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Continuing Human Rights Issues in Ethiopia: Takeaways of the UN report

  Nithyashree RB

On 18 September 2023, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia released a report on the human rights status in Ethiopia. The report highlights the violations of international law and crimes perpetrated in Tigray, Afar, Amhara and Oromia during the period from November 2020 to the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) in November 2022 and ongoing violations post-COHA. The findings of the report are based on 545 interviews by interviewees who identify as Afar, Agew, Amhara, Irob, Kunama, Oromo, Qemant, Somali, Tigrayan, mixed ethnicities and Eritrean refugees and over 570 documents including satellite images, multimedia and public statements. 

The following are the major takeaways of the report.

1. The Government, ENDF, EDF and several militias continue to be involved in the killing of civilians 
The Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) were involved in mass killings of civilians across Tigray between 2020 and 2022. Such killings were undertaken in the context of a siege where essential supplies including food, medicines, electricity, banking and communications were cut off by the Ethiopian government. Along with the armed forces, militias such as the Amhara Special Forces and Fano were engaged in the looting and destruction of properties and regional health systems. The ENDF, EDF and several militias have been committing serious human rights violations and abuses since 3 November 2020 ranging from the right to life, right to non-discrimination, prohibition of torture, ill-treatment, rape and sexual violence to the right to an adequate standard of living and prohibition of hate speech both online and offline. 
Amhara and Afar
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was involved in the killings of civilians in the villages of Kobo Toen, Semien, Wollo Zone and Chenna, North Gondar Zone, Shewa Robit and Yelen. The killing of men disproportionately affected women who had to replace the male breadwinners and take care of children and extended families. The fighting between the ENDF and TPLF between November 2021 and March 2022 resulted in the deaths of civilians and forced eviction of people from their homes. Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) have killed over 185 people including children in Afar since November 2020. Looting of livestock combined with locust infestation and interruption of aid have negatively impacted several communities.
Government security forces were engaged in extrajudicial killing of leaders of the Karrayu community in December 2021; 14 were summarily executed. In Western Oromia, drone strikes were reported in November 2022, as the fighting between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and ENDF re-escalated. Three incidents involving the killing or injuring of civilians were verified by the commission. 
2. Sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls.
EDF members along with ENDF, Amhara Special Forces, Afar Special Forces and Fano are often involved in multiple-perpetrator rapes and sexual violence against women and children. Tigrayan women of reproductive age were targeted during the looting, at detention camps, near barracks and while searching for food, water and safety. Survivors were aged between nine and 60 including pregnant women. Women were often raped in front of their families who consequently have mental health issues.
Post-COHA, EDF and Amhara forces continue to perpetrate rape and sexual violence. Nearly 100 girls under the age of 18 were subjected to brutal forms of sexual violence especially in areas where EDF are present. The commission’s report affirms that EDF members are responsible for the continuing sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in Tigray. Data from seven medical centres enumerates over 10,000 women and girls who were survivors of sexual and gender-based violence between November 2020 and July 2023. 
Amhara, Afar and Oromia
Tigray-aligned fighters raped girls as young as 11. In over 11 towns, ethnic Amhara, Agew women and girls were targeted as revenge for the rape of Tigrayan women and girls. With sparsely available healthcare services, undiagnosed and untreated consequences of rape and sexual violence raise concerns regarding STDs, HIV, and unsafe abortions.
3. The Ethiopian government and regional governments engage in the starvation of civilians
In Tigray, the Ethiopian government and regional governments have engaged in the starvation of civilians. The Ethiopian government is mandated to alleviate hunger under the COHA. However, it has hindered humanitarian assistance and aid. Diversion of aid has resulted in the suspension of aid from USAID and WFP. The head of the Disaster Risk Management Commission in Tigray reported that 1400 deaths between April and August 2023 were hunger-related. Around 20 million Ethiopians need humanitarian food assistance especially those in drought-affected areas of Afar and Oromia.
4. The presence of EDF has exacerbated the conflict and human rights violations
Since November 2020, EDF fighters have been involved in serious crimes and regulations across Ethiopia but they denied their presence. Essentially, in March 2021, their presence was officially confirmed by the UN. They often worked closely with ENDF and air attacks were carried out from the territory of Eritrea. EDF has been implicated in large-scale killings of civilians, arbitrary detention, attacks against refugee camps, shelling in civilian areas, destruction and looting and blocking humanitarian access. COHA mandated the non-ENDF forces to leave Ethiopia but they are still present. In May 2023, they hindered the African Union Monitoring, Verification and Compliance Mission (AU-MVCM) and the UN OCHA. The involvement of the EDF showcases the inability of the state to protect its civilians. 

5. Weak structures and institutions highlight the risks of further violations and exacerbation of conflict
As per the COHA’s mandate, the commission provided an advisory note regarding transitional justice but the government’s response was insufficient. Considering that transitional justice relies on the perception of the victims, the commission held a three-day workshop in Nairobi in July 2023. They comprehended the needs and aspirations of the victims, their families, affected communities and interlocutors. The victims want their voices and experiences to drive transitional justice which must be credible, transparent and inclusive and address what the victims went through. The victims demanded reparation for the emotional and physical trauma and compensation for the looting and destruction of properties. They expressed a lack of trust in the Ethiopian system and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to deliver justice and address human rights violations.
The lack of independence of courts, military courts’ jurisdiction over crimes and lack of prosecutorial independence and impartiality highlights the bleak prospects of transitional justice in Ethiopia. Civilians feel mistrust towards government institutions and accountability mechanisms. The presence of EDF and Amhara Special Forces and the ongoing post-COHA violations showcase the Ethiopian government's policy of impunity and tolerance of violations. Even after the declaration of a state of emergency in August 2023, violations against Amharas are ongoing. The government is unable to offer protection and its weak institutions are failing to monitor and stop violations. 

About the author

Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar at Stella Maris College, Chennai.

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