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UN-backed probe into Tigray war abuses set to end

Steven Ratner, (L), Kaari Betty Murungi, (C) and Radhika Coomaraswamy of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, in Geneva on Sep. 22, 2022.   -  
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A U.N.-backed probe of human rights abuses in Ethiopia is set to expire after no country stepped forward to seek an extension, despite repeated warnings that serious violations continue almost a year since a cease-fire ended a bloody war in the East African country.

While the European Union led talks on the issue, in the end, no resolution was submitted to extend the mandate of the independent International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia before a deadline expired Wednesday at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The probe will therefore be disbanded when its mandate expires this month.

The commission’s experts all but pleaded on Tuesday (Oct. 03) with the council to extend the investigation, warning that atrocities continue in Tigray, Ethiopia’s war-battered northernmost province.

The experts say Eritrean troops allied with Ethiopia’s military are still raping women and subjecting them to sexual slavery in parts of Tigray. They also cited reports of extrajudicial killings and mass detentions amid new fighting in Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-most populous state,

“There is a very real and imminent risk that the situation will deteriorate further, and it is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that investigations persist so human rights violations can be addressed, and the worst tragedies averted,” said commission member Steven Ratner.

European countries had previously supported the probe as a means of ensuring accountability for war crimes committed during the two-year civil war in Tigray.

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Ethiopia has long opposed the commission, reportedly preventing its experts from conducting investigations in Ethiopia and criticizing it as politically motivated. As a result, it was forced to work remotely, from an office in Uganda.

The commission was established in December 2021 after a joint report by the U.N. and Ethiopia’s state human rights commission recommended further independent investigations into abuses. Since then it has published two full-length reports.

It concluded that all sides committed abuses during the Tigray war, some of them amounting to war crimes. Its first report accused Ethiopia's government of using hunger as a weapon of war by restricting aid access to the region while rebels held it.

In their second report, published last month, the commission experts said a national transitional justice process launched by Ethiopia “falls well short” of African and international standards.

On Tuesday (Oct. 03), the European Union announced a 650-million-euro ($680 million) aid package for Ethiopia, the bloc’s first step toward normalizing relations with the country despite previous demands for accountability first.

A diplomat from a EU country acknowledged that the bloc had agreed not to present a resolution, and called on the Ethiopian government to set up “robust, independent, impartial and transparent” mechanisms to foster transitional justice in light of the “extreme gravity of crimes” and rights violations in Ethiopia.

“We expect quick and tangible progress in the coming months,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the subject. “Lack of progress could jeopardize the ongoing gradual normalization of relations between the EU and Ethiopia.”

Critics decried the inaction at the 47-member-country council.

Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said the failure to renew the mandate in essence allows Ethiopia to drop off the council's agenda, and amounts to “a scathing indictment of the EU’s stated commitment to justice.”

"It’s yet another blow to countless victims of heinous crimes who placed their trust in these processes,” she added.

The U.N. probe was the last major independent investigation into the Tigray war, which killed hundreds of thousands and was marked by massacres, mass rape and torture.

In June, the African Union dropped its own probe into the war’s atrocities.

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