Human Rights and Addressing the Conflict in Ethiopia Statement from Amnesty International USA for the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International OrganizationsDecember 2, 2020
Ethiopia’s internal turmoil reached new heights as the Federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Mohammed launched a full-scale military offensive against the TPLF led regional government of the state of Tigray. Both sides have accused each other of atrocities and Amnesty confirmed a massacre where possibly as many as 500 people in Tigray were slaughtered by forces loyal to the TPLF. On November 30, the Ethiopian government announced it had captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray and that fighting has ended. With communications to the region still cut, and allegations of human rights abuses coming from both sides verifying information, holding people responsible for violations accountable, protecting civilians and addressing the humanitarian crisis generated by the conflict will require resources and leadership.
Human Rights and Addressing the Conflict in Ethiopia
Statement from Amnesty International USA for the Subcommittee on
Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations
December 3, 2020
By Adotei Akwei
Amnesty International is a global human rights organization, launched in 1961 with 10 million members, supporters and activists in over 150 countries, including 250,000 here in the United States. We advocate for the rights of all as enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
The crisis in Ethiopia predates the conflict in Tigray and will outlive it, unless the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian people establish a culture of rights, tolerance and accountability and build institutions strong enough to protect those rights. The United States and the international community must play a role in supporting those efforts while also holding stakeholders accountable. Congress played an important role in pressing for key reforms in 2018 but Ethiopia needs support now more than ever and today’s hearings will play a crucial role on outlining the role that the US can and must play going forward.
Ethiopia’s simmering violence erupted into military levels of engagement when the federal government launched an operation against the state of Tigray on November 4 following an attack on a federal military camp and the seizure of military equipment and supplies by forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)led Tigrayan government.
The Internet in Tigray has been shut down, and access to the region, as well as other parts of Ethiopia remains so difficult that it has made verifying claims by either the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed or TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael difficult. In just the last three weeks, reports have emerged of the use of military aircraft by the federal government, the firing of missiles by TPLF forces, the targeting of Tigrayans on the basis of their ethnicity in other parts of the country, and massacres of civilians, including one confirmed by Amnesty International that may have resulted in the deaths of between 200-500 people and the displacement of as many as 45,000 people. Prior to the conflict, Tigray was home to 600,000 people dependent on food relief assistance, with 100,000 IDPs and nearly 100,000 refugees. This in addition to one million people who have been receiving safety net assistance.
This weekend’s claims by the government that the Tigray capital Mekelle had fallen following a final offensive must also be treated with caution. On the one hand it might appear to constitute the end of a three-week nightmare, but until the city and the region are accessible by independent researchers, we are left with the critical tasks of trying to corroborate and verify information, and calling for all actors to respect and protect civilians and guarantee unimpeded humanitarian access.
But it would be a mistake to focus on just the crisis in Tigray and not connect it to the larger urgent challenges that Ethiopia is facing and that must be addressed. Even if the fighting in Tigray ends in the coming weeks and the TPLF do not become another insurgent group, Ethiopia will remain in a precarious situation, with further instability and violence looming.
Over the past 20 months, Ethiopia has gone through some profound changes. Thousands of political prisoners have been released; several oppressive laws have been revised, with more under review. Political parties have been unbanned, and Prime Minister Abiy signed a peace treaty with Eritrea finally ending a 20-year-old border dispute that cost possibly as many as 70,000 deaths. However, ethnic clashes and conflicts (in some cases with religious underpinnings), have resulted in the displacement of as many as3.2 million people in 2018. Political leaders have been assassinated, groups of individuals have been killed, and students have been abducted, all to date resulting in little to no accountability for the perpetrators. In response, the government has arrested thousands, including former prisoners of conscience who had inspired the protests which had resulted in Abiy coming to power. Further, there are growing concerns over the failure of the security forces to protect people and property. Also of concern, are media and social media outlets in Ethiopia and outside the country that have become platforms for inflammatory language and misinformation.
The international community must encourage, press for, and support reforms, or risk increasing violence. Key among these reforms must be reforming and holding accountable the country’s security forces, and the other must be ending communal violence.
While the crisis in Tigray has drawn the international spotlight, communal violence has been wracking Ethiopia all through the term of Prime Minister Abiy. Mob killings have occurred in several locations in the country including in capital Addis Ababa in October 2019 and again in in the summer of 2020, following assassination of the Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa. Incidents and killings have occurred in Benishangul-Gumuz, the West Wollega zone, the Afar-Somali border, the Oromo-Somali eastern and southern borders, the Amhara-Tigray border, the Gedeo and West Guji zones, the Bench Sheko zone, the Wolaita zone, and the Konso zone.
In 2019, there were reports of attacks on churches and mosques in different parts of the country as well as reports showing an escalating number in the deaths of university students in the various higher education institutions of Ethiopia which also resulted in disruption of learning and teaching processes.
Concerns about the Ethiopian Security forces
Directly linked to these eruptions of violence are the actions of the country’s security forces. Amnesty International has linked the military and police to extrajudicial executions in West and East Guji Zones, arbitrary arrest and detention, maintaining poor, inhumane conditions of detention and committing torture and other ill-treatment, and rape and other gender-based violence. The Ethiopian security forces have also engaged in mass detention and forced political training in the Sanqale Police Training College and the Tolay Military Camp. They have also repeatedly conducted forced eviction operations and destroyed property in the East Guji zone.
The government of Prime Minister Abiy may win the battle, but if it does not urgently break with Ethiopia’s history of autocratic governance, the country will lose the war.
On top of a ballooning humanitarian crisis with as many as seven million people being food insecure, 1. 8 million displaced prior to the conflict in Tigray, and impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the country is experiencing widening communal violence and widespread mistrust of the security forces. Many Ethiopia analysts are reminded of the violent implosion of the former Yugoslavia in 1992 but with a difference: Ethiopia is situated in an already extremely fragile region.
The Horn of Africa is already grappling with the armed group Al-Shabaab in the former Somalia. There are reports that Ethiopia pulled back some of its peacekeeping forces to deal with the crisis in Tigray which will increase fears in Somalia. The conflict has already led to over 45,000 people seeking refuge in Sudan, where a fragile coalition is working to establish democratic rule and respect for human rights while the security apparatus responsible for over 30 years of repression is still very much in power. Next door, there is the uncertainty of the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, with whom the then TPLF-led Ethiopia fought a bitter, two-year war over a border dispute that by some estimates resulted in over 70,000 dead and more than 650,000 displaced. The international community cannot afford Ethiopia to implode like the former Yugoslavia, but it also cannot sit back while the repressive state of the Meles Zenawi and Haile Mariam years returns, under the mantle of restoring law, order and stability.
The United States and the international community must press Prime Minister Abiy to be the reformer Ethiopia needs him to be and it must support that reform agenda. This agenda must be based on building respect and protection of human rights and ensuring accountability. This will help rebuild the trust of the Ethiopian people in their security forces, in their government and in the country in which they live.
- The United States and the international community must press Prime Minister Abiy to:
- Allow unrestricted humanitarian assistance not only to Tigray but also to other internally displaced populations and refugees and provide increased technical and monetary support for urgent humanitarian needs of IDPs in Ethiopia.
- Release civilian Tigrayans detained during the course of other government’s military operation in Tigray.
- Allow an independent investigation into all alleged atrocities committed during the military action in Tigray with the aim of holding persons responsible for abuses accountable. This must be part of ensuring accountability for intercommunal violence that has occurred in 2018 and 2019.
With regard to the Ethiopian Security forces:
- Publicly order the security forces to immediately stop the use of extrajudicial executions, mass arrests and detention, forced eviction, and destruction of property during the law enforcement operations in East and West Guji Zones.
- Publish and enforce the mandate and rules of engagement of the security forces deployed to manage security threats including armed violence and inter-communal attacks in different parts of the country; ensure they are in line with the international human rights law standards.
- Establish an effective, credible, civilian, and independent security sector supervision organ whose mandate includes the law enforcement operations of the EDF.
- Demobilize units of the security forces that were directly involved in inter-communal violence, and conduct independent, impartial, thorough, effective and credible investigations into human rights violations committed by the units. W here there is sufficient evidence, ensure the prosecution of those credibly suspected of committing crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations.
The United States and the International Community must:
- Provide technical support in provision of civilian police training, including providing urgent capacity enhancement support for members of the security forces to respect, protect and fulfill human rights;
- Increase support to local civil society, media and human rights defenders to protect and promote human rights in the country through monitoring, documentation, reporting, advocacy and campaigning.