By Ryan D’Souza
The historic Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed on November 2, 2022, between the Government of Ethiopia and Tigray People’s Liberation Front delivers a roadmap to end the civil war. Despite the significance of this peace deal, the unravelling of past agreements leaves civilians still at heightened risk of atrocities, and requires ongoing vigilance by the international community. Actors including the African Union and the United States should work to strengthen the implementation of the agreement and should be prepared to act if conflict resumes.
The peace agreement, mediated by the African Union, has led to a significant decrease in violence by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (EnDF) and Tigrayan Defense Forces, with the two sides meeting for face-to-face talks in Nairobi and Ethiopia during recent weeks. However, civilians continue to suffer egregious human rights violations perpetrated by Eritrean and regional militia forces.
Two key areas to watch are whether the peace agreement holds in Tigray, and whether violence will increase in other areas of the country. There are recent reports of worsening violence in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, for example, where the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission claims that civilians have been subjected to serious human rights violations including mass killings and displacement.
Two Years of Conflict
According to recent estimates, up to 600,000 people have died or been killed in the conflict that erupted in November 2020 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The armed conflict has expanded greatly over the past two years in terms of geographic location, from Tigray to Oromia, Amhara and Afar, and the number of national and international armed actors has increased. What began largely as a political conflict has evolved. Political and military actors have manipulated ethnic identity to sow division, rampant hate speech has contributed to the dehumanisation of entire communities, and the targeting of individuals on the basis of their identity (and corresponding real or perceived political support) is widespread.
Following the breakdown of a five-month truce at the end of August, hostilities in Tigray continued even as the government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan regional authorities participated in African Union-led peace negotiations in South Africa.
An offensive by Ethiopian security forces in the fall, supported by Eritrean forces and Amhara special forces, led to the seizure of strategic towns and cities in the region. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement in late October warning about the commission of further crimes against humanity and a heightened risk of genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Both sides agreed in early November to a permanent cessation of hostilities, notably including the disarmament of the Tigrayan defense forces. Eritrea was not a party to the agreement.
Mass Atrocities in the Current Conflict
Ethnic-based targeting and the commission of mass atrocities have long been intentional strategies of multiple parties to the conflict, including the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Tigrayan security forces. The International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia has found reasonable grounds to believe that Ethiopian forces, Eritrean forces, and Tigrayan forces have all committed war crimes. The Commission also found reasonable grounds to believe that the Ethiopian federal government has committed the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, and rape and sexual violence—and that the federal government, with its allied regional state governments, have committed the crimes against humanity of persecution and other inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, based on their blockage of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Tigray.
Political leaders, including Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, have used divisive and dehumanizing rhetoric that has widely circulated on social media. The Commission noted in their September report to the Human Rights Council that there has been a proliferation of hate speech attacking and dehumanizing ethnic groups, specifically noting that Tigrayan survivors of rape had reported the crimes were accompanied by dehumanizing language. The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide also expressed concerns about the “horrific cost of hateful language” She expressed concern over the use of pejorative and dehumanizing language like “cancer,” “devil,” “weed,” and “bud” to refer to the Tigray conflict which exacerbates ethnic-based violence, and called on tech and social media companies to limit the spread of hate speech. She also called particular attention to the allegations of the widespread acts of rape and sexual violence.
The blockage of information from Tigray during the conflict, including the government’s resistance to admitting independent investigators to the region and the cutting of internet and phone accessibility, means documentation of crimes in the area has been extremely difficult. The information that has been collected is deeply concerning and requires the Ethiopian government, as stipulated in Article 10(3) of the peace agreement, to implement a national transitional justice policy, by properly investigating allegations of crimes committed by its own forces.
Tigrayan forces have also committed atrocities during the conflict. The Commission reported that “During their searches, Tigrayan soldiers looked for weapons and pulled men from their homes, executing them, often in front of their families. The killings were frequently marked by additional acts of violence and brutality, including beatings, rapes, and the use of ethnic slurs such as ‘Amhara donkeys.’ Witnesses told the Commission that the men killed were civilian farmers and day labourers.”
The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement did not refer specifically to Eritrean forces, and there have been reports of Eritrean forces carrying out extrajudicial killings and widespread looting of property. Amhara special forces and Ethiopian federal troops have also reportedly detained large numbers of Tigrayan civilians, raising fears of a repeat of the recently reported atrocities committed in 2021 against Tigrayans held in detention centers.
According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, civilians in the Oromia region have been subjected to serious human rights violations by multiple armed groups operating in the region, including killings and displacement.
In March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly stated that ethnic cleansing was being committed in Western Tigray; the State Department is reportedly conducting additional analysis regarding other mass atrocity crimes.
Ethiopia’s population is over 110 million, comprised of over 90 different ethnicities, yet for decades the country’s fragile democracy was dominated by a single ethnically-aligned party: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF’s repressive regime ended with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, who is of mixed Oromo-Amharic parentage, as prime minister in 2018. 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 civil war.
There is hard work ahead by actors within Ethiopia to ensure the peace agreement is effectively sustained, and to advance accountability efforts for mass atrocities. Justice efforts, including options outlined in a recent Simon-Skjodt Center paper, will allow for a formal reckoning of the mass atrocity crimes that have been committed during the course of the latest conflict. This includes the provision of recognition and repair to victims, and the promotion of reconciliation.
All armed groups, including Eritrean forces and regional militias, must cease the commission of mass atrocities, and must investigate and bring to justice members of their forces who have committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Ethiopia.
The federal government of Ethiopia must ensure full, unfettered, and sustained humanitarian access to Tigray and immediately lift restrictions on basic services to that region. Ethiopian authorities should also allow full access to the International Commission of Human Rights experts on Ethiopia and other human rights mechanisms to conduct independent and credible investigations on atrocities committed during the conflict.
The international community must avoid complacency as the parties implement the agreement to cease hostilities, and it must remain vigilant in the event of a potential unravelling of the agreement and a rapid deterioration of the situation. International actors should give serious consideration to the following actions:
The international community, including the African Union, the UN Security Council, and states including the United States, should work to ensure the successful implementation of the peace agreement and should be prepared to respond swiftly to the situation should the agreement falter. They should also remain seized of mass atrocity risks facing civilians despite the peace agreement.
Social media companies should restrict the spread of language that includes ethnically-charged hate speech. The UN Special Adviser on Genocide Prevention has “urged tech and social media companies to continue utilizing all tools available to stop the spread of hate speech that could constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence on their platforms.”
As outlined in the Simon-Skjodt Center’s recent paper on justice options for Ethiopia, the US and other donors should support local organizations doing documentation work, who are facing immense security challenges, and the US could also consider launching its own investigation into mass atrocity crimes in Ethiopia as it has done in Darfur and Burma. Restrictions on access and information in Tigray, as well as severe security risks facing those who document mass atrocities, make accurate and thorough documentation difficult. Governments, private companies, and other organizations could prioritize collecting, analyzing, and preserving satellite imagery and open source information in order to collect a better picture of the scale and nature of mass atrocities in the country.
The US State Department should publicize a determination as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or genocide have been committed in Ethiopia. Relevant analysis has been in process, but an official determination has not been shared in order to leave room for other diplomatic engagement.
US Members of Congress should continue to signal support for such a determination, and should press the US Administration for a robust, effective, and urgently needed strategy to protect civilians in Ethiopia from further atrocities if the peace agreement unravels.
The US should support the safety of populations who have fled mass atrocities and those who would fear violence or persecution upon return to Ethiopia. These populations would include those who remain in the region as well as those in the United States.
Ryan D’Souza is a policy consultant for the Simon-Skjodt Center.