Despite a peace agreement, populations in the Tigray region of Ethiopia continue to endure war crimes and crimes against humanity. Populations are also at risk due to inter-communal violence and clashes with government forces, particularly in the Amhara and Oromia regions.
On 2 November 2022 the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional governing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) agreed to a cessation of hostilities agreement (CoHA), brokered by the African Union, aimed at ending a two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia. From November 2020 – November 2022 the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and its allies, including the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), fought in an armed conflict with the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) which was characterized by widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). The fighting began in the Tigray region and subsequently spread to neighboring Afar and Amhara regions in July 2021. The conflict has caused a humanitarian catastrophe to unfold across northern Ethiopia, with over 1 million people internally displaced.
Possible war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by all parties. Several UN bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), and international human rights groups documented indiscriminate bombings, ethnic-based killings, sexual violence, forced displacement, use of child soldiers, destruction of cultural heritage and the systematic destruction of food, water and health infrastructure. Humanitarian convoys were routinely blocked, attacked and looted by parties to the conflict. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that Amhara regional forces and militias and the EDF, with ENDF complicity, are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans from Western Tigray. Amhara authorities have subjected the Tigrayan population to abuses and restrictions on the basis of their ethnicity and removed them from the area while simultaneously calling for Amhara residents to settle there.
Despite the CoHA, ongoing abuses by the EDF and regional Amhara forces have been reported in Tigray, including looting of civilian property, as well as kidnappings and mass detentions. The ICHREE and international human rights groups have documented potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual violence and extrajudicial killings of civilians.
In April 2023 the government announced plans to integrate regional militia forces into the federal army and police, prompting fears among populations regarding loss of regional autonomy and vulnerability to attacks by other ethnic groups. Protests against the measure in Amhara escalated into intense clashes between the fano, an irregular ethnic Amhara militia, and the ENDF, prompting the federal government to declare a state of emergency for the region on 4 August. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that civilians and civilian property have been targeted throughout the clashes. The ENDF have also been accused of killing civilians in their search for fano supporters.
Inter-communal and inter-religious violence, particularly between the Amhara and Oromo communities, as well as regional border disputes in other parts of Ethiopia have continued. Oromia regional security forces, the ENDF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) armed group have allegedly committed enforced disappearances and attacks on civilians, including ethnic Amharas. The ENDF have launched repeated airstrikes in Oromia and extrajudicially executed civilians perceived to be supportive of armed groups. Since April the Ethiopian government and OLA have held two rounds of peace negotiations but have not reached a resolution.
In a conference room paper published on 3 October 2023 the ICHREE warned of an imminent risk of future atrocity crimes in Ethiopia due to the presence of multiple risk factors identified in the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. Despite these warnings, UN member states failed to put forward a resolution at the HRC’s 54th session to renew the ICHREE’s mandate, ending international monitoring of the crises in Ethiopia. On 10 October the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide released a statement warning of a heightened risk of genocide and other atrocity crimes.
On 17 November the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of ongoing abuses in Amhara, including arbitrary arrests and drone strikes targeting civilian areas. At least 47 people have been killed in five different attacks since October.
Populations in Tigray, Afar and Amhara remain at risk of further war crimes and crimes against humanity due to repeated violations of the CoHA. The unresolved question of the administration of Western Tigray and other disputed territories could reignite conflict, with both Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups claiming control over the land. These risks are amplified by the over 370,000 fighters across the country – with access to small arms – who await unfunded demobilization and reintegration.
Civilians in Tigray also remain at risk due to the continued presence of the EDF, which have repeatedly been accused of atrocity crimes while Eritrean authorities have allegedly sought to settle decades-old grievances with the TPLF through the collective punishment of Tigrayans.
Civilians in Oromia remain at heightened risk of atrocities due to fighting between OLA militants and the ENDF. Amharas in Oromia are also particularly vulnerable to attacks by the OLA. In Amhara, civilians are at risk of abuses by the ENDF during their search for fano supporters. The targeting of civilians based on their identity may amount to crimes against humanity.
The non-renewal of the ICHREE due to the eagerness of the European Union, United States and others to return to a pre-conflict status quo incentivizes the federal government to further entrench impunity and undermines victim’s hopes for justice.
Ethiopia’s ethnic-based federalist system has resulted in widespread allegations of ethnic favoritism, deepening distrust between ethnic groups. Under the former TPLF-dominated ruling coalition, which controlled the government for 27 years prior to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed coming to power in 2018, many groups felt marginalized. A history of impunity and lack of effective transitional justice for human rights abuses perpetrated under successive ruling parties has exacerbated these grievances. The conflict in northern Ethiopia sparked an increase in hate speech between ethnic groups across the country and caused other pre-existing ethnic tensions to flare.
While meaningful steps to implement the CoHA and the unfettered delivery of aid have been taken, the process must continue in good faith. The EDF should immediately withdraw from Ethiopia. The UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo and sanctions on spoilers to the peace process.
The federal government must ensure a credible inclusive national dialogue to holistically address the root causes of recurrent inter-communal and ethnic-based conflicts and build trust with victims. The federal government should also advance transparent accountability efforts, including through traditional methods of conflict resolution and justice. The federal government should work with UN Special Procedures and international experts on transitional justice to ensure processes meet international standards.
The government must refrain from violations of international law while conducting military operations and spare no effort to protect civilians. Armed groups must also end the targeting of civilians.
The international community must maintain scrutiny of the crises in Ethiopia following the non-renewal of the ICHREE. Any normalization should be contingent on respect for human rights and assurances of inclusive and transparent transitional justice.