With accusations of committing atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray, the Ethiopian government is in an increasingly indefensible position. It could have justified its military campaign against the region by the need to quell a rebellion by the Tigray Liberation Front that would compromise the country’s territorial integrity. The ten regions of Ethiopia are governed by a federal system that the Liberation Front had threatened to break away from, and so the government had contained local and international anger with the death and injury of civilians and the destruction of facilities in the course of bombing rebel strongholds by claiming that this is a necessary war.
But the Abiy Ahmed government cannot justify deliberate killings, torture and flagrant violations of human rights against civilian supporters of the Liberation Front – the majority of the region’s six million inhabitants – such as the mass rape of women whose husbands and fathers were killed before their eyes.
Even worse is the fact that reports have emerged that soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea have been hunting down opponents of the Asmara regime among the 100 thousand Eritrean refugees who fled its oppression into Tigray. Eritrean soldiers identified by their language, uniforms or names have reportedly committed killings and rapes not only against Eritreans but even Ethiopians accused of harbouring them, without the Ethiopian forces interfering or the authorities making a statement.
Only recently has the government declared it would investigate accusations made by international humanitarian organisations, though it continues to deny the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray. In fact the Eritrean forces have been supporting the federal army in its campaign against the Tigray Liberation Front, with which the Eritreans have a score to settle since, by rejecting Ethiopian Prime Minister’s initiative to return the border town of Badme to Eritrea, thereby implementing of the ruling of international arbitration body in the framework of a peace agreement, the Liberation Front pushed Ethiopia to enter in on Eritrea in 1998-2000.
Russia and China may go on protecting Addis Ababa and Asmara from UN Security Council sanctions, but Western countries as well as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Paris Club are likely to deprive the two countries of loans and aid, refusing to reschedule debts.
This would exacerbate economic problems in much the same way as it did in Sudan before the sanctions were lifted.
Indeed imposing sanctions for humanitarian reasons is more common than ever, and the most recent example of measures taken in this regard was the US decision to suspend more funds that were to reach Ethiopia, raising the figure from $100 million (for refusing to sign a GERD agreement with US mediation) to $270 million solely because of what is happening in Tigray.
If there was any US aid, it was likely to stop reaching Eritrea for the same reason. Indeed both countries are suffering from a shortage of hard currency and foreign investment, and sanctions would negatively impact development projects aimed at providing job opportunities for the unemployed, raising living standards, providing medicine, food, education and potable water for millions of underprivileged citizens.
Last week, the UN Security Council failed to agree on a joint statement on the crisis, which would have called for immediate humanitarian assistance and a halt to hostilities while asserting Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Diplomats quoted by the AFP news agency said Russia, China and India concluded it was a domestic matter while three African nations on the council - Kenya, Niger and Tunisia - had supported the motion.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had earlier said there were distressing reports of continued violations that may amount to war crimes in Tigray. Bachelet highlighted incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, extra-judicial killings and widespread destruction. The UN rights office asked to be granted access to investigate reports of atrocities carried out by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Amhara Regional Forces.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Eritrean forces shot dead hundreds of children and civilians in a November massacre in Tigray. It was the second major report on Eritrean abuses in the town of Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, within a week. An Amnesty International investigation into the same events detailed how Eritrean troops “went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood”. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces entered Axum on November 20 after “indiscriminate” shelling that killed civilians, said a HRW report. The Eritreans then engaged in “widespread pillaging” as Ethiopian troops mostly looked on, it added.
“I asked one soldier, why are you not doing anything? You are Ethiopian, and we are in Ethiopia; you are allowing the Eritreans to do this,” it quoted one resident, who said that he was told, “we need an order from above.” The massacre began on November 28 after Tigrayan militia members, joined by some residents, attacked Eritrean soldiers, HRW said. After calling in reinforcements, the Eritreans began “moving through the town, going house to house, searching for young men and boys, and executing them.” Like Amnesty, HRW said it was impossible to provide an exact death toll but estimated that “over 200 civilians were most likely killed on November 28-29 alone.”
Last week, AFP travelled to the village of Dengolat to document a separate massacre by Eritrean troops at around the same time that church officials said it left 164 civilians dead. Since the publication of Amnesty’s report, the Abiy government has said federal investigators are probing “credible allegations” of atrocities and abuses including those supposed to have taken place in Axum.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission says they should be taken seriously in what was a rare official acknowledgement from Ethiopia that Eritrean troops participated in the conflict. Echoing a report last week by Amnesty International, HRW says the Eritreans massacred an estimated 200 civilians. Amnesty said the Axum killings were in retaliation for an attack by local militia, and that Eritrean soldiers executed men and boys in the streets and engaged in extensive looting.
On 18 February AP reported that bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the streets for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city. At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew. But they were forbidden from burying their dead by the invading Eritrean soldiers.
A deacon who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Axum, said he believed some 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city, and that thousands in Axum have died in all. “If we go to the rural areas, the situation is much worse,” he said. The US has condemned the reported atrocities, urging the African Union to help resolve the “deteriorating situation”. “We are deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said.
A confidential US government report says Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, according to the New York Times. Earlier, the United States asked all soldiers from Eritrea to leave Tigray “immediately.”
A State Department spokesperson told the AP that “credible reports of looting, sexual violence, assaults” were committed in refugee camps and other human rights abuses. The European Union has joined the US in calling for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, saying their presence was fuelling the conflict in the region. In its statement, the EU said it remained “very concerned by the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding” in Tigray and urged Ethiopia to ensure unrestricted humanitarian access as well as the protection of civilians and refugees.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said that buildings and facilities it had set up to provide services within the Hitsaats camp have been burned down. The AP cited witnesses who fled the Tigray region as saying Eritrean soldiers were looting, going house-to-house killing young men and even acting as local authorities.
There was also evidence of Eritrean soldiers forcibly returning Eritrean refugees from Tigray to Eritrea. Late in January, Reuters reported that Ethiopians in the war-scarred north are dying of lack of healthcare services, suffering food and water shortages and remain “terrified”, according to aid agencies finally accessing remote parts of Tigray. Thousands died and more than 300,000 fled their homes during battles and air strikes, creating a humanitarian crisis in the already poor region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly