Ethiopia: peace desperately needed
Ethnic violence in the western region of Oromia is the latest bleak episode in Ethiopia’s ongoing crisis. It comes on top of civil war, drought and high levels of food insecurity. Since the conflict began in November 2020, the government has hampered humanitarian aid and rejected international offers of mediation. At last, the government and rebel forces have recently indicated their willingness to take part in peace talks. It’s imperative that all sides involved in the conflict respect the peace process, participate in good faith and ensure the free flow of aid to the many in urgent need.
Ethiopia remains a country in crisis. Since November 2020 it has been torn by civil war, which along with ethnic violence, famine and hunger has blighted millions of lives. The latest chapter in the ongoing emergency is an increase in ethnic violence in the Oromia region, the country’s largest region. Hundreds have reportedly been killed in recent weeks.
The government has blamed the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a militant group, while OLA says government-aligned militias are responsible. What isn’t open to doubt is that people are suffering. Ethiopia’s people urgently need proposed peace talks to succeed.
A country in turmoil
Ethiopia has been engulfed in conflict since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched an offensive to suppress a rebellion by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Prior to Abiy’s rise to power in 2018, the TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s political landscape, but grew increasingly sidelined after Abiy took over.
On one side of the fight are the TPLF and its military wing, the Tigray Defense Forces. On the other are the Ethiopian National Defense Force and police forces, supported by the Eritrean Defence Forces. All parties are accused of committing war crimes.
An estimated half a million people are thought to have died since the start of the confrontation, with up to 100,000 killed directly in fighting, and others by lack of food and medical help caused by the conflict. Reports of extrajudicial killings of civilians and gang rape of women and girls are rife. Up to 5.8 million people are estimated to be displaced, 4.8 million as a result of the conflict.
On top of this, Ethiopia is facing the worst drought it has seen in 40 years. Millions need food, water and shelter. This crisis has been exacerbated by the war, as both sides have stopped farmers ploughing their land, burned crops and occupied the most fertile lands.
Human rights and media freedoms are under attack. The government has been complicit in the arrest and disappearance of ethnic Tigrayans. Throughout the country, thousands of others have been arbitrarily arrested. In May, more than 4,500 were detained in the north-western Amhara region in a crackdown on suspected dissidents. Eighteen journalists – some from established outlets, others operating independently through YouTube – were arrested in the raids.
Risk of detention is not the only threat for journalists. Intimidation and online harassment by the media regulator is a constant concern. Some journalists have been stripped of their media credentials and several foreign reporters have been expelled.
The latest grim development is an increase in ethnic violence in the western region of Oromia. In one of the worst cases of ethnic violence so far, on 18 June gunmen attacked the village of Tole, killing at least 230 members of the ethnic Amhara population and displacing over 2,000 more. Some estimates put the number of dead at over 500, but with a communications blackout and a severely constrained press, it is difficult to verify reports.
A month later, a second wave of violence hit the region. In this attack at least 150 civilians – mostly ethnic Amhara people – were killed and over 45 others were injured. Dozens of people were abducted and several homes were destroyed.
The reports of atrocities make the question of accountability a vital one, and any peace process must not mean impunity.
The government has blamed the OLA – aligned with the TPLF – for the massacres but the group has denied any involvement. A lawmaker from Abiy’s party has alleged that senior government officials in Oromia helped organise the attacks.
Towards peace talks
There is an urgent need for a peace process. Until June 2022, the Ethiopian government rejected numerous mediation efforts to resolve the conflict. Offers from Sudan and Turkey were summarily dismissed and calls for a ceasefire from the USA were ignored. Other African and European countries attempted diplomatic interventions but none had any serious impact.
Welcome change may be signalled by a recent decision by both sides to participate in peace talks. This move appears to have come mostly from a recognition that neither can win an outright military victory: Ethiopian troops have at times driven Tigrayan forces back, but these have been able to reorganise and wage guerrilla warfare.
On 14 June, Abiy announced plans to form a committee to handle negotiations. That same day Tigrayan leaders published an open letter signalling their intention to participate in the process.
It’s still early days. The government and the TPLF have yet to agree on a date, venue, framework and mediators for the peace talks. The ruling party wants the African Union along with the USA to facilitate negotiations while the TPLF wants Kenya. China has also offered to act as a mediator.
Human rights under scrutiny
The reports of atrocities make the question of accountability a vital one, and any peace process must not mean impunity. Pressured by the international community after months of inaction, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) joined with the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate human rights violations in Tigray.
Their joint report, published last November, found evidence of widespread human rights violations by all sides, some of which potentially amount to crimes under international human rights law.
Despite these findings, the report faced heavy criticism. Human Rights Watch argued that it did not fully document abuses committed by Amhara regional forces and militia against Tigrayans in western Tigray, nor detail the scale of sexual slavery and gender-based violence. The EHRC was also accused of understating violations committed by the government and emphasising abuses by militant forces.
Even with these limitations, this report so far offers the best available evidence, because the government severely limits international oversight. The UN was only able to enter Tigray due to its partnership with the EHRC.
Efforts to shed further light on the situation continue. In December 2021 the UN Human Rights Council established the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHRE) to investigate human rights violations committed by all parties in the conflict. This new commission represents the best hope for accountability. In March the government failed in its attempt to block funding for its work.
Restrictions on international access
It isn’t only international investigation the Ethiopian government has tried to prevent. Since the start of the war, the authorities have restricted the flow of humanitarian aid into Tigray, exacerbating the hunger problem. Even after the declaration of a humanitarian truce in March, pathways for food and humanitarian supplies remained obstructed. The government denied accusations it was disrupting aid, but past comments about its distrust of aid organisations gave grounds for scepticism.
While insecurity is playing a role in preventing aid workers from accessing remote areas, organisations like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have credibly described how security forces and bureaucratic obstacles have limited operations and stopped it reaching areas in need.
The government has worked in other ways to disrupt or rebuff the UN’s humanitarian interventions. In mid-2021, it rejected UN proposals to open the Ethiopia-Sudan border to allow the flow of basic necessities as the situation worsened. It has expelled UN aid officials and used military airstrikes to stop humanitarian flights landing.
Civil society organisations are also having a difficult time. Several have been banned and many have lost workers to the violence. Though the situation has improved slightly for some groups – the government lifted its suspension of activities by Médecins Sans Frontières in November 2021 and the Norwegian Refugee Council in January 2022 – civil society groups still face continued obstruction by both the government and rebel forces.
Ahead of the potential peace talks, the two sides remain far apart. The involvement of Eritrea is a complicating factor: it has not yet indicated any intention to stop fighting and will not be involved in the negotiations.
The war is one of many issues affecting Ethiopia. Even if peace comes, the country still faces a humanitarian crisis. The drought continues. There is a shortage of key medical materials and food insecurity is expected to worsen in the coming months. Child marriage, always intensified by crisis as family heads seek financial security, has predictably increased.
The international community is ready to assist but blockades continue to hamper food and aid delivery. Investigations into human rights abuses, including the ICHRE inquiry, also depend on the cooperation of the government, a key limitation. The ICHRE is further restrained by lack of resources and needs greater technical and financial support.
A full resolution to the conflict would entail that all violations and humanitarian concerns be addressed, including by holding to account perpetrators of crimes related to the conflict and ethnic violence. Despite recent steps, there is still a long way to go.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Ethiopian government and the TPLF must allow the free flow of aid into Tigray and other regions affected by blockades.
The Ethiopian government should cooperate with the UN in enabling its independent investigation into human rights abuses.
Governments should adequately fund the ICHRE to enable it to carry out its mandate fully.
Cover photo by J. Countess/Getty Images