By Robin Gomes
The United Nations rights chief says she is “deeply disturbed” by reports of continued violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuse against civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including executions and sexual abuse, more than six months since fighting began there.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said on Monday her office has received reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians “by all parties to the conflict”. These include extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement.
Addressing the opening 47th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, June 21-July 13, in Geneva, Bachelet presented her annual report on the activities of her Office followed by a report on the central role of the state in responding to pandemics and other health emergencies, in the realization of all human rights.
She said that there were “credible reports” Eritrean soldiers were still there, despite a promise to leave. Ethiopia’s government has said it will hold those who commit abuses to account and that more than 50 soldiers are on trial for either rape or killing civilians in Tigray. It has not released any details of those cases.
The Tigray conflict
The war in Tigray started in November as an attempt by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to disarm the region’s rebellious Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party and nationalistic paramilitary group. On one side are guerrillas loyal to the ousted and now-fugitive leaders of Tigray. On the other are Ethiopian government troops, allied troops from neighboring Eritrea and militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara ethnic group who see themselves as rivals to the Tigrayan guerillas. More than 2 million of Tigray’s 6 million people have already fled.
The United Nations and aid groups say some 350,000 people in Tigray, which borders Sudan as well as Eritrea, face famine. Some 2 million others are a step away from the worst famine since 2011 in Somalia. Farmers, aid workers and local officials say food has been turned into a weapon of war, with soldiers blocking or stealing food aid. In her report, Bachelet also mentioned that “the humanitarian situation is dire, with reports of denial of humanitarian access in some localities, and looting of aid supplies by soldiers.”
However, the Ethiopian prime minister said, “There is no hunger in Tigray.” Speaking to BBC News on Monday, after voting in the country’s general election, Abiy said, “There is a problem and the government is capable of fixing that.”
Earlier on June 14, the UN’s Children’s Fund, UNICEF, raised an alarm that at least 33,000 children in inaccessible parts of Tigray were severely malnourished and would face imminent death without immediate help. UNICEF said in May alone, there has been a four-fold increase in weekly admissions of children for treatment for severe acute malnutrition. It projects that 56,000 children under five in Tigray will need treatment this year for sever
e acute malnutrition – almost six times higher than the average annual caseload for the region.
The Ethiopian authorities have said that they are distributing food aid and denied reports that they are restricting access to humanitarian agencies.
The UN rights chief’s report on Tigray came a day after Pope Francis demanded that humanitarian aid reach hungry people in the region against the blockade. Speaking during his weekly midday “Angelus” prayer, the Pope called for an immediate end to the fighting in Tigray, the return of social harmony and for “all food aid and health care assistance to be guaranteed.” He said he was thinking of the people of Tigray who have been “struck by a grave humanitarian crisis that has exposed the poorest to famine. Today there is famine! There is hunger!” he exclaimed.
Ethiopia’s ethnic and communal violence
Bachelet said that since May 16 her Office has been conducting a joint investigation with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission regarding human rights abuse in Tigray. A report is expected in August, following which the findings and recommendations will be made public.
Bachelet also noted that many other parts of Ethiopia, alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement were linked to increasing polarization about longstanding grievances. Stressing that “the use of military forces is not a durable solution”, she urged “comprehensive and multidimensional dialogue throughout the country to address the real grievances”.