Scientist slams UN report: Abiy regime will use it to ‘whitewash itself’

The head of a research team that has surveyed thousands of abuses during the Tigray War in Ethiopia is slaughtering the UN’s new report on human rights violations during the war. “Too little thorough, partly obfuscating and too weak on analysis,” the researcher states.

Bistandsaktuelt (Norway), 4 November 2021: Forsker slakter FN-rapport: Abyi-regimet vil bruke den til «å hvitvaske seg».

By Gunnar Zachrisen – Published: 04.11.2021

Geographer Jan Nyssen, affiliated with Ghent University, has been conducting research in the Tigray region since 1994. Here he tastes home-brewn beer at a local farmer’s house. Photo: Private

The UN Human Rights Office agreed to prepare the report in cooperation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission installed by the country’s parliament.

“From the very beginning, the main problem for this work was that far too much power was given to one party – the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which is not considered neutral and unfettered in this situation,” says Belgian researcher and professor Jan Nyssen.

He points out that the Ethiopian Commission chairman Daniel Bekele, a former prisoner of conscience, was appointed by the lower house of parliament in 2019, while the commission reports to parliament and is funded by the Ethiopian state. Both the parliament and the government have taken a clear side in the war, he points out.

Shortly before the war began a year ago, the parliament decided to label the regional political leadership in Tigray (Abiy’s opponent in the war) as “terrorists.”

“We have mapped allegations of 260 massacres committed during the Tigray War. The team behind this survey has only visited five or six of those locations.”

Jan Nyssen, Belgian professor

They visited only 5-6 relevant locations

The experienced researcher is shocked by the superficial nature of the surveys compared to other available information about human rights violations during the war.

“We have mapped allegations of 260 massacres committed during the Tigray War. Many of them are also very thoroughly documented by the international press. It is then startling that the team behind this investigation has only visited five or six of the places where massacres are alleged to have been committed,” says Nyssen.

The widespread massacre in Tigray’s holy city of Aksum  (800 killed by Eritrean soldiers) – which has been thoroughly documented by a number of media and independent sources – is among the massacres that have not been investigated by the team. The same applies to well-documented major massacres in  Mahbere Dego (73 killed),  Togogwa  (64 killed in airstrikes) and  Debre Abbay (200 killed). Common to the last three is that Ethiopian forces are claimed to be behind it.

Nyssen fears that the new report will primarily be used by the government and its allies in the Amhara region to spread confusion, place blame on Eritrean and Tigrayan forces, and “whitewash” its own frayed reputation.

“In this regard, we need to remind that the Eritrean military was invited into the war with carte blanche by Abiy, so he must take clear responsibility for the abuses committed by the Eritreans as well,” Nyssen points out.

Statements following the publication of the UN/EHRC report indicate that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is trying to blame Eritrea for the atrocities during the Tigray War. “It was Abiy who invited Eritrea to join the war and gave them free rein. Then he must also take full responsibility for the actions of the Eritreans,” says researcher Jan Nyssen. Photo: Anadolu Agency / NTB

He created a humanitarian atlas

Few scientists in the world have a better insight into the ongoing humanitarian situation in Tigray than him. Nyssen, a geographer with a special interest in soil issues, agricultural production and farmers’ living conditions, has almost 30 years of research experience in the Tigray region. In recent months, he has been central to the work of preparing a humanitarian atlas for Tigray. The goal has been to map and document various aspects of the humanitarian situation of the approximately six million people living in Ethiopia’s northernmost region, Tigray.

The atlas also includes a map page showing which places the Joint Commission of the UN and EHRC have visited in comparison to where alleged massacres have been reported.

The project, which is carried out by the University of Ghent, has used informants in various districts of Tigray to obtain qualitative and quantitative information about the situation. The information is then cross-checked against witness statements and information from Ethiopia’s government and humanitarian organizations.

Murders, human rights abuses and humanitarian needs have been mapped over the course of a year, as well as for regions other than Tigray. Similarly, humanitarian needs are mapped continuously in light of humanitarian access, crop status, security situation and the government’s blockade of the Tigray region.

“We were told early on that the commission had no interest in our mapping,” says Nyssen.

He believes that the UN centrally and in Ethiopia have been far too weak in dealing with Ethiopia’s authorities. “The UN should have been given free hands to carry out its investigations, rather than accepting the narrow frameworks that were laid around this work,” says Nyssen.

The team leader was expelled

The researcher points out that the international part of the team was composed of people with limited weight, experience and background from the UN system. The exception was the team leader, the Nigerian Sonny Onyegbula, who just over a month ago was expelled by the Ethiopian authorities along with six other high-ranking UN officials in the country.

An attempt by the UN to hire independent Tigrinya-speaking interpreters was blocked from the Ethiopian side.

“The report ends up with a message, as Michelle Bachelet forwarded it at the press conference today, about placing seemingly as much blame on both sides in the conflict. Considering that the report addresses the part of the war that took place until June 28, while Ethiopian and Eritrean were deep inside Tigray, it becomes strange to obscure the question of guilt in this way. Atrocities committed by Tigrayan forces are of a completely different and smaller extent than what has been reported on the counterpart’s many and extensive abuses against civilians in Tigray,” says Nyssen.

The Belgian professor is one of several Horn of Africa researchers who have questioned the independence and impartiality of the report. The AP news agency recently cited anonymous sources at the Ethiopian commission who claimed that the Ethiopian commission leader had tried to downplay the Amharas’ guilt in the abuses, while the Tigrayian side was to be highlighted as perpetrators. 

The UN human rights office has been asked for comment on the criticism, but has not yet responded to the inquiry.

The blue checkers on the map indicate the places the U.N. and EHRC teams visited. Red circles mark places where there are reports that large and small massacres have been committed. (Reproduced with permission, map/graph created by Sofie Annys, Ghent University.)

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