Nearly five months ago, conflict erupted in northern Ethiopia. A media blackout had all but smothered any information coming out of the country, with calls for a ceasefire falling on deaf years in late November of last year. While the U.S. calls for a ceasefire were once again ignored last week, the conflict seems to be winding down. But with greater access to the region, reports of gross humanitarian violations are on the rise, potentially bordering on crimes against humanity.
In September of last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy pushed back elections under the pretense that they would exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis. This was met with derision, and the Northern Tigray region decided to hold its own elections under the guidance of the once-dominant ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray region elected its own government, with neither the TPLF nor Abiy’s government recognizing one another. After attacks on state military camps in November, Abiy declared war. Little was heard in the subsequent months, until March, when an Ethiopian general spoke of atrocities committed by both sides and the U.S. accused Abiy’s government of ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region.
Last week, Abiy refused to accept a ceasefire proposed by the U.S., declaring that the fighting was all but over and that operation now consisted of finding TPLF leadership. However, the Prime Minister did admit that that human rights violation had occurred on the individual level and that perpetrators would be criminally punished. This assertion is problematic due to the extent of violations.
The UN human rights office (OHCR) reports that before the conflict, there were 950,000 people in need. There is now a projected 1.3 million additional people in need.
Social services have collapsed in the Tigray region, with less than 20 health centers functioning out of a total of 226 before the conflict. Universities have been looted, with two destroyed due to shelling. Altogether, there are an estimated 4.5 million people who have had no power or communications for nearly 5 months. This has put pregnant women and those suffering from chronic diseases, particularly at risk. The human cost has been extreme.
With recent approval for humanitarian agencies to begin operating out of Shire, there have been staggering reports of violence and displacement. The Shire, with a population of about 170,000, has experienced an influx of 52,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). There have been an estimated 61,000 refugees who have left for Sudan. While fighting has died down enough for more humanitarian access, nearly 1 million people are requiring urgent assistance that is still located in difficult to access areas. In these areas, nearly 500,000 require critical humanitarian assistance.
Reports of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and rape have been common. Over 500 cases of rape have been reported in the region, with men being forced to rape their family members under the threat of violence. These are only the reported cases, as the actual case count is likely much higher.
This has resulted in the announcement of a probe into the situation, based on an agreement between the OHCR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The OHCR has managed to corroborate information about mass killings and indiscriminate shelling in certain areas. Preliminary inquiries point to violations of international law by all parties involved, potentially including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The full extent of humanitarian violations will only begin to be uncovered. But for now, aid continues to be delivered as the conflict trickles to a grisly end.