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Despite Government Claims of Victory, Risks to Civilians Persist in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Hilary Matfess

The UN Office on Genocide Prevention has warned that recent events in the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) put the country on a “dangerous trajectory that heightens the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Ethiopia was already considered to be at a high risk for mass atrocities, according to a 2019 report from the Early Warning Project. Hilary Matfess, PhD candidate in Yale University's Political Science Department and a 2020-2021 United States Institute for Peace (USIP) Peace Scholar Fellow, discusses the latest developments in the crisis and what they mean for the risk of mass atrocities.

On November 28 the government declared victory. What do we know about the latest phase of the conflict?

After heavy shelling in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, over the weekend, the Ethiopian government declared victory in a conflict that has resulted in an unknown number of deaths and displaced over 40,000 people. 

We do not yet know the extent of civilian targeting that occurred in this weekend's offensive, but intentionally killing civilians or failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants would be a war crime. Furthermore, there are reports that the TPLF was using civilians as a human shield ahead of the government’s assault on Mekelle which, if true, would also constitute a war crime.

Despite the government’s claims, the TPLF has not conceded and there is speculation that the TPLF will continue the conflict as a guerilla war. The text of an agreement between the UN and the Ethiopian government, which allows for the provision of humanitarian aid in government-controlled parts of Tigray also suggests that the conflict between the government and the TPLF is ongoing. 

Reports that at least 600 citizens were killed in the town of Mai-Kadra and of the discovery of mass graves in Humera suggest that mass atrocities have already been a dynamic of the war.

Are there other armed groups, in addition to government and TPLF forces, that you worry could commit atrocities?

Non-government militias, which can be organized along ethnic lines, present a serious threat to civilians in Tigray. Refugees in Sudan report that members of pro-government militias are targeting Tigrayan men, who they consider potential members of the TPLF. Tigrayan militias have also been implicated in the Mai Kadra massacre; the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s preliminary report attributes the massacre to a Tigrayan youth group, “Samri.” Reports from refugees have contradicted these claims, attributing the violence to pro-government actors, including Ethiopian soldiers and members of Amharan militias. Regardless of which account is true, they both underline the threat to civilians posed by non-state militias.

What do you see as the most important indicators of risk for mass atrocities?

Further raising the risk of mass atrocities is the removal of Tigrayans from their positions in the Ethiopian government. Tigrayan officials have been reportedly removed from their government posts, Tigrayan troops have been pulled from peacekeeping missions, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has noted ethnic profiling and discrimination against Tigrayans. The government also recently released a list of more than two dozen TPLF officials who are wanted for arrest for treason and embezzlement. There are reports that Amharan officials are now in charge of governing parts of Tigray, a development that could lead to ethnic tensions and violence, given the history of land disputes and ethnic tensions between the two states. 

Additionally, the rhetoric characterizing this conflict is concerning. Both the federal government and the leaders of the TPLF have used uncompromising rhetoric that raises the risk of further violence along ethnic lines. 

On Sunday November 22, a military spokesman for the Ethiopian government gave citizens living in Mekelle a 72-hour warning to “save yourselves,” before the government would attack the city. In the broadcast, he told viewers, “a directive has been communicated for you to dissociate yourself from this junta, after that there will be no mercy." 

The TPLF’s rhetoric has done little to quell the possibility of mass atrocities. In response to the prime minister’s ultimatum, the president of Tigray State, Debretsion Gebremichael, told the press, “He doesn't understand who we are. We are people of principle and ready to die in defence of our right to administer our region." Debretsion also responded to allegations that the TPLF was involved in the massacre in Mai Kadra by suggesting that these allegations were “being proliferated with the intent to incite hatred toward [ethnic] Tigrayans in Ethiopia.” After heavy shelling in the city during the offensive, Debretsion told the press that the TPLF’s members  “will die with their belief. Give in? You have to understand we’ll continue fighting as long as they are in our land.” These comments suggest that the TPLF may be preparing for a sustained fight and that they see the conflict as existential. It also suggests that they believe the state is intentionally inciting hate against them which may justify TLPF of the same rhetorical tactics in response, further escalating ethnic animosity and increasing risk for violence.

Taken together, actions and words by both conflict parties could spur mobilization along ethnic lines, including into ethnic militias and may facilitate mass atrocities. 

What are the most important unknowns?

The government continues to block phone and internet access in Tigray region, meaning it is difficult to assess the conflict dynamics and future risks. The extent to which the violence in Tigray thus far has included mass atrocities is unclear because of the communications blackout. The information blackout in the country’s north may facilitate further mass atrocities, both by limiting civilians’ access to information and making them more dependent on rumors, which may heighten ethnic tensions, as well as by making it easier for mass atrocities to be conducted and covered up.

The role of non-state militias in the war also remains unclear. Though there are reports of violence at the hands of such groups, it is difficult to assess the degree to which the outbreak of civil war is influencing the behavior of these groups, which pre-date the outbreak of war in November. 

What are your recommendations?

Both the TPLF and the Ethiopian government should come to the table to negotiate an end to the conflict; reports that Mekelle is now under control of the Ethiopian government could serve as the catalyst for negotiations between the two parties. Both parties should allow humanitarian access into Tigray and support investigations into human rights abuses that have already been committed. It is in the interest of all parties to bring this war to a swift negotiated end to prevent further loss of life. In the absence of a peace agreement or ceasefire both parties must respect human rights and prevent further mass atrocities.