A recent ceasefire agreement between Ethiopia’s federal government and the leaders of the Tigray region has, it must be hoped, finally brought an end to a bloody two-year war that left hundreds of thousands dead. As a result of the ceasefire, desperately needed aid has started to flow into Tigray, which is experiencing a full-blown humanitarian crisis. But the agreement leaves many questions unanswered, including the role of Eritrean troops and the vital issue of accountability for the atrocities committed by all sides during the conflict. The government must commit to working with the international community and civil society to hold accountable all those responsible for human rights violations.

On 15 November, the first aid convoy in several months rolled into Mekele, the main city of Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Two trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived carrying vital medical supplies.

Its cargo was much needed. Only nine per cent of the region’s healthcare facilities are operational, with many closed due to looting and damage sustained during the two-year civil war between Tigray and the Ethiopian federal government. The region’s only functioning major hospital has stopped all non-emergency surgery and has reported being short of essential supplies such as antibiotics, intravenous fluids and oxygen. Already most registered kidney dialysis patients have died and an estimated 26,700 people with diabetes are running short of insulin.

It isn’t just medical supplies needed. Tigray is desperately short of food, fuel and water, and largely lacks electricity, internet access and banking services – which makes it harder to buy what little food there is. In August, the World Food Programme assessed that almost half of people in Tigray were experiencing a severe lack of food, and one-third of children aged under five were malnourished.

The first international food aid convoys started to arrive on 16 November. The federal government says it too is supplying aid, and further international humanitarian organisations are beginning their operations. Much more is needed, and urgently, in a race against time to save lives.

Access to the region had been blocked since August, when a ceasefire was broken and hostilities resumed. But a recent agreement between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has led to a new ceasefire and the region appears to be reopening to humanitarian access. This is a vital first step, but a lot more will be necessary to achieve peace.

A bloody conflict

Ethiopia’s latest conflict has had a horrendous cost. Hundreds of thousands have died, both as a direct result of the fighting and due to the war’s deep impacts, while millions have been displaced.

The conflict’s origins lie in moves by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to curtail the dominance the TPLF long enjoyed in the country’s governance. Abiy, who came to power promising democratisation in 2018, merged the governing coalition’s various ethnic and regional parties, which represented different parts of Ethiopia’s federal structure. Either as part of his top-down project to reform the country’s governance or to consolidate his command, he moved to limit regional power and centralise control, putting himself at the head of a new national party.

The TPLF opposed this. In 2020, when the central government postponed elections due to the pandemic, the TPLF-run Tigray government defiantly held its own vote. The dispute turned violent in November 2020 when Tigray forces and militia attacked Ethiopian defence force bases in Tigray.

Government forces, supplemented by troops from neighbouring Eritrea, quickly took control of Mekele and pushed Tigray forces back, but this led to a spell of guerrilla warfare, before a Tigrayan counteroffensive in 2021 regained control of the region and then made further advances, at one point getting to within a few hundred kilometres of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. By this stage rebel groups from other regions were fighting with Tigrayan forces.

The government offensive that followed recaptured much of the lost territory and in March 2022 the government declared a truce, enabling humanitarian access. But there was little progress in peace talks, and fighting resumed in August, leading to a steadily worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray and high casualties as Ethiopian and Eritrean forces intensified their assault.

Through a process brokered by the African Union, talks held in Pretoria, South Africa, led to a ceasefire agreement on 2 November. But the central government allowed no aid to flow until further negotiations held in Nairobi, Kenya, led to a plan to implement the ceasefire, agreed on 12 November.

A sustainable peace can’t be imposed top-down by the government, and nor can it be a ‘victor’s peace’ where the winning side dictates all the terms and extracts whatever concessions it wishes.

The ceasefire agreement makes clear the Ethiopian government is the victor. The deal dissolves Tigray’s government, giving the federal government control over the region pending the election of a new regional government. Tigrayan forces are expected to completely disarm within an unrealistic timeframe of 30 days. In return the Ethiopian government commits to expedite humanitarian access and ensure the withdrawal of all foreign forces and ethnic militias.

There are many things the agreement is however silent on. The foreign forces not mentioned by name are the Eritrean troops that have been fighting on the government’s side. They have been accused of committing some of the war’s worst human rights atrocities.

Many Eritrean soldiers remain in the region, and their withdrawal is surely essential to any hopes of building a sustainable peace. But the Eritrean government, one of the world’s most brutal authoritarian regimes, wasn’t part of the ceasefire talks and has so far said nothing on the matter.

Eritrea borders Tigray and the country’s dictatorial leader, President Isaias Afwerki, has long opposed the TPLF, which ran Ethiopia during Eritrea’s long conflict with it. Hostilities were finally resolved under Abiy in 2018. Eritrea may want to continue its punitive actions. Afwerki may feel his interests are best served by continuing unrest rather than peace, not least because conflict, including the former conflict with Ethiopia, has been used as a pretext for policies of long-term conscription and forced labour – systemic human rights violations that help keep Eritrea’s population subdued.

Voices from the frontline

Helen Kidan is an executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, a civil society organisation aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.


For a long time, the Eritrean government has blamed the ‘no peace, no war’ situation for the persistence of indefinite national service, based on the idea that Eritrea’s sovereignty was at stake during its long conflict with Ethiopia.

The 2018 peace deal with Ethiopia was welcomed by many Eritreans, and particularly by Eritrean mothers who longed for their children to return home from border areas, where many had been deployed for 20 years.

This, however, did not last long: on 4 November 2020, the Eritrean government backed the Federal Ethiopian State in its war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed initially said this was a war to restore order in the country, but if this was the case, it begs the question of why he invited Eritrea into its internal conflict.

Eritrean conscripts have been forcefully recruited into the military and dragged into a war that is not of their making and in which they had no say. Many Eritrean soldiers do not know why they have been deployed and many have fled upon reaching Ethiopia. The conflict has increased food insecurity in Eritrea, as there have been shortagesof labour at the time of harvest.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Helen. Read the full interview here.

Unanswered questions

A vital unanswered question relates to accountability over the gross human rights violations carried out by all sides in the conflict – forces from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tigray and other rebel groups – that may be tantamount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Ethiopian government has made it harder to track these by strictly limiting international scrutiny, but a joint report in November 2021, one year into the conflict, by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found evidence of widespread violations that potentially amount to crimes against international law.

Civil society assessed that this was likely an understatement of crimes committed by government forces in particular and of the scale of ethnic violence, which has been perpetrated during the conflict not just in Tigray but also in surrounding regions.

This includes a surge of violence against ethnic Amhara people in the Oromia region in June 2022. Rebel forces and government troops continue to fight in Oromia even following the ceasefire in Tigray, and there are signs the conflict may be intensifying. Violence was also unleashed this year against Tigrayan people in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz.

The conflict saw ethnic violence on a vast scale in western Tigray in particular. The area has long been a territory of fierce dispute between Amhara and Tigrayan leaders. It was transferred from the Amhara region to Tigray when the TPLF was the dominant partner in Ethiopia’s government and many Amhara people were expelled. The conflict provided the opportunity for revenge.

Earlier this year Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported that security forces from Amhara, which have occupied western Tigray since the war began, along with newly appointed local officials, have carried out a systematic campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Tigrayans. This included extrajudicial executions, rape and other forms of sexual violence, mass detentions and threats. As a result, several hundred thousand people have been forced from their homes.

The region’s status still needs to be resolved. Abiy has said the issue will be determined by Ethiopian law rather than through international talks and has hinted that the question may be determined by a referendum.

But whatever results, at least one group won’t be happy, and if the decision is made in a high-handed manner without being preceded by accountability, a reckoning with past crimes and the return of displaced people, resentment can only fester.

Beyond this, there’s potential for different factions of those on the losing side of the conflict to splinter and turn against each other, with rebel groups that allied with the TPLF not part of the agreement. It will be important that rebels are provided with incentives not to fight and access to livelihoods. As well as Eritrean troops, the continuing presence of forces from Amhara in Tigray needs to be dealt with.

The Ethiopian government shouldn’t be above accountability for its role in the conflict. It has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using starvation as a tactic to win the war. It targeted Tigrayan people in other parts of Ethiopia, including through tactics of mass detention that saw thousands locked away in crowded and squalid conditions for no crime other than being Tigrayan. At least 16 UN staff and their families were among those detained.

The war brought a tightening of media freedoms, with Ethiopia second only to Eritrea for the number of journalists jailed in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2021. Journalists have been detained for lengthy periods, including for criticising Abiy and interviewing people who are members of groups the government considers terrorists.

Civil society once welcomed the relative opening up of civic space after Abiy took charge. Now one consequence of peace should be a rolling back of recent restrictions, and a willingness for the government to submit to scrutiny.

Need for a sustainable and inclusive peace

A sustainable peace can’t be imposed top-down by the government, and nor can it be a ‘victor’s peace’ where the winning side dictates all the terms and extracts whatever concessions it wishes.

Humanitarian aid is clearly currently the top priority, but there remains a need to put in place the means of fostering reconciliation, which can only come if there are processes for the perpetrators and commissioners of atrocities to be held to account for their crimes – and importantly, they must be seen to be held to account, in a way that builds public trust.

The international community and civil society, domestic and international, have a key role to play here to ensure that peace processes are just and inclusive. In a deeply polarised country, buy-in won’t come from the government going it alone.

The international community was slow to respond when the war started. This has arguably been one of many forgotten conflicts around the world. In August, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Tigrayan head of the World Health Organization, accused the international community of ignoring the crisis, suggesting this could be due to racism, given the similar lack of global attention paid to crises in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, compared to the global attention that has focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This makes UN scrutiny even more vital. A UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia was established by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2021 to collect evidence and conduct a thorough investigation into rights violations. Its mandate was narrowly renewed in October 2022, but with all African members of the Council voting against, apart from Malawi, which abstained.

It has faced the problem of non-cooperation from the Ethiopian government, which has consistently characterised the establishment of the Commission as politically motivated. But its work has also been hampered by under-resourcing, further suggesting a lack of priority being given to the crisis.

The need now is to invest in peace: to adequately resource peace processes, and to enable international organisations and civil society at all levels to play their proper role as partners in building peace, upholding rights and challenging impunity. This is the only path to sustainable peace.


  • The Ethiopian government must continue to let international humanitarian aid flow into Tigray without any restrictions.
  • The government should commit to cooperating fully with the UN’s International Commission and accept its recommendations.
  • The government should open up space for civil society, including to play a full role in seeking accountability over human rights violations committed by all sides during the conflict.

Cover photo by Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images