Parties to the conflict in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. Populations across Ethiopia are also at risk as a result of a surge in ethnic violence.
On 4 November 2020, following months of political tensions, the federal government of Ethiopia launched a military offensive in the Tigray region against the governing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The resulting conflict has killed thousands of people, internally displaced an estimated 2.1 million and caused over 63,000 to flee to Sudan.
Clashes continue between forces affiliated with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) – a recently formed TPLF-aligned armed group. Following a unilateral ceasefire declared by the Ethiopian government on 28 June, TDF forces rapidly retook territory and have waged offensives into Western Tigray and the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, displacing over 300,000 people. On 2 August Sudanese officials reported finding at least 50 bodies floating down river from Humera, Western Tigray. Some victims had been shot or had their hands bound while others bore markings indicating they were ethnic Tigrayans. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and regional leaders have called citizens to arms in order to help bolster ENDF positions.
Reports indicate that widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) have been committed in Tigray by the ENDF and allied Eritrean forces, the TPLF/TDF, Amhara regional forces and affiliated militias. These abuses include indiscriminate bombings and attacks on civilians, ethnic-based killings, sexual violence, forced displacement, use of child soldiers, and the systematic destruction of food, water and healthcare systems. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have asserted that sexual violence and access to food are being used as weapons of war in Tigray.
International human rights groups have documented massacres of civilians by Eritrean forces and the ENDF, including in Aksum, Dengelat and Mahibere Dego. On 22 June an ENDF airstrike on a busy market in Togoga, Tigray, killed 51 people. On 5 August the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported the killing of at least 200 civilians, including 100 children, sheltering at a health facility and school in the Afar region. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also documented evidence of ethnic Tigrayan forces committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during a massacre of over 600 ethnic Amhara men in the town of Mai-Kadra on 9 November 2020. Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have reported similar massacres of Tigrayans by Amhara regional forces and allied militias in Mai-Kadra, Humera and surrounding areas.
Numerous cultural heritage sites, as well as camps hosting at least 50,000 Eritrean refugees, have reportedly been damaged and looted. Eritrean refugees hosted in these camps have been subjected to abuses by parties to the conflict due to their perceived allegiances.
The ongoing conflict has also created a humanitarian catastrophe. According to UNICEF, 100,000 children in Tigray could face starvation over the next year. Approximately 400,000 people in Tigray are living in famine and at least 5.5 million people in Tigray, Amhara and Afar are facing acute food insecurity. Humanitarian aid convoys have routinely been blocked, attacked, looted and accused of supplying TDF forces. Twelve aid workers have already been killed during the conflict.
Ethnically motivated attacks have also been on the rise elsewhere in Ethiopia. Violence in Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s regions has killed hundreds of people and displaced over 200,000 since September 2020. In the Amhara region clashes between Amhara and Oromo populations in the North Shewa and Oromia Zone reportedly killed 500 people during March and April. In Oromia security forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) armed group have allegedly committed enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians, including ethnic Amharas. The EHRC reported that on 18 August at least 150 people were killed in ethnically motivated attacks by the OLA, while a further 60 were killed in subsequent reprisals.
Regional border disputes also continue to result in inter-communal violence. From 2-6 April at least 100 civilians were killed in the Afar and Somali regions. On 27 July forces from Afar attacked the disputed border town of Gedamaytu/Gabraiisa in the Somali region, reportedly killing up to 300 civilians and displacing 35,000.
Civilians in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions remain at risk of further atrocities due to repeated violations of IHL and IHRL. All parties to the conflict bear responsibility for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity. Inflammatory statements by regional and federal government leaders, including Prime Minister Abiy, threaten to fuel further ethnic conflict.
Ethiopia’s ethnic-based federalist system has resulted in widespread allegations of ethnic favoritism. Under the former TPLF-dominated ruling coalition, which controlled the government for 27 years prior to Prime Minister Abiy coming to power in 2018, many groups felt marginalized by the central government. A history of dictatorship and impunity for past human rights abuses carried out by security forces has also deepened distrust between ethnic groups.
The Ethiopian government has failed to uphold its responsibility to protect all populations in Ethiopia, regardless of ethnicity.
Since November 2020 the UN, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and African Union (AU) have all condemned the violence in Tigray. The federal government has rejected multiple offers by the AU and IGAD to mediate the conflict. The UN, United States (US), European Union (EU) and others have also called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. The EU has withheld 88 million euros in budgetary aid to Ethiopia due to the human rights situation in Tigray. On 23 August the US imposed sanctions on Filipos Woldeyohannes, the chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces, for his alleged involvement in serious human rights abuses in Tigray.
On 25 March the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and EHRC agreed to conduct a joint investigation into reports of human rights violations committed in Tigray. On 15 June the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights announced that it was also launching a Commission of Inquiry on the situation in Tigray.
After eight months of conflict, the UN Security Council held its first public meeting on the situation in Tigray on 2 July.
On 13 July the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 47/13, mandating the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to update the Council on reports and findings of serious human rights violations in Tigray.
On 30 July 2021 the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide expressed alarm at the continued deterioration of ethnic violence in Tigray, Afar, Somali, Oromia and Amhara regions and called on government officials to end hate speech.
All parties to the conflict in northern Ethiopia must operate in strict adherence with IHL and ensure the protection of civilians. Parties to the conflict should agree to a humanitarian ceasefire and allow unfettered delivery of emergency aid to vulnerable populations. Refugees and other displaced persons must be protected in compliance with international law.
Eritrean forces should immediately withdraw from Tigray.
All potential war crimes and crimes against humanity must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation.