Grave uncertainty is surrounding the future of Ethiopia and the stability of the whole Horn of Africa region. The one-year war in the Tigray region in Ethiopia has reached “disastrous proportion” according to reports presented at the Security Council on November 8th, 2021. There also concerns that ethnic tensions could lead to the break-up of the entire Ethiopian federal system.
Ethiopia is a land-locked country in the Horn of Africa, covering 1,104,300 square kms. It is the second most populous country in Africa, with an estimated population of 117 million people. The country remains one of the least developed economies in the world. It is home to over 80 ethnic groups, and over 90 languages. Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and used to be an important ally for the United States in the war against terror.
The UN report says that war crimes, crimes against humanity, of extreme brutality, have been committed in the Tigray region of Ethiopia by all parties to the conflict from November 2020 to June 2021, the period that was subject to investigation. The report was published jointly by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), on November 3rd, 2021, based upon a joint investigation into alleged crimes committed in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia.
The report said that the Tigrayan leadership was reluctant to engage in the investigation due to the presence of investigators from the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, raising concerns about the impartiality of the report.
What are the major findings of the UN report on alleged crimes committed in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia?
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), composed of the OCHRC and the EHRC, found serious abuses and violations of human rights, relating to humanitarian and refugee laws, had been committed by all parties to the conflict. The JIT adopted a “reasonable grounds to believe” standard of proof, consistent with the practice of international fact-finding bodies. The JIT found reasonable grounds to believe that a number of these violations might amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, which would require further investigations to ensure accountability. The JIT faced severe security, operational and administrative challenges in carrying out its investigation.
Human rights: Ethiopia is a State party to seven of the nine core international human rights treaties, therefore, Ethiopia is obliged to respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights of all persons within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, without discrimination. Ethiopia has not submitted any declaration of a state of emergency under Article 4 of International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, even if the authorities were to do so, a broad range of rights is in any event non-derogable under the ICCPR.
International humanitarian law: The conflict in Tigray is a non-international armed conflict in character, it satisfies the requirements under the Geneva Convention according to the report.
International criminal law: Eritrea and Ethiopia are not State parties to the Rome Statute; therefore, the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court can only be triggered by referral by the Security Council. The JIT conducted a human rights investigation, not a criminal investigation. As such it has not made findings concerning the criminal responsibility of specific individuals for alleged violations of international law.
Attacks on civilians and civilian objects: Military forces belonging to all parties to the conflict carried out attacks on civilians resulting in the death of, and injuries to, men, women, boys, and girls. Civilian objects, which enjoy special protection under international humanitarian law, such as schools, places of worships and houses were indiscriminately attacked. Parties to the conflict failed to take sufficient precautions to protect civilian objects.
Unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions: Eritrean Defense Forces and Tigray Special Forces have committed unlawful killings and extra-judicial executions that amount to violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as being violations of the Constitution and laws of Ethiopia. Persons taking no direct part in the hostilities were willfully killed by parties to the conflict, including ethnic-based killings. Young men were targeted in most of these killings.
Torture and other forms of ill-treatment: Eritrean Defense Forces and Tigray Special Forces have committed acts of torture and ill-treatment against civilians and captured combatants in various locations across Tigray.
Arbitrary detentions, abductions, and enforced disappearances: Eritrean Defense Forces and Tigray Police and Special Forces were engaged in arbitrary detentions, abductions and enforced disappearances. The Eritrean Defense Forces detained individuals in secret locations and military camps. In Western Tigray, Tigray forces detained civilians, mostly of Amhara origin. There was mass detention of Tigrayan civilians including women and children by Amhara militia.
Sexual and gender-based violence: Various acts of sexual and gender-based violence including physical violence and assault, attempted rape, rape including gang rape, oral and anal rape, insertion of foreign objects into the vagina, and intentional transmission of HIV have been committed by all parties to the conflict. Women, girls, men and boys were victims of SGBV including gang rape. Women and girls were exposed to unwanted pregnancies, and some were infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In many cases, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used to degrade and dehumanize the victims. Sexual violence has profoundly violated the survivors’ physical and psychological integrity and caused serious health complications.
Refugees: Eritrean Defense Forces and Tigray Special Forces violated the civilian character of refugee camps in Tigray, which shelter Eritrean refugees, by their presence. Eritrean military forces put the security and lives of refugees at risk, resulting in the destruction of the camps, the displacement of thousands of refugees and the disappearances of hundreds. Eritrean military forces violated the fundamental principle of non-refoulement by forcibly returning some Eritrean refugees to Eritrea. Tigray forces and civilians looted the private property of refugees and the property of international organizations.
Forced displacement of the civilian population: Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled their homes in Tigray. The Tigrayan population was significantly affected by the forced displacement in Western Tigray. There was also forced displacement of ethnic Amharas from their homes. The forced displacements were committed on a broad scale and without lawful justifications. It has also exacerbated existing tensions between mainly Tigrayans and Amharas in areas where they once lived together, and which might prove to be a challenge in efforts for their return.
Restrictions on freedom of movement: The multiple roadblocks and check points and excessive measures taken by Ethiopian Government forces and Eritrean defense forces in enforcing the curfew resulted in the death of civilians. The refusal of security officials to allow some Tigrayans to leave the country, and in some instances the confiscation of their travel documents without any explanation and due process, also appears motivated by discrimination and is disproportionate and unjustified.
Freedom of expression and access to information: Phones and Internet communications were cut off in Tigray, civilians were unable to seek, receive and impart information, following the start of the conflict. The communication interruption may have been justified until the expiry of the state of emergency, but the continued disconnection is a violation of the right to freedom of expression and access to information.
Denial of access to humanitarian relief: The report accused all sides of blocking aid at different times and says that it could not verify and needed further investigation as to whether use of food starvation was used as a weapon of war. 20 humanitarian workers were also killed. The JIT recognized the need for further investigation.
Accountability: The Joint Investigation Team, composed of the OCHRC and the EHRC, found serious abuses and violations of human rights, relating to humanitarian and refugee laws, had been committed by all parties to the conflict. The primary responsibility for addressing the violations rests with the State of Ethiopia, as part of its obligation to respect and protect human rights. The JIT has stated that accountability should not be understood narrowly. Ethiopia should initiate a victim-centered and gender-sensitive reparation scheme that includes restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. The international community should support initiatives to strengthen justice and accountability for serious violations and crimes committed in the context of the conflict in Tigray.
What is the origin of the conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia?
The roots of the crises can be traced to Ethiopia’s federal system of government that was created in 1994.
In the 1970-1980s the Tigray’s People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) fought a war to seize control of the government from a military junta. This was a successful operation. This is how the TPFL came to power in 1991, as the leading member of a four-member coalition government. The coalition created a federal system and gave autonomy to Ethiopia’s 10 regions, but retained a tight control on the central government, with critics accusing of it repressing political opposition.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy dissolved the coalition in 2019. He made sweeping political reforms. He liberalized politics, set up a new party (the Prosperity Party) and removed key Tigrayan government leaders from power, who were accused of corruption and repression. These moves won Mr. Abiy popularity but caused great discomfort among Tigrayans. Tigray’s leaders saw Mr. Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralize power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system. The Tigrayans further argued that Mr. Abiy’s government had not been tested in a national election as Mr. Abiy was appointed Prime Minister. Tigrayans also refused to join Mr. Abiy’s new Prosperity Party.
The feud came to a head in September 2020, when regional elections were supposed to take place but were postponed due to the COVID pandemic. Nevertheless, the Tigrayans defied the central government to hold their own regional elections. This was an unprecedented act of defiance against the central government. The central government responded that it was illegal. Both sides then designated each other as “illegitimate”.
The tensions grew when the central government suspended funding for the region of Tigray and ties were cut off with it in October 2020. According to Tigray’s administration this was considered as a declaration of war.
Tension further increased when Tigray’s military forces were accused of attacking federal army bases to steal weapons. Prime Minister Abiy said that Tigray had crossed a red line, and the “federal government was forced into a military operation against Tigray”. Since then, the TPLF has been designated a terrorist organization.
The TPFL also called out Prime Minister, Abiy for his friendship with Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki. There has long been animosity between Tigray and Eritrea’s Government over a territorial shared border that was the origin of a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1998 until 2000. Prime Minister Abiy made peace with Eritrea over the territorial dispute that won him a Nobel Peace Award in 2019. Then, they launched an attack against their common enemy, the Tigrayans. Eritrea has since sent troops to support Mr. Abiy in Tigray.
More than two million out of six million of Tigray’s population in Ethiopia have fled their homes since November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy ordered the start of a war against Tigray. Tens of thousands of them have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan.
The assassination of prominent individuals, which had been a rarity in the past, began occurring with alarming frequency. The army’s chief of staff and the leader of the country’s second largest region were killed in a single night, hundreds of miles apart. Internet and phone lines were shut down multiple times in the country. The murder in 2020 of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa, in Addis Ababa, the capital, further heightened ethnic tensions. Prominent opposition figures were arrested on suspicion of inciting or escalating the violence.
While more than seven million people need humanitarian aid in northern Ethiopia today, in Tigray alone more than five million people lack food. No aid trucks have reached the region since 18th October 2021 amid continued airstrikes.
What is the immediate consequence of the conflict in Ethiopia to the relationship with the United States?
The United States, once an important ally of Ethiopia in the fight against terror, has announced visa restrictions on people found “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the resolution of the crisis in Tigray”. It also imposed restrictions on economic and security assistance.
This is a remarkable turnaround compared to how Mr. Abiy, a Nobel Peace Award laureate, was considered three years ago.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second largest country, with a population of 117 million, has undergone massive changes in two years. The new Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy, appointed in 2018, and Nobel Peace Award Laureate, after brokering a Peace Agreement over a territorial border dispute with neighboring Eritrea in 2019, has started a war with an ethnic group, the Tigray, in the country’s Tigray region.
Prime Minister, Abiy, a member of the Oromo community, which is Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, pleaded for political reforms, unity, and reconciliation as a sworn in Prime Minister in 2018. He aimed at fostering a sense of national identity in the face of ethnic divisions. He pushed for unity, while also celebrating diversity, and this hit problems. It soon became a delusion after a civil war broke out in the country in 2019, in which the central government targeted the Tigrayans that had ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
As a consequence, Ethiopia, which is the oldest independent country in Africa, and once an important ally for the United States, has undergone sweeping changes and the country is on the edge of a widening civil war, and whilst nobody can predict the consequences, it might destabilize the whole Horn of Africa region.