By Kyra Fox
Dozens, and possibly hundreds of civilians were hacked and stabbed to death on November 9 in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, according to human rights reports.
This horrifying attack signals the danger to civilians from the two-week-old conflict between the government and a regional ruling party in East Africa’s largest and most populous country.
UN experts have warned of the high risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that unless government and Tigrayan forces reverse course, “there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control.”
Fragile reform, rising tensions
The military offensive that propelled Ethiopia into crisis was the culmination of months of escalatory actions between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Tigrayan regional ruling party.
The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s national ruling coalition for 27 years after a bloody civil war in the 1970s and 80s, in which it played a pivotal role in toppling the communist Derg (the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987).
Ethiopians increasingly dissatisfied with the TPLF’s iron-fisted rule instigated a series of protests in 2018 that led to the election of Abiy Ahmed, who campaigned on a reformist agenda, as prime minister. Upon gaining power, Abiy sidelined the TPLF, which in turn refused to join Abiy’s party.
Abiy’s internationally lauded reform efforts have included freeing political prisoners, allowing exiled opposition groups to return to Ethiopia, and negotiating a peace deal with Eritrea. These reforms, however, have been accompanied by rising tensions among Ethiopia’s ethnically divided regions and a sharp increase in ethnically motivated attacks. In the two years since Abiy came into power, there have been 367 incidents of violence against civilians resulting in 1207 fatalities, according to publicly available data from ACLED. In that same period, nearly two million Ethiopians have been forcibly displaced.
A rapidly escalating conflict
After Ethiopia cancelled its August general elections citing the coronavirus pandemic, the TPLF held regional elections anyway, which the federal government declared illegitimate. A few weeks later, the TPLF reportedly overtook an army base in Tigray region. In response, the Ethiopian government launched a military offensive in the Tigray region and dissolved the Tigrayan regional government.
Abiy has promised a short conflict, with the goal of ousting the Tigrayan ruling elite. But the battle-hardened TPLF forces could prove a formidable foe.
In the first ten days of fighting, armed forces killed hundreds of civilians and both sides were accused of atrocities. There have been reports of intense ground fighting in populous areas and airstrikes by government forces. Relief agencies have reported restricted humanitarian access and cuts to water and electricity, foreshadowing a potentially devastating humanitarian crisis. More than 20,000 civilians have fled to Sudan, which is reportedly preparing for the arrival of up to 200,000 displaced people.
Risk of further mass atrocities
Witnesses say the November 9 attacks were reprisal killings by the TPLF for a military defeat. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that if the killings were verified as committed by one of the parties to the conflict, they would “of course amount to war crimes.”
The Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment of 2019-2020 ranked Ethiopia the 10th most likely country to experience a new mass killing (up from a 2018-2019 ranking of 32nd). There have been reports of hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination against ethnic Tigrayans across the country since the conflict began. Tigrayans are being detained and dismissed from security and civil service jobs in Addis Ababa, and airport staff allegedly have asked passengers to show identification cards, which, unlike passports, label their ethnicity. The Ethiopian police reportedly requested a list of Tigrayan staff from a UN World Food Programme office in the Amhara region. Tigrayans say they are being accused of supporting the TPLF.
With a regional phone and internet blackout, the extent of civilian targeting currently underway in Tigray is unclear. On November 19, government forces announced that they were entering a “final phase” of operations on the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, heightening the risk for the 300,000 civilians who live there.
The Ethiopian government, TPLF forces, and the international community must take immediate steps to prevent further violence against civilians.
The UN has urged Ethiopian and Tigrayan forces to cease fighting, and the US has encouraged action to peacefully deescalate the conflict. Experts have pressed both parties to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law and protect civilians in military operations.
In the short term, both sides should restore humanitarian access and communications services. Beyond that, there should be independent investigations into the November 9 killings and other reported atrocities.
Experts have also urged the government to provide human rights protections and equitable access to resources and services across regions and ethnic groups to remedy the underlying grievances that fueled the conflict.
Amid reports of discrimination against Tigrayans and other ethnic groups, the government and the TPLF should publicly condemn violence against or persecution of members of any group. The international community should press both parties to the conflict to take all possible measures to protect civilians and prevent further atrocities.
Kyra Fox is the research assistant at the Simon-Skjodt Center.