Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.
After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.
What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?
The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.
As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.
Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.
A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening
For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.
Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.
Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.
Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.
During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.
By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.
Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.
The mercury effect
Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.
By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”
When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.
After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.
In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.
Meanwhile in South Africa
In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.
In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.
South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.
South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.
The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.
By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.
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Abiy Has Lost His War but Ethiopia Could Reinvent Itself
The conflict has left a weakened nation and it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.
A coalition of Ethiopian opposition forces is approaching the gates of the capital, Addis Ababa, following a long, arduous offensive against forbidding odds. The Ethiopian army has effectively disintegrated, partly from major battlefield losses and partly from self-inflicted attrition as the high command weeded out and disarmed troops with ethnic ties to the Tigrayan and Oromo rebels. Addis is expected to fall in a matter of weeks, if not days.
The recent capture of Debre Sina – a town some 200 kilometres north of Addis – by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) triggered alarms in Addis and beyond. The Ethiopian capital is one of Africa’s vastest metropolises and has a population estimated at over 5 million. Western governments issued a flurry of advisories urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia, while numerous embassies, the African Union and United Nations ordered non-essential staff and dependents to quit the country. The US deployed special forces to nearby Djibouti as a contingency. The Ethiopian government, bizarrely, denounced such measures as malicious neo-colonial propaganda, an affront to national sovereignty, and called for pan-African solidarity in quashing the manifestly domestic insurgency.
Late last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced he was heading to the front lines to lead combat operations and transferred executive powers to Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen. Two celebrity athletes, Feyissa Lelissa and Haile Gebreselassie, declared they would join the fight to defend the city. The Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to seek martyrdom in battle has inspired tens of thousands of volunteers, drawn from his hard-line “One Ethiopia” support base, to undergo hasty military training and dig trenches around the capital in anticipation of a ferocious – but familiar – grand finale. The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history. Emperors waged war without quarter and died in battle. It was either conquest or death. PM Abiy’s politics, rhetoric, posture, and self-belief seem almost eerily designed to reprise the country’s dark history.
The conflict in Ethiopia, undoubtedly, is entering its most dangerous phase. But fears of pitched battles in the capital between rival ethnic militias, accelerating the country’s violent slide towards chaos – or even collapse – may yet prove to be overblown. Abiy’s boastful appetite for battlefield glory was taken down a notch when he appeared in staged videos on state television, supposedly leading troops in Ethiopia’s desolate Afar region, far from the fiercest fighting. Ill-trained and lightly armed volunteers, even in the thousands, are no match for disciplined, battle-hardened TDF troops equipped with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. OLA units stationed around the capital, though less well-trained or equipped, could diminish any numerical advantage Abiy’s last minute recruiting drive might have achieved. A brief, orderly take-over of Addis Ababa is still possible.
The war-unto-death martial paradigm has a long pedigree in Ethiopia’s blood-drenched political history.
If so, then the battle for Ethiopia’s future will begin in earnest. Abiy and his supporters claim to be fighting to prevent the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from ever ruling Ethiopia again. Ironically, seizing power is the last thing the Tigrayans want. On the contrary many – if not most – have been so horrified by Abiy’s genocidal military campaign, and the enthusiastic support that it received from so many of their compatriots, that they seek even greater autonomy for Tigray, or possibly even secession from Ethiopia altogether. For the TPLF, the seizure of Addis Ababa is a limited strategic objective: a necessary evil to unseat Abiy, lift the devastating siege on Tigray, and secure their population against future threats. With Abiy gone, that will mean the TDF returning to Tigray to confront the Amhara militias occupying Western Tigray and the very real prospect of renewed conflict with Eritrea. The gravest danger to post-Abiy Ethiopia is not that the TPLF will reclaim the reins of government, but rather that they might abandon the capital, leaving the ill-equipped OLA alone to manage a perilous political and security vacuum. Likewise, Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.
Post-Abiy Ethiopia will be a diabolically difficult country to govern. Abiy’s imperial conceit has unleashed even greater centrifugal forces. Having witnessed the hazards of federal overreach, regional states – with Tigray in the vanguard – are likely to demand even greater autonomy and devolution of powers – including security – to permanently weaken the centre. In some regional states, minority communities like the Qemant and Agaw may in turn demand some form of recognition or special status to protect them from domination and assimilation by ethnic majorities. The political, legal, and constitutional challenges involved in negotiating such radical decentralisation are almost impossibly complex and intensely emotive.
Abiy loyalists in each of the regional states are also likely to be ousted, cascading uncertainty, instability and, tragically, violence down to the provincial level.
International partners not only have a moral obligation, but also a pragmatic political stake in preventing Ethiopia’s descent into chaos. Rather than seeking to freeze the conflict with a ceasefire between implacable adversaries, the international community should concentrate on making the TDF/OLA takeover as orderly as possible, enabling the TDF to withdraw from the capital at the earliest opportunity, and helping to formulate a framework for national dialogue. International assistance will also be required in developing a credible mechanism for transitional justice for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A robust transitional justice intervention may be the only way to prevent another full-scale war with Eritrea, holding Isaias Afwerki, his commanders and party officials to account for atrocities committed by their forces in Tigray. But given the sluggishness with which international justice is delivered, and the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms, this is a problem that the TDF may decide to resolve on their own terms.
Abiy’s war is lost, but Ethiopia is not. This conflict has indisputably left the nation weak, traumatised, and polarised, but it has produced no victor nor left any spoils. And it has confronted all Ethiopians with one inescapable truth: they must acknowledge their diversity or risk disintegration.
African Citizens’ Letter to the United Nations Secretary General On the risk of genocide in Ethiopia
We, the undersigned, write on behalf of ourselves, our members across the regions of the African continent and the Diaspora and on behalf of concerned Africans and humanity everywhere, to request you to provide leadership in taking urgent measures to prevent imminent genocide in Ethiopia. Absent such action, we believe that genocide is likely to happen under your watch as the Secretary-General which will be a blot not merely on your record in that capacity but also of our collective humanity at this time. To avert this, we urge you to initiate or take the following steps urgently: –
- Work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to make inventories of all internment centres in Ethiopia and ensure access, monitoring and oversight of conditions therein by the ICRC;
- Deploy, without further delay, your Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu, on an urgent assessment mission into Ethiopia;
- Take steps in liaison with Member States to convene a special session of the Human Rights Council on Ethiopia;
- Secure a clear Security Council Statement of commitment to the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia and authorization of measures to follow up on that commitment; and
- Provide a clear commitment by the Secretary-General to ensuring the prevention of genocide in Ethiopia.
As you may recall, on 21 May 2000, the International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) on the Rwandan genocide, chaired by Botswana’s former president, Ketumile Masire, submitted its Report to the United Nations through the Secretariat of the Organisation of African Unity. The title of the Report was “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”. The Panel transmitted the Report under cover of a letter part of which contained the following words: –
“Indisputably, the most important truth that emerges from our investigation is that the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented by those in the international community who had the position and means to do so. But though they had the means, they lacked the will. The world failed Rwanda.”
Specifically, the Report found that the United Nations “simply did not care enough about Rwanda to intervene appropriately.”
We write because 21 years later, under your leadership, the United Nations does not appear to have taken any of these lessons to heart and the world could be auditioning for yet another preventable genocide in Ethiopia. The evidence is all too glaring: –
- A rebel army defined mostly by ethnic identity is marching relentlessly towards the capital city (Addis Ababa).
- An incumbent regime, enabled by trappings of international recognition, precariously clings to power through appeals to narrow identity and is programming its populations for a campaign of extermination against populations almost exclusively defined by ethnicity.
- Around Addis Ababa, the Federal Government and the Amhara Regional Government are distributing crude arms to neighbourhood and popular militias and programming them for the extermination in the name of self-defence.
- At the beginning of November 2021, the Federal Government in Addis Ababa promulgated a state of emergency empowering themselves to intern almost exclusively people of Tigrayan identity. Around Addis Ababa, tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been rounded up and interned in makeshift detention centres – malls, shops, police units, construction sites – just for the crime of who they are or where they come from. The numbers are ambulatory but best reliable estimates indicate the numbers now interned or disappeared could be close to 40,000 and rising rapidly. This is happening also in other major cities around the country controlled by the Federal Government and its allies. These internees are denied basic dignity and are not afforded access to visitation. The internment centres and conditions are equally not under the oversight or monitoring of any independent institutions.
- While all these happen, the United Nations and the African Union as a regional arrangement under Article 52(1) of the UN Charter, have failed to take any concrete steps to prevent the real likelihood of imminent mass extermination, beginning with all the internees.
Mr. Secretary General,
- On 5 February 2021, your own Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG), Ms. Alice Nderitu expressed “alarm” at “the continued escalation of ethnic violence in Ethiopia and allegations of serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in the Tigray region”, including “attacks against civilians based on their religion and ethnicity as well as serious allegations of human rights violations and abuses including arbitrary arrests, killings, rape, displacement of populations and destruction of property in various parts of the country.”
- On 30 July 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, “condemned inflammatory statements used by top political leaders and associated armed groups. The use of pejorative and dehumanizing language like ‘cancer’, ‘devil’, ‘weed’ and ‘bud’ to refer to the Tigray conflict, warning that “hate speech, together with its propagation through social media is part of a worrisome trend that contributes to further fuel ethnic tensions in the country.”
- In their Joint Investigation Report issued on 3 November, 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that a number of (…) violations may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
- On 8 November 2021, your own SAPG, Ms. Alice Nderitu, communicated that she is “gravely concerned at the deterioration of the situation of Ethiopia, where escalation of violence, increased incidence of ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, displacement of populations and destruction of property display serious indicators of risk of commission of atrocity crimes.”
It is quite clear that if Addis Ababa should come under threat of falling to the rebel army, the internees – wherever they are held – would, under current conditions, be liable to be exterminated. This is easily foreseeable. It can also be prevented.
We further note the alarming evidence of the likelihood of (continued) perpetration of other serious crimes under international law on populations including extermination, torture, rape and persecution.
The United Nations under your leadership can surely stop history from repeating itself. You have the means to do so but time is running out and posterity will be brutal in its judgement of your tenure if, despite the clear notice with a calendar, this genocide is not prevented.
Signed by the following institutions and individuals as at 5.00 p.m. (East African Time) on Friday 26th November 2021
A – Institutions
- Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG)
- African Initiative for Peacebuilding, Advocacy and Advancement (AfriPeace), Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria
- African Union Watch, Banjul, The Gambia
- Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
- Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM)
- Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Nigeria
- Coalition burundaise des defenseurs des droits de l,home (CBDDH), Burundi
- Coalition des Defenseurs des Droits Humains du Benin, Benin
- Coalition Malienne des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme, Mali
- Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH), Togo
- Coalition Burkinabè des Défenseurs des droits humains (CBDDH), Burkina Faso
- Coalition Ivoirienne des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme, Côte d’Ivoire
- Coalition for an effective African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACC), Arusha, Tanzania
- Le Forum pour le Renforcement de la société civile (FORSC), Burundi
- Gender Centre for Empowering Development (GenCED)
- Hope Advocates Africa (HADA)
- Human Rights Defenders Network Sierra Leone
- Institut des Médias pour la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (IM2DH)
- International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
- Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
- Mozambique Human Rights Defenders Network
- Nawi – Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, Nairobi, Kenya
- Network of Independent Commissions for Human Rights in North Africa
- Nigerian Human Rights Defenders Focal Point, Nigeria
- Pan African Citizens Network (PACIN), Nairobi, Kenya
- Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
- Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP), Burundi
- Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale
- Réseau Nigérien des Défenseurs des droits de l’homme
- Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains
- Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (Southern Defenders)
- Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
- Victim Advocates International (VAI), Nairobi, Kenya
- Youth Forum for Social Justice
B – Individuals
- Achieng AKENA, Executive Director, International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Kampala, Uganda
- Ida BADJO, Togo
- Joseph BIKANDA, Cameroon
- Professor Danwood CHIRWA, Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa
- Maître Francis DAKO, Lawyer Benin
- Caryn DASAH, Cameroon
- Donald DEYA, Chief Executive Officer, Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), Arusha, Tanzania
- Adaobi EGBOKA, Human Rights Lawyer, Nigeria
- Chibuzo EKWEKUO, Lawyer, Abuja, Nigeria
- Hannah FORSTER, Chairperson, CSO Coalition on Elections, Banjul, The Gambia
- Immaculée HUNJA, Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi, Burundi
- James GONDI, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
- Ibrahima KANE, Lawyer, Senegal
- Naji Moulay LAHSEN, Morocco
- Bonaventure N’Coué MAWUVI, Togo
- Alvin MOSIOMA, Executive Director, Tax Justice Network Africa (TJNA), Nairobi, Kenya
- Vera MSHANA, New York, United States of America (USA)
- Salima NAMUSOBYA, Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), Kampala, Uganda
- Stella W. NDIRANGU, Human Rights Lawyer, Nairobi, Kenya
- Dismas NKUNDA, Executive Director, Atrocities Watch Africa (AWA), Kampala, Uganda
- Bahame Tom NYANDUGA, Chairman ad interim, African Union Watch, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
- Professor Chidi Anselm ODINKALU, former Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria, Abuja, Nigeria
- Gladwell W. OTIENO, Nairobi, Kenya
- Charles Donaldson OGIRA
- Dr. Feyi OGUNADE, Executive Director, African Union Watch
- Silas Joseph ONU, Convener, Open Bar Initiative, Nigeria
- Caylen SANTOS, The Shalom Foundation, Franklin, TN
- Crystal SIMEONE, Nairobi, Kenya
- Mélanie SONHAYE KOMBATE, Togo
- Arnold TSUNGA, Lawyer, Zimbabwe
- Rosalie Wakesho WAFULA, Lawyer, Kenya
With copies to:
Ms. Michelle Bachelet Jeria
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Mr. Peter Maurer
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Ms. Alice Wairimu Nderitu
United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG)
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)
Ms. Karen Smith
United Nations Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect
United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect
New York, United States of America (USA)
Mr. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga
United Nations Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa
Office of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa
Ms. Hanna Serwaa Tetteh
Special Representative of the United Nations to the African Union and Head of the United Nations Office to the African Union
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.
The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.
Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.
The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.
Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:
[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.
The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.
The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law. Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.
Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.
Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”
The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.
Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.
A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.
By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.
The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.
Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.
Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.
Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.
For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.
What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.
One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.
All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.
Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.
Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.
It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.
Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.
Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.
Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.
Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.
In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.
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