by Jade Wong
The ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, which started on November 4, 2020 as a result of a Covid electoral dispute, has gradually escalated into a major humanitarian crisis. According to a global conflict tracker made by the Council of Foreign Relations, there are over two million people displaced across Northern Ethiopia. This has generated significant international concern, both over its strategic implications on the African continent, and, more importantly, over the allegations of massive human rights abuses committed by both sides during the prolonged conflict.
The immediate cause of this civil war can be attributed to an election delay in Ethiopia, according to the BBC. Citing pandemic concerns, the Ethiopian government called for a postponement of general elections. However, the Tigray region proceeded with regional elections, an act which was deemed unconstitutional. On November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for an armed offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and other separatist groups in the Northern Tigray region, which led to the start of this year-long conflict. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims that the civil war will wrap up soon, the Financial Times reported that the Tigrayan forces have recaptured the Tigrayan capital and are advancing towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
However, disagreements between the Ethiopian central government and the ‘Tigray People’s Liberation Front’ party (TPLF) trace further back. The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics and helped set up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that ruled Ethiopia from 1988 to 2019. The influence of the TPLF was weakened after Ahmed was appointed prime minister and replaced the coalition with the Prosperity Party, which caused discontent and a sense of alienation among the Tigrayans, eventually escalating into violent clashes.
The Ethiopian conflict has been strongly condemned by the international community for the human rights abuses, on both sides of the civil war. A joint declaration by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Human Rights office stated that “There are reasonable grounds to believe all parties in the conflict in Tigray, have, to varying degrees, committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law, some of it may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.” This statement then emphasizes the severity of the abuses conducted, specifically, the atrocities including but not limited to torture, indiscriminate killing, and sexual or gender-based violence.
Prior to the UN report, the Ethiopian government and her Eritrean allies were already objects of immense and persistent international scrutiny concerning alleged war crimes. Their party was accused of forming a blockade against Tigray and stopping the delivery of food and essential supplies; according to the UN, up to five million people in the country need food relief urgently and 400,000 people are in famine-like conditions. Sexual abuse is also rampant: Health facilities in Tigray documented 1288 cases of gender-based violence from February to April 2021. When Amnesty International interviewed sixty-three survivers of sexual violence in Ethiopia, twenty-eight identify Ethiopian military personnel as the sole perpetuator(s). Some were raped in front of family, while others were humiliated or had large nails inserted into their vaginas, creating lasting damage. Verbal assaults including ethnic slurs and threats were also utilized by the Ethiopian forces.
Despite having ‘serious reservations’ regarding certain aspects of the UN report, Prime Minister Ahmed recognised that human rights abuses had been committed by some of his troops. He also admitted that current efforts taken by military tribunals and law enforcement agencies needed to be strengthened to deter such wrongs from occurring. Citing these challenges, the prime minister proposed to form a higher inter-ministerial task force including the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Peace and other high-ranking government officials “to oversee the implementation of a comprehensive strategy that would enable us to investigate the allegations included in the report, bring all perpetrators of serious crimes to justice, and provide the redress and psycho-social support needed for victims of these violations.” However, he has yet to reveal what he means by “a comprehensive strategy.”
Although a majority of known human rights abuses are being committed by the Ethiopian government and their Eritrean allies, the Tigray rebels are accused of human rights abuses. The Ethiopian House of People’s Representatives has approved a resolution to label the TPLF as a terrorist organisation, but this designation has not been applied either by any international agency, nor the American government, whose designations of terrorism are generally followed by much of the Western world. Nevertheless, regardless of whether the TPLF is considered a terrorist group, there is increasingly apparent evidence of its members engaging in war crimes. In the above cited UN report, youth rebel group ‘Samri’ is described as responsible for more than two hundred ethnic Amhara civilian deaths in the Mai Kadra region, and in an interview with the Guardian, a Tigrayan woman claimed that members of Samri swung machetes at her husband, before he was shot in the back by a town militiaman while attempting to defend himself.
International pressure to stop the Ethiopian civil war has also been growing. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called for the halting of military operations and the initiation of ceasefire negotiations. This pressure is not only based on the widespread human rights violations occurring during the conflict, but also hinges on concerns over the destabilization of the African continent as a whole. These concerns stem from the possibility other regions may be drawn into the war, with huge numbers of refugees flowing into neighboring countries, such as Sudan creating a local crisis other states will have a vested interest in resolving. With the Ethiopian government resisting international pressure, even shutting down thirty of their diplomatic missions globally, it remains rather uncertain whether peace can be achieved in the near future.