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How international bodies can help prevent more Ethiopia massacres

‘The lack of consequences for the crimes committed in Tigray has made it easier for warring parties to commit further atrocities.’

A woman sits with her family at a camp for internally displaced people in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, on 8 October.
A woman sits with her family at a camp for internally displaced people in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, on 8 October. (Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS)

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A full year has passed since Eritrean government forces massacred Tigrayan civilians in Ethiopia’s historical town of Axum. But survivors of the massacre and of other atrocities in Tigray are still no closer to accessing justice and redress – an accountability shortfall that is fuelling further abuses as conflict spreads.

Due to the Ethiopian government’s deliberate suppression of information about the conflict in Tigray, details of the massacre in Axum only surfaced months after the event. Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities responded with denials that Eritrean forces were even in Tigray, let alone that a massacre had occurred.

After the intial denials, Ethiopia’s attorney general later acknowledged that Eritrean soldiers had killed 110 civilians in Axum, and said Ethiopian soldiers were facing trial for other killings, rape, and sexual violence during the conflict.

But these steps fall far short of addressing the crimes allegedly committed by government security forces since the beginning of the conflict. And proceedings so far have lacked transparency and independent scrutiny.

Ethiopia’s bloody conflict now continues to unfold beyond Tigray, where rebel forces have also summarily executed and raped civilians.

A weak international response

Concrete measures to pave the way for accountability – such as the establishment of a robust international investigative mechanism – are key. Yet international bodies still seem unwilling to take concrete measures to press warring parties to prevent further atrocities.

The Security Councils of both the UN and the African Union – bodies mandated to ensure peace and security – have remained largely paralysed. Each body has made only one public statement condemning abuses and the UN Security Council has not formally included Ethiopia on its agenda.

Sanctions regimes have, meanwhile, failed as deterrents, with the United States only targeting Eritrean individuals and entities, and EU member states still unable to agree on designations.

The UN Human Rights Council, the world’s rights body, finally placed Ethiopia on its agenda in July, but its actions have not reflected the urgency of the ongoing crisis, which has left more than seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

The EU, which has spearheaded recent efforts on Ethiopia at the Human Rights Council, has a decisive role here. Since the beginning of the conflict, it has repeatedly condemned abuses, pushed for humanitarian access, and considered targeted sanctions.

Yet, as the EU’s foreign policy is determined by unanimity, resistance from key member states risks undermining crucial efforts, including calling for a Human Rights Council special session that could establish an investigative mechanism.

European and other countries initially said they wanted to first see the outcome of a joint UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation opened in March. The joint report is now out, and recommends an international investigative mechanism, but some EU member states still appear reluctant to heed that call.

Summary executions and ethnic round-ups 

As the world dithers, the civilian toll of the Ethiopia crisis remains a daily and devastating reality for communities in Tigray and beyond. Amhara forces allied to the federal government are yet again forcibly displacing Tigrayans – including many older people and children – from western Tigray, the site of some of the worst crimes so far.

The Ethiopian federal government and regional authorities continue to impose an effective siege on Tigray, making it impossible to bring in basic medical supplies or sorely needed food. 

Throughout the country, thousands of Tigrayans have also been rounded up and detained or forcibly disappeared in widespread ethnically targeted sweeps. Families are living in fear that they might be next.

In the Amhara and Afar regions, Tigrayan forces have also committed human rights violations. Thousands of civilians have been displaced by ongoing fighting, with many now suffering from growing food insecurity. 

I recently spoke to a man in Debre Birhan, in the Amhara region, who was displaced twice after fleeing shelling by Tigrayan forces in his hometown in October. He is now living with his wife in an informal displacement camp, worrying about the lack of healthcare for his newborn child.  

"There is no clinic. We are not getting any medication in the camp,” he told me. “My wife got no follow up after giving birth.”

International investigative mechanism needed

On 24 November, Human Rights Watch joined 27 other organisations in calling for a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva to establish an international investigative mechanism that could document serious abuses by all sides and preserve vital evidence, which is currently at risk of erosion and destruction. 

Sixty-five African organisations and individuals have also called for a special session in a letter to the UN secretary-general. African states should listen to their own citizens by supporting the AU’s regional efforts and acting decisively in Geneva. The longer the wait, the harder it will be to uncover facts and begin the process to achieve justice.

Human Rights Council members need to rise to the challenge, support the call for a special session, and secure the establishment of a robust investigative mechanism without further delay. Such Human Rights Council action could play a preventative role and complement the current AU mediation efforts between the warring parties.

The mechanism would not only pave the way for future accountability but also help to support meaningful transitional justice efforts, which are key to any successful future national dialogue and essential to communities devastated by the conflict.

The lack of consequences for the crimes committed in Tigray has made it easier for warring parties to commit further atrocities. The EU and other Human Rights Council member states must do their utmost to change that calculus as soon as possible.

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