UN experts warn of potential for further atrocities amid resumption of conflict in Ethiopia
GENEVA (19 September 2022) – Civilians in northern Ethiopia are at risk of further atrocity crimes as renewed conflict again plunges the country into crisis, a group of UN experts said on Monday.
The stark warning came as the Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, established by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2021, published a report concluding that there are reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict have committed war crimes and violations and abuses of human rights since fighting erupted in November 2020.
The Commission further concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government of Ethiopia and its allies have committed crimes against humanity in the Tigray region, indicating that some are ongoing.
The report highlights the appalling situation in Tigray, where the Federal Government and allies have denied around six million people access to basic services, including internet, telecommunications, and banking services for over a year. The Federal Government and its allies have also implemented severe restrictions on humanitarian access to Tigray, leaving 90% of the population in dire need of assistance.
“The humanitarian crisis in Tigray is shocking, both in terms of scale and duration,” said Kaari Betty Murungi, chair of the Commission. “The widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance are having a devastating impact on the civilian population, and we have reasonable grounds to believe it amounts to a crime against humanity. We also have reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government is using starvation as a method of warfare.”
“The Federal Government should immediately restore basic services, and ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access. Tigrayan forces should ensure that humanitarian agencies are able to operate without impediment,” Ms. Murungi added.
The report also found reasonable grounds to believe that the Ethiopian Air Force committed war crimes when it struck a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit with an armed drone in January 2021, killing around 60 civilians, including many children. The Commission has identified more than 50 airstrikes carried out since June 2021, which appear to have impacted civilians or civilian objects and require further investigation.
Commission member Steven Ratner said: “The Ethiopian military’s increasing use of drones to conduct airstrikes over the last year has changed the conflict landscape. In theory, drones should allow for more precise targeting of military objectives; however, our investigation indicates that their use has exposed civilians to new and heightened risks. Our findings are especially concerning given reports of airstrikes in Tigray since August, which have killed and injured civilians, including children.”
The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Tigrayan forces have also committed war crimes and human rights abuses, including large-scale killings of Amhara civilians, rape and sexual violence, and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property in Kobo and Chenna in August and September 2021.
The Commission also conducted preliminary investigations into several other large-scale killings in Tigray, concluding that further investigation is required.
“Large-scale killings are not just confined to Amhara and Tigray, and we are concerned about similar incidents in Oromia and other parts of the country. The normalization of extreme violence is deeply disturbing,” Mr. Ratner added.
The Commission also found that rape and crimes of sexual violence had been perpetrated on a “staggering scale” since the conflict began, with Tigrayan women and girls being targeted with particular violence and brutality by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and regional militias. At times, their attackers used dehumanizing language.
Commission member Radhika Coomaraswamy said: “Survivors of sexual violence in northern Ethiopia have endured horrific crimes, yet we fear we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.”
“Violations and abuses during the conflict show that atrocities do not occur in a vacuum, and are directly linked to ethnically-motivated hate speech and hostility. Such sentiments have not only been allowed to flourish unchecked but they have also been actively promulgated by state officials and the media,” Ms. Coomaraswamy added.
“The fact that Tigrayan forces told Amhara and Eritrean survivors they were being targeted as a reprisal for rape of Tigrayan women and girls shows how unchecked violence and hatred only sows further division and perpetuates cycles of abuse,” she said.
The parties to the conflict agreed on a tentative cessation of hostilities in March 2022. However, fighting erupted in late August, leading to renewed conflict and a suspension of humanitarian access to the region. Given the presence of multiple early warning indicators and triggers for atrocity crimes, the Commission is urging stronger international action.
“With a resumption of hostilities in northern Ethiopia, there is a very real risk of further civilian suffering and further atrocity crimes,” Ms. Murungi said. “The international community should not turn a blind eye, and instead increase efforts to secure a cessation of hostilities and the restoration of humanitarian aid and services to Tigray. Failure to do so would be catastrophic for the Ethiopian people, and has wider implications for peace and stability in the region.”
The report concludes with urgent recommendations calling on all parties to the conflict to cease hostilities, take action to protect civilians, and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.