Edited audio from a Zoom meeting, attempts to track down assault victims, and it doesn’t stop there
Against a backdrop of internal fighting within UN organizations, the TPLF has resorted to new lows to politicize the plight of victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Sources say about a month ago in Mekelle, representatives for the TPLF came to the office of UNFPA. With a staff complement of about 80 people, it’s the agency that supplies services related to sexual and gender-based violence in Ethiopia and the region of Tigray.
“They wanted us to support them to conduct investigations into allegations around sexual and gender-based violence…We made it very clear to them that we don’t have a mandate for investigations.” Those are done by the UN’s office for human rights, commonly known as OHCHR. “Then the tone changed.”
The TPLF reps then demanded, “Give us the information for the women you’re treating. We want names, we want to know what kind of sexual violence, because we want to take these women [as witnesses] to the ICC [International Criminal Court].”
The staff were properly horrified. And their answer was a definitive No.
The TPLF also wanted the location of safe houses for the sexual assault victims. The answer was again: Absolutely not. Getting no help from the UNFPA, they then went knocking on the doors of other agencies, asking for the same thing, but were again shut out. But the potential threat of discovery — and possible intimidation — of victims was so bad that UNFPA changed its security protocols and strategy.
“People were told where it was, and you know, a safe house is one where no one should know where it is.”
Back in March, correspondent Jamal Osman and a team for Britain’s Channel 4 — clearly with help — breached a victim shelter in Mekelle. “We’re now heading to a safe house where there are around 40 women, all victims of rape,” Osman announces in the back seat of a car driving through Mekelle. Cut to a new shot, and Osman says, “It’s in a hidden location, and we were advised to travel separately in case we were being followed.” But the house is still clearly identifiable in the video, and surely anyone who knows the neighborhood would be able to pick out the residence.
I asked a source with UNFPA if they had watched the program, which included shooting footage of victims in a hospital and at the safe house. What did they think?
“People know now where that is, which means the safety and security of these women has been compromised… We want women to have a voice. No one is hiding that sexual and gender-based violence is happening, but it’s got to be on their terms. They have to heal… And were these women really prepared to speak about this?”
I raised the point that the natural counter to this would be that the women spoke voluntarily on camera. Isn’t that their decision? Aren’t you trying to think for the victim?
The source rejected this. Swooping down on a victim with bright lights and a camera crew was definitely not the way to help these women. It also takes a unique skill set “to be able to interview and still allow the space for the victim to be able to work through the emotions that come from this.”
I asked flat out if the government was politicizing the plight of these victims as well.
One source pointed out that the first person to open Tigray for UNFPA to deliver services was Ethiopia’s Minister of Women, Children and Youth Filsan Abdullahi. During the hue and cry over access, says the source, a senior UNFPA official held a Thursday meeting with the Minister, pushing hard to be let in. By Monday, the agency had its clearances to start working.
Such praise, however, shouldn’t be seen as giving the government a free pass. Sources argue the Ethiopian government could do more to help create an environment in which the UN could operate freely, though they recognize the “damned-if-you-do” challenge of returning banking, telecoms, and other services to a region controlled for the moment by a terrorist group.
But another problem is that these same UN staffers are fighting their own.
Selective Editing and Set-ups
There are officials within the UN trying to leverage alleged sexual violence in Tigray to advance the TPLF agenda. Mere days ago, Foreign Policy was a media outlet that jumped on a leaked audio of a Zoom meeting by staff working in Ethiopia way back in March. The headline shows the slant: “UN Officials Downplayed Sexual Violence in Ethiopia in Leaked Call.”’
Foreign Policy claims it “independently confirmed the authenticity of the transcript with four people familiar with the matter.”
But sources now stepping forward say that while bits of the recording are authentic, it’s not the full recording and has been selectively edited.
They also say Kwesi Sansculotte-Greenidge, peace and development advisor for Ethiopia’s resident coordinator, pushed aggressively for the UNFPA to conduct independent investigations — despite the fact that the agency isn’t mandated for that and doesn’t even have staff with the expertise that would be needed.
“So then his next question was, ‘Why can’t you guys come out with data around victims of sexual violence?’”
Easier said than done, argue the sources, because you leave data open to be politicized. The experts expect gender-based violence to be grossly under-reported in a time of war, especially because of cultural stigmas and resulting discrimination that can occur.
“Women don’t want to come forward to report these things, their family doesn’t want them to come forward and report these things,” explains one source. “We don’t even know who the perpetrators are out there, so they may put themselves in danger again by coming forward and reporting these things. So, if you say there are seven cases, it might be 700. If you say 700, it might be 7000. We really don’t know.”
Repeated efforts were made to reach Kwesi Sansculotte-Greenidge for comment, but he wasn’t available.
At the meeting, Charles Ndiema Kwemoi of the OHCHR weighed in and mentioned that a joint investigation was being done at the time with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, but as a standard practice for joint investigations, the UN agency had to coordinate with its Ethiopian counterpart.
Thanks to the selective editing, say the sources, this morphed into the outrageous suggestion in recent stories that the UN was somehow kowtowing to the Addis Ababa government for approval when it was nothing of the kind.
It’s possibly significant that this meeting in March took place while the UN’s resident coordinator for Ethiopia was away and so didn’t chair the meeting — Catherine Sozi was, in fact, dealing with having Covid at the time but recovered. Sources also claim that in the recent past, there was “tremendous pressure” to oust Sozi and replace her with “somebody who would dance to their tune,” but there was a groundswell of support to keep her in her position.
I reached out to Catherine Sozi to ask her about this, and with an amused chuckle, she told me, “I don’t know quite how to comment on it,” and reminded me that at least as far as the UN goes, it can’t be seen to be biased in any way. She was willing to comment in more general terms on policy approach. “One of the first things was to call for the cessation of hostilities very early on in November of last year. My view is that if we had done that as an international community from the word ‘Go’ instead of taking sides, then maybe we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
The sources I spoke to are harsh in how those battle lines have been drawn in the UN itself. In the power struggle over Tigray, they claim, that emergency coordinators were brought in as the humanitarian interventions in the north were scaled up, and they were steered away from reporting to senior officials in Addis.
One put it this way: “There’s been a strident push for senior representatives in Mekelle, that they should be given sufficient latitude for action, there shouldn’t be ‘interference’ from Addis, meaning us. Because we’re going to be sympathetic to the federal government…”
“What you’re talking about amounts to a conspiracy within the UN,” I suggested.
“Of course, it is,” replied the source.
I asked some of them why they were speaking out about all this.
“I hate what’s going on,” replied one. “I’ve never seen so much dishonesty and willful disinformation… I hate what’s happening to Ethiopia — it’s happening to Ethiopia today, tomorrow it could be happening to [source’s country].”