Amid calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the atrocities allegedly committed by the Ethiopian government in Tigray (please see Amnesty International’s, CNN’s and Sky News reports), UN’s Human Rights chief, Mrs. Bachelet, said yesterday that her organisation has agreed to conduct a joint investigation, in partnership with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
On the surface, this appears a positive development — two ostensibly non-governmental and independent bodies conducting an investigation can only be good.
However, look beneath the surface and the problems with this modality of investigation can be seen laid bare.
The first problem is that despite its putative roles and objectives, the EHRC is neither impartial nor autonomous. Like any other institution in Ethiopia today, it is an important cog in the giant machine that the Abiy regime has assembled to bulldoze any opposition to Mr. Abiy.
Its job description is rather simple: report minor instances of abuses of human rights here and there without compromising on the bigger story – that the government is committed to bringing about fundamental reforms with respect to human rights.
That is why despite the squalid conditions under which high-profile political prisoners have been held (Jawar Mohammed and Bekelle Gerba went on a 40-day hunger strike in protest to horrible prison conditions) the EHRC’s assessment is that prisoners are being treated well. It is also for this reason that its commissioner, Daniel Bekelle, felt the need to say the war in Tigray hasn’t caused as much damage as was initially feared.
This despite hundreds of women having been gang-raped; almost all clinics, hospitals, schools, factories and other properties having been destroyed, burnt down and looted; thousands having fled; entire communities having been displaced and replaced by ethnic others in a clear attempt of ethnic cleansing; and thousands of civilians having been brutally murdered.
It would take one a huge leap of faith to believe that Mr Bekelle would arrive at a “finding” that would contradict his own initial view.
The second problem hidden beneath the surface is the identity and history (with respect to the TPLF) of Mr Bekelle. As much as one would like to steer clear of identity politics, in Ethiopia, unfortunately, one can not ignore the role identity plays.
At its core, the war on Tigray is between two diametrically opposite visions for Ethiopia. The first vision is to create an Amharanised Ethiopia, where the ethnic-Amhara are the standard bearers who the “less-civilised” ethnic-others should look up to. This is the vision Mr. Daniel, being an ethnic-Amhara himself, subscribes to.
The other vision is an Ethiopia where all peoples are equal in terms of their historical roles, their cultures and languages, their say in matters of importance,their ownership of the country, etc. It is this vision that the TPLF, and in general the people of Tigray, holds on to religiously. It was in defense of this vision that the Tigrayans went to the polls in September of 2020 in defiance of the Abiy regime’s decree to cancel elections.
The Abiy regime might incessantly say the casus belli – the main cause – of the war is an alleged attack on a military base but any informed observer will know that the war is a manifestation of this clash of visions.
Given his philosophical allegiances, it is obvious Mr Daniel would produce a “finding” that would be damning of the vision that he considers “cancerous” to Ethiopia.
Awol Allo, a well-known analyst of Ethiopian politics, argues, citing Mr Daniel’s remark that the war didn’t cause as much damage as originally feared, Mr Daniel cannot have the independence and impartially required of an investigator of a matter of this magnitude.
Martin Plaut, a keen observer of Ethiopian politics, has also expressed his cynicism by likening the involvement of Mr Daniel in the investigation to a student marking their own homework.
It is almost impossible to find anyone not associated with the regime who disagrees with the concerns expressed here. The message is clear: if the findings of an investigation are to be accepted, it is very critical that the investigation be done by a body that all parties trust.
Mr Daniel or the Human Rights Commission that he heads simply do not command the trust and respect of the people of Tigray, who will have every reason to feel apathy and grievance towards the commission due to its silence and complicity during and in their suffering.
An investigator that does not clear the minimum bar of not having any discernible allegiances to any of the warring parties is only going to make the situation worse.
Indeed, we have seen what damage biased investigations can inflict on people.
When the Abiy regime was desperate to justify its war on Tigray, it unleashed the EHRC to produce a report in a hasty manner that “established” that forces loyal to the TPLF had committed a massacre in Mai-Kadra. The regime has since clung on to that “finding” to argue that the war on Tigray is justified.
(Important to note that the Mai-Kadra massacre has been attributed to different forces by different sources. According to this report, the massacre was committed by government-affiliated forces; and according to this report, based on interviews with people who were on the scene, Amhara Militia and members of the Ethiopian defense forces are behind the massacre. The EHRC did not bother to take these reports that contradict its claim into account.)
There is no reason to believe the “investigation” this time around has a different intention, at least as far as the Abiy regime is concerned.
Of course there is no doubt that Mrs. Bachelet has agreed with the “joint inquiry” arrangement in good faith. There is no reason to believe she intends to be used as a tool for the regime to whitewash the heinous crimes it has been charged as having committed.
However, regardless of her presumably benign intentions, it is not clear how a joint investigation alongside a partisan entity, which has made its position on the war clear, can lead to anything good.
At the very least, an explanation of why we should respect and accept the findings of the joint investigation is warranted.
Needless to say, the right thing to do is to push for a proper investigation by a body whose impartiality cannot be doubted.
The findings of such an investigation would provide the country with the much-needed truth that would be of paramount importance in its reconciliation efforts after the war is over.