1 December 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
9.4 million people in need of aid in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions

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 forces loyal to 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.

Since the conflict began more than a year ago, clashes between the Ethiopian Defense Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) – a TPLF-aligned armed group – continue in Tigray. Clashes have also spread into neighboring Afar and Amhara regions, displacing more than 840,000 people. Numerous cultural heritage sites, as well as camps in Tigray hosting at least 50,000 Eritrean refugees, have been destroyed and looted. On 5 August the UN Children’s Fund reported the killing of at least 200 civilians, including 100 children, sheltering at a health facility and school in Afar.

On 18 October, in response to the TDF’s advances, the ENDF launched an airstrike campaign on Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, killing at least 13 civilians. At the end of October, TDF troops made a series of strategic territorial gains in the Amhara region and joined forces with an allied armed group, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), approximately 200 miles from the capital, Addis Ababa. On 2 November Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves as the TDF and OLA advance towards Addis Ababa. On 26 November Prime Minister Abiy went to the frontline in the Afar region to assist the ENDF.

Amidst the expansion of the conflict, there has been an alarming rise in ethnic-based hate speech and profiling, particularly against Tigrayans. Authorities in Addis Ababa have also commenced house-to-house searches for anyone deemed “sympathetic” to the TPLF, targeting Tigrayan residents. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) from 9-16 November more than 1,000 Tigrayans were arrested, including dozens of UN staff and subcontractors.

Widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) have been committed throughout the conflict, including 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. On 3 November OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a joint report, finding that all parties to the conflict – the ENDF and allied Eritrean forces, the TDF, Amhara regional forces and affiliated militias – have committed violations of international law that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Approximately 400,000 people in Tigray are living in famine and at least 9.4 million in Tigray, Amhara and Afar are in urgent need of aid. Humanitarian aid convoys have routinely been blocked, attacked and looted by parties to the conflict. Twenty-three aid workers have been killed during the conflict. UN officials have asserted that access to food is being used as a weapon of war. Aid groups have reported a growing number of starvation- related deaths. On 30 September Ethiopia declared seven senior UN staff “persona non grata” for allegedly “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs. During November 72 UN drivers were arrested in Afar’s capital, Semera, through which aid flows into Tigray.

Ethnically motivated attacks and regional border disputes have also been on the rise elsewhere in Ethiopia. Violence in Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia and other regions has killed more than 1,000 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, regional security forces and the OLA have allegedly committed enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians, including ethnic Amharas. On 18 August the EHRC reported that at least 150 people were killed in ethnically motivated attacks by the OLA while an additional 60 were killed in subsequent reprisals.


All parties to the conflict bear responsibility for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilians in Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions remain at risk of further atrocities due to repeated violations of IHL and IHRL. Inflammatory statements by regional and federal government leaders, including Prime Minister Abiy, may 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. A history of dictatorship and impunity for past human rights abuses by security forces has also deepened distrust between ethnic groups. This history, coupled with increasing political and social polarization, could lead to further ethnically motivated violence across Ethiopia.

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 condemned the violence in Tigray. The federal government has rejected multiple offers by the AU and IGAD to mediate the conflict. Both the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the AU’s Peace and Security Council have called for an urgent ceasefire and an end to incitement and hate speech.

The European Union has withheld 88 million euros in budgetary aid to Ethiopia due to the human rights situation in Tigray. On 17 September United States (US) President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing the government to impose sanctions on those obstructing humanitarian aid and committing grave abuses against civilians in Tigray. The US has since imposed sanctions on Eritrean officials and entities. On 2 November the US announced that it plans to suspend Ethiopia from preferential trade status as of 1 January 2022 for gross human rights violations.

On 15 June the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights announced the launch of a Commission of Inquiry on the situation in Tigray.

On 13 July the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) 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 28 August the Chairperson of the AU Commission appointed former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as High Representative for the Horn of Africa.

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has released multiple statements throughout 2021, expressing alarm at the continued deterioration of ethnic violence in Tigray, Afar, Somali, Oromia and Amhara regions and has called on government officials to end the use of hate speech.


All parties to the conflict in northern Ethiopia must operate in strict adherence with IHL and ensure the protection of civilians and refugees. Parties to the conflict should agree to an immediate ceasefire with no preconditions and allow unfettered delivery of emergency aid. National dialogue is urgently needed to address the root causes of inter-communal and ethnic conflicts across the country.

Eritrean forces should immediately withdraw from Ethiopia.

The international community must support AU efforts to negotiate a ceasefire. The UNSC should impose an arms embargo and sanctions on those prolonging the conflict and committing atrocities.

All potential war crimes and crimes against humanity must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or affiliation through the establishment of an HRC-mandated international investigative mechanism.


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