The UN’s Purblind Human Rights Reporting in Ethiopia

By partnering with a state-funded watchdog, the global body has deferred to a party to the vicious war in Tigray

The UN’s Purblind Human Rights Reporting in Ethiopia
Members of the Amhara militia, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, ride on the back of a pick up truck in the city of Gondar / Nov. 8 2020 / Eduardo Soteras / AFP via Getty Images

More than a year after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent Ethiopian troops backed by allied soldiers from neighboring Eritrea to oust the Tigray regional government of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people are believed to have lost their lives.

The devastating conflict, described by an Ethiopian general as a “very dirty war,” has seen all of the warring factions commit gruesome atrocities, largely targeting civilian populations.

Rampant gang rapes of women have been confirmed, and scores of massacres, in some cases with as many as hundreds of civilians murdered, have been reported. Ethnic cleansing by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces has contributed to the displacement of over 2.2 million people.

For months the war was fought under a communications blackout, making it impossible for journalists and aid workers, who were barred from the Tigray region, to verify chilling accounts of atrocities.

Emboldened by this, Ahmed told the Ethiopian Parliament that in their drive to capture the Tigrayan capital city of Mekelle, Ethiopian troops had not killed a single civilian.

However, it wasn’t long before evidence mounted and international media investigations lifted the lid on the brutal nature of a conflict that has also seen the breakout of a famine, leaving millions on the brink of starvation. Fighting continues while drone and airstrikes regularly target civilian inhabited areas. The war has since expanded beyond Tigray’s frontiers, to the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.

The multitude of allegations led to widespread condemnation and calls for accountability. Under pressure, the Ethiopian government relented, on one condition: It would allow a United Nations investigative team to probe alleged abuses in the Tigray region as long as it was a joint effort involving the Ethiopian state-funded rights watchdog, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The joint initiative began its fieldwork in March 2021.

The UN-EHRC team published their final report in November, concluding that all sides had committed atrocities. The report appeared to appropriate blame equally, despite multiple media reports that found Eritrean soldiers had carried out the worst of the killings since the outbreak of war.

Critics of the report accuse its authors of downplaying possible war crimes committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.

“[The report] did not even come close to exposing the full extent of the devastation experienced by the Tigrayans at the hands of the Ethiopian government forces and their allies since last November [2020],” wrote Mehari Taddele, professor of transnational governance and migration policy at Florence’s European University Institute.

Others state that the mandate should have been extended since the report provides minimal data on atrocities carried out in areas of the Amhara region currently occupied by Tigrayan forces.

But for survivors of the onslaught in Tigray, the report was always going to be flawed. Most Tigrayans have vehemently opposed the idea of the EHRC investigating abuses in Tigray.

“You can’t expect [the EHRC] to investigate the crimes of their bosses,” said Gebre, whose name has been changed for security reasons. A trader in his mid-20s, Gebre spoke to New Lines in June before the government shut down communications, after which it became difficult to contact residents in Tigray. “I have no trust in them and I don’t expect them to produce anything truthful,” he said from the regional capital of Mekelle.

Gebre, who was among dozens who fled the central Tigrayan town of Mahbere Dego, which was the scene of one of the most heavily documented massacres of the war, spoke at length about what he witnessed in rural Tigray.

“Ethiopian soldiers ran into the town and kidnapped all the men and boys they could find,” he said, recalling the events from January 2021. “No one they caught was involved in any fighting. They couldn’t even find weapons in anyone’s houses when they did searches. We had no idea what happened to the kidnap victims until we saw the video.”

Gebre was referring to mobile phone footage that surfaced online in early March, two months after the kidnappings and massacre. The videos show uniformed Ethiopian troops speaking in Amharic, Ethiopia’s lingua franca, gunning down men and boys with automatic assault rifles before throwing their bodies off a nearby cliff.

The gruesome footage, filmed by fellow Ethiopian soldiers, also shows soldiers grinning and talking casually just before the killings, as their captives sat nearby. After excerpts of the footage went viral, local satellite TV channels broadcast the images, bringing news of the massacre to Tigrayan households, many of which lack internet access.

Newsrooms around the world pored through the footage to determine its authenticity. Thorough analysis of the footage by the BBC, CNN and a consortium of other media outlets determined that the filmed atrocities were real and were perpetrated by members of the Ethiopian army.

Satellite images of a convoy of military-grade vehicles near the execution site further bolstered those findings. At the time, only Ethiopian troops or allied Eritrean soldiers commandeered such vehicles.

But despite the extensive reporting and notoriety of the tragedy, the joint UN-EHRC probe neither investigated the Mahbere Dego massacre nor cited it in the final 156-page report. It is among a slew of well-documented atrocities that weren’t included in the inquiry.

The joint investigative team didn’t visit the city of Axum, where in late November 2020, in another atrocity, Eritrean troops murdered hundreds of unarmed men and boys, many after dragging them out of their homes to be shot in the street.

Three months later Amnesty International published evidence of mass graves at two church courtyards in Axum, which they stated likely contained the remains of hundreds of victims.

Also omitted from the U.N. probe were the Dengelat massacre of at least 80 civilians at a church compound last year, which was the subject of a CNN investigation, and the Debre Abay massacre, in which video obtained by The Telegraph depicted Ethiopian troops walking among the bodies of around 40 villagers they had just gunned down.

In a statement, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which oversaw the investigation, acknowledged that the team was unable to reach parts of Tigray because of “security, operational and administrative challenges.”

But the joint probe is also accused of downplaying the incidents it did look into, including a massacre on Jan. 8, 2021, by Ethiopian troops in the southern Tigray town of Bora, which, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, left over 160 men and boys dead. The UN-EHRC probe stated that the death toll was closer to 70.

“The report’s methods of enquiry were severely constrained by its partner EHRC who are an agent of one of the involved parties,” said Mukesh Kapila, a former U.N. official and professor emeritus of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester in England. “It was neither public nor transparent about its investigations and evidence gathering. Sadly, it was a travesty of an inquiry that added insult to injury to the victims, while emboldening the perpetrators.”

Further discrediting the report, according to Mukesh, is the fact that the report’s findings would bear no weight in any international court becuase the probe was not directly sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

Before the shutdown of phone services in Tigray on June 28, I had been gathering testimony to piece together what happened in the lead-up to the Mahbere Dego massacre.

As part of the effort, accounts from eyewitnesses and victims’ loved ones were documented. Additional interviews planned for July were postponed first temporarily, then indefinitely when it became clear that phone services in Tigray would be disrupted for the foreseeable future.

Among those with whom I spoke were family members of victims and two residents of the town, including one who saw some of the victims in the video being hauled away to their deaths. Individuals’ names have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect them and their families in the volatile region.

Everyone said that the footage depicting their loved ones’ final moments has complicated their mourning process.

“Imagine seeing family members be murdered over and over again,” said Birikti, who was born and raised in Mahbere Dego, but now lives in Europe. She managed to identify two relatives among the doomed men and boys seen in the execution videos.

Birikti said that the taunting of victims by Ethiopian soldiers as they fired into the backs of victims remains etched in her memory.

“I couldn’t work, eat or function normally for days. I remain a broken person.”

Mahbere Dego had seen fierce fighting just before the massacre where Ethiopian and Eritrean troops clashed with fighters loyal to the TPLF in the hills and villages surrounding the town.

In response to the flurry of media reports on the execution videos, the Ethiopian military denied that its soldiers were the ones seen in the video and accused Tigrayan fighters of using actors to produce the footage.

“They used Ethiopian army uniforms stolen from us,” army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Mohammed Tessema said at a press conference back in April. “They were actors. Those seen falling in the video were fighters who fell on cue as bullets were fired away from them. No one died. This was used to manipulate the international community.”

But in June the town’s inhabitants held a funeral procession for victims, and footage of the ceremony was obtained by CNN.

“The [Ethiopian] army’s denials of the obvious left me speechless,” said Biniam, also from Mahbere Dego but currently resides in Canada. “I’m still mourning the loss of three friends in the massacre, they were like brothers to me. That sense of loss won’t go away. And it’s all we will remember the army by.”

Birikti’s testimony, based on exchanges with relatives who were in the town in the days immediately following the disappearances of the victims, largely echoes that of three other residents, including Gebre who only just managed to escape the onslaught for the then relative safety of the nearby town of Axum.

Gebre said he was in Mahbere Dego in mid-January when a contingent of Ethiopian soldiers made its way to the town. According to him, the sounds of shelling in the distance could be heard from the town, but since fighting remained concentrated in the surrounding mountains outside the town, locals had grown accustomed to the noise.

“Nobody fled Mahbere Dego until they saw the soldiers came to the town,” Gebre explained. “Soldiers spotted youths on the outskirts of town. The youths turned to run into town to warn residents and the soldiers chased after them.”

He added: “I saw them from a distance, and I also saw the soldiers chasing after them, including one soldier who was shooting in the air. I was frightened and ran to hide in my family’s home.”

Gebre said a number of those who had fled were caught hiding in the town and taken away. Others were dragged out of homes. “I believe soldiers noticed my aunt in our doorway, so they walked past our home,” he explained. “If they had seen any men, they would have broken our door down and taken me.”

The abductees were beaten and eventually taken to the outskirts of town, never to be seen again. Gebre’s worst fears were confirmed two months later when the infamous massacre video surfaced.

He estimated the number of men and boys kidnapped from Mahbere Dego to be around 30, and other eyewitnesses gave similar estimates.

Birikti provided names of two of her family members among those taken away: 34-year-old farmer and laborer Gebremedhin Gebretsadkan and his 18-year-old younger cousin Kiros Gebremedhin. Birikti said that the two did not participate in the war and that Kiros was a student who sometimes worked with his older cousin at a construction company making cobblestones and bricks.

“They were innocent and had no involvement whatsoever with guns or any group,” she said.

Gebreselassie, who also hails from Mahbere Dego, left the town in February and spoke to New Lines from Mekelle. He explained that Ethiopian soldiers rounded up a second batch of men and boys from nearby villages and herded them toward the same cliff location where the others were being kept. He said the total number of kidnapped males surpassed 70.

“We have a list of many of their names. They took them all to the edge of a cliff on the outskirts of town,” he said. “Soldiers cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching.”

The area described by Gebreselassie corresponds to areas where the captives are seen being interrogated before their deaths. Bellingcat was among a host of investigative outlets that used open-source tools to geolocate where the videos were made to two specific locations near cliffs and about a mile outside the town. One of the locations matched the site where satellite images captured the convoy of military vehicles near a cliff overlooking a neighboring village. Gebreselassie identified this as the village of Enda Malka.

In the footage, the captives are initially seen alive, seated together silently. Ethiopian soldiers are heard laughing, chatting nonchalantly among themselves and discussing a prior killing that may have happened off camera. Suddenly, multiple soldiers can be heard barking instructions at a soldier in the distance.

“Pull it down! Get rid of it. Roll it downwards!” The soldier is ordered to dispose of a body. All the while, the captives sit nearby, helpless.

Although soldiers are overheard questioning whether the males were informants or spies for the Tigrayan rebels, analysis of the chilling audio debunks any notion that the victims were captured combatants.

Soldiers, presumed to be commanding officers due to their advanced age, begin questioning some of their prisoners. One of the officers is seen speaking into a communications radio.

“Get up! Get over here!” one of them shouts at the seated group of prisoners. One man seen wearing jeans and a red-and-black checkered hoodie complies with the order. He rises and walks to where the officers are standing. Birikti confirmed the man is her relative, Gebremedhin.

As Gebremedhin approaches, the commanding officers turn their attention to a young man of thin build, whom Birikti identified as Kiros. Seated right in front of them and wearing an unbuttoned white dress shirt and jeans he can be heard, barely audible, saying “18,” in Amharic, likely after a prompt for his age.

Officers take an interest in him and search his clothes, forcing him to take off his dress shirt. They find nothing. But as he turns toward the camera and is briefly seen squinting into the sunlight, soldiers appear to have decided his fate. “We must not release these ones,” a soldier can be heard saying off-camera.

Seemingly satisfied, an officer gestures to another young man seated near him, identified by multiple people I spoke with as 22-year-old Hadgu Mewcha, also a student. Dressed in a striped dress shirt and draped in a scarf, he is also searched. According to Birikti, Hadgu and his older brother Mengesha, 35, were among those snatched from their homes by soldiers during the mass roundup in Mahbere Dego.

The victims aren’t believed to have been held captive for long. In follow-up clips, victims are seen either lying dead or being pushed toward the cliff to be shot. One soldier filming the scene can be heard urging one soldier to take part in the killings and admonishing another for using too many bullets.

Enthusiastically cheering on the executions, at one point he is seen handing off the camera and personally intervening to kill those who had not yet succumbed to their wounds.

“As you can see, we’ve littered the place with ‘woyane’ corpses,” he says, using a derogatory term for supporters of the Tigrayan fighters, as the camera pans over to a pair of blood-soaked bodies.

After the executions are complete, soldiers are seen struggling to drag corpses over the cliff, likely to conceal the bodies from view. One soldier remarks that he should have brought fuel to burn the bodies.

“Yes, gas would have been great!” the cameraman is heard saying. “We would have done it [cremated them] Indian style!”

While the longest segments of video footage emerged in March, additional clips that surfaced in June appear to show the murders of both Gebremedhin and an unidentified elderly man. Both are shown being led to a cliff edge before being shot multiple times from behind.

The shocking footage and ensuing media coverage eventually proved to the world that a brutal crime had taken place. But initially, not even the residents were aware of the fate of the large group of abductees.

According to Gebreselassie, the uncertainty left Mahbere Dego’s residents anguished and desperate for answers.

“All we knew was that they were taken to the outskirts of the city,” Gebreselassie recalled. “We initially had faint hopes that they would be returned to us. I had thought that if they had wanted them dead, they could have just immediately shot them, like soldiers have done elsewhere in Tigray.”

For weeks, few risked approaching the Ethiopian soldiers encamped on the outskirts of Mahbere Dego, where parked military vehicles doubled as a blockade from the execution sites. But eventually, Birikti said, a group of women could no longer endure the torment of not knowing.

“A number of the town’s mothers slaughtered cattle and went to the campsite accompanied by some elders and delivered a feast to the soldiers,” she said. “They pleaded with them to release the prisoners. But they were told to leave.”

Gebreselassie confirmed Birikti’s account and added that the soldiers accepted the food and tried to quiet the group by telling them that their prisoners were “busy working” and would be home soon.

“They just toyed with our people. Imagine not knowing where your sons and husbands are for weeks.”

The ensuing events, corroborated by the individuals I spoke with, would be heart-wrenching for the town’s residents.

Residents began to assume their missing relatives were dead when, over the course of several days and weeks, an unusually large number of cats, dogs, hyenas and vultures were seen on the edge of town, feasting on what appeared to be bones and other human remains.

“They learned about the fate of our boys in the cruelest and most demeaning way possible,” Birikti said. “Murdering the innocent wasn’t enough; the soldiers left them to be chewed and eaten.”

“They made sure they died in the most undignified manner possible. Inhumanity doesn’t begin to describe this. They even denied us the chance to properly bury them.”

As word of the gruesome feeding frenzy got around town, residents began to accept that they would never see their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers again.

After the first video clips of the Mahbere Dego massacre surfaced in March, Ethiopian soldiers gradually began to leave their cliffside encampment and moved into the town where they were based out of Mahbere Dego’s Sihul Michael High School, in the town’s east.

Satellite images of the execution site taken on April 7 and viewed by New Lines show that the military vehicles present in earlier images of the area were no longer there.

When inhabitants of the town eventually reached the scene of the massacre, they found skeletal remains, clothing and personal items belonging to the victims. Residents say they’ve identified over 30 of the dead. Among them were two brothers who were identified by their family solely by analyzing footage.

Teklay Gebremedhin, a 31-year-old church deacon, is believed to be a man in an olive-colored shirt seen sitting toward the back of the large group of captives as army officers began to interrogate and search some of them.

The body of his older brother Haile, 38, a public health professional, was said to be one of several seen strewn about after the execution and is identified by his clothing.

Most estimates place the death toll of those massacred at the cliff edge as under 80. However, the number of missing men, based on lists circulated widely by social media activists, exceeds 100. Samuel, a Mahbere Dego native who was in Addis Ababa when we spoke, suggested this discrepancy could be because some of the men listed as missing were killed prior to the mass execution when Ethiopian forces shelled nearby villages.

“Troops unloaded heavy weaponry in the tiny villages and destroyed homes,” Samuel said. “My cousin, Woldetensae Kiflemariam, died while fleeing towards a forest alongside his wife and daughter. He was only 48.”

Another perverse element of the atrocities captured in videos that emerged in June shows an Ethiopian soldier who participated in the carnage proudly identifying his military unit. The soldier, whose identity is yet to be confirmed, referred to himself by his apparent nickname “Fafy” and stated that he belonged to the 1st Brigade of the Ethiopian army’s 25th Division. Part of the Ethiopian military’s eastern command regiment, this division is deployed out of the city of Harar, some 320 miles east of Addis Ababa.

The extent to which this evidence factored into the report’s conclusions is unclear. In a statement released a couple of months earlier, in April, the Ethiopian Embassy in London was urging observers to await the results of the joint UN-EHRC investigation. Yet the footage from March already revealed much about what happened in Mahbere Dego. Soldiers, including commanders, appear aware they are being filmed and make no effort to conceal their faces. While it’s not clear why soldiers documented their own atrocities, in one clip a soldier is heard saying that the video would be a “souvenir.”

The Ethiopian army’s Maj. Gen. Zewdu Belay, the commander of the eastern regiment that oversees the 25th division’s combat operations, did not respond to requests for comment on the atrocities his troops are alleged to have committed. Calls and a text message to army spokesperson Mohammed Tessema also went unanswered.

In the battlefield reversals that saw Ethiopian and Eritrean troops retreat from swaths of Tigrayan territory they once controlled, Tigrayan forces claim to have captured members of the army’s 25th Division, including a soldier said to have personally filmed some of the killings. The alleged accomplice was paraded on camera, although his identity is yet to be independently authenticated.

“There may be more perpetrators in our custody,” Fesseha Tessema, a spokesperson affiliated with the Tigrayan forces, told New Lines. “We are still investigating and will dig for the whole truth first.”

Also waiting for the truth are survivors of the massacre and victims’ loved ones.

“The report didn’t even make a single mention of the massacre,” said Biniam, who, because he is abroad, is among a minority of the town’s natives to have seen the report online. “As someone born and raised in Mahbere Dego, to me the report is null and void. I’m still seeking justice and I still demand an impartial investigation.”

In mid-December, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council passed a resolution ordering an additional investigation into abuses, which would be conducted without the EHRC’s involvement. Ethiopia has opposed the resolution and stated it would not cooperate with any new U.N. probe.

As of publication, communications to Mahbere Dego remain down.

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