UN experts on Monday said that there are reasonable grounds to believe that “war crimes and crimes against humanity” have been committed by the Ethiopian government in the Tigray region, warning that renewed conflict there increased the risk of “further atrocity crimes”.
In its first report, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia said it found that violations, such as extrajudicial killings and rape, have been committed by warring sides in Ethiopia since fighting erupted in the northern Tigray region in November 2020.
The commission, created by the UN Human Rights Council last year and made up of three independent rights experts, said it had “reasonable grounds to believe that, in several instances, these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The commission said that Ethiopia’s beleaguered civilian population now faces renewed risks after enduring nearly two years of conflict, which has now expanded beyond Tigray to other areas of the country and risks spreading beyond Ethiopia’s borders, with consequences for peace in the entire Horn of Africa.
The experts highlighted the horrifying situation in Tigray, where the government and its allies have denied people access to basic services, including the internet, banking and electricity, for over a year.
This, combined with shortages of food, medicine and fuel as well as severe restrictions on humanitarian access have left some 20 million people in need of assistance and protection, nearly three-quarters of them women and children.
“The combined effect of these measures, which remain in effect more than a year later, has forced much of the population in Tigray to eat less and sell harvest and reproductive livestock. Sources also reported an increase in desperate means to survive, such as child marriage and child labour, human trafficking, and transactional sex,” the report said.
In a statement, Commission Chair Kaari Betty Murungi described the humanitarian crisis in Tigray as “shocking, both in terms of scale and duration”.
“The widespread denial and obstruction of access to basic services, food, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance is having a devastating impact on the civilian population, and we have reasonable grounds to believe it amounts to a crime against humanity,” she said.
“We also have reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government is using starvation as a method of warfare,” she added, calling on the government to “immediately restore basic services and ensure full and unfettered humanitarian access”.
In response to the report, Tigrayan authorities said they “have always maintained” that Ethiopia’s government was responsible for crimes against humanity in Tigray, according to a rebel spokesman.
“We have always maintained that,” Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told AFP in response to the commission’s accusation that Addis Ababa was committing atrocities in the conflict-torn region.
But Murungi also called on Tigrayan forces to “ensure that humanitarian agencies are able to operate without impediment.” The commission had received information indicating that Tigrayan forces have looted or otherwise misappropriated humanitarian aid.
After four years of anti-government protests and rising ethno-nationalist sentiment, the country’s ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) chose Abiy Ahmed as its new prime minister in 2018.
The federal government alleges that rebels led by the TPLF were behind a series of violent attempts to undermine the government, accusations the group denies. However, others say that anti-Tigrayan sentiment and hate speech in government statements contributed to an environment where dehumanising ethnic groups became the norm.
Tigray has been bombed several times since fighting resumed in late August between government forces and their allies, and rebels led by the TPLF, shattering a March truce and dashing hopes of peacefully resolving the conflict.
“The international community should not turn a blind eye, and instead increase efforts to secure a cessation of hostilities and the restoration of humanitarian aid and services to Tigray,” Murungi said.
“Failure to do so would be catastrophic for the Ethiopian people, and has wider implications for peace and stability in the region.”