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The U.N. says all sides in Ethiopia's Tigray conflict may have committed war crimes

Ethiopian army units patrol the streets of Mekele in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region in March after the city was captured during an operation against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Minasse Wondimu Hailu
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Ethiopian army units patrol the streets of Mekele in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region in March after the city was captured during an operation against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

All sides in the conflict in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region have committed atrocities that may amount to war crimes – including summary executions, torture and rape, according to a new report released by the United Nations.

"[There] are reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations and abuses of international human rights law, and serious violations of international humanitarian law, and international refugee law [have] been committed in the context of the Tigray conflict," reads the report written jointly by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Wednesday's report comes a year after the conflict began and a day after President Biden said he has decided to shut out Ethiopia from a trade program that gives sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to the United States.

The Ethiopian government and the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) have denied accusations of atrocities in the past.

The joint report, based on a four-month investigation that ended in August, also comes as fighting between government forces and Tigrayan rebels has escalated in recent weeks, with Ethiopian forces bombing targets in rebel-held territory. On Tuesday, Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency over fears that Tigrayan rebels were closing in on the capital, Addis Ababa.

The violence — which began when Tigrayan rebels clashed with Ethiopian forces — has claimed thousands of lives, including many civilians. But there is no reliable death toll in the conflict, which has also drawn in neighboring Eritrea and Sudan.

The U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said Wednesday that her office is receiving ongoing reports of violations of human rights in the region, including indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes on civilians.

"Civilians in Tigray have been subjected to brutal violence and suffering," she said. "The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable on all sides."

Bachelet said that despite assurances from Ethiopia that investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for atrocities would be undertaken, there remains "a troubling lack of transparency."

The report covers the period from the beginning of the conflict on Nov. 3, 2020, through June 2021, when Ethiopia issued a unilateral ceasefire that it was subsequently accused of violating.

It was compiled from 269 confidential interviews (124 women and 145 men) with victims and witnesses of alleged abuses. And it concludes that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe that the atrocities cataloged "may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, which require further investigations to ensure accountability."

Investigators said they faced security risks and administrative roadblocks, including "harassment and intimidation ... by Regional security forces, especially in Western and Southern Tigray" and that they were "unable to carry out all planned visits in parts of Tigray."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.