International efforts to halt the fighting in Ethiopia and stop the country’s slide into a humanitarian disaster have intensified as fears escalated that rebel pressure on Addis Ababa would lead to its fall.
The crisis in Ethiopia is high on the agenda of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled visit to Africa from November 15-20, 2021.
His scheduled arrival in Nairobi on Tuesday, November 16, was preceded by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit to Addis to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopian President Sehle-Work to discuss the escalating tensions.
The US and other international entities have long expressed concern about the Ethiopia situation and tried to get the warring parties around a negotiating table.
A State Department statement said Blinken, Kenyatta, and other officials “will discuss our shared interests as members of the UN Security Council, including addressing regional security issues, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan”.
Blinken has in the past expressed concern about the situation in Ethiopia, especially after last week’s declaration of a state of emergency, which was followed by reports of mass arrests of Tigrayans, including some staff members of the United Nations, as well as the African Union, which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa.
“I am very concerned about the potential for Ethiopia to implode,” Blinken was quoted as saying.
Last week, the US government expanded its efforts to halt the fighting by imposing sanctions on the Eritrean military, officials, and businesses. Eritrean troops have been fighting alongside Ethiopian troops in the north of the country.
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the representative of the chairperson of the African Union Commission for the Horn of Africa, visited Ethiopia and urged the combatants to declare a ceasefire.
“I appeal to the leadership of all sides to halt their military offensives. This will allow an opportunity for dialogue to continue to progress. Such talks cannot deliver in an environment of escalated military hostilities,” he said in a statement.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front and other armed groups have threatened to march to Addis Ababa to overthrow Abiy’s government.
The conflict has killed hundreds of civilians and caused a crisis as a blockade on humanitarian assistance has starved the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara.
And the conflict has shown no signs of abating even after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report at the beginning of November outlining the devastating impact of the violence on civilians.
The report, a joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Office in Ethiopia, found that all parties to the conflict in Tigray have, to varying degrees, committed violations of international human rights, and humanitarian and refugee law, some of which it said, could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It is the only human rights probe team to have been allowed into the blockaded Tigray region after groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, alongside foreign media, were barred.
The report said the objectives of the joint investigation were to provide a faithful account of the human rights situation in Tigray, including its gender dimension; further the accountability process and advocate for effective remedies; provide clear and actionable recommendations, and identify serious violations to ensure redress for victims and prevent a recurrence.
It covers the period from November 3, 2020, when the armed conflict began between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), and the Tigrayan Special Forces (TSF), until June 28, 2021, when the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
The report draws on 269 confidential interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged violations and abuses, and held 64 meetings with federal and regional authorities, representatives of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations, community groups, medical personnel, and other sources.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said that although it conducted field studies in different locations in Tigray; visited internally displaced persons camps; interviewed displaced persons; and carried out investigations in Addis Ababa and other affected locations, the report was not complete because it was unable to visit some places, most of which were controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The findings stated that all parties to the conflict – including the ENDF, EDF, and Tigrayan forces – either directly attacked civilians and civilian objects, such as houses, schools, hospitals, and places of worship, or carried out indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties and destruction or damage to civilian objects.
It also found evidence of unlawful or extrajudicial killings and executions perpetrated by the ENDF, EDF, and Amhara militia, as well as the TSF and militias affiliated to the TPLF. This led it to conclude that war crimes had been committed. In addition, killings in some instances appeared to have been part of a widespread and systematic attack against a selected civilian population and, therefore, may amount to crimes against humanity.
“The torture and ill-treatment of civilians and captured combatants have been an expression of the brutality exhibited by all sides during the conflict,” the report said.
Other forms of violations include widespread arbitrary detentions, abductions, and enforced disappearances.
The conflict has caused large-scale destruction and appropriation of property by all parties to the conflict. Crops and food were taken away and families had to rely on community members and humanitarian assistance to survive. Health centres were looted and schools across Tigray were used for military purposes, hence disrupting education.
The report said rape and other forms of sexual violence were used “to degrade and dehumanise the victims”.
The report said there were forced displacements, in violation of conventional and customary international humanitarian law, as thousands of civilians fled the killings, rapes, destruction, and looting of properties; fear of reprisal attacks; and as a result of ethnic and identity-based attacks, especially in western Tigray.
TSF and EDF were accused of violating the civilian character of refugee camps in Tigray by their presence in Shimelba refugee camp, which shelters Eritrean refugees. They put the security and lives of thousands of refugees at risk by fighting around the camp, resulting in the displacement of thousands of refugees, the disappearance of hundreds of others, and the destruction of the camp.
“The EDF violated the fundamental principle of non-refoulement by forcefully returning at-risk Eritrean refugees to Eritrea. Tigrayan forces looted private properties of refugees and of humanitarian organisations,” the report said.
Other impacts of the conflict included violation of human rights, including children’s rights, the rights of the elderly and people with disabilities, denial of access to humanitarian relief, restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as constraints on freedom of expression and access to information, with the internet and other means of communication largely cut off.
The arrest and intimidation of journalists have threatened independent voices and effected the work of journalists, it said.
Prime Minister Abiy said he accepted the report, but with “serious reservations” concerning some of its aspects.
“We recognise and accept the report as an important document that complements our ongoing effort to provide redress to victims, ensure accountability, and take preventive measures.
“The JIT findings have clearly established the claim of genocide as false and utterly lacking any factual basis. The report also concluded the often-repeated allegations that the government used hunger as a ‘weapon of war’ is without merit. Specifically, the report stated it did not find evidence to support the claim of ‘deliberate or willful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war’.”
Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Chief Daniel Bekele said the investigation didn’t identify violations amounting to genocide, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, acknowledged that the investigators did not turn up enough evidence to characterise “disturbing suggestions of ethnically motivated violence” as signs of possible genocide. However, she said such allegations needed further investigation.
Critics have accused the investigators of failing to visit key locations, such as Axum in Tigray, where an Amnesty International report claimed hundreds of unarmed civilians were massacred.
Several human rights groups and other observers, as well as the Tigrayan people have expressed concern about the independence of the report, but Bachelet insisted that it was impartial and “stands for itself”.
“The Tigray conflict has been marked by extreme brutality. The gravity and seriousness of the violations and abuses we have documented underscore the need to hold perpetrators accountable,” she said, adding that big numbers of violations are linked to Ethiopian and Eritrean defence forces.
Getachew Reda, spokesperson of the TPLF, said the report did not cover all the serious crime spots and accused the investigators of bias.
Eritrea’s information minister tweeted that Eritrea rejects the report’s credibility.
The JIT called for thorough and effective investigations by independent and impartial bodies into allegations of violations with the aim of holding those responsible accountable