Report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Joint Investigation into Alleged Violations of International Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Law Committed by all Parties to the Conflict in the Tigray Region of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
From 16 May to 30 August 2021, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conducted a joint investigation into alleged human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law, and refugee law committed in the context of the conflict in Tigray, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The objectives of the joint investigation were to provide a faithful account of the human rights situation in Tigray including its gender dimension; further the accountability process and advocate for effective remedies; provide clear and actionable recommendations; and identify serious violations to ensure redress for victims and prevent recurrence.
The investigation was carried out within the framework of relevant international legal norms, including international human rights law, humanitarian law, refugee law and criminal law, as well as Ethiopian domestic law. Prior to the commencement of the investigation, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) agreed on its methods of work to guide the investigation and applied best practices regarding victim and witness protection, rules of procedure, international investigative standards, report writing, and archiving. Consistent with the practice of international fact-finding bodies, the JIT adopted a “reasonable grounds to believe” standard of proof for factual determinations on individual cases, incidents and patterns of violations.
The JIT investigated alleged violations by all parties to the conflict from 3 November 2020 until the unilateral ceasefire declared by the federal government of Ethiopia on 28 June 2021. Field investigations were conducted from 16 May to 31 August 2021 in different locations in Tigray including Mekelle, Wukro, Samre and nearby areas, Alamata, Bora, Maichew, Dansha, Maikadra, and Humera. The JIT visited internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in Mekelle, Gondar, Dabat, and Dansha, and, interviewed IDPs from various parts of Tigray, including Adi Aro, Adi Hageray, Adigrat, Adwa, Badme, Dengolat, Humera, Korem, Maikadra, Mekelle, Quiha, Shimelba, Shire, Sheraro, Tembien, and Zalambesa. The JIT also conducted investigations in Addis Ababa and other affected locations such as Gondar and Bahir Dar. The JIT conducted 269 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged violations and abuses and held 64 meetings with federal and regional authorities, representatives of United Nations agencies and on governmental organizations, community groups, medical personnel, and other sources.
The report does not purport to be an exhaustive record of all relevant incidents that occurred during this period, but it fairly illustrates the main types and overall patterns of violations and abuses over the period in question. Presentation in some of the thematic summaries follows a chronological pattern in terms of occurrences of incidents and does not imply a ranking of alleged perpetrators.
On 3 November 2020, the Tigray Special Forces (TSF) and allied militia attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and took control of the bases and the weaponry. On 4 November 2020, the federal government announced a military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its forces. The ENDF, the Amhara Special Forces (ASF) and allied militia, and the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) accordingly started a military offensive against the TSF and allied militia in Tigray. The violent conflict resulted in serious violations of international human rights law, humanitarian, and refugee law. Based on the information gathered and analysed by the JIT, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the following major violations and abuses occurred in the context of the conflict:
Attack on civilians and civilian objects: The ENDF, EDF, and TSF, carried out attacks on civilians resulting in the deaths of and injuries to men, women, boys, and girls. Civilian objects which enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law such as health facilities, schools, places of worship, and houses were indiscriminately attacked. Parties to the conflict failed to take sufficient precautions to protect civilians and civilian objects. ENDF and TSF occupied and used civilian infrastructure, such as schools and health facilities without appropriate justification for military usage. Twenty-nine civilians were killed in Mekelle due to shelling by the ENDF on 28 November 2020; 15 civilians were killed between 9 and 11 November 2020 in Humera due to artillery shells fired by the EDF and TSF; between 25 and 27 November 2020 an undisclosed number of civilians died in Wukro due to exchange of artillery fire between the ENDF and TSF, and several private and public property were damaged; a rocket fired by the TSF destroyed a farmer’s home in the Amhara region 140 km from Gondar Airport causing injuries to a family of nine; shelling by ENDF in Amedwha, Waereb, and Dejen resulted in the death of two civilians and injuries to an unspecified number of people; 17 civilians were killed and 3 injured following ethnic-based attacks by TSF on two farms on the outskirts of Maikadra; the Dansha Health Centre was used by the TSF to launch an attack on the 5th Mechanised ENDF Division on 3 November 2020, resulting in visible damage to the health centre; the ENDF used a school in Samre as a military camp between 1 – 31 December 2020 resulting in damage to the school and Atsey Yohannes School in Mekelle between 3 December 2020 and 13 April 2021, resulting in looting and destruction of the school’s property.
Unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions: The ENDF, EDF, Fano (group affiliated to the Amhara militia), TSF and affiliated militia, the Samri (local Tigrayan youth group), have committed unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions amounting to violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as violations of the Constitution and laws of Ethiopia. Persons taking no direct part in hostilities were wilfully killed by parties to the conflict, including ethnic-based killings of more than two hundred Amharas, mostly men, in Maikadra by the Samri accompanied by Tigrayan police and militia on 9 November 2020, as well as the retaliatory killing of at least five Tigrayans by the Fano; the killing of more than 100 people in Axum on 28 November 2020 by the EDF; the killing of at least 70 men in Bora, Amedwha, Bora Chemala, and Mai Liham by the ENDF on 8 and 9 January 2021; the killing of civilians by the ENDF in the enforcement of curfew restrictions including two civilians in Mekelle on 19 January 2021; and the killing of civilians who were taking refuge in St. Giorgis Church in Adi Hageray by the TSF on 4 November 2020. Young men were targeted in most of these killings, particularly in Maikadra and Bora.
Torture and other forms of ill-treatment: The ENDF, EDF, TSF and allied militias, and Tigrayan police, committed acts of torture and ill-treatment against civilians and captured combatants in various locations across Tigray, including in military camps, detention facilities, victims’ homes, as well as secret and unidentified locations. From 9 to 10 November 2020, Tigrayan militia and armed civilians in Humera arrested and detained mostly ethnic Amharas, whom they insulted as “Amhara donkey”, made them sit in uncomfortable postures, beat them with plastic pipes, kicked them, and denied them food and water for several days. In March 2021 in Samre and Berezba, EDF subjected victims to torture and other ill-treatment; and the ENDF committed acts of torture and ill-treatment in Bora in December 2020. On 2 April 2021, in Samre, at least 600 men suffered degrading treatment when they were forced by the EDF to remove their clothes for a strip search in public; captured ENDF soldiers in Sheraro, Adi Hageray and Shire were subjected to torture and ill-treatment by Tigray forces between 3 and 4 November 2020, as well as abuse of the bodies of deceased ENDF soldiers; several ENDF camps in Tigray were used to torture captured Tigray forces or civilians suspected of providing support to Tigray forces including Adi Gudem, Awash military camp, Adigrat, and Kedamay Weyane police station in Mekelle.
Arbitrary detentions, abduction, and enforced disappearances: The ENDF, TSF and allied groups, Amhara militia, Fano, and the EDF engaged in arbitrary detentions, abductions, and enforced disappearances. The ENDF detained individuals in secret locations and military camps including the Northern Command in Mekelle, Awash Camp, and Martyrs Memorial Monument Centre. In Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, individuals were arrested by the ENDF and the federal police for perceived affiliation with the TPLF and kept incommunicado for long periods without formal charges or legal proceedings. In Western Tigray, at the beginning of the conflict, Tigray forces detained civilians mostly of Amhara origin starting from 9 November 2020 for perceived support to the federal government and took them to Shire, Axum, and Mekelle. Many were released or managed to escape, some were killed, and others disappeared. There was mass detention of Tigrayan civilians including women and children by Amhara militia and Fano in
Maikadra for more than a month. In Adashi, Berezba, EDF soldiers abducted six individuals, killed two, and later released the others.
Sexual and gender-based violence: Various acts of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) including physical violence and assault; attempted rape; rape including gang rape, oral and anal rape; insertion of foreign objects into the vagina; and intentional transmission of HIV have been committed by all parties to the conflict. Women, girls, men, and boys were victims of SGBV including gang rape. Women and girls were exposed to unwanted pregnancy, and some were infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The ENDF, EDF, and TSF have committed sexual and gender-based violence including gang rapes, and in many cases, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used to degrade and dehumanize the victims. Women and girls whose male family members were Tigrayan combatants were targeted by the EDF, and wives of ENDF soldiers were similarly targeted by Tigray forces for SGBV. Women and girls were also exposed to SGBV when fleeing the conflict, and in some instances when fetching water from the river due to disruption of running water. Women and girls were abducted, detained, and raped including in one incident in which a 19-year-old survivor was abducted, detained, and repeatedly raped for three months. Rape of a woman with a disability was also documented. Sexual violence has profoundly violated the survivors’ physical and psychological integrity and caused serious health complications, particularly the gang rapes which were characterised by their brutality. The JIT also obtained reports which implicate the ASF in acts of sexual violence.
Refugees: Between November 2020 and January 2021, the TSF and EDF violated the civilian character of refugee camps in Tigray by their presence in Shimelba refugee camp which shelters Eritrean refugees. TSF and EDF fought around the camp putting the security and lives of refugees at risk, resulting in the destruction of the camp, the displacement of thousands of refugees, and the disappearance of hundreds. The EDF violated the fundamental principle of non-refoulement by forcibly returning some Eritrean refugees to Eritrea. Tigray forces and civilians looted private property of refugees and property of humanitarian organizations. Large number of refugees lost their livelihood, they live in fear of the EDF, and of possible retaliation from the host community.
Forced displacement of the civilian population: Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled their homes in Tigray, at different intervals. The Tigrayan population, in particular, was significantly affected by the forced displacement in Western Tigray. The forced displacement of ethnic Amharas from their homes by the Samri youth group with the support of the local administration in Maikadra in November 2020 was followed by widespread retaliatory forcible displacements of ethnic Tigrayans mainly in Western Tigray by ASF, Amhara militia, and Fano. The forced displacements were committed on a broad scale and without lawful justification. The displacement caused by different groups has also exacerbated the existing tensions between mainly Tigrayans and Amharas in areas where they once lived together, and which might prove to be a challenge in efforts to return IDPs in safety to their previous residence.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs): IDPs have not been provided with adequate food, nutrition, water, healthcare, sanitation, and hygiene. In Mekelle, the local community provided 70% of the food for IDPs due to the gap in food provision from the State and other actors. The shortage of food particularly in Gondar, Dabat, and Dansha was serious, resulting in the deaths of one lactating mother and three children due to malnutrition and lack of healthcare in a camp in Gondar. IDPs in Mekelle remained in a situation of fear due to sudden raids and arrests by the ENDF, which occurred in Shire in May 2021. IDPs in Mekelle, Gondar, and Dabat also did not have proper personal identification documents that would allow them to move freely or find work.
Restrictions on freedom of movement: The multiple roadblocks and check points and excessive measures taken by ENDF and EDF in enforcing the curfew that have in some instances resulted in the death of civilians and obstructed the movement of people and essential goods raises serious questions as to their justification and proportionality. The failure of government authorities to issue identification cards to IDPs and the refusal of security and immigration officials at Addis Ababa International Airport to allow some Tigrayans to leave the country and in some instances the confiscation of their travel documents without any explanation, justification and due process also appears motivated by discrimination and is disproportionate and unjustified.
Freedom of expression and access to information: Civilians were unable to seek, receive and impart information because phones and internet communications were cut off in Tigray following the start of the conflict. The communication interruption may have been justified until the expiry of the state of emergency, but the continued disconnection is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. The killing of journalist Dawit Kebede on 19 January 2021 by the ENDF in Mekelle constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression and amounts to unlawful killing.
Pillage, looting, and destruction of property: There has been large-scale destruction and appropriation of property by different actors, including armed forces, militias and civilians. The ENDF looted and destroyed property in Atsey Yohannes School in Mekelle on two occasions while using the school as a military camp and took three cars from the premises of the Supreme Court in Mekelle. The EDF looted public and private property, including objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population in Southern Tigray, including Keih Emba, Samre, Adi Gibai, Adi Awsa, Bora, and Wukro in Eastern Tigray. Tigray forces looted and destroyed private and public property and infrastructures in Western Tigray and parts of North-Western Tigray. Amhara militia and Fano have been implicated in looting and appropriation of houses and businesses in parts of Western Tigray such as Humera and Maikadra.
Denial of access to humanitarian relief: Impediments or delays in humanitarian assistance were attributed to active conflict, lack of functional local administrative bodies for coordination, and lack of cooperation by ENDF and EDF at checkpoints including confiscation of medication. Tigray forces were also implicated in setting up road blockades delaying delivery of humanitarian relief. The conflict further had a direct bearing on the operations of humanitarian organisations following the killings of over 20 humanitarian workers. While the JIT could not confirm deliberate or wilful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war, the JIT recognizes the need for further investigation on alleged violations related to denial of access to humanitarian relief and killings of humanitarian workers.
Economic, social, and cultural rights: The enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights including the rights to health, adequate food and water and sanitation, as well as access to basic services such as electricity and banking services, was seriously undermined as a direct result of the actions of the parties to the conflict or indirectly as a result of failures to take measures to mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilian services and objects. Looting and destruction of health facilities in all parts of Tigray by parties to the conflict, had a direct impact on the right to health of the civilian population. The war resulted in damage to water, telecommunications, electricity, and banking infrastructure.
Children: Children were subjected to SGBV, physical injuries and, in some cases, killings as a direct result of the conflict. Children were exposed to traumatic experiences such as witnessing the killing or rape of close family members by soldiers of the parties to the conflict, including the ENDF, EDF, and TSF. The displacement and killing of their caregivers left children orphaned and vulnerable to further abuses and violations. Thousands of children were separated from their families as result of the conflict. Children in Tigray and children displaced from Tigray to the Amhara region do not have adequate food, water, shelter, protection, and other lifesaving assistance. The lack of access to education and health care services has deprived children of their fundamental rights.
Older persons and persons with disabilities: Parties to the conflict failed to provide special protection to older persons and persons with disabilities (PWDs) in line with their human rights obligations. There were incidents of direct attacks against older persons and PWDs, including physical assault, summary execution, and rape of a woman with a disability. Older persons expressed a feeling of abandonment due to the conflict.
Conclusion and recommendations
The JIT has found serious abuses and violations of human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law, committed by the ENDF, EDF, TSF and allied militia, ASF and allied militia, as well as other affiliated to various parties to the conflict. The JIT has reasonable grounds to believe that a number of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, which require further investigations to ensure accountability. The primary responsibility for addressing the violations rests with the State, as part of its obligation to respect and protect human rights. The JIT emphasises that accountability should not be understood narrowly, and that criminal responsibility is only one of a broader set of actions which are required. The JIT repeats the calls by victims and survivors of violations, who wish for the restoration of their means of livelihood, reparations, the truth about what happened to their loved ones, for all sides to acknowledge responsibility, and also for perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The State should initiate a victim-centred and gender-sensitive reparations scheme that includes restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction – including the right to the truth, and guarantees of non-repetition. The international community should support initiatives to strengthen justice and accountability for serious violations and crimes, including efforts by the Ethiopian authorities to investigate and prosecute perpetrators for violations of human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law committed within the context of the conflict in Tigray.
The JIT report provides detailed recommendations to all parties to the conflict and to the international community, including the UN and Ethiopia’s bilateral and multilateral partners.