The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Tuesday said it has deployed humanitarian assessment teams to the troubled Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that two humanitarian assessment missions were able to enter Tigray on Monday.
The deployment of the humanitarian assessment team comes as people in the war-torn region increasingly face lack of overall humanitarian access, following seven weeks of conflict between the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and federal forces.
Lack of humanitarian aid coupled with an ongoing communications blackout in many areas, raises increasing concerns about the situation of civilians, the commissioner said.
However, Bachelet urged Ethiopian authorities to provide unhindered access to the whole of Tigray to protect civilians.
“While we welcome the Ethiopian Government’s statement that there would be unimpeded humanitarian access, in line with the agreement with the UN signed on November 29, this needs to be to all areas of Tigray where civilians have been affected by the fighting,” Bachelet said.
“We have received allegations regarding violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting.
“These reports point to failure by the parties to the conflict to protect civilians. This is all the more concerning that fighting is said to be continuing, particularly in some areas of north, central and southern Tigray.”
Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced or have fled across the border to Sudan.
Bachelet also echoed the concern expressed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, for the safety and wellbeing of some 96,000 Eritrean refugees registered in four camps in Tigray when the fighting started.
Given the current restrictions, the UN Human Rights Office said it is not in a position to verify reports on the ground but said it has received consistent information pointing to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all parties to the conflict.
Among the accounts, witnesses described artillery strikes on the town of Humera on the border with Eritrea between November 9 and 11.
The UN Human Rights Office interviewed several people from the town who alleged that shells launched from Eritrea had hit residential areas and the hospital.
The Ethiopian army and regional Amhara forces and militia then reportedly took control of Humera, allegedly killing civilians and looting the hospital, banks, businesses, supermarkets and private houses.
Artillery strikes against the town of Adigrat in early November reportedly forced many families to flee to the mountains, where they were then trapped by heavy fighting between November 20 and 24, with many people reported to have been killed.
One of the most shocking incidents reported to date was the alleged mass killing of several hundred people, mainly Amharans, in Mai Kadra, on 9 November.
“If civilians were deliberately killed by a party or parties to the conflict, these killings would amount to war crimes and there needs to be, as I have stressed previously, independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigations to establish accountability and ensure justice,” Bachelet said.
“I urge the authorities to build on the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s preliminary findings into what happened in Mai Kadra. It is essential that there are investigations into allegations of human rights violations there against both Amharans and Tigrayans.”
Based on multiple accounts, the Amhara “Fano” militia has reportedly committed human rights abuses, including killing civilians and carrying out looting.
The UN Human Rights Office has also received information, which it has not been able to verify, concerning the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, their involvement in the hostilities and related serious violations of international law.
While telephone lines are beginning to be restored in some areas, the communications blackout that began on November 4 and restrictions on access raise significant concerns that the human rights and humanitarian situation is even more dire than feared.
These reported allegations are likely only the tip of the iceberg regarding the extent and seriousness of the violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by all parties to the conflict.
For instance, while the Government of Ethiopia has repeatedly alleged that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces have been involved in violations of international law, without access it remains challenging to verify these allegations.
“This underscores the need for independent human rights monitors to be given access to Tigray to adequately assess the human suffering resulting from the conflict, verify allegations and to help ensure accountability for violations,” Bachelet said.
“What has happened in Tigray over these past seven weeks is as heart-breaking as it is appalling. Despite the Ethiopian Government’s initial efforts to provide humanitarian aid in some areas, it is vital that life-saving assistance is delivered to all civilian populations in need without further delay.
“To avoid continued conflict and loss of life, Ethiopia should address its longstanding ethnic divides through accountability, inclusive dialogue, reconciliation and respect for human rights.”