Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in the war-torn Ethiopian region of Tigray, reports of massacres and rapes committed by soldiers have prompted an international outcry. Many of these atrocities have been blamed on Eritrean troops, who aided Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s national forces in the assault on Tigray, and remain in the region despite promises that they would withdraw weeks ago.
Last November, Prime Minister Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray after members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a federal army base. The TPLF runs Tigray’s regional government and the central Ethiopian government considers them a terrorist organization. They led a rebel alliance that overthrew military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Then, they formed a federal coalition that governed Ethiopia until 2018, when Mr. Abiy took power following widespread anti-government protests. Mr. Abiy replaced the coalition with a single-party government, beginning a push to centralize power to mitigate ethnic and regional tensions. This shift sapped power from Tigrayan leaders, and the TPLF has been the bitter rival of Mr. Abiy’s government ever since.
In over half a year of fighting in Tigray, which the United States and many international observers have said amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign, thousands of civilians have been killed. 63,000 Tigrayans have fled to neighbouring Sudan, and hundreds of thousands more are internally displaced. Several aid agencies reported shocking human rights violations, extrajudicial executions, and widespread sexual violence. “Rape is rampant,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray himself. Sexual violence is thought to have been involved in nearly one-third of all attacks on civilians in Tigray, and it is reported that girls as young as eight have been victims.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are also cutting off critical aid routes, preventing desperately needed humanitarian assistance from reaching Tigray. The threat of food insecurity already loomed large in the region, when the conflict began in November. Obstruction of food aid by troops, along with looting of farms and grain stores, and the deliberate destruction of crops, puts many at risk of starvation. According to the U.N., around 5.2 million people currently need food aid in Tigray. Some observers have even warned of imminent famine if the situation continues. Ongoing fighting has also created a healthcare crisis; according to a March report from Medecins Sans Frontieres, most health facilities in Tigray were nonfunctional due to looting and deliberate damage, and soldiers occupied many hospitals. “This health system has now almost completely collapsed,” the report said.
A CNN investigation confirmed that soldiers—including many Eritrean troops, some of whom were disguised in old Ethiopian uniforms—were preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Tigray. Eritrea’s autocratic leader, Isaias Afwerki, allied with Ethiopia in the assault on Tigray, invading the region from the north. Prime Minister Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 in large part because of the peace deal he negotiated with Eritrea the year before, denied the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray for months. He finally admitted to their presence in March and promised their withdrawal. Mr. Abiy also met with his Eritrean counterpart in March, and he also agreed to a withdrawal. Months later and despite increasing international pressure, the Eritrean troops show no signs of leaving. “The continued presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray further undermines Ethiopia’s stability and national unity,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on 15 May. In addition to discussing the conflict with Mr. Abiy on the phone several times in recent months, Blinken has also decried the ongoing atrocities committed against Tigrayan civilians and the obstruction of humanitarian aid. On Thursday, 20 May, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.
On Friday, 21 May, the Ethiopian attorney general’s office announced that the country’s military prosecutors have convicted three Ethiopian soldiers of raping civilians. 25 more were charged with rape and sexual assault, and another 28 with unlawful killings. The Ethiopian government also accused Eritrean troops of massacring 110 civilians in the Tigrayan city of Axum in late November of last year, contradicting previous statements from law enforcement officials claiming that most of those killed were militants rather than civilians. This is the first time that Mr. Abiy’s government has accused Eritrean soldiers of killing civilians, and it may be a sign that Ethiopia is beginning to give in to international pressure to address the human rights abuses happening in Tigray.
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