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Crimes and Manmade Humanitarian Crisis in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan

 One of the world's deadliest conflicts, the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, raises serious concern over ethnic cleansing, human rights abuses, and manmade humanitarian crises. Established by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2021, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) believes there are reasonable grounds to trust that the Federal Government of Ethiopia and its allies (Amhara regional and paramilitary forces and the Eritrean government) have committed crimes against humanity in the Tigray region. In the same vein, a joint investigation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHC) point to the same evidence. ICHREE and OHCHR/HER have also documented war crimes and human rights abuses by the Tigrayan Defense Forces — including attacks against Amhara civilians in Kobo and Chenna in August and September 2021. In September 2022, dozens of Amhara civilians were also killed by Tigray fighters in the town of Kobo. After months of escalating tension, the Tigray war officially started on November 4, 2020. The Ethiopian government declared war after accusing Tigrayan forces of attacking the Ethiopian defense force's northern command base. The Ethiopian federal government and its allies quickly controlled the region. In response, the Tigray forces retreated into the mountains and launched a hit-and-run guerrilla campaign that ground down the federal military. The Tigray forces were eventually able to recapture most of the region by June 2021. However, fighting resumed in August 2022, and Ethiopian and Eritrean forces — for the moment, at least — have seized control of key towns in Tigray, including the strategic city of Shire. 

Deadly Air Strikes against Civilians 

Since the war began, federal forces reportedly killed civilians in the Tigray region. ICHREE stated that the Ethiopian Air Force committed war crimes when it bombed a camp for internally displaced persons in Dedebit Town of Tigray with an armed drone in January 2021, killing around 60 civilians — including many children. Similarly, in August 2022, the federal air force struck Tigray's capital Mekelle and caused deaths by hitting civilian areas near the main hospital, including a kindergarten. On September 30 and October 4, more than 55 civilians were killed, and at least 86 more were injured following an airstrike in the town of Adi Daero of Tigray. One target was a school that sheltered people displaced by the war. UN spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, highlighted the severity of the situation stating, "…the kinds of numbers that we keep talking about every week are, frankly, saddening and shocking, for what is, at the end, a man-made humanitarian crisis." 

Denial of Basic Services 

The Federal Government and its allies have denied around six million people access to food, medications, and essential services such as the internet, telecommunications, and banking. This has had a devastating impact (including deaths) on the civilian population. They have also restricted humanitarian access. Researchers at Ghent University estimate the war, resulting in famine, and the lack of healthcare services have claimed between 385,000 and 600,000 lives. In this regard, Kaari Betty Murungi, chair of the ICHREE, described the humanitarian crisis in Tigray as "shocking, both in terms of scale and duration." 

Starvation and Rape as a Method of Warfare 

An ICHREE report depicted the federal government as perpetrating war crimes against humanity using starvation as a method of warfare. The EU and USAID officials have also stressed that using civilian starvation as a weapon of war risks the lives of millions. In fact, in Resolution 2417 (2018), the UN Security Council strongly condemned the use of civilians' starvation as warfare and urged action against those responsible. Former UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, said there are signs of starvation by the Federal government and its allied forces as a weapon of war in Tigray region. Ethiopian and Eritrean security forces and regional regular and paramilitary forces have reportedly used gang rape, backed by verbal and physical abuse, abduction, and sexual slavery on a "staggering scale." "Survivors of sexual violence in northern Ethiopia have endured horrific crimes, yet we fear we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg," said ICHREE official Radhika Coomaraswamy, who added that the atrocities directly link to ethnically motivated hate speech that state officials and the media have actively promulgated against the Tigrayan people. The conflicting parties agreed to a tentative cessation of hostilities in March 2022. However, fighting erupted in late August 2022, leading to renewed war and a suspension of humanitarian access to the region. With the resumption of the war, there is concern of further civilian suffering and atrocity crimes. Neighboring Eritrea escalated the situation when it became militarily engaged in Tigray in support of the federal government. In response, Tigrayan forces in November 2020 fired multiple rockets at Eritrea's capital, Asmara. Many believe that President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea holds a personal grudge against the Tigray leaders, who were the dominant force in Ethiopian politics when the two countries went to war in 1998-2000 with a long-term commitment to wiping out the group. Similarly, the Amhara regional political authorities and security forces in the Western Tigray Zone have committed widespread abuses against Tigrayans since November 2020. The forces systematically expelled hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan civilians from their homes using threats, unlawful killings, sexual violence, mass arbitrary detention, pillage, forcible transfer, and the denial of humanitarian assistance. These widespread and systematic attacks against the Tigrayan civilian population amount to crimes against humanity along with war crimes. Ethiopian authorities have severely restricted access and independent scrutiny of the region. 

Peace Talks 

A five-month truce in March 2022 raised hopes for a peaceful resolution of the war, but those were dashed when the battle resumed in August. Before the war continued, the international community stepped up its mediation efforts with the United States providing a prominent diplomatic role behind the scenes. During the truce, the federal government demanded talks without preconditions. At the same time, Tigray authorities made negotiations contingent on unfettered humanitarian operations and a full restoration of services, including the return of Western Tigray. This area is now forcefully controlled by Amhara regional forces who claimed that the area was taken from them and annexed to Tigray region in the early 1990s. Talks brokered by the U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Mike Hammer, took place in Djibouti in early September 2022 but did not produce a peace agreement. As Hammer highlighted, the major obstacle to getting a cessation of hostilities in place was a lack of confidence and trust. He further stated," But rest assured we as the United States and others will continue our efforts to try to help the parties build some confidence…" Under the auspice of the African Union (AU), the first formal peace talks aimed at ending two years of war between the two sides started in South Africa from late October to early November 2022. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo leads the AU mediation team with support by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Deputy President of South Africa Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Representatives from the UN and the United States also participated as observers. The peace talk is a promising start for sustainable peace and stability as the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan forces formally agreed to permanently cease hostilities on October 2, 2022. The United States and other international partners welcomed the agreement. Regardless of the start of peace talks, the international community should not turn a blind eye. Instead, they should consider increasing efforts to secure a cessation of hostilities and ensure full, unfettered humanitarian access and an immediate restoration of basic services to Tigray. To stabilize the country, international partners should also continue efforts to press on Ethiopian authorities to allow independent scrutiny of the region and address the case of the Western Tigray Zone using the working constitution of the country. Further condemnation and strong sanctions from international partners and the AU against Eritrean authorities to withdraw from Tigray territory would advance efforts to secure peace. While the economic sanctions by the United States in September 2021 area good indication; however, failing to uphold and implement sanctions could be catastrophic for the Tigray people with wider implications for peace and stability in the country, even for the Horn of Africa.

Dr. Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan is an Assistant Professor in Peace and Security Studies at the Africa Institute of Governance and Development of Ethiopian Civil Service University (ECSU). He was also a Southern Voices Network Scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program in Washington, D.C. in 2015. He holds Ph.D. in Peace and Security Studies, M.A. in International Relations and B.A. in Political Science and International Relations. 

Photo Credit: Aftermath of Mekelle airstrike by Voice of America

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan

Former Southern Voices Network Scholar;
Lecturer, Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University
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