By Janet Sankale
Several experts have joined the growing number of groups urging the United Nations Human Rights Council to act on the atrocities and human rights violations that have been reported in the war raging in Tigray, Ethiopia.
A panel discussion organised by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect brought together the experts to suggest ways for the Human Rights Council (HRC) to address the emergency unfolding in Tigray during the council’s ongoing 47th session.
Savita Pawnday, Deputy Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and also the moderator of the webinar, expressed concern that the international community had failed to take robust action to address the situation despite reports of worsening abuses during the eight months of the conflict.
Lucy McKernan, Deputy Director, UN Geneva Human Rights Watch, said attacks on civilians had affected access to humanitarian systems and that bureaucratic restrictions, and roadblocks, and checkpoints had constrained the humanitarian community’s access to populations in need of assistance. She urged the international community to intervene and help to monitor what was happening on the ground in order to assess accessibility and need for humanitarian assistance.
Fisseha Tekle, Horn of Africa Researcher, Amnesty International, said his organisation had documented several attacks on civilians, the most famous being the Axum violence of November 28 and 29, 2020. Eritrean forces were reported to have gone house to house, executing men and boys. Amnesty has also documented widespread gender-based violence (GBV), even in camps of internally displaced persons, and perpetrated by all the forces involved in the conflict.
In its report, The Massacre in Axum, Amnesty International calls for an international investigation into the events in Axum, and asks the Ethiopian government to grant full and unimpeded access to humanitarian, human rights, and media organisations.
Preliminary analysis by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicates that all the parties involved in the conflict – the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean armed forces, Amhara regional forces, and affiliated militias – have committed serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been at the forefront in providing legal analyses of the violations of international law.
Tsedale Lemma, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Addis Standard newspaper, was of the opinion that the conflict was a result of a highly polarised and toxic political environment and should be addressed through political dialogue and negotiation.
“The international community has now dropped the term ‘political negotiation’ and is now calling for a ceasefire,” she lamented.
The conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region erupted in early November 2020 and there have been reports of massacres; shelling; targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure and refugee camps; attacks on schools, healthcare facilities, cultural, and religious heritage sites; unlawful restrictions on humanitarian aid; forced displacement; arbitrary detention; and rape and sexual violence.
McKernan complained that restrictions on communication by the warring parties have led to difficulties in documenting the impact of the conflict on civilians. However, Human Rights Watch had documented evidence of atrocities committed since the beginning of the conflict before the communication shutdown.
She explained that all the parties involved in the conflicts had attacked, destroyed, and pillaged key civilian infrastructure. The organisation documented attacks on and occupation of schools by Tigrayan forces. Destruction and pillaging of schools and learning equipment are considered war crimes.
Lemma, whose reporting has for many years focused on Ethiopian affairs, expounded on the statement, “The war is not ending. There is no end in sight,” that has been attributed to her. She explained that before the conflict, there were multiple calls for peace from the international community, particularly when Tigray defied the central government and held its regional elections. The international community continued to ask the two sides to settle their differences as the relationship between the federal and the Tigray governments was deteriorating. Both sides ignored calls for de-escalation and dialogue, leading to the eruption of military conflict on November 4, 2020. Eight months down the line, the international community has continued calling for dialogue and consensus, but the Ethiopian government has declared that the conflict involves internal affairs and law enforcement.
The journalist, whose opinion piece, “He promised peace. Then he tore his country apart”, was published in the New York Times on June 21, 2021, observed that the federal government had failed to realise that the war had evolved and its dynamics had changed, and was still bent on fighting TPLF. According to her, this was no longer the case because the opposition had come together with TPLF to form the Tigray Defence Forces, a more powerful and amalgamated entity. Instead of acknowledging the reality and heeding calls for negotiations, the federal government had labelled the TPLF a terrorist organisation.
The experts called for a UN-mandated independent investigation, arguing that the function of the UN mechanism was not only for individual accountability but also to establish the truth of what had happened, which was important for both the survivors and the victims.
“Even if the government can hold the perpetrators accountable, its credibility will not be recognised by the victims because it is a party to the conflict and, therefore, not neutral,” said Lemma.
McKernan stressed that due to the culture of impunity and lack of credibility, an international regional mechanism was required. She emphasised the urgency of stopping human rights abuses and urged the HRC to play its role to prevent further suffering. She stated that it was important that members of the Human Rights Council were made aware of the gravity of the situation on the ground and that it was time for the international community to step in to increase scrutiny.
Tekle suggested that HRC coordinate with and invite the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which has created a commission of inquiry on Tigray.
The experts urged the HRC to start working with advocacy groups to help them reach and help the affected communities.
Lemma was of the opinion that the international community should prioritise ending the war in Tigray by applying pressure on the Ethiopian government through economic sanctions that do not affect the most vulnerable. She welcomed the recent US visa sanctions and the EU’s suspension of its budget support to Ethiopia because of reports of atrocities in the Tigray region, but cautioned that such measures should consider the impact on civilians.
Tekle concurred, and added that the international community should also consider an arms embargo.
McKernan acknowledged that although HRC had scheduled a discussion on Tigray in September, there was an urgent need for action before the situation worsened. She asked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to take a bold stand on the situation in Tigray.
She praised the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for continuing to underline human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. She urged the office to keep both the council and the broader international community informed about the conflicts.
On June 11, several rights organisations, among them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to the Human Rights Council, urging it to pass a resolution on Tigray during its current session.
The experts said the role of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which is working with OHCHR to investigate reports of abuses, should be seen in light of the highly polarised situation in Ethiopia. They urged the commission to maintain autonomy and independence.
Pawnday reminded the international community that the people of Tigray were relying on it to uphold its responsibility to protect them, and that it should not allow Ethiopia, one of its members, to disintegrate.
Tigray is situated in northern Ethiopia and is one of the 10 semi-autonomous regions of the country. It constitutes 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and for decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was the dominant party in the ruling coalition, until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. He promised to unify the country and won praise for securing peace with Eritrea in 2019. He dissolved the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition that comprised four political parties divided along ethnic lines.
The TPLF declined to join the new coalition and defied an order to postpone elections due to the Covid-19 crisis and held regional polls in September 2020. The federal government sent troops to the region when its military camps in the area were attacked.