Populations in Ethiopia are at imminent risk of atrocities due to fighting between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, as well as a surge in ethnically motivated attacks.
On 4 November the federal government of Ethiopia launched a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray region, following months of political tensions. Hundreds of people were killed and there have been reports of forced recruitment of men and boys to armed groups and of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls. At least one million people have been displaced by the fighting, including over 57,000 who fled to Sudan. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared an official end to combat operations in Tigray on 28 November, refugees have reported ongoing
fighting and abuses.
On 9 November over 600 ethnic Amhara men were massacred in the town of Mai-Kadra in the South West Zone of Tigray by local ethnic Tigrayan forces. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) classified the killings as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have also reported similar massacres of Tigrayans by Amhara Special Forces and allied militias in Mai-Kadra, Humera and surrounding areas. Ethnic Tigrayans serving in UN and African Union (AU) peacekeeping missions have also been removed from their posts.
On 11 December the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, highlighted an “overwhelming number” of reports that Eritrean refugees in Tigray had also been killed or forcibly returned to their country where they could face persecution. There have also been widespread reports of Eritrean troops operating in Tigray.
The TPLF controlled Ethiopia’s government for 27 years until a mass protest movement eventually led to the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy in 2018. Following growing political tensions, the TPLF attacked the Ethiopian Defense Forces’ northern command base, prompting the federal government’s military offensive.
The conflict in Tigray has hampered the delivery of critical humanitarian aid to 2 million people, including almost 200,000 internally displaced persons and refugees. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned of “massive community transmission” of the COVID-19 virus in Tigray due to mass displacement, while all but five hospitals in the region are now inaccessible or have been looted or destroyed.
For the last two years ethnically motivated attacks have also been on the rise throughout Ethiopia, leading to the displacement of at least 1.8 million people. From 10-21 November 66 civilians were killed and over 130,000 displaced during violence in Konso Zone, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region (SNNPR). At least 47 other civilians have been killed in violence in the Bench Sheko and Wolaita Zones of SNNPR since August. Attacks targeting ethnic Amhara, Agew, Oromo and Shinasha populations have also been on the rise in the Metekel Zone, with 347 civilians killed since September. On 1 January 2021 the EHRC called for the establishment of a comprehensive atrocity crimes prevention mechanism to confront the growing threat facing the country.
Since 2019 violent protests have also claimed hundreds of lives. In June 2020 at least 239 people were killed in protests and violence in Addis Ababa following the shooting of prominent ethnic Oromo activist and singer, Hachalu Hundessa. The EHRC has stated some of the violence may amount to crimes against humanity.
The violence in Tigray is a result of unresolved political tensions in Ethiopia. The country’s federalist system has resulted in widespread allegations of ethnic favoritism, with many groups feeling marginalized by the central government. A history of dictatorship and past human rights abuses carried out by the security forces has also left many Ethiopians deeply distrustful of state power.
The federal government has struggled to protect civilians from the recent upsurge in targeted ethnic attacks around the country. Additionally, the deliberate blocking of aid to vulnerable populations in Tigray is a violation of International Humanitarian Law and may amount to a war crime.
The Ethiopian federal government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all populations in the Tigray conflict zone. The government is also struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect populations across the country from a surge in ethnic and inter-communal violence.
Since 4 November 2020 the UN, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, AU and European External Action Service have all condemned the violence in Tigray and called for a military de-escalation.
On 13 November the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect released a statement urging Ethiopian authorities to take urgent measures to protect its population from further violence, emphasizing that the threat of atrocity crimes remains high.
On 21 November the AU appointed three high-level envoys to broker peace in Tigray. On 27 November the envoys visited Addis Ababa where Prime Minister Abiy rejected their entreaties.
On 16 December the European Union withheld 90 million Euros in aid to Ethiopia due to the ongoing crisis in Tigray.
On 22 December the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for “independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigations to establish accountability and ensure justice” for alleged war crimes in Tigray.
The security forces and the TPLF must ensure ongoing military operations are conducted in strict adherence with international law and ensure the protection of civilians. The federal government must also allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations in Tigray. Refugees and other displaced persons must also be protected, in keeping with international law. All potential war crimes in Ethiopia must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation.