Ethiopia holds critical vote as UN rights chief decries 'credible reports' of Tigray abuses

The United Nations rights chief said on Monday she was "deeply disturbed" by continued reports of rights violations in Tigray, Ethiopia, including executions of civilians, sexual violence against children and forced displacement. The comments came as voting in Ethiopia's two-stage election began Monday.

UN's Michelle Bachelet expects a late summer report probing the military campaign in Tigray

Ethiopia’s election begins amid UN concern over Tigray region

1 year ago
Duration 2:01
Ethiopia's Nobel Peace Prize winning prime minister is being accused of anti-democracy tactics in an election that was sold to citizens as free and fair. Meanwhile, the UN accused the government of using food as a weapon in the Tigray region conflict zone, where voters can't cast ballots.

The United Nations rights chief said on Monday she was "deeply disturbed" by continued reports of rights violations in Tigray, Ethiopia, including executions of civilians, sexual violence against children and forced displacement.

In remarks to open a three-week session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet said she expected an ongoing probe into abuses there to conclude in August and be made public.

She also referred to "credible reports" that Eritrean soldiers remain in the Tigray region and continue to perpetrate violations of human rights and humanitarian law despite a pledge earlier this month to leave soon.

Bachelet's comments came as Ethiopia held elections on Monday billed by the prime minister as proof of his commitment to democracy after decades of repressive rule, although voting was delayed due to violence in some areas and opposition parties boycotted the poll in others.

Election board chief Birtukan Midekssa said voting was mostly peaceful so far, but that several opposition parties had complained their agents were beaten and their badges confiscated in Amhara region and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region. She did not say who was responsible.

War in Ethiopia's Tigray region continues, with millions fleeing for refugee camps and some observers calling the unfolding events a genocide. Dr. Tefera Tedros, a Tigrayan refugee currently living in a refugee camp in Sudan, describes the violence he's seen; and we learn about how the conflict arose with Haileselassie Medhin, an Ethiopian researcher focused on policy and economic development.

"This will jeopardize the credibility of the election process and its result," Birtukan warned. "Local officials and law enforcement officers should immediately take corrective measures."

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week the national and regional votes would be the "first attempt at free and fair elections" in Ethiopia, whose once booming economy has been hit by conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But ethnic violence and printing mistakes have delayed elections in a fifth of constituencies, including all of those in Tigray.

Once hailed, Abiy now under scrutiny

Abiy, 45, oversaw sweeping political and economic reforms after his appointment in 2018 by the ruling coalition and won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later for brokering a truce with neighbour Eritrea after years of tensions. But he is coming under increasing international pressure and scrutiny over reports of abuses in the war in Tigray, where Ethiopia's military has been fighting the northern region's former governing party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), since November.

The campaign has spawned the human rights probe and seen thousands flee the violence. More than 350,000 people in Ethiopia's Tigray are suffering famine conditions, with millions more at risk, according to an analysis published earlier this month by UN agencies and aid groups.

People wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling station in Addis Ababa. The delayed national election has been marked by some confusion and is taking place against the backdrop of war and famine in the northern Tigray region. (Amanuel Sileshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Troops from neighbouring Eritrea also entered the conflict to support the Ethiopian government, the state of affairs leading to warnings from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration over potential sanctions. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has pushed for the Security Council to meet publicly on the conflict in Tigray.

Abiy has said the government will hold anyone committing abuses in Tigray to account and the attorney general says more than 50 soldiers are on trial for either rape or killing civilians. No details of those cases have been released.

In Oromiya, Ethiopia's most-populous province, the largest opposition parties are boycotting the vote over what they say is intimidation by regional security forces.

Government officials did not return calls seeking comment about the allegations of intimidation.

Voting was mostly smooth in Addis Ababa, although nine polling stations opened late and some did not have enough ballots, Birtukan told a news conference.

Ethnic violence, economic stagnation also worrying

Results of the vote could reverberate beyond Ethiopia.

The Horn of Africa nation is a diplomatic heavyweight in a volatile region, providing peacekeepers to Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. With Africa's second-biggest population, over a third aged under 18, it is also a major frontier market.

Abiy's newly formed Prosperity Party is the front-runner in a crowded field of candidates mostly from smaller, ethnically based parties. Billboards with his party's light bulb symbol are scattered throughout the capital.

A child is seen at the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan on Dec. 3, 2020. The camp became home to Ethiopians fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Former political prisoner Berhanu Nega is the only other prominent candidate not running on an ethnic ticket. But his Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party has struggled to attract support outside cities.

"People are out in big numbers to vote," Berhanu told Reuters after casting his ballot, saying his party was watching the process closely.

A second round of voting will take place in September for most constituencies where the vote was delayed.

Tigray is not Abiy's only challenge. Ethnic violence in other regions has killed thousands since he took power.

Abiy's reforms include lifting a ban on dozens of political parties and media outlets, releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners and easing restrictions on political gatherings.

But Fisseha Tekle from rights group Amnesty International said the government was still quashing dissent using a revised anti-terrorism law and new hate-speech legislation that allows prison terms for online content.

"The government is using these laws to arrest people and keep them in prison for a long time," Fisseha said.

Abiy's spokesperson Billene Seyoum did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but previously told Reuters: "There is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing."

Eritrea has admitted sending troops to the campaign in Tigray, which has seen thousands flee to Sudan and even South Sudan. (Tim Kindrachuk/CBC)

Many voters said they were also concerned about the economy.

Abiy has promised to bring in foreign investment and speed up electrification by filling a giant $4 billion US hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, stoking tension with Egypt and Sudan, which fear the Nile water supplies they rely on might be interrupted.

But annual inflation is now about 20 per cent and growth is forecast at just two per cent this year after topping 10 per cent before the pandemic.