Since a brutal civil war broke out in Ethiopia in November, Daniel Bekele has not had much sleep. “When my colleagues are on a mission, I have a lot of sleepless nights,” he says. “We send people to places that are not very safe, and anything could happen. I get so worried and stressed and remain extremely tense, until they return.”

“It’s a tough decision,” he says, especially when funds do not stretch to providing security protection. As head of the state-appointed but legally-autonomous Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, or EHRC, he is responsible for investigating and denouncing atrocities — such as alleged ethnic-fuelled massacres and weaponised rapes — that the UN says may amount to war crimes by “multiple actors”. These include his own government’s forces.

“What is very shocking about Ethiopia’s conflict is the brutality with which the killings happen. It’s not just the killings, but the extent of brutality, that level of brutality,” he says in his office in central Addis Ababa.

Bekele is no stranger to human rights abuses. He was beaten and harassed and jailed during the period when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, the four-party coalition of which the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front, or TPLF — the party now at war with Ethiopia’s central government and neighbouring Eritrea — was the leading member. Critics say it ran a paranoid police state that fostered ethnic-based politics.

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, the 54-year-old went on to pursue a legal career, studying first in the Ethiopian capital and then at Oxford university, where he graduated with a doctorate in international and human rights law. He says he was “inspired” by the example of Juan Méndez, an Argentine lawyer — also once a political prisoner — who was the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

“Latin America has built a very strong culture of human rights movements and strong activism and strong institutions and experts,” he says. “There are also some good examples, not very far from here,” in Kenya and Ghana.

But those are countries with smaller populations and less complex ethno-nationalist tensions. “Ethiopia is really big, we’re talking about over 100m people, with very complicated and deep-rooted political problems. And lots of senseless deaths have happened over the years in Ethiopia, and we are still in the same cycle of violence,” he laments.

But while the Ghanian human rights commission, according to Bekele, has an 800-strong “smart group of professionals organised in a very efficient way and working very efficiently” Bekele has half of that workforce in Ethiopia — and fewer than a third are professionals, including lawyers and investigators. “We don’t have doctors, we don’t have forensics,” he says.

With a small annual budget of 100m birr ($2.4m) allocated by parliament, he has to rely on foreign donors. “Can you imagine what it is like doing the Ethiopian human rights work with less than $3m a year? It’s a complete joke. That’s the reality in Ethiopia.”

Money is just one of the challenges. He has to navigate a complex political situation. The EHRC is overseen by parliament. This is controlled by the ruling party of Abiy Ahmed, prime minister since 2018, who recommended Bekele to a multi-institutional committee that appointed him in August 2019 with the task of reforming the EHRC, which was then a very weak institution.

Two months later, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for making formal peace with Eritrea. It was a time of great hope. Abiy had released tens of thousands of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the media, and set a timetable for elections.

Now, the war has clouded Abiy’s vaunted political liberalisation, while the EHRC has moved to the forefront, grabbing headlines for its investigations and recommendations that sometimes do not please the powers that be.

This has put Bekele — who, previously, spent almost a decade roving between Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and New York — holding senior positions at Action Aid, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — in a difficult situation.

“We are independent from the executive branch of the government, because our work is actually supposed to be overseeing the human rights record of the executive branch of the government,” says Bekele, adding that “we see encouraging signs of impactful work. So, that inspires people.”

That inspiration has proved key in attracting professionals, despite the low salaries. “I guarantee to my colleagues and staff that we will only be guided by the international human rights laws and norms, principles and our professional integrity. There is not going to be political interference in our work. I try and articulate a vision and mission of us as an institution that I hope, and believe, has inspired new colleagues to come and join. People care about their country but they don’t often find an opportunity.”

He says that, as he is reforming the EHRC, better opportunities — including better pay — would come. “In the meantime, they are sticking to what is available.” A way to keep staffers committed, he says, is to “involve myself very closely in a lot of the missions and investigations we do, including providing close support and guidance on how we go about it”.

In a country where atrocities have become common, Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has warned of “blanket denials and finger-pointing” amid evidence of possible war crimes committed by all sides, including the Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean army, the TPLF and its supporters, as well as regional fighters from Amhara.

With so many cases surfacing and a skeleton staff, “it is so difficult to prioritise and to choose. It’s a daily challenge when you have limited resources, to decide what to investigate,” he says.

Partly to boost the agency’s reach, last month Bekele approached the UN, which agreed to joint investigations in Tigray. But it was not easy to convince the Ethiopian government. He is not new to standing up to power, though.

Over the years, he has earned many critics, including, insiders say, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Now, amid the current polarisation some Tigrayan critics claim Bekele wants to “whitewash Abiy Ahmed and Amhara crimes”; those from Eritrea allege he holds a “political axe to grind” against their country, others charged him with being a “TPLF Trojan Horse”. People close to the government feel Bekele is “under tremendous pressure” to please western powers. Sceptics in western diplomatic circles see him as “part of the system” in Ethiopia. All of that notwithstanding, he keeps a cool head.

“There are instances when some government officials would be dismissive of our findings, and they’d accuse us of hidden motives, agendas, and so on. It’s not an easy ride for us. We get a lot of heat from the government in the same way as we get heat from others,” he says. “In Ethiopia’s polarised politics, there are people who support us from government, from media, from opposition parties, from activists, but there are also people who oppose us from all these.”

His formula to keep going? “We just stick to our work.”