schools and health facilities in Amhara and Afar regions following Government action against Tigrayan forces. According to assessments by the regional authorities, almost 2 million pupils were affected by the total or partial destruction of schools. In some cases, education has recently resumed.
Health facilities in Amhara and Afar also suffered destruction and looting. The Ministry of Health reported that at least 36 hospitals and over 2,100 other health facilities were partially or completely destroyed by the Tigrayan forces, and subjected to looting.
The attacks that I have cited, and many others, raise serious concerns under international humanitarian law, which prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate attacks that strike military objectives and civilians, without distinction. I again urge the Government, Tigrayan forces and all other parties to the conflict to cease such violations. I also recall the commitment made by the authorities last November to implement the recommendations of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission-OHCHR Joint Investigation report. Civilian lives and civilian infrastructure, including schools, medical facilities, and markets, must be protected.
I am alarmed by the growing humanitarian crisis. Hostilities and insecurity continue to block the delivery of humanitarian supplies into Tigray by the Semera-Abala-Mekelle road, which has not been accessible since 15 December 2021. I urge all sides to allow unhindered humanitarian access to affected areas, including regional security forces. Prices for basic goods continue to rise, in a context of growing poverty. At the end of January 2021, WFP found that 4.6 million people – four out of every five people in the region – were food insecure, while half of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and almost one in eight children under five, are malnourished.
I am also concerned by continuing internal displacement of enormous numbers of people during the period under review. In Afar, some 300,000 people were reportedly displaced between 23 and 26 January 2022 due to attacks by Tigrayan forces, including long-range shelling. These displaced people – many of them women, children and older people – were reported to be sheltering in nine IDP sites without sufficient humanitarian assistance. The return of IDPs also continues to be reported, leading to additional humanitarian needs. I remain concerned at the protection challenges facing Eritrean refugees caught up in the conflict.
During the reporting period, OHCHR recorded more than 15,000 arbitrary arrests and detentions in connection with the state of emergency decreed by the Government. Most appeared to be ordinary citizens of Tigrayan ethnicity. I am encouraged by the authorities’ recent decision to lift the state of emergency. In my meeting with the Minister of Justice last week, he informed me that most detainees arrested under state of emergency powers have now been released. The Minister assured me that for those still remaining in detention, they would have access to a legal counsel and a right to a fair trial.
Following publication of the Joint Report, the Government established an Inter-Ministerial Taskforce to oversee implementation of its recommendations, including redress and accountability for violations committed in the context of the conflict in Tigray. Our Office in Addis Ababa has engaged in discussions with the Taskforce and have agreed on capacity building and technical assistance needs. A training for some key criminal investigators and prosecutors focussing on international standards and best practices was conducted last week by my office in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. We will continue to coordinate our support with the broader UN Country Team and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
I am pleased that priority has been given to the Taskforce’s Committee on investigations and prosecutions. The Government has deployed investigation teams to ten regions, including areas previously occupied by Tigrayan forces in Amhara and Afar. The Government has reiterated its commitment to bring all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses to justice. I urge the Government to make information on the investigation teams’ progress and findings available as soon as possible, in a transparent manner. I was also informed court martials have been ongoing, and that decisions have been rendered in respect to thirty-one criminal proceedings, including on sexual violence.
In addition, a National Dialogue Commission has been set up, to prepare for a more constructive dialogue towards peaceful resolution of the conflict. I encourage the Government to ensure that this dialogue is genuinely inclusive and reflective of all parties.
These are three welcome steps forward. I look forward to hearing about concrete progress achieved and I strongly encourage the international community to assist the work of these three bolded mechanisms. Our Office is committed to supporting all these efforts to advance sustainable reconciliation, including through support for accountability. We will continue to monitor and document the situation across the country, including in Tigray.
I also strongly urge the Government to cooperate with the Council’s International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, and to further advance its implementation of the recommendations of the Joint Report.
Thank you, Mr President.