Tigray: FIDH Denounces Armed Violence and Calls for Respect of Human Rights

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Ashraf Shazly / AFP

The fighting raging in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia since the beginning of November 2020 increasingly resembles a civil war and an ethnic conflict. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) condemns violence against civilians, including ethnically motivated violence, hate speech and the involvement of ethnic militias in the conflict. It calls on the international community to not support either party, to put pressure on both sides to reach a negotiated and peaceful solution to their dispute, and to ensure that possible war crimes are investigated and prosecuted immediately.

Since 4 November 2020, there have been violent clashes between the forces of the Ethiopian federal government, including the army and ethnic paramilitary forces (see background section below), and those loyal to the regional government of Tigray, including paramilitary forces. Reports, including from international human rights organisations, some of which remain to be confirmed, mention massacres of civilians by both sides; indiscriminate aerial bombardments by federal government aircraft that hit civilian targets; arbitrary arrests of ethnic Tigrayan civilians; looting and destruction of homes and food resources; and hate speech against the Tigrayan community. More than 30,000 Tigrayans have fled to Sudan and hundreds of thousands are reportedly internally displaced. The war also threatens many Eritreans who have been refugees in Tigray since the war between the two countries between 1998 and 2000, of whom 90,000 live in four refugee camps.

FIDH calls on the belligerents to refrain from any violence against civilian populations and calls on them to respect their obligations in terms of human rights and international humanitarian law, including granting humanitarian organizations access to the victims. FIDH calls on the parties to refrain from ethnic hate speech, and in particular on the federal government to disengage ethnic paramilitary forces from this conflict. FIDH furthermore calls for the release of political prisoners.

The international community, particularly the United States and the European Union, have often shown blind support for successive Ethiopian regimes, by virtue of Ethiopia’s regional and continental importance and the commitment of its leaders to the war on terror, despite multiple reports of human rights abuses. FIDH calls on the international community, including the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States to put pressure on the belligerents in a neutral manner to agree to settle their dispute through negotiations. More specifically, FIDH asks the United Nations Security Council to vote a resolution establishing a sanctions regime on Ethiopia, including an arms embargo, an overflight ban on Tigray, individual sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations, and regular reports concerning these violations. Finally, FIDH recalls that perpetrators of human rights violations, including possible war crimes, must be brought to justice, and calls for the creation of an international commission of inquiry on the crimes committed.

The outbreak of this armed conflict is linked to a context common to many African states: the combination of the covid-19 pandemic and a precarious transitional and electoral process. In June, in the name of the pandemic, the Federal Parliament postponed until further notice the August elections, and extended government institutions beyond the terms of the Constitution. Tigray’s regional government, however, held its own regional elections on 9 September 2020, posing the threat of exercising a right to self-determination provided for in the federal constitution.

The roots of the conflict and Ethiopia’s slide into ethnic warfare are older and have been feared for many years. In 1991, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a regional, ethnically-based armed opposition movement, was one of the main actors in the overthrow of the Derg, the pro-Soviet junta led by Mengistu Haile-Mariam. By virtue of this crucial role, the TPLF then became the ruling party in Ethiopia, dominating the political scene and the army unchallenged until the unexpected death of its leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in 2012.

Knowing itself to be a minority (Tigrayans make up no more than 6% of Ethiopia’s 110 million people), the TPLF had promulgated a new “ethno-federal” Ethiopian constitution, dividing the country into regions whose boundaries are based on ethnic territories, with strong autonomy and a right to self-determination. This system is being challenged, particularly by the current federal government, which accuses it of having considerably aggravated ethnic divisions.

In 2012, while Zenawi’s designated successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, from southern Ethiopia proved to be a cautious reformer, the TPLF continued to wield considerable power in Addis Ababa. From 2018, however, the arrival in power of the more audaciously reformist Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly forced the TPLF to withdraw to its home region. The new Prime Minister’s belonging to the Oromo ethnic group – the majority in the country – also indirectly led to a rise in Oromo nationalism.

The ethnic violence is also aggravated by the fact that since the 1990s the federal government has authorised the formation of regional ethnic militias whose numbers could amount to several hundred thousand armed men. In the past, these militias have played a leading role in conflicts against armed opposition groups of their own ethnicity, resulting in significant human rights violations, for example in the Somali region.

Today, the federal government is using the paramilitary forces of the Amhara ethnic group, the second largest in the country, against those of Tigray. The Amhara militias appear to be motivated by a spirit of revenge in reaction to the marginalisation of their region while the TPLF was in power. But other tensions could also emerge between these militias and the Oromo militias. In June and October 2020, Oromo nationalists are said to have murdered dozens of Amhara.

The new war threatens to spread beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Drones that bombed Tigray are said to have taken off from the Assab air base in neighbouring Eritrea, and Tigray artillery has also bombed Eritrea. In 2019, Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation with Eritrea. Asmara’s intervention alongside Addis Ababa against Tigray seems to be motivated by a desire for revenge following the 1998-2000 war waged by the Ethiopian government, then in the hands of the TPLF, against Eritrea.

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