African Union launches investigation into rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

Inquiry follows reports of rampant human rights violations in restive region, including soldiers raping women.

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African Union launches investigation into rights abuses in Ethiopia's Tigray region

The African Union (AU) has launched a commission of inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, where a bloody seven-month conflict has led to warnings of famine and allegations of ethnic cleansing.

In a statement, the body said the commission, created under the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, will begin its work in the capital of Gambia, Banjul, and will conduct investigations on “the ground and in neighbouring countries when the conditions are met”.

“The Commission of Inquiry has a mandate to, inter alia, investigate allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to gather all relevant information so as to determine whether the allegations constitute serious and massive violations of human rights,” the statement added.

In response, Ethiopia’s government called on the AU to “immediately cease” the new commission of inquiry.

An Ethiopian foreign ministry statement on Thursday criticised the independent inquiry as “misguided” and lacking a legal basis, and proposed a joint probe instead.

But members of the new commission said they had not received that statement from Ethiopia, adding the investigation into alleged human rights abuses will go forward.

“What we have started cannot be stopped,” Remy Ngoy Lumbu, the commission’s vice chair, told reporters on Thursday. He added that Ethiopia has given authorisation for the commission to visit Tigray but no date has been set, with the security situation a factor.

Any findings “definitely will not be hidden in the drawer”, Lumbu said. It is not clear when the commission’s report will be published.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ground and air military operation in Tigray in early November 2020 after accusing the region’s then-governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), of orchestrating attacks on federal army camps, an allegation rejected by TPLF officials.

Abiy, whose forces are backed by troops from Eritrea and fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, declared victory in late November when the army entered the regional capital, Mekelle. Fighting, however, is still ongoing and reports of massacres, rapes and widespread hunger keep emerging.

In recent months, the United Nations, aid agencies and members of the international community have repeatedly called for full humanitarian access to the region of six million people in the face of growing fears of a protracted conflict with devastating effects on the civilian population.

“The problem has been the lack of timely information coming out to the region during this conflict about the type of suffering that civilians have experienced there’s all sorts of details about the fighting,” William Davison, of the Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.

“The African Union has the potential to do an important piece of work here which will add to our understanding of this conflict.”

Ethiopia’s government has rejected the allegations and asserted that it is helping Tigray to rebuild.

In late March, Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights announced they had agreed to carry out a joint investigation “into human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties” in Tigray.

While Ethiopia seeks a joint investigation with the AU commission of inquiry as well, commissioner Maya Sahli-Fadel said a probe conducted with the government would “alter and dilute the independence of the commission”.

Even if the commission cannot enter Tigray, she said, it can visit neighbouring countries and speak to refugees among the scores of thousands who have fled.

The AU and UN investigations will complement each other, Lumbu said.

The commission started work on Thursday and will sit for at least three months, and that period can be renewed.

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