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Ethnic Cleansing and Crimes Against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone

What is Happening in Ethiopia?

The civil war in Ethiopia is now entering its 16th month of brutal conflict. Under the rule of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian military, ethnic militias and Eritrean troops are fighting to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.) from Western Tigray.

Mr Abiy is focused on breaking the T.P.L.F.’s power and influence which has dominated Ethiopian politics for almost thirty years. The prime minister declared a state of emergency in November 2020 when Tigrayan fighters surged toward the capital in revolt against the government. Nevertheless, Mr Abiy forced the Tigrayans back to their northern homeland, but the conflict continued. Armed forces from the neighbouring Amhara region, who entered Tigray to support Mr Abiy, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation”.

Armed forces have been accused of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Tigrayans. Furthermore, Ghent University has estimated that more than half a million people have died in the war. Furthermore, more than two million people have been displaced, pushing parts of the region into famine-like conditions. Ethiopian authorities have severely restricted access and independent scrutiny of the region, which has resulted in any reports of ethnic cleansing mainly kept concealed.

These widespread human rights violations include killings, rape, mass detentions, and forcible transfers. In April 2022, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated in a joint report that these abuses amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. This comprehensive report contains information from 427 interviews with survivors, family members and witnesses. In addition to this, the World Health Organization’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, stated that there is “nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in the Tigray region”.

What is ‘Ethnic Cleansing’?

Ethnic cleansing is not formally defined under international human rights law. However, the United Nations Commission of Experts investigated violations of international humanitarian law occurring in the former territory of Yugoslavia. During this investigation, ‘ethnic cleansing’ was described as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas by violent and terror-inspiring means.”

The United Nations consistently uses ‘ethnic cleansing’ in resolutions, reports, judgments and indictments of individuals accused before international courts and tribunals.

Ethnic Cleansing in Western Tigray

Hundreds of Thousands Expelled From Their Homes

Amhara forces, militias, and recently appointed authorities began a coordinated campaign of ethnically targeted persecution against the Tigrayans beginning in late 2020. Signs were displayed across the region instructing Tigrayans to leave. There were reports of 24-hour or 72-hour ultimatums to leave or be killed issued to local civilians forcing thousands of Tigrayans into long-term overcrowded detention centres. Human rights groups believe that thousands remain in these centres facing life-threatening circumstances. There are reports of security forces using gang rape, abduction, sexual slavery and physical and verbal abuse against Tigrayans.

Caption: Two displaced Ethiopian women live in a tent after being forced to flee their homes in the Western Tigray region.

Ethiopian paramilitaries have systematically expelled several hundred thousand Tigrayan civilians from their homes. There are reports of unlawful killings, sexual violence, arbitrary mass detention, pillage, forcible transfer, and the denial of humanitarian assistance by Amhara forces. The map below shows the region of Western Tigray.

Moreover, human rights groups have highlighted the Ethiopian government’s complicity in these violations against the Tigrayan people in their recent investigations.

“Ethiopian authorities have steadfastly denied the shocking breadth of the crimes that have unfolded and have egregiously failed to address them”

Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch.

Tigrinya Language Banned Across Western Tigray

Since November 2020, there has been a ban on the Tigrinya language across Western Tigray. Signs across the region tell locals that they must speak Amharic. This can be difficult for Tigrayans when dealing with administrative work or accessing basic services. Tigrinya music is prohibited, and Amhara forces physically beat those who use this language for any purpose.

New Identification Cards Issued and Personal Documents Confiscated

New identification cards have been selectively issued across Western Tigray by the Amhara region. Consequently, this has limited the rights of those who have not received a new card. Many Tigrayans have been refused identity cards claiming authorities tell them that “they do not deserve it”. The new identification cards grant civilians free movement throughout the region, access to essential services, and the right to submit complaints. Many locals have no access to life-saving health services and medicines due to these discriminatory restrictions imposed.

This is the Amhara forces’ way of forcibly removing the Tigrayan civilian population from the Western Tigray region. Amhara forces confiscate and destroy many of the Tigrayans’ personal documents. This severely hinders Tigrayans’ ability to access services and continue to live everyday life in the region. Amhara forces are implementing these measures of ‘ethnic cleansing’ to support Mr. Abiy in his pursit of eliminating the T.P.L.F. and the Tigrayan ethnicity from the region.

Dozens of Civilians Killed by Suspected War Crimes

The Ethiopian government has carried out many airstrikes killing thousands of people throughout the conflict. In January 2022, an airstrike hit a school compound at Dedebit, where thousands of displaced Tigrayans were staying. There were no signs of military targets at the compound, which strongly implies that this was not an accidental attack. The airstrike killed 57 civilians consisting mainly of women, children and older adults sleeping in tents.

The number of government airstrikes in Tigray increased dramatically in December 2021. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported between November 2021 and February 2022 that, 304 died and 373 were injured from the attacks. Any violations of the laws of war committed with deliberate or reckless criminal intent are classified as war crimes.

What Happens Next?

HRW has held that the Ethiopian authorities should ensure that humanitarian organizations have immediate access to the region to deliver aid and essential services. It is imperative to release all those arbitrarily detained and investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. If the two parties reach a consensual agreement, then the the African Union should deploy international peacekeeping forces to the region to ensure everyone’s safety.

Laura Shorten
Laura Shorten is an Irish human rights consultant and researcher based in the Netherlands. Laura qualified with an International Bachelor of Social Sciences degree from University College Dublin. She majored in politics, international relations and social policy. Laura graduated from Technological University Dublin with a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. In 2021, she graduated with an Advanced LL.M in International Children’s Rights at Leiden University. Laura specializes in international law, children’s human rights, political science, international relations, middle eastern studies, refugee/migration law, gender studies, strategic litigation and global diplomacy. Laura has published various articles pertaining to international law and human rights violations occuring worldwide. Laura defended her Advanced Master’s Thesis entitled “An Analysis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Legal Framework in Protecting Children’s Right to Health and Right to Life in the Face of Climate Change”. This thesis is published on the Leiden University website under the Advanced Master of Law Theses for children's rights. Laura has previously worked for UNICEF Ireland, campaigning for children worldwide who are facing discrimination and living in war zones. https://www.linkedin.com/in/laura-shorten/