Ethiopia Tigray Crisis: Where are the Human Rights of It All?

Ethiopia Tigray Crisis: Where are the Human Rights of It All?

Cover image by TNGO illustrator Marija Sta

Ethiopia’s war in the country’s northern region of Tigray continues as the federal government sustains its battle with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against the TPLF on November 4, 2020, following reports of military strikes by the party on a government military base. This drove a series of antagonisms between the federal government and the TPLF, as the two sides were in disagreement over the balance between central and regional powers in Ethiopia.

Over five months later, fighting between the rivaling forces has continued across the Tigray region. This has left millions of Ethiopians displaced, in dire need of humanitarian assistance, vulnerable to human rights abuses, and, in some cases, killed. Refugees residing in the country, mostly from neighboring Eritrea, have been equally exposed to these dangers, impairing their stability and quality of life further.

Abiy Ahmed declared victory in the war, on behalf of the federal government, in December. The Ethiopian military claimed to have recaptured much of the Tigrayan territory. However, in certain areas of the region, forces continue to launch attacks against members of the TPLF, and vice versa. Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer. Ethiopia’s central government, while continuing to fight the TPLF over territory and power, assured civilians would not be harmed. Yet, the situation has molded into a humanitarian crisis. It is, therefore, not out of the question to suggest political gains take precedence over human rights. In a country with an already unstable political arena and fragile structures upholding human rights, the achievement of such gains exacerbates human rights violations further.

Endangered Human Rights

The Tigray crisis contributes to the country’s pattern of post-reform (that is, after Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister) political instability. As Mekuriya and Tesfaye (2021) point out, human rights were already endangered in Ethiopia, even in recent years, due to ongoing political instability in the country. This instability was primarily caused by political differences among the country’s political parties, ruling factions, and non-state actors.

The Tigray War encapsulates this political difference, in which the central and regional governments antagonize federal powers. It is a culmination of existing ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, in which Tigrayans, as a minority, fight to reclaim power. Abiy Ahmed’s ‘reform’ government was expected to work through this instability, having previously expressed goals to unite the country. However, the onset of the Tigray War has thus far contradicted this. Moreover, in aggravating ethnic tensions, the conflict has served as an arena for other minority militia groups to take advantage of a volatile region and inflict their own violence, to ultimately further their own political aspirations as minorities.

Tigrayan refugees by Tekeze river Source: The New York Times

Abiy Ahmed’s promise of a “bloodless campaign” to overpower the TPLF quickly failed amid increasing reports of civilian deaths. At the beginning of April, video footage emerged of a massacre carried out in Tigray, in which fifteen civilian men were killed. Evidence points to Ethiopian military personnel as responsible for the murders of the victims, which are believed to be Tigrayans. The footage shows one of the killers proclaiming “not even one of them should be spared”. Additional reports of civilian disappearances from regional towns and villages, as well as further abusive campaigns carried out by allied groups to the warring sides, contribute to rising concerns that the conflict is far from bloodless. The Government has defended the recent video footage, claiming it “cannot be taken as evidence”. However, such reports provide a substantial case for the existence of severe human rights abuses as an effect of the national conflict.

The domestic nature of the conflict is complicated by the presence of foreign allies. Eritrean troops have fought alongside the central Ethiopian military, against the TPLF. The involvement of Eritrea has inflamed human rights abuses surrounding the conflict. Reports quickly surfaced of Eritrean soldiers being abusive to civilians in Tigray. Furthermore, retaliatory action by the TPLF, in the form of attacks on Eritrean airports, has meant that the conflict has surpassed Ethiopia’s borders, and with it, human rights abuses. The Tigray War is close to qualifying as an international human rights crisis. The UN has previously ordered Eritrean troops to leave Tigray, however, this has failed to happen.

Mekuriya and Tesfaye (2021) emphasize that post-reform human rights violations in the country are primarily enacted by non-state actors. Although the Tigray conflict has presented several grey areas, the state appears to be just as complicit in human rights abuses as third parties. Ethiopia’s military has been accused of human rights abuses in Tigray just as insurgent groups and external parties have. The recent video footage of Ethiopian militants murdering civilians is one such case.

Another alarming effect has been the displacement of Ethiopians from Tigray, who have been forced to flee into neighboring countries; some 30,000 have crossed into Sudan. This also concerns Eritrean refugees who were already residing in Ethiopia, and have now been forced to flee yet again. Humanitarian agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have been present in Sudan, working to provide emergency supplies and infrastructure. However, as well as struggling to locate all refugees, they have faced issues with accessibility and logistics, contributing to increased difficulty in delivering necessities to everyone that needs them.

International Humanitarian Intervention

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in kickstarting an investigation into alleged human rights abuses throughout the Tigray war. The announcement stressed that “all parties” would be investigated, in an effort to provide accountability for victims. The US has opened an independent investigation into the human rights abuses reported throughout the Tigray crisis. The State Department has also called for dialogue between the Ethiopian government and TPLF, on the basis that humanitarian aid should be prioritized. The G7 has voiced collective concern over alleged human rights abuses, also calling for an investigation. Abiy Ahmed’s government has thus far tried to refuse foreign interference. International organizations demanding unrestricted humanitarian access to conflict zones have faced difficulty in gaining this access.

Ethiopian refugees crossing into Sudan Source: Hazim Elhag/UNHCR

Politically unstable, the country needs to protect its sovereignty. Heightened concerns over human rights abuses throughout the conflict, however, place this at odds with complying with international standards of human rights. The central government is all too aware of this through its adverse response to foreign interference. Yet, it appears that this response is directed at interference from specific nations, rather than from organizations. We see this through the EHRC’s efforts to cooperate with the UN. Nevertheless, this is still likely to be a surface-level response. Ethiopia has only been free from its colonial past since 1991. With the further transformation brought by Abiy Ahmed’s government, its steps towards full independence need to be free from external pressure, regardless of whether there is an ongoing domestic conflict or not.

The presence of aid organizations in Tigray ironically places the enforcement of human rights at risk. Despite assuring that the federal government is working with organizations to deliver necessary protections, Ethiopia’s central leadership could expel these organizations if their efforts begin to hinder the government’s political aims or damage its global political image. Abiy Ahmed has outlined his efforts to facilitate humanitarian aid on the ground, yet has not answered to the reports provided by those very same organizations, which reveal human rights abuses carried out by the warring sides. As a matter of fact, as much as they are providing aid on the ground, humanitarian organizations play a crucial role in reporting on developments in the conflict, including any new aggressions, the groups/individuals responsible for such aggressions, and whether they harmed any civilians.

Amid reports that civilians in Tigray are being subjected to violence and abuse, and are being prevented from adequate care, we can begin to conclude that there is still neglect of complete protection of human rights in Ethiopia. This can be attributed to the country’s political transitions in the past three decades, and a determination to solidify its footing as a nation in control of its destiny. Nonetheless, if it wants to sustain international legitimacy as an independent and democratic nation, the federal government will soon need to accelerate efforts to safeguard human rights in the country by conforming to internationally set standards of human rights, hence cooperating with international organizations.

  • Given its colonial past and struggle for internal political stability, to what extent should Ethiopia’s sovereignty be violated by international actors to protect and ensure human rights?
  • In an effort to sustain its label as a progressive reform government, will Abiy Ahmed’s government have no choice but to conform to international human rights norms and end the Tigray War, on the basis of a need to protect human rights in the country?

Suggested Reading

Dahir, Abdi Latif (2020). “Fleeing Ethiopians tell of ethnic massacres in Tigray War.” The New York Times, 9 December, 2020.

Dahir, Abdi Latif; Walsh, Declan (2020). “Why is Ethiopia at War with Itself?” The New York Times, 7 April, 2021.

Mekuriya, Endalkachew Abera; Tesfaye, Andinet Adinew (2021). “Conditions of human rights in Ethiopia in the aftermath of political reform.” Northwestern Journal of Human Rights, 19 (1), 22 January, 2021.

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Ethiopia Tigray Crisis: W…

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