The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, warned on Friday, 4 June, that famine is “imminent” in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, stating that aid workers were already seeing starvation-related deaths. He stressed that, “there are now hundreds of thousands of people in northern Ethiopia in famine conditions… This now has horrible echoes of the colossal tragedy in Ethiopia in 1984,” comparing the current situation in Tigray to a notorious famine that killed over a million people in Ethiopia four decades ago.
The threat of famine is the result of a seven-month-long conflict between the Ethiopian federal government, its Eritrean and militia allies, and the deposed regional government of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The fighting, which began in November 2020, has displaced an estimated 2 million people and resulted in thousands of deaths. Parties to the conflict have also deliberately exacerbated the resulting humanitarian crisis, destroying Tigray’s food, water and healthcare systems. There have been widespread reports of the deliberate burning of crops, looting of storage warehouses and slaughtering of livestock. Ongoing fighting has also disrupted planting and harvesting cycles, increasing the need for emergency food aid.
Despite 5.2 million people – 91 percent of Tigray’s population – urgently needing humanitarian assistance, parties to the conflict have targeted humanitarian workers and obstructed the delivery of aid. Eritrean forces, in particular, have reportedly blocked and looted aid convoys and may be using starvation as a weapon of war. According to Under-Secretary-General Lowcock, there have been “deliberate, repeated, sustained attempts” to prevent aid from reaching the approximately one million people living in areas controlled by the opposition. Nine aid workers have already been killed during the conflict, with the most recent deadly incident occurring on 28 May in Adigrat.
Obstructing humanitarian operations and attacking aid workers is prohibited under International Humanitarian Law and may constitute a war crime. An immediate humanitarian ceasefire is necessary in Tigray in order to enable the unfettered delivery of emergency aid and avert a catastrophic famine.
On 5 June unidentified armed men killed over 160 people, including at least 20 children, in the village of Solhan, Yagha Province, in northern Burkina Faso, marking the deadliest attack in the country since 2015. Reports indicate that the assailants initially targeted a gold mine before attacking members of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDPs), a group of government-trained civilian security volunteers. The armed men then indiscriminately killed men, women and children in the village and buried the victims in three mass graves. The attackers also burned homes and over 3,300 people, including 2,000 children, were forced to flee the area. No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement that “strongly condemns the heinous attack and underscores the urgent need for the international community to redouble support to member states in the fight against violent extremism and its unacceptable human toll” throughout the Sahel.
In recent years Islamist armed groups have made inroads in the porous tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Since 2019, increasing violence has forcibly displaced 1.2 million Burkinabé, making the country one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. Just weeks before the Solhan massacre, Defense Minister Chérif Sy visited Sebba, the capital of Yagha Province, to demonstrate the return of governmental authority to the area and assure civilians of a return to normalcy. Despite these assurances, remote villages often remain unprotected.
The VDPs were established in 2020 in order to support the Burkinabé defense and security forces, but have also perpetrated abuses against civilians that they suspect of supporting Islamist armed groups. Suspected members of an Islamist armed group allegedly perpetrated the Solhan attack in response to the presence of VDPs in the area.
Christine Caldera, Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “strategies to counter violent extremism and growing violence across the Central Sahel must include reforms aimed at strengthening local governance, improving access to resources, and ending impunity for grave human rights violations. The equal protection of all civilians and vulnerable communities must be paramount.”
Yesterday, 8 June, the Appeals Chamber of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) confirmed the November 2017 decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which found Ratko Mladić, former Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Appeals Chamber also confirmed Mladić’s life sentence.
During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, Mladić’s forces attacked numerous non-Serb towns and villages, killing and terrorizing the inhabitants. Many civilians endured “ethnic cleansing” as they were forcibly displaced from their homes. On Mladić’s orders, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica were systematically rounded up, forcibly separated from their families and summarily executed between 2-11 July 1995. The ICTY and International Court of Justice determined this to be an act of genocide. Mladić was also deemed responsible for shelling the residents of Sarajevo during its notorious siege and of taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
Despite the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, Mladić was not apprehended and handed over to the ICTY until May 2011. The trial began in May 2012 and the verdict was delivered in November 2017.
Following the appeal hearing on 8 June, the Chief Prosecutor of the IRMCT, Serge Brammertz, said that, “Mladić should be condemned by all responsible officials in the former Yugoslavia and around the world. His name should be consigned to the list of history’s most depraved and barbarous figures.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, issued a joint statement welcoming the decision, but cautioned that the glorification of convicted atrocity perpetrators like Mladić is increasing. Bachelet urged governments and public officials across the Western Balkans “to strive for justice for all victims and survivors of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, to assuage – rather than aggravate – the region’s open wounds, and to foster reconciliation and long-lasting peace.”