Ethiopian civilians face a dire risk of mass atrocities as the country’s civil war—now more than a year old—intensifies. The news of the withdrawal of Tigrayan rebel forces from the Afar and Amhara regions and a unilateral call for a ceasefire in late December may reflect a shift in dynamics and calculations. However, the government of Ethiopia has already rejected the ceasefire, and a past ceasefire was brief and did not end the targeting of civilians. International actors must act swiftly to avert escalation and further mass atrocities. As policy makers focus on ending the conflict, protecting civilians must be pursued with equal priority and urgency.
The civil war began in November 2020 after tensions, including over the holding of elections in Tigray against Prime Minister Abiy’s order for a nationwide postponement, and retaliatory attacks escalated between the federal government and the Tigray regional government. The ethnic Tigrayan political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), leads the regional government and dominated the central government for decades before Prime Minister Abiy’s Prosperity Party rule.
The conflict between the national army and the Tigrayan forces has evolved to include multiple armed actors, including Eritrean national forces allied with the Ethiopian government forces, the Amhara Special Forces, and Amhara militia, versus the armed wing of the TPLF, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and ethnic and other irregular militias. Multiple parties are alleged to be committing mass atrocities.
A fragile democracy largely dominated by one ethnic group for almost three decades, Ethiopia is home to over 110 million people from over 80 different ethnic groups. Despite a constitutional commitment to ethnic federalism, struggles over how that commitment has been implemented, combined with the politicization of ethnicity, corruption, and rifts over federal resources contributed to the outbreak of conflict.
Widespread atrocities against civilians
From the start of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, there have been reports of the intentional targeting of civilians, often along ethnic lines. Despite the difficulty of obtaining verifiable information, credible reports document multiple parties committing mass atrocity crimes. For example, a mass killing of possibly hundreds of civilians in November 2020 allegedly by the TDF was documented in Mai-Kadra. Residents noted victims’ bodies were strewn about, with knife and machete wounds clearly visible. International media outlets started to document massacres in the spring and summer of 2021 by the Ethiopian federal forces. Allegations of murder and torture followed the discovery of bodies in rivers along the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Eritrean forces are also alleged to have killed civilians and looted property in Axum in late November of 2020. And, as the war expanded, Tigray forces were further implicated in summarily executing civilians in the Amhara region.
In March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly stated that ethnic cleansing was occurring in Western Tigray. In early November, the United Nations and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a joint report finding that there were reasonable grounds to believe that all sides have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. The report noted that arbitrary killing, arbitrary arrest, torture, and systematic sexual violence, including gang rape, had been committed by the warring parties. Additionally, the destruction and human-made famine resulting from a government blockade in the Tigray region may be a form of collective punishment and possibly a war crime.
Government restrictions have left Ethiopian civilians without access to credible news, and the atmosphere of rampant hate speech, widespread misinformation, and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders has drowned out voices of moderation and non-violence. Dangerous speech from government officials—for example, calling the Tigray forces “weeds” that need to be exterminated—contributes to an atmosphere of dehumanization of civilians by all sides.
Escalating conflict and threats to civilians
The armed conflict has expanded greatly since November 2020 in terms of geographic location, the number of national and international armed actors, and the ethnically-charged nature of the violence against civilians.
As new reports tell of non-Tigrayan journalists being arrested and detained, thousands of Tigrayan civilians and army personnel have been held for months in locations all over the country. Documented arrests of Tigrayans are occurring at their homes, workplaces, and in businesses. Those in detention could face torture and execution, and the world would not immediately know, as independent groups do not have full access to these detainees. Even embassies have not been able to secure access to all of their nationals that have been detained. Furthermore, there exists no comprehensive accounting of who detainees are, how they are currently being treated, and where they are located.
Immediate atrocity risk also faces civilians in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia regions as the conflict parties move their battles away from the capital, Addis Ababa, and the government, with assistance through arms sales from Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, conducts lethal airstrikes against civilian targets.
Need for urgent action
In addition to being a party to the conflict, the Ethiopian government bears the primary responsibility to protect its populations from mass atrocity crimes and has a legal obligation to take actions to prevent genocide. Multiple warning signs of potential genocide against the Tigray people are present: reports of massacres and other targeted killings of Tigrayan civilians, dehumanization and hate speech encouraging violence against members of the group, mass arrests and arbitrary detention, and possible collective punishment in the form of a human-made famine in the Tigray region.
Outside actors also have critical roles to play. Public condemnation, high-level demarches, sanctions on Eritrean entities, and the suspension of trade agreements have, so far, failed to disrupt the trajectory of the war or mitigate the targeting of civilians. But pressure must continue.
Since the conflict is the main driver of deliberate attacks on civilians, ending the conflict would be the surest way to reduce risks of further large-scale atrocities. As the conflict parties have resisted to-date international efforts to broker a mutually agreed-upon ceasefire or peace agreement, it is imperative for international actors to work to mitigate risks of atrocities even as the war drags on.
As the Genocide Prevention Task Force wrote, “Policymakers should be mindful of the dangers of becoming overly dependent on—or even hostage to—[a peace] process to the extent that other preventive initiatives are ignored or dismissed. Preoccupation with ongoing negotiations during the early stages of the Bosnia crisis as well as during the Arusha peace process in Rwanda effectively precluded other initiatives for fear that they would disrupt ongoing negotiations.”
Additional steps should be taken to impose costs on any conflict party that commits atrocities. These could include, for example, clear and consistent condemnation of attacks on civilians and targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for atrocities.
In addition, there might be opportunities to reduce the capacity of potential atrocity perpetrators to engage in systematic attacks on civilian populations. A comprehensive arms embargo, for example, could limit the ability to commit atrocities.
International actors should also look for ways to protect vulnerable civilian populations. These could include supporting local early warning systems, providing flexible assistance to local civil society organizations, and seeking access to detainees.
Finally, international actors should support the investigation and documentation of atrocity crimes so that victims and survivors have a greater chance of achieving some level of justice.