365 days and counting: The international community still needs to end the suffering of Tigray

On 4 November 2020 Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in response to an attack on a federal army base which the Tigrayan authorities described as pre-emptive. Troops from Eritrea and Somalia joined the ENDF in launching a pincer movement against the Tigrayans, and communications to the region were cut and remain disrupted to this day. 

The attack marked the beginning of a conflict which is still ongoing, one in which over 52,000 people have died, and an estimated 1.7 million have been displaced internally. One year on and the crisis in Tigray is showing no signs of coming to an end, with Prime Minister Abiy pledging to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones and make the glory of Ethiopia high again” in a statement on 3 November – hardly the words expected from a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Along with the Eritrean leader, PM Abiy and his government are responsible for a horrific campaign of violence against the people of Tigray which a joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) recently found may have involved war crimes and crimes against humanity, a finding they attribute to both sides of the conflict.

From the time of its initiation, confidence in the joint inquiry was undermined by the inclusion of an organisation that was vulnerable to coercion from a significant party to the conflict. While there are several flaws in the EHRC/OHCHR investigation, allegations of atrocity crimes have been reported from the Tigray region from the first month of the conflict onwards.

“The number of casualties is most likely an extreme underrepresentation.”

Over the past year, there have been widespread and disturbing reports of systematic, possibly genocidal, mass rape, generally lasting for days, and committed primarily, but not exclusively, by Eritrean troops and allied Amhara militia. Other documented violations include extrajudicial killings, the indiscriminate bombing and looting of homes, churches, mosques, educational establishments and other civilian structures, and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Amhara authorities in particular also stand accused of conducting ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray, including through rape, extrajudicial killings and issuing identity cards that even obscure the word “Tigray.”

Worryingly, researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have confirmed 260 massacres so far, which occurred between November 2020 and September 2021, and in which almost 10,000 people lost their lives, with over 3000 people killed in 58 massacres that occurred in November alone. The researchers also noted that ongoing disruptions to communications and transportation mean that “the number of casualties is most likely an extreme underrepresentation.”

Eritrean soldiers also embarked on extensive looting. Civilians were forcibly deprived of money and jewellery, while homes were comprehensively cleared, including of blankets, cutlery, shoes, and clothing. Hospitals were emptied of medication, factories of equipment, and stores of goods. Anything not transported to Eritrea was destroyed. Livestock were seized and eaten, while crops were burnt in fields. Farmers were prevented from preparing their fields for the rains, ensuring there would be no harvest, and were shot or beaten when attempting to do so.

In June Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces hurriedly withdrew following a Tigrayan military advance, and Prime Minister Abiy disingenuously announced a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire, while maintaining a blockade on humanitarian aid. The fighting continued, with Tigrayan forces advancing into the Amhara and Afar regions in a bid to break the blockade and offset a famine.

According to the UN, around 90% of the Tigrayan population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, including 400,000 people who are already “facing famine-like conditions.” Millions are also on the brink of hunger in the areas of the Afar and Amhara regions that share a border with Tigray, and the Tigray External Affairs Office reported that 150 people died of hunger in August.

The war on Tigray also heightened the vulnerability of the estimated 150,021 registered Eritreans (many of them unaccompanied minors) who had sought refuge in Ethiopia from their repressive government. CSW was informed in December 2020 that at least 6,000 refugees had been forcibly returned to Eritrea in gross violation of regional and international refugee conventions. This refoulement was recently confirmed by Reuters, which reported that 9,000 Eritrean refugees had been systematically and forcibly returned in an operation led by Col Berhane Tesfamariam, aka Wedi Kecha, and were either jailed or forced into military service upon their return.  Worse still, when the Eritrean soldiers withdrew Eritrean refugees also faced instances of retaliatory violence by angry Tigrayans.

Press freedoms in Ethiopia have also been increasingly curtailed, with journalists and media that have sought to report impartially on the conflict experiencing physical attacks, arbitrary arrests, expulsion, the raiding of at least one home, the suspension then reinstatement of the publishing licence of a respected Addis Standard media house, and two murders.

However, a final military onslaught buoyed by fresh weaponry and new recruits has not unfolded as anticipated. On 30 and 31 October the key towns of Dessie and Kombolcha fell to Tigrayan forces, placing them within 400km of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, another rebel movement, the Oromo Liberation Army, with whom the Tigrayan Defence Forces (TDF) have made common cause, is advancing towards Addis Ababa from the south.  It was in this context that the president made his latest call to arms.

Hate speech dehumanising people of Tigrayan descent has proliferated during the war, with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, political leaders and even some religious personalities having described them in the recent past as a “cancer” or “weeds” that must be done away with in order for the country to prosper. This incitement increased further on social media following reversals on 30 and 31 October with calls for the mass internment of Tigrayans resident outside of the region, and credible reports of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans civilians being rounded up in house to house searches in Addis Ababa and transported to unknown locations. 

It appears the declaration of a state of emergency has “further militarize[d] the country and license[d] state actors to intensify and legitimise more atrocities.”

365 days and counting

Despite the emergence of credible evidence of the possible commission of atrocity crimes from the onset of this crisis, international response has been woefully inadequate, with action at Security Council level being blocked by Chinese and Russian intransigence, and until recently, by prevarication by African non-permanent members. The United States (US), which had eventually sanctioned the Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) under Global Magnitsky sanctions, recently took firmer action as President Biden suspended duty free access to US markets for Ethiopia due to its human rights record, giving the nation until January 2021 to show improvements. 

Although commendable, this renewed pressure comes just as the Ethiopian government appears close to collapsing, and after the ethnic fissures which the Prime Minister deliberately exacerbated have festered for so long they may now constitute the greatest hindrance to resolution, reconciliation, and reunification.

The crisis has gone on for far too long – 365 days and counting.  It now threatens Ethiopia’s continuation as a multi-ethnic state. It has also short-circuited the country’s previously impressive economic growth; has decimated one the strongest armies in the continent, and has destabilised a nation previously viewed as one of the stalwarts in a volatile region.  

The United Nations (UN) – and the African Union (AU) – must do far more. The appointing by the AU of former president Obasanjo as a special envoy, was a commendable beginning.  Now Kenya, which is currently on the Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council, is a member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and is viewed as neutral by both the Tigrayan forces and the OLA, must be encouraged, resourced and mandated to facilitate a resolution to the current crisis and oversee subsequent all-inclusive negotiations on the country’s future political system.   

However, peace without justice would merely compound historical grievances and contribute to future eruptions of discontent. Thus while the passing of a resolution on Tigray at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council was a welcome start, there remains a need for a truly independent inquiry with unhindered access to investigate all alleged human rights violations committed in Tigray and elsewhere, and to secure justice for victims. 

Any effort to secure justice must also address the role of the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who bear ultimate responsibility for human rights violations committed with impunity by their respective armed forces.

For Eritrea’s leader, Isais Afewerki, the war on Tigray was to be the fulfilment of a long-held vendetta against the Tigrayan leadership dating back to differences in the Liberation struggle and compounded by the defeat during the border war of 1998, while PM Abiy Ahmed nursed an antipathy towards the Tigrayan leadership and personal ambitions of centralising power in his own hands. 

In view of President Afewerki’s central role in a crisis that is destabilising the region, it is clearly time for the situation of human rights in Eritrea to be determined a threat to international peace and security and referred to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, as recommended in the 2016 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE).  Had these and other COIE recommendations been enacted at that time, the current crisis might not have occurred.

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy Khataza Gondwe

Featured Image:“Bus to Adigrat, Tigray” by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0