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Charges of Genocide in Northern Ethiopia

The conflict in Tigray, and broader regional post-conflict instability, is an often forgotten and neglected humanitarian crisis. New reports from the New Lines Institute and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee should inspire the international community to act.

In a report released last week, issued by the United States-Based New Lines Institute, significant evidence that Ethiopian forces, alongside Amhara Special Forces (ASF), Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF), and Ethiopia’s National Defence Force (ENDF), committed genocidal acts against Tigrayans during the Tigray War (2020-2022) has been documented. The report quotes multiple credible independent reports that Ethiopian forces and their allies carried out “acts constituting the crime of genocide.” The report calls for for one of the two judicial responses: for Ethiopia to be brought before the International Court of Justice or proceedings be initiated under the concept of “Universal Jurisdiction.”  In addition to the Ethiopian government, the ASF, EDF, ENDF and Tigrayan forces are accused of violating international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The conflict in Tigray erupted in November of 2020 as a bid by regional authorities for greater autonomy. Tensions erupted when the Tigrayan leadership, represented by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front who had dominated the political and security apparatus for over two decades, defied regional authority and held elections in September of 2020. The outcome was full-out war when forces attacked a federal military command base.

This led to the Ethiopian military moving into the northern region of the country. According to the report, measured by the number of deaths, the Tigray War is the deadliest armed conflict of the 21st century and one of bloodiest since the end of the Cold War, which claimed the lives of over 400,000 soldiers and 300,000 civilians. All parties to the conflict have been alleged to have committed systematic abuses against civilian populations, including widespread sexual violence, mass killings, and torture, among other war crimes. The humanitarian situation remains bleak and has been exacerbated by climate change. The worst drought in 40 years has decimated food production, resulting in 4.5 million people requiring food aid. Meanwhile, one million still remain displaced.

Due to mediation efforts of the African Union, parties to the conflict in Tigray reached a peace agreement that outlined a “cessation of hostilities” and a commitment of “unhindered access to humanitarian supplies.” Known as the “Pretoria Deal,” it has been considered by pundits to be a triumph for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, as the deal enabled the restoration of federal authority in Tigray province and led to the dismantling of forces in the region. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, however, have noted that ongoing, post-conflict tensions risk undermining the fragile Pretoria Deal.

In a report issued in September of 2022, United Nations experts claimed that Ethiopia and its allies, including Eritrea, were still committing crimes against humanity despite the truce. The report alleged that Eritrean forces, alongside the Ethiopian military, carried out “widespread and systematic attack[s]” against civilian populations in the form of murder, torture, rape, and other gross and systematic violations of human rights. Furthermore, humanitarian access constraints remain a significant challenge.

Four acts constituting the crime of genocide are noted within the report. They include the killing Tigrayans, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions upon Tigrayans calculated to bring about their destruction, and imposing measures intended to prevent births among Tigrayans. Despite the cessation of hostilities agreement, risks of war crimes and crimes against humanity against civilians remain unacceptably high.

Most of Tigray has lived under siege for almost two years, with blockades resulting in civilians receiving few essentials such as medicine and humanitarian assistance or access to telecommunications or banking services. In the New Lines Institute’s report, it notes that Amhara and Ethiopian forces consistently burned crops and harvests, killed livestock, and destroyed agricultural equipment. The findings also indicate that there is “reasonable basis to believe that measures were taken to destroy the health system” in Tigray.

Other credible reports illustrate that the theft of emergency food assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) involved the manipulation of beneficiary lists that the government in Addis Ababa was adamant on controlling. This resulted in pauses of assistance, further exacerbating the crisis. USAID’s own evaluations alleged a “widespread and coordinated” campaign to divert donated supplies. Assistance did resume last year, however, after a five month pause.

A report released this week from the United Nations’ Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) identified that a coherent UN-wide strategy was missing. The UN response “failed to meet many essential needs” and the humanitarian leadership was “ineffective,” with one notable charge being that that the country team was disunited. Additionally, the blockade of aid imposed by the Government of Ethiopia was identified as one of the top defining characteristics of the crisis, yet there was no strategy for collective access in the north of the country, meaning the ability of UN agencies in coordinating access across various agencies was inefficient. However, local NGOs did play a crucial role in delivering aid, which made a critical difference on the ground.

In terms of seeking accountability, there are ongoing difficulties and roadblocks. Ethiopia is not subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and a referral by members of the UN Security Council remains unlikely. Accordingly, the report recommends that states should consider initiating proceedings before the International Court of Justice under Article IX of the Genocide Convention.

The crisis in Tigray has been long neglected by policymakers in the international community. Urgent action is needed to ensure justice for victims. An effective humanitarian strategy and an urgent reset is needed from agencies on the ground. This can only be done if authorities grant the necessary access for life-saving humanitarian assistance to be delivered, which in recent times has been largely absent. Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other regional authorities must grant humanitarian access so that NGOs are able to scale-up and deliver aid to populations that are at a high risk of famine. The responsible authorities in Ethiopia, alongside all other parties to the conflict, must be brought before the International Court of Justice.

Will Devine is an International Development Policy Officer, NGO Board Member and Advisory Council Member at the Australian Institute of International Affairs ACT Branch. Additionally, he is studying a Masters of National Security Policy at the Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.

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