Parties to the conflict in the Tigray region have perpetrated possible crimes against humanity and war crimes. 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 against the governing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray region. Since then, thousands of people have been killed and an estimated 2 million people remain internally displaced, while over 63,000 have fled to Sudan. Widespread violations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law have been reported, including ethnic-based killings, sexual violence, forced displacement and the systematic destruction of food, water and healthcare systems. Numerous cultural heritage sites, as well as camps hosting at least 96,000 Eritrean refugees, have reportedly been damaged and looted.
Despite the Ethiopian government declaring an official end to the conflict in Tigray on 28 November, clashes continue between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), its allies and the Tigray Defense Forces – a newly formed armed group. During April CNN obtained a leaked report by the regional interim government, which stated that Eritrean troops were looting and blocking humanitarian aid in many areas of Tigray, including Samre and Gijet.
Reports indicate that since November the ENDF, TPLF, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara regional forces and affiliated militias may have committed abuses that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. International human rights groups have exposed massacres of civilians by Eritrean forces and the ENDF, including in Aksum, Dengelat and Mahibere Dego. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has detailed reports of sexual violence and has determined that rape is being used as a weapon of war in Tigray. Ongoing conflict has impeded humanitarian access to 5.2 million people in need.
According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), ethnic Tigrayan forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during a massacre of over 600 ethnic Amhara men in the town of Mai-Kadra in the South West Zone of Tigray on 9 November. Ethiopian refugees in Sudan have also reported similar massacres of Tigrayans by Amhara regional forces and allied militias in Mai-Kadra, Humera and surrounding areas. During March Amhara regional forces seized control over areas in Western Tigray, forcing over 185,000 Tigrayans to flee. According to an internal United States (US) government report leaked to The New York Times, ethnic Amhara militias have undertaken a campaign to forcibly displace the Tigrayan population, “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous.”
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 Oromia, security forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) armed group have allegedly committed enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians. The OLA have been accused of killing at least 50 Amhara civilians during April alone. In the Amhara region, clashes between Amhara and Oromo populations in the North Shewa and Oromo special zones reportedly killed 500 people during March and April.
Border disputes within Ethiopia also continue to result in inter-communal violence. From 2-6 April at least 100 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the Afar and Somali regions.
Ethiopia’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 security forces has also left many Ethiopians deeply distrustful of state power.
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. While Ethiopia and Eritrea have previously fought a war against one another, they appear to currently be cooperating to militarily destroy the TPLF and occupy Tigray.
The Ethiopian government has failed to uphold their responsibility to protect all populations in Ethiopia, regardless of ethnicity, and bears responsibility for ongoing potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray.
Since November the UN, Intergovernmental Authority on Development and African Union (AU) have all condemned the violence in Tigray. The UN, 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 13 November the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect released a statement urging Ethiopian authorities to protect their population from violence in Tigray, emphasizing the threat of atrocity crimes. On 5 February the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide released another statement calling for accountability for reported abuses in Tigray.
On 21 November the AU appointed three high-level envoys to broker peace in Tigray, but Prime Minister Abiy has rejected their entreaties.
On 26 February Germany delivered a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of 42 member states calling on the Ethiopian government to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.
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 22 April the UN Security Council released its first Press Statement on the crisis, expressing concern regarding alleged human rights abuses, including reports of sexual violence, and calling for accountability.
All parties operating in Tigray must ensure ongoing military operations are conducted in strict adherence with international law and ensure the protection of civilians. Parties to the conflict must also allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations. Refugees and other displaced persons must be protected, in compliance with international law.
All Eritrean forces should immediately withdraw from Tigray.
All potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation.