Tigray: A Violation of International Humanitarian Law?

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

By Sarah Rennie

An update: This article says that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea denied allegations of Eritrean forces’ involvement in the conflict in Tigray (a region in northern Ethiopia). However, Ahmed acknowledged in March 2021 that Eritrean forces were involved. And on 16 April 2021, Eritrea admitted to the UN Security Council (and posted a letter online) that Eritrean forces were involved in the conflict and would start withdrawing their troops, simultaneous with the withdrawing of Ethiopian troops from the Tigray region.

Since November 2020, the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray has been suffering through a brutal and inhumane conflict. With an estimated 70,000 dead, 2.2 million internally displaced, and 4.5 million in urgent need of food, it is becoming a concern that the atrocities committed in Tigray are violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and that the victims of this conflict require immediate assistance.

The Tigray conflict stems from an already tense relationship between the Tigrayan ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), who are under direction from Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy came to power in 2018, and reshuffled the government coalition into a single party – the Prosperity Party. The TPFL refused to join and continued to govern their own region, leading to each side seeing the other as illegitimate. In August 2020, national elections were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that several opposition parties condemned, including the TPLF. Consequently, the TPLF decided to hold its own regional elections in September.

The Tigray War started against this backdrop on November 4th, 2020 when armed TPLF forces attacked the ENDF Northern Command Headquarters in Mekelle. The TPLF called their attack “pre-emptive”, as they believed an attack by federal troops was imminent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Abiy ordered a military offensive against the TPLF in retaliation. The conflict has since developed and troops from neighbouring Eritrea have become involved, fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government. Yet, both Ethiopia and Eritrea itself deny allegations of Eritrea’s involvement.

What cannot be denied, however, is the severe amount of suffering in Tigray. At the outbreak of the conflict, there were restrictions on communication and almost all journalists were banned from the region. Subsequently, it has been difficult to obtain accurate accounts of what was unfolding. Now, as information and reports are finally being shared, the reality of the conflict is coming into focus.

Though available interviews and articles are limited, it is clear that most of the occurrences in Tigray are far from legal by International Humanitarian Law standards. IHL seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting those who do not partake in conflict. It protects civilians, medical and military personnel, and those who no longer participate in conflict (such as wounded combatants and prisoners of war). It is forbidden to “kill or wound” anyone unable to fight. Furthermore, medical personnel, supplies, ambulances and hospitals must also be protected. Civilians protected under IHL must also be allowed “food, shelter and medical care”.  So what does this mean for Tigray?

On November 28th 2020, the historical town of Axum was host to a 24-hour killing spree by Eritrean forces, sparked by a prior attack by the Tigrayan militia. Between December 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 Axum victims and their relatives. These interviews were conducted over the phone, due to government restrictions on Tigray. Interviewees “consistently identified Eritrean troops” by their vehicles, uniforms and the dialect of Tigrinya, disproving aforementioned claims of Eritrean involvement. Human Rights Watch estimates that 200 civilians were killed that night alone. Clearly, both sides of the Tigrayan Conflict are at fault for the atrocities that they commit, but the focus must be turned to the victims of such atrocities. The international community are greatly concerned that the Tigray Conflict is in violation of IHL, and the Axum attacks prove these concerns to be true. The death toll estimated by Human Rights Watch references killings of civilians, showing that these are extrajudicial killings of non-combatants carried out by Eritrean forces, and therefore illegal according to IHL. Further violence against innocent residents of Tigray has been disclosed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with more than 136 cases of sexual assault reported in hospitals in December and January alone, and fears that the real figures are much higher.

It has also been widely documented that starvation has been used as a tactic against citizens in Tigray. Omna Tigray (a global nonprofit that advocates for an end to the Tigrayan conflict) reported that the Abiy administration blocked access to electricity, aid and food for those desperately in need. This is another blatant violation of IHL, resulting in the suffering of millions of Tigrayan civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross stated on 18th November 2020 that “…three ambulances run by the Ethiopia Red Cross were attacked”. This is a worrying account demonstrating that the government is not protecting medical personnel, as IHL asserts they should be. Additionally, hospitals have either been looted by government and Eritrean troops, or overrun – a situation made more serious by the threat of COVID-19.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, has expressed concern over the humanitarian conditions in Tigray, and has called for unrestricted access to refugee camps in order to provide acutely needed assistance. The G7 has also stated concerns about human rights abuses and war crimes. Yet, on 6th March, the United Nations Security Council cancelled plans to issue a statement calling for an end to violence in Tigray due to China and Russia’s opposition. Additionally, the international community has urged the African Union to apply more pressure on the Ethiopian government to pacify the situation. On 11th March, the Chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, met with Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Ato Demeke Mekonnen, to discuss the engagement of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in the investigation of war crimes in Tigray. Faki stated that the Ethiopian government was ready to cooperate and engage with the African Union. However, reports of some of the most severe fighting since November in southern Tigray came out the next week. To date, there has been no update on the status of talks between the African Union and the Ethiopian government. 

The international community is often criticised, quite justifiably, for inappropriately intervening in the affairs of African countries. Yet, there have been numerous instances in which international inaction has exacerbated unnecessary suffering, like in Tigray. More must be done to ensure the survival of the millions of innocent civilians in need of food, medical attention and shelter. It is imperative that the Ethiopian government cooperates with international organisations and allows access to Tigray and its citizens. It is also important that more people worldwide continue to raise awareness of this brutal conflict. Only then can the victims receive the help and attention that they desperately need.

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