Below are two very different accounts of what is taking place in the Tigray war.
The first is a report by Michael Minassie – an interpreter/translator for the joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation into the reported human rights violations in Tigray – on why his mission was aborted. As he puts it: “I am convinced that the joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation will not establish an impartial and independent account of the atrocities in Tigray. There are many reasons for this, but the core cause will be the involvement of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission as a proxy for the Ethiopian Government and Amhara forces, and the OHCHR in Addis Ababa will highly likely succumb to the pressure from the Ethiopian Government.”
The second is a report from today’s Daily Telegraph which accuses the Tigrayan forces of committing atrocities.
Both deserve reading.
A Peek into the false start and the dangers surrounding the joint EHRC- OHCHR investigation in Tigrai
My name is Michael Minassie. I was an interpreter/translator for the joint EHRC- OHCHR investigation into the reported human rights violations in Tigrai. After ten days of employment, I was forced to resign from the original interpreter/translator job and offered another task of monitoring the human rights situation in Tigrai. From my discussions with UNOHCHR team, I have come to understand that the reason for my removal from this role in the joint investigation was solely the undue interference by EHRC’s internal working process of UNOHCHR.
In this brief, I would like to address three major issues.
First, I provide details of why I was forced to resign from the joint investigation.
Second, I also give an account of what I witnessed during this short but eventful stint with the preparations and early days of conduct of the joint investigation and the engagement between the OHCHR and the EHRC.
Third and more essentially, I offer the reasons as to why I am gravely concerned that the joint investigation is likely to fail to meet the minimum standard of an independent and comprehensive inquiry under the UN guidelines.
But first, let me state my professional background.
Spanning three decades, my professional experience in journalism, communications, and public information includes work with the UN Mission in South Sudan/Sudan (UNMISS+UNMIS), where I served as Radio Producer and Programmes Coach. Prior to that, I served as Media Monitoring and Radio Production Assistant for the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). I was also a Communication Specialist for the Avian Influenza Project at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As a correspondent for the USAID-funded Eye Radio in South Sudan, I filed several well-received stories and reported in live shows about the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. What is more, my professional work extends to the field of nation-building and lifesaving humanitarian information, a focus of my career when I was at Internews, an international media organization working in more than 30 conflict-affected countries.
For more than 15 years, I worked in Ethiopian Television, a national TV with the largest reach in Ethiopia. Chief among the prominent programmes I produced was ‘Worento’
– an investigative programme focusing on violations of human rights violations, abuse of power, corruption, and accountability. The programme was so powerful that it prompted some people with vested interest to physically attack me to silence the widely received programme.
I was the producer and host of a popular interview show in the English language, ‘Mekelle Foresight,’ broadcast by Tigrai TV. Focusing on Ethiopia’s politics, human rights, tensions, and how to avert war in Ethiopia, I hosted over 40 high-profile current affairs interviews and documentaries.
The TV broadcast was, however, disrupted a couple of weeks after the declaration of war on Tigrai on 4th November 2020. A scheduled interview with the renowned analyst in the Horn of Africa, Rashid Abdi, was cancelled abruptly. With the imminent takeover of Mekelle by the combined forces of Eritrea and Ethiopia, I, with other journalists who feared for our lives, went into hiding. After 23rd November 2021, and for two months, I was holed up in an extreme situation that left me in dire physical and psychological trauma due to the dangers to my life and freedom due to possible persecution by Eritrean Ethiopian and Amhara forces.
On 25th December 2020, I, together with several of my colleagues, decided to return to Mekelle City as we were under constant risk of falling under the crossfire of the combatants. We had no more role to play there as journalists. On 28th December, after travelling for most of three days and nights on foot through rugged mountains and gorges to try and dodge the combatants, we were accidentally spotted by soldiers at one military outpost. In an attempt to establish our identity, the soldiers and their commanders took us from one military command post to another under heavy security and put each of us through three days of rigorous interrogation.
For this reason and the continued discrimination and brutal treatment of Tigrayans in many parts of Tigray, we decided not to mention that we were Tigrai TV staff. We managed to disguise ourselves. Once in Mekelle and away from the armed conflict hot spots, most of my colleagues reported back to the station. Some of us decided to stay in hiding. Our fear was confirmed with the killing of one of our colleagues, Dawit Kebede, on 20th January 2021. Dawit was my longtime colleague and friend, and I was shocked and frightened by the tragedy that befell him. I then decided to move to Addis Ababa, where I stayed low profile and concealed my identity for over two months. To avoid such a misfortune, I confined myself to my home for most of the time. On some three occasions, I had to sneak out by a cover of darkness and move to my next of kin’s place after being alerted by friends about the prying of some people in the neighbourhood. I later learned that these people were in contact with the security and that I was under surveillance.
This was compounded by the fact that I was mentioned in a propaganda campaign by the government-owned national broadcaster, EBC targeting Tigraian journalists. EBC had a few days before the takeover of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, on 28th November 2020, aired a documentary in which it accused me of interviewing people, including ICG’s Ethiopia Analyst, William Davison. EBC claimed that I am one of the people misguiding foreigners about the situation in Ethiopia. The accusation also targeted other journalists and bloggers. The whole message of the documentary was threatening as it called for action against me and others. In Addis, some people, including my neighbours, understood the documentary’s message to mean that I could be a fugitive and wanted by the authorities – one of our neighbours actually told this to our former housemaid. She intimated the same to my wife.
In early May 2021, I started seeking livelihood incomes for the family while concealing myself from the watchful eyes of the government and local informants. Although I had a Schengen visa at hand, it was difficult for me to exit Ethiopia, and I had almost given up hope of freedom from the ordeal of having to hide.
Then, an opportunity presented itself for me in this dire situation. It all started when about three months ago, I got a call from a friend of mine who I knew during my
assignment with the UN Mission in Sudan and South Sudan. He intimated to me of a forthcoming UN job opening and recommended that I apply. For over three months up to that point, I had been out of job for the first time in my professional life. Although I am the only breadwinner in a family of five, and I was already feeling the pangs of economic distress, I had in that period declined a job offer in Addis Ababa with an international NGO. That was because I was keeping a low profile in the national capital where I lived and worked for over thirty years for fear of persecution by the Government – and that job required partnering with the Government. Abiy Ahmed’s Government has been repressive of Tegaru and anything Tigraian, including members of the media from Tigrai like myself.
So, the UN employment offer came at a critical time for me. In mid-May 2021, I was recruited by the UN OHCHR to serve as an interpreter/translator for the joint Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigation into the reported human rights abuses in Tigray. I thought the internationally sanctioned assignment would provide me with some immunity, at least as long as it lasts, which I was told was initially for three months. Taking the widespread persecution, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement and summary dismissals from jobs meted out against Tigrayans throughout the country, I should have known better. I accepted the task. That is how, on 16th May 2021, I went back to Mekelle, Tigrai, where I fled from a few months ago.
On the first day of work (17th May 2021), the task started with a half-day induction. Investigators and interpreters of the joint investigation for the two sides participated in the induction, which dwelt on the why and the how of the investigation. It allowed participants to familiarize themselves not only with the assignment but also with each other. In that meeting, participants who spoke, including me, had made it clear that we would be impartial, that we would play by the rules.
What happened afterwards, however, is strange, to say the least. We were told that the EHRC objected to involvement in the investigation job of two interpreters, myself included, hired by the UN and demanded that we get removed from the position. The EHRC team apparently argued with the UN side that we lacked the impartiality required for the task – I say apparently because the discussions happened in the absence of the two of us implicated by the accusation. We only came to know about it from a briefing by the UN team. For me, the accusation was based on what I was doing – interviewing people as a journalist. For the other colleague, it was due to a picture profile he used for his Facebook account. So, we were not given the opportunity to defend our position. We were informed by the OHCHR Addis Ababa Office that EHRC opposed our recruitment and that the OHCHR has no other option other than our removal from joint investigation. I trust the OHCHR tried – and we were told in the briefing of that fact – to defend us against the unjust and discriminatory stand of the EHRC. I would also like to believe that the UN side stood against the EHRC’s undue effort to impose its will on the UN, a body with global legitimacy and an equal partner in the task at hand. I had not believed that the EHRC had even offered to hire interpreters for the UN, to which the latter, much to its credit, apparently refused. But, the outcome indicates the excesses of the EHRC carried the day.
This employment was short-lived: I and another interpreter-translator of Tigrayan origin were forced to resign from the joint investigation after being selected and employed by the UNOCHR. So, the UN eventually settled to offer us, the aggrieved, another job as human rights monitors in Tigrai. I personally appreciated the pressure the UN side had to endure and understood its caution to avoid being bogged down with wrangling from the start.
The reasons behind the opposition advanced against another interpreter and me – from the EHRC is not clearly communicated to us. So, while waiting for any opportunity to flee the country, I started to examine and to get to the bottom of our dismissal. Moreover, I also started to gather information informally – informally because we were not issued UN ID yet and wanted to be discrete as much as possible so as not to attract the ire of the security – and look into the human rights issues from some sources in the IDP camps and other affected by the war.
Almost all circumstantial evidence I gathered appear to point to two main reasons. The first relates to EHRC’s decision to control the probe and determine its outcome in a certain way. In the course of my research, I found out that the EHRC had ulterior motives to hide or skew some critical issues in the human rights investigation, which may corroborate my suspicion over their willingness to go to great lengths to do what they did to us. The ulterior motive of the EHRC became evident when the joint teams started their investigation work in the IDP camps in Mekelle. For instance, on the atrocities that happened at Mai Kadra, they have shown reluctance to try to get the truth from the real victims. Mai Kadra, who are still alive and displaced from their homes, are either in the IDP camps in Mekelle and Shire or have crossed the border over to Sudan. The rest have been evicted from their land due to the forcible transfer of the Tigrayan population as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign by the Amhara forces. But, the EHRC team seems to have clung to the fabricated narrative its team leader tried hard to sell to the world soon after the start of the war in November last year.
Concerning Mai Kadra, the bulk of evidence contrary to the Team Leader’s claim is so overwhelming that her boss, Daniel Bekele, was forced to admit to The Guardian on 2nd June 2021.1 So, here is a Team leader who earned household notoriety at Mai Kadra for adding salt to the wounds of victims through her deliberate treachery and falsehood striking again. The EHRC Team’s bias against the IDPs in Mekelle, particularly those displaced from Mai Kadra, is so deep that they are on their tenterhooks to go to Mai Kadra where they know who to get there – perpetrators of the atrocities and the new settlers – and what stories to find. It is no wonder why most members of the EHRC Team belong to one ethnicity. The investigators seem to have made up their mind as to what to expect from the IDPs. During the half-day induction, one of the EHRC investigators who facilitated the presentation on the code of conduct of interpreters cautioned us that we would find people who would tell us white lies about things that never happened. As a member of the investigation, he was supposed to be open-minded and not second-guess the response of the victims even before he met them. In essence, he told us to sift it and weigh it- a job that was not offered to us in the first place. So, his caution was belaboring the point as the role of interpreters is limited and that there is nothing we could have done if at all we were to encounter one such an interviewee. Our part is to relay the information and not evaluate or judge it. It is up to the investigator to find ways of checking and counter-checking the claim.
From the information I got from the camp authorities, some of the investigators from the EHRC tend to act like the police interrogating an alleged criminal. This is incredibly worrying as, according to the sources, the EHRC investigators are not taking into account the traumatic experience that the victims had gone through. For instance, when an IDP who had fled for his life gives testimony how his family members and friends were killed after they remained in their areas, one would find it in the investigator’s mandate to try to learn how he came to learn of the killing, record his response and check the veracity of the testimony through multiple sourcing. Instead, they engage in arguments trying to corner the source/victim through rigorous cross- questioning and derogating his/her claim. That is over-stepping the professional bounds. Their tone, according to the sources, is also intimidating and demeaning. My sources went on to say that anyone appearing on the scene in the middle of the interview would know who is who from the interview techniques the respective partners employ.
Even when they faced the IDPs in Mekelle, the urge of the investigators to shy away from the widely held truth was so great that they were seen to pelt and exhaust the IDPs with questions regarding humanitarian aid and the situation in the camps. The purpose of this strategy is two-pronged: One, it is to deprive the victims of enough time to testify about cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, widespread and systematic rape and other gross human rights violations, which should have been the team’s major preoccupation as per the mandate of the investigation. The second objective is, by prodding the IDPs to complain about humanitarian relief and camp management, the EHRC team wants to blame the international community. It is interesting to note that one of the EHRC investigators criticized the international community for not matching their calls for uninhibited humanitarian access with humanitarian assistance when the access is created – he was parroting a narrative that percolated all the way from the Head of the Government. Of course, there is no need to argue on the Government’s claim of allowing unrestricted humanitarian access. This has been contradicted by reports of aid organizations on the ground and credible international media outlets.
The EHRC has shown its partiality both by commission and omission. As of yet, EHRC said nothing about the systematic war-induced famine that has exposed 5.2 million people to a life-threatening situation. Besides, it made a fake announcement claiming that schools have opened in Mekelle, presiding over abuse of human rights.
The second reason why the OHCHR forced us to resign relates to the fact that EHRC’s power can dictate its terms in the independent work of OHCHR. The OHCHR recruited me and the other interpreter-translator according to the UN’s rules and regulations in keeping with the standard for staffing investigations. Despite the protest from the OHCHR, the EHRC was allowed, and able to rid of even those recruited by the UN is indicative of a much more dangerous state of play and sinister desire to determine the findings of the investigation in a certain way. The looming crisis of independence and impartiality of the joint investigation can also be corroborated by the fact that the composition of the investigators lacks the diversity of professionals drawn from different parts of the country. Not only was the selection process shrouded in secrecy but it is also widely believed that key investigators with specific ethnicity dominate the task of EHRC team. Some of the remaining interpreters-translators are currently facing illegal interference and pressure from EHRC to resign from their role. The EHRC key investigators are intensifying pressure on interpreters/translators that are still working. This also indicates OHCHR intensifying failure to shield itself from unwarranted interference.
In its desperate effort to keep its partnership with EHRC and the Ethiopian Government, the OHCHR has permitted the EHRC to interfere in its staff members’ internal recruitment and retention. The forcible resignations and the composition of key investigators indicate the problems at the core of the joint investigation. OHCHR may sacrifice the independence and impartiality of the investigation for the sake of keeping a partnership with EHRC.
Though short, my exposure to the internal workings of the joint investigation has convinced me that the joint investigation fails to meet the minimum standard of an independent and comprehensive investigation as stipulated under the UN guidelines. Here are the reasons why I think so.
My observations and my ongoing conversations with those contacted for interviews inform me the confidentiality related to the trust and security of the victims, witnesses, and persons who cooperate with the investigation may not be kept. The EHRC and its investigators are appointed to operate under strict purview and control of the Government, which in turn interfere in the internal working of the OHCHR. The fact that there are always the prying eyes and ears of the Ethiopian and most dreaded Eritrean government security all around puts the sources at great risk. Some interviewees intimated that they don’t feel secure to tell their stories. They are afraid, reluctant and unsure to answer questions.
After my forced resignation, I faced more pressure and the threat of persecution. With the reported round-ups of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa and travel bans on some who tried to fly out of the country, I decided and started to look for ways to relocate myself temporarily out of the country. It is horrifying to note that all this time, the EHRC, after depriving us of our right to work based on false accusation and discrimination, did not stop at that. It continued to harass us. I have indications the EHRC Team Leader has been working with the government security people, bringing us under their strict surveillance. I can particularly speak for myself, and I have tangible tips from those concerned about my security that I was closely followed, and I could have been exposed to some form of harm as a result. Afraid of my safety, I decided to leave the job and fly out of the country. I was lucky to have made it through the airport.
I have recently learned that the EHRC Team has asked another interpreter to “resign or face the consequences”. This is yet another indication that the EHRC team has continued to flaunt its discrimination and obstruction at whim. The architect of Mai Kadra drama is again at the centre of all these injustices. The OHCHR has allowed the EHRC to dictate the process of investigation.
The question now is how long OHCHR should allow itself to act as if the investigation will be independent, impartial, objective and credible?
I am convinced that the joint EHRC-OHCHR investigation will not establish an impartial and independent account of the atrocities in Tigray. There are many reasons for this, but the core cause will be the involvement of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission as a proxy for the Ethiopian Government and Amhara forces, and the OHCHR in Addis Ababa will highly likely succumb to the pressure from the Ethiopian Government. The EHRC and its leadership are publicly and broadly perceived as siding with Abiy’s administration in the Tigray populace. The involvement of the EHRC has been counterproductive as people have decided to not cooperate with the investigations. Tigrayans expect and accept the inquiry to be conducted only by an UN-mandated body.
So, this is far beyond an attack on my person, a trampling of my right to work.
It is about the victims right to justice and effective remedies. It is about establishing truth and facts for sake of dialogue and reconciliation in the country.
I am, therefore, convinced that the ongoing investigation cannot offer an independent, impartial and credible international investigation into the egregious violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law committed against the People of Tigray.
Given the recent military and political developments in Tigray, a UN mandated inquiry commission would serve the above purpose best.