Populations in Ethiopia are at imminent risk of mass atrocities as the war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front escalates.
On 4 November the federal government of Ethiopia launched a military offensive in the northern region of Tigray following months of political tensions with the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Hundreds of people were killed in the first ten days of fighting while at least 20,000 fled to Sudan. Refugees reported that the federal government carried out airstrikes and that fighting was taking place in heavily populated areas. Critical humanitarian aid has been hampered from reaching up to 2 million people, including almost 200,000 internally displaced persons and refugees.
Amnesty International estimates that hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death on 9 November in the town of Mai-Kadra in the South West Zone of Tigray. Survivors of the attack allege that the TPLF carried out the killings in retaliation for a military defeat inflicted on them by the Ethiopian Defense Forces and the Amhara Special Force. Witnesses indicated that many of the victims were ethnically Amhara. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated that, if verified, this attack could amount to a war crime.
The TPLF controlled Ethiopia’s government for 27 years until a mass protest movement eventually led to the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. In 2019 the TPLF refused to join the Prime Minister’s governing coalition. Tensions increased when the government announced the postponement of federal elections in May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Accusing Abiy of trying to unconstitutionally extend his rule, the TPLF held regional elections on 9 September, which the federal government deemed illegitimate.
The federal government alleges that their military offensive was launched after the TPLF attacked a military base in the region, which the TPLF deny. On 14 November the TPLF fired missiles into neighboring Eritrea, threatening to turn the war into a regional conflict.
For last two years ethnically motivated attacks have been on the rise throughout Ethiopia, leading to the displacement of at least 1.8 million people. On 1 November at least 54 ethnic Amhara civilians were killed by an armed group in West Welega Zone in the Oromia region, after federal forces abruptly left the area. An armed militia also killed up to 140 civilians in the Metekel Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz region during September. Ethnic violence has also been reported in the Gedeo and Guji zones and along the Somali/Oromia regional border. Attacks on minority populations in these regions have sometimes been attributed to regional police forces.
Violent protests during 2019 and 2020 have also claimed hundreds of lives. At least 67 people were killed between 23 and 26 October 2019 in Addis Ababa and the Oromia region during clashes between supporters of Prime Minister Abiy and supporters of Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo political activist. Additionally, in June 2020 at least 239 people were killed in protests in Addis Ababa after the shooting of another prominent ethnic Oromo activist and singer, Hachalu Hundessa.
The violence in Tigray is a result of long 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.
Attacks on civilian populations because of their perceived ethnicity can amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Additionally, the deliberate blocking of aid to vulnerable populations is a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and may also amount to a war crime.
Both the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF appear to be failing to uphold their responsibility to protect all populations in the Tigray conflict zone, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation.
Since 4 November 2020 the UN Secretary-General, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, African Union and European External Action Service have 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.
The Ethiopian Defense Forces and the TPLF must ensure that all military operations are conducted in strict adherence to IHL and International Human Rights Law and ensure the protection of civilians. The federal government should also facilitate the immediate resumption of the delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations in Tigray. The federal government and TPLF should establish a ceasefire and negotiate a peaceful political solution to the current crisis.
The Ethiopian government must also confront the underlying sources of conflict in the country and implement structural reforms to protect human rights and guarantee equal access to government services and resources. All reports of hate speech, as well as incidents of ethnic violence and reported attacks on civilian populations, should be thoroughly and impartially investigated and the perpetrators held accountable.
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