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 ethnically motivated attacks.
On 4 November 2020, following months of escalating political tensions, the federal government of Ethiopia launched a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the Tigray region. Since then, thousands of people have been killed and at least 2.2 million have been displaced by the fighting, including over 61,000 who fled to Sudan. Despite a communications blackout, reports have surfaced of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including ethnic-based killings, forced recruitment to armed groups, widespread sexual violence and forced displacement. Numerous cultural heritage sites have also reportedly been damaged and looted. Preliminary analysis by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicated that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the TPLF, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militias may have committed abuses that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Despite the Ethiopian government declaring an official end to the conflict in Tigray on 28 November, satellite images analyzed by DX Open Network appear to reveal the intentional razing and ongoing destruction of rural communities in Tigray as recently as 23 February. In a 21 January statement the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict detailed ongoing reports of sexual violence, including individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family.
According to a report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), 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 in what the EHRC classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity. 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. According to an internal United States (US) government report leaked to The New York Times, ethnic Amhara militias allied with the federal government have undertaken a campaign to forcibly displace the Tigrayan population, “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous.”
During February fresh reports detailed massacres by Eritrean forces in Aksum and Dengelat. At least 800 people were massacred around Aksum in late November, including civilians sheltering in St. Mary of Zion church. In Dengelat civilians were massacred between 30 November and 2 December 2020, including at Maryam Dengelat church where Eritrean forces opened fire on congregants.
Delivery of aid continues to be impeded, leaving 4.5 million people in need of emergency food supplies. According to the Ethiopian Red Cross, as of 10 February an estimated 80 percent of Tigray was cut off from aid. Half of the region’s hospitals are also inaccessible, looted or destroyed. Two camps hosting Eritrean refugees, Hitsats and Shimelba, were destroyed during January.
Since 2018 ethnically motivated attacks have also been on the rise throughout Ethiopia, displacing at least 1.8 million people. Attacks in Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Oromia alone have killed over 600 people and displaced over 200,000 since September 2020. In Oromia the security forces and the Oromo Liberation Army armed group have both committed alleged extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians.
The violence in Tigray is a result of unresolved political tensions. 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.
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 security forces has also left many Ethiopians deeply distrustful of state power.
The federal government has struggled to protect civilians from the recent surge in targeted ethnic attacks. Abuses perpetrated by federal troops and their allies in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, ethnic-based killings, and the destruction of refugee camps and cultural heritage sites, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Ethiopian federal government bears responsibility for the commission of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray. The government has failed to uphold their responsibility to protect all populations in Ethiopia, regardless of ethnicity or affiliation.
Since 4 November 2020 the UN, Intergovernmental Authority on Development and African Union (AU) have condemned the violence in Tigray and called for a military de-escalation. The 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 further violence, emphasizing that the threat of atrocity crimes remains high. 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. On 27 November the envoys visited Addis Ababa where Prime Minister Abiy 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 4 March the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the government of Ethiopia to grant access to independent monitors “to establish the facts and contribute to accountability, regardless of the affiliation of perpetrator.”
All parties operating in Tigray must ensure ongoing military operations are conducted in strict adherence with international law and ensure the protection of civilians. The federal government must allow unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations. Refugees and other displaced persons must also be protected, in keeping with international law.
All potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation.