Report of the 33rd Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the grave human rights situation in Ethiopia

by the URG team Blog, Blog, Human Rights Council, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Special session

On Friday 17th December 2021, the Human Rights Council convened a Special Session to address ‘the grave human rights situation in Ethiopia’.

The Special Session was requested via an official letter dated 13 December 2021 and signed by H.E Lotte Knudsen, Ambassador and Permanent Observer of the European Union Delegation to the United Nations Office in Geneva, as well as H.E Anita Pipan, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Slovenia to United Nations Office in Geneva. This letter, addressed to H.E. Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council, was officially supported by 17 member States[1] and 35 observer States[2].

In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of the General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council is ‘able to hold Special Sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e. 16 member States or more). Special Sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.

Webcasts of statements delivered during the Session can be found here.

The Council’s action on the human rights situation in the Ethiopia to date

Prior to the outbreak of the current conflict in November of 2020, Ethiopia had been mentioned in the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ annual reports to the Human Rights Council in the following contexts: in 2019, the High Commissioner reported that the OHCHR had conducted regional sessions on sustainable development goals in Ethiopia, provided support and advice to the humanitarian country team, participated in the work of humanitarian ‘protection clusters’ in the nation, and conducted a workshop with government representatives on the gender-dimension of criminal justice. In 2020, OHCHR increased support on sustainable development goals in Ethiopia to promote a rights-based approach to the 2030 Agenda, contributed to rights-based humanitarian action, and advocated for the expansion of civic space in the nation. 

Following the outbreak of violence, in March 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a joint investigation with representatives from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegations of human rights violations since the start of the conflict. 

At its 47th Session, on 13 July 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the ‘Situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.’ In the text, the Council expressed grave concern for the human rights situation in the region, after months of armed conflict between rebel groups and the federal government. The Council expressed further concern about reports indicating the presence and participation of Eritrean troops in the conflict, reports of famine and humanitarian crises, and instances of reprisals against aid workers. The Council called for an immediate halt to all human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law, and called for the swift withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.

Finally, the resolution requested the High Commissioner’s office provide advice and technical assistance to strengthen the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and requested the High commissioner present an oral update to the Council in an enhanced interactive dialogue at its 48th Session. The resolution was adopted with 20 States voting in favour, 13 abstaining, and 14 voting against. Notably, no member State from the African Group voted in favour of the resolution.

 At the requested enhanced interactive dialogue, on 14 September 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, provided the Council with an update, informing the Council that the fighting had expanded beyond the Tigray province into the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, and that gross human rights violations continued to be pervasive. She also updated the Council on the status of the OHCHR’s joint report, being prepared with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

The report of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was released on 3 November 2021. It found that all sides were responsible for serious human rights and humanitarian violations, including attacks against civilians, extrajudicial killings and executions, torture, gender-based and sexual violence, and the forced displacement of thousands.

Following the release of the JIT report, the High Commissioner provided the Council with an inter-sessional briefing on the human rights situation in Ethiopia on 22 November 2021, at which participants urged the Council to act. A number of civil society organisations and States have called for the Council to convene a Special Session on the human rights situation in Ethiopia for several months already, demanding the establishment of an international investigative mechanism.

33rd Special Session

The session, held virtually on Friday 17 December 2021, began with keynote statements by H.E. Ms. Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures. 

The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the 33rd Special Session by calling attention to the JIT report findings, noting that all parties to the conflict, including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Tigrayan Forces and Eritrean Defence forces, had committed violations of human rights, international humanitarian law, and refugee law. The Deputy Commissioner further noted that the Government of Ethiopia, despite expressing some reservations to the report, committed to undertake measures to implement JIT recommendations, such as by conducting its own investigations into alleged violations, and establishing an Inter-Ministerial Task Force for investigation and accountability.

Ms. Al-Nashif then shared four primary concerns: the humanitarian impact, forced displacement, the overly-punitive state of emergency, and targeted hate speech. First, a lack of access by humanitarian aid organisations, compounded by harassment of humanitarian workers, she explained, has led to more than 9.4 million people experiencing food insecurity. Additionally, both medical facilities and civilian structures have been attacked. Second, with regard to forced displacement, the Deputy Commissioner added that at least 2 million people had been forced to leave their homes due to the conflict, and expressed particular concern for the overall regional impact of forced displacement, and for the situation of Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, who fear retaliation by Eritrean forces engaged in the conflict. 

Third, the Deputy Commissioner explained that the nationwide state of emergency enacted on 2 November, which permits excessively broad grounds for arrest, search, and detention, has led to serious human rights concerns. She shared that OHCHR estimates between 5,000 and 7,000 people remain detained, including 9 UN staff members. Finally, Ms. Al-Nashif stated that she ‘deplore[s]’ increasingly violent and discriminatory rhetoric used by federal and regional authorities and public figures targeting ethnic Tigrayans and Oromo people. 

Ultimately, Ms. Al-Nashif urged all parties to permit humanitarian workers unimpeded access to civilians in need, to immediately end hostilities and participate in meaningful national dialogue, and to ensure the measures under the state of emergency comply with international human rights law. She added that while the Government’s establishment of the Inter-Ministerial Task Force is an important step, these efforts must genuinely provide meaningful accountability for victims. She concluded by saying that the ‘onus is on the State,’ but in the absence of genuine and significant accountability efforts, ‘an international mechanism would be an important complement.’ 

The Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, first emphasised the negative impact of the conflict on ethnic Tigrayans. Ethnic Tigrayans, he explained, have been subject to disrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrests and searches as well as detention in mass detention centres with limited food, water, and access to toilet facilities. 

The Chair then expressed serious concern over widespread gender-based and sexual violence in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar by all parties to the conflict, including agents of the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean Defence Force, Tigrayan Forces and militias, and the Amhara Special Force and militia. 

The Chair shared the ‘shocking’ estimate that there had been 2,200 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence between November 2020 and June 2021, and that 90% of victims reporting were minors. He added that Special Procedures are concerned by the scale and seriousness of the violations and abuses, and reiterated the recommendations made by the Joint Investigation, that all parties immediately end sexual and gender-based vioelnce, and issue ‘public and unequivocal instructions to all armed forces and groups that sexual and other gender-based violence is prohibited and punishable.’ Mr. Madrigal-Borloz also called for the Ethiopian government to take measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, to provide redress to victims, and document all instances of sexual violence to an independent and impartial body. Finally, he called on all parties to allow for the unrestricted and unimpeded access of humanitarian assistance. 

Ethiopia delivered a statement expressing its complete rejection of the draft resolution as duplicative of the efforts of the JIT, as a politicisation of human rights, and as an invasion of the nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. They emphasised that Ethiopia has a history of supporting multilateral action, as a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations. However, they drew a comparison between the failure of the League of Nations to address the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the 20th century and the 33rd Special Session, claiming both represent a ‘neocolonialist mentality.’ They further underscored their willingness to cooperate with OHCHR, to ensure accountability, and established a Commission to manage an inclusive national dialogue. Finally, Ethiopia stated that the government will refuse to cooperate with any independent mechanism arising from the resolution. 

Slovenia, speaking on behalf of the European Union, reiterated concerns regarding the human rights abuses, including sexual, gender-based, and ethnic violence, as well as obstructions to humanitarian aid. The EU reaffirmed strong support for the African Union’s (AU) regional mediation efforts, and welcomed the work of the OHCHR and EHRC. The EU stated that the establishment of an independent international investigative mechanism is ‘urgent and necessary to complement national efforts and ensure that an accountability process is in place.’ 

Cameroon delivered a statement on behalf of the African Group, and first emphasised their collective attachment to multilateralism and cooperation with the UN and Human Rights mechanisms. However, they were critical of the draft resolution, the proposed international mechanism, and States sponsors of the resolution. They claimed that sponsors, in particular the European Union, have ignored the positions of the African Group, shown indifference to the ongoing regional mediation conducted by the AU, and succumbed to politicisation. They cautioned that the proposed mechanism was counterproductive, and would likely exacerbate tensions by ‘anointing the fragmentation’ rather than affirming the sovereignty of the nation. 

Denmark, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, expressed their alarm for the critical human rights situation by all parties. They welcomed the commitment of the Ethiopian Government to accountability through establishing the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce, however, remained concerned that the national investigative efforts would not ‘sufficiently comply with international standards.’ As such, they supported the establishment of the proposed international investigative mechanism, as a necessary, independent supplement to ensure timely gathering of evidence. 

Brazil quoted AU High Representative Obasanjo saying, ‘war represents the failure of politics.’ They encouraged all parties to devise a ‘democratic and inclusive political solution’ to the conflict, by restoring a national dialogue. They expressed strong support for regional mediation efforts, and encouraged the council to act in a way that supports ongoing efforts. 

South Africa expressed its deep concern over the escalating conflict and humanitarian crisis, and welcomed the decision of the Ethiopian Government to accept and implement recommendations in the JIT report. They urged all other parties to accept and implement the recommendations, and reaffirmed their solidarity with the people of Ethiopia. 

China shared its belief that the current situation in Ethiopia arose out of a combination of problematics–historical, political, and ethnic–concluding that the solution ‘can only be found from within.’ They underscored their strong support for national sovereignty and territorial integrity and for ‘African solutions to African issues,’ and accused member States supporting the Special Session of attempting to interfere in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. 

The United Kingdom emphasised that the severity of the human rights situation more than merits the urgent attention of the Human Rights Council, noting credible reports of mass killings, rape and sexual and gender-based violence, and the mass detention of people based on ethnic origin. They stated their commitment to the AU mediation efforts, but argued that the ‘deep divisions’ within Ethiopian society call for an independent and impartial human rights mechanism to ensure accurate reporting, combat impunity, support victims, and prevent further atrocities. 

The Russian Federation characterised the establishment of an independent mechanism as ‘counterproductive,’ stating that the proposed investigative mechanism would be unduly duplicative of the ‘professional and impartial work’ of the EHRC. Additionally, they emphasised a focus on national consent and regional mediation approaches, stating that an independent mechanism established without the buy-in of the target state would be ‘doomed to failure.’ Additionally, they noted that ‘independent experts’ appointed through the proposed mechanism would not be able to conduct ‘on the ground’ investigations, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus their information would be gleaned from ‘questionable sources or the Internet,’ and would thus be a waste of the limited resources of the international community. 

Germany emphasised the importance of the JIT report, and welcomed the Government of Ethiopia’s actions in taking steps to comply with recommendations by setting up the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce. However, they stated the expectation that other parties, including the government of Eritrea, to take note of and adhere to the recommendations. Additionally, they called for an immediate ceasefire and the lifting of any obstructions to humanitarian aid, and noted that ‘a strong African initiative is essential to bring about a solution of this conflict.’

Somalia stated its alignment with the African Group Statement and noted its satisfaction and support of the JIT, expressing its concern that the proposed mechanism would be a counterproductive, parallel process to the JIT’s ongoing mandate. They stated their disapproval of the resolution and committed to voting against it. 

The United States emphasised their condemnation of the actions of each primary party to the conflict, indicting the use of starvation as a weapon of war by the Ethiopian government, the killing and raping of civilians by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the systematic killing of Tigrayans by Amhara forces, and finally the human rights abuses of Eritrean forces. They urged the Council to create a mechanism to investigate, report on, and collect and preserve evidence of violations. 

Mexico expressed their appreciation for the session, and their concern for the serious human rights situation in Ethiopia. They also considered that creation of the independent investigatory mechanism would be a welcome support to the efforts of the Ethiopian Government in securing accountability for human rights violations. 

Amnesty International shared specific, victim’s stories documented by the organisation of harrowing instances of sexual violence committed by both the Ethiopian government-aligned forces and the TPLF. They stated that ‘accountability for these crimes is critical’ to ensure justice and deter future abuses. Further, they supported the creation of the international investigative mechanism. 

CIVICUS highlighted the precarity of civil society space both in-country and online, as pressure has mounted on humanitarians by both State and non-State actors, and the punishing state of emergency has resulted in increasing arbitrary detentions of journalists. They stated that there is a ‘clear absence of any transparent and credible national accountability process,’ and supported the creation of an independent investigative mechanism by the Council. 

East and Horn of Africa Defenders Project urged the council to create an independent mechanism, and suggested the mechanism should shed light on violations committed by ‘all parties,’ report regularly to the Council, and should act in a complementary fashion to AU efforts. 

Draft Resolution A/HRC/S-33/L.1 was adopted as orally revised with 21 voting in favour, 15 against, and 11 abstaining. No member of the African Group voted in favour of the resolution. 

With the adoption of resolution S-33/L.1, the Council condemns in the strongest terms all human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian and refugee law committed by all parties since 3 November 2020 (OP 1). The council calls for an immediate halt to all violations (OP 2), and urges all parties to the conflict to seek a permanent ceasefire, and engage with the mediation efforts by the African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa Region (OP 4).  

The Council establishes for a period of one year and renewable as necessary an international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia, consisting of three human rights experts to be appointed by the President and to complement the work of the JIT (OP 9). The mandate of the commission will be to investigate, provide guidance on transitional justice, integrate a gender perspective, and engage with all relevant stakeholders. The Council further requests that the commission provide an oral briefing at its fiftieth session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue (OP 10).  

The full text of the resolution can be found here.

[1] Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Marshall Islands, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uruguay

[2] Albania, Australia, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica*, Croatia, Cyprus, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Paraguay, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United States

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