Ethiopia: Tepid international response to Tigray conflict fuels horrific violations over past six months

African and other world leaders must urgently speak out and do more to stem the ferocious tide of human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the armed conflict that has now raged for six months in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Amnesty International said today.

Since the fighting broke out on 4 November 2020, thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced within Tigray, and 63,000 refugees have fled to Sudan. Amnesty International and other organizations have documented a string of serious human rights violations that include war crimes and likely crimes against humanity. There are also numerous credible reports of women and girls being subjected to sexual violence, including gang rape by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers.

“Six months on from the start of the conflict in Tigray, there is no lack of credible evidence of human rights and international humanitarian law violations, but the response from the African Union and United Nations has been woefully insufficient,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

“The UN Security Council stalled for months before finally expressing concern about the increasingly dire situation in Tigray. The African Union and governments in the region, meanwhile, have done very little to speak out against the raft of likely war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Violations on all sides

The Ethiopian government has ignored Amnesty International’s requests to access Tigray, making it challenging to verify allegations of human rights violations amid severe, ongoing communications restrictions.

However, Amnesty International has been able to document numerous atrocities in detail using open source investigative methods – including satellite imagery analysis and verification of video evidence – as well as by interviewing dozens of survivors, either via telephone with people in Tigray or in person with refugees in eastern Sudan.

Among the atrocities the organization documented was the mass killing of hundreds of civilians in Mai-Kadra in western Tigray on 9-10 November 2020, allegedly by forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Subsequently, Amnesty has received reports of reprisal attacks targeting ethnic Tigrayan residents of Mai-Kadra, including extrajudicial executions, looting of property, and mass detention.

Amnesty International found that Eritrean troops killed hundreds of civilians in Axum – in what likely amounted to a crime against humanity – on 28-29 November, and indiscriminately shot at civilians in Adwa, killing three of them and wounding 19 others, on 12 April 2021. Working in collaboration with CNN, Amnesty International also confirmed that Ethiopian National Defence Force troops carried out extrajudicial executions in Mahibere Dego, near Axum, on 15 January 2021.

Since being granted access to Tigray in late February, international media outlets have published a string of reports confirming earlier accounts, by Amnesty International and others, of atrocities, as well as revealing harrowing new reports of violations.

These have included allegations of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray –  an area under the control of pro-government Amhara Special Police and Fano, an Amhara militia – forcibly displacing tens of thousands of people. Amnesty International has not yet independently verified these allegations but continues to research the situation.

In addition, there have been appalling reports of widespread rape and other gender-based violence targeting women and girls across Tigray. A recent statement by UN agencies and NGOs working in the region said they were “alarmed by reports of increasing violence against women and girls – including harrowing accounts of sexual violence” and that “the response remains wholly inadequate to the scale of need.” Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies have reported attacks on and looting of hospitals and other medical facilities across Tigray.

“It is unconscionable that women and girls in Tigray are facing sexual violence while the world looks on. Meanwhile hospitals and humanitarian providers have had supplies decimated in the conflict and are ill-equipped to assist,” said Deprose Muchena.

Humanitarian aid hampered and fears of famine

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on all parties to the conflict in Tigray to allow unfettered humanitarian access. As of 27 April, the UN cited improvements, but said that “the situation in Tigray remains volatile and is hampering partners’ efforts to deliver timely humanitarian assistance.”

In late March, workers for the humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had one of their missions to the regional capital Mekelle brutally interrupted twice. At the first stop, they witnessed soldiers carrying out extrajudicial executions along the roadside; a short distance away, soldiers again stopped the MSF vehicle, pulling out the Ethiopian driver and beating him with the back of a gun before threatening to kill him.

The mass displacement of people from agrarian areas of Tigray, as well as allegations that crops have been deliberately destroyed and grain stores looted, have prompted the UN and other commentators to warn of “catastrophic” food insecurity and even the risk of impending famine

Meanwhile, there has also been a worrying increase in recent violence and violations against civilians in other parts of Ethiopia, most notably in Amhara, Benishangul, and Oromia regional states. There have been reports of attacks on civilians in Chilga District, North Shewa Zone, and Oromo Special Zone of Amhara region, and armed violence in Metekel Zone of Benishangul-Gumuz Region. In western Oromia Zones, armed people killed and displaced Amhara residents since November 2020.

“It is imperative that international, independent investigations are carried out into the allegations of serious violations by all sides, with those responsible held to account, to send a clear message that there will be zero impunity,” said Deprose Muchena.

“If the international community’s tepid response to the conflict in Tigray continues, there is a real threat that the already dire situation could spiral completely out of control.”