By Jamshed Baruah

NEW YORK (IDN) - Despite differing strategies, the United Nations is committed to strengthening its partnership with regional organizations in Eurasia and Central Asia on peace and security matters, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told the Security Council.

“That is why it is so important to deepen our strategic dialogue, forge common approaches to emerging crises, and strive to improve our collective responses to peace and security threats,” he said, as the Council discussed on October 28 cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.

- Photo: 2021

Humanitarian Situation Getting from Bad to Worse in the Horn

By S. Gianesello

BRUSSELS (IDN | EEPA) — As the UN Security Council prepared to meet on March 4 to talk over the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the situation in the Horn of Africa was getting from bad to worse with reports of ethnic targeting and cleansing. The meeting was requested by Ireland, joined by other members of the UN Security Council.

Diplomats stated there is no assurance that the closed-door meeting will produce a joint statement. The Security Council held several meetings over the situation in Tigray since the beginning of the conflict, on November 4, 2020. The last Council meeting was held on February 2, 2021.

None of the meetings produced a joint statement. The main cause seems to be a division between members over how to treat the conflict. On March 2, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric stated that “[h]undreds of thousands of people affected (by fighting) have not been reached, particularly in the rural areas of Tigray”.

The UN Security Council has been called by NGOs to pass a resolution that would guarantee full access to humanitarian agencies and to investigate allegations of war crimes. Estonia, France, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States joined the call for the UN Security Council to investigate alleged violations and crimes in Tigray

International concern over atrocities in Tigray

The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, stated that the US is “[…] deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis” in Tigray. He spoke over the phone with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He urged Ethiopia to take “immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians, including refugees, and to prevent further violence”, pressing for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray.

On February 24, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, focusing on “human rights of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in the context of the ongoing Tigray crisis in Ethiopia”. He said that he had received credible reports on “allegations of grave human rights and humanitarian law violations, including extrajudicial killings, targeted abductions and forced return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers to Eritrea, allegedly by Eritrean forces”. He called for an independent investigation into the attacks on two refugee camps, Hitsats and Shemelba, and into the alleged “implication of Eritrean troops in cases of serious human rights violations”.

Executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Alex de Waal, states that denial is the biggest obstacle to stopping mass starvation and atrocities in Ethiopia. “We shouldn’t have to wait until we count the dead children before declaring famine or confirm the mass graves before we call out crimes against humanity,” states De Waal.

Testimonies on massacres

Amnesty International published a report on February 25, 2021, documenting the massacre in Aksum, which took place between November 19 and 29, 2020. The report states that both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately shelled Aksum before entering the city. This resulted in civilian casualties. According to Amnesty International, this may be considered a war crime. Furthermore, looting and killing of hundreds by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.

CNN released an investigation based on eyewitnesses and images about a massacre that happened at Maryam Dengela, an ancient monastery in the Tigray mountains, where people found refuge. Witnesses stated Eritrean soldiers had opened fire against them and had not allowed them to bury the dead for three days.

Tghat published a personal account written by Getu Mak, a lecturer at the Adigrat University, who was present during the Aksum massacre in November. He reports on the shelling of Eritrean forces of Humera and Shire, witnessed by his sister, and the massacre of Aksum. His account is in line with the findings of Amnesty International.

Al Jazeera has gained access to Tigray and published accounts from survivors, who allege Eritrean troops committed rape and killed civilians in Tigray.

Ethiopia and Sudan border dispute

Fighting on the border in the Fashaga area between Sudan and Ethiopia is still ongoing. Ethiopia called on Sudan to withdraw its armies from the border. This is a precondition for the beginning of a peaceful dialogue, according to Ethiopia. Dina Mufti, Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, said that Ethiopia does not want to commence a conflict with Sudan.

Sudanese media claim Ethiopian forces are supported by Eritrean troops. Eritrean representatives were in Khartoum last week, and gave Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdallah Hamdok, two messages from Eritrean President Afwerki. Hamdok’s cabinet stated that President Afwerki wrote that “Eritrea is not a party to the border tension.” President Afwerki further calls for a “peaceful solution between the two sides in a way that serves peace, stability and security in the region”. 

Reporters and translators in Tigray detained

As reported by various media, at least four people, two reporters and two translators, have been arrested in Mekelle in previous days. Fitsum Berhane and Alula Akalu Kassa, who started their collaboration with accredited international journalists as translators, were arrested by soldiers on February 27 in the city of Mekelle, Tigray.

One of the two arrested, Fitsum Berhane, was arrested after only three days into his commitment with an AFP journalist. A senior officer of the Ethiopian government confirmed the imprisonment, stating both translators were “under investigation”, but has given no details about allegations.

Financial Times and AFP respectively called for the immediate release of the two imprisoned translators due to unclear accusations and the fact that both translators were authorised by the Ethiopian government to work for a press trip in Mekelle. According to the AFP and the FT, on the same day a local reporter and fixer, Tamrat Yemane, was arrested.

On March 1, Girmay Gebru, a BBC reporter working for the Tigrinya-language service was arrested. Other translators and fixers indicate they have been threatened with arrest or worse if they lead journalists to sensitive spots.

The Committee to Protect Journalist stated that “Ethiopian authorities should release these journalists and media workers immediately and provide guarantees that the press can cover the conflict in Tigray without intimidation.”

Refugees suffer from trauma

Civilians in the Tigray region and refugees in Sudaneses refugee camps are reporting mental trauma, including psychological disorders, as reported by various media.

A displaced woman from Mai Kadra, Saba, stated to Aljazeera: “Some girls and I managed to leave the village, but on the road we were caught by Eritrean soldiers, [m]ore than 10 soldiers took turns raping us.”

According to Tsegaye Berhanu, scholar at the Assosa University in Benishangul-Gumuz, these multiple traumatic episodes and the government’s attempt to restore trust with the population through the formation of a new multi-ethnic self-defence militia could provoke a new wave of revenge.

As anger is already rising among young people: “[a]rming unarmed groups is like encouraging revenge, and puts the area into an endless conflict trap,” said Berhanu to The New Humanitarian. Especially the rural areas face rape, killing and ethnic cleansing. This could lead to an escalation of violence. Furthermore, not only people have been touched by serious damage, but also buildings and villages have been completely erased, as occurred in the Gijet area.

The loss of homesteads adds another element of suffering to the Tigrayan population and can contribute to the return of violent ethnonationalism. As reported by TNH, many displaced persons are afraid to return home also because when they transfer to other Ethiopian regions they are not granted full citizenship, as happened in previous years to settlers in the Benishangul-Gumuz area.

Civilian and refugees are exposed to rights violations in Tigray

A report of Human Rights Watch (HRW) showed that civilian homes, hospitals, schools and markets were hit by armed attacks in cities of Mekelle, Humera and Shire in November 2020. According to witnesses, an indiscriminate attack left at least 83 civilians dead and around 300 wounded. Alleged killings and attacks on civilians have been reported by CNN.

In CNN’s report, witnesses described how “[a] group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire on Maryam Dengelat church while hundreds of congregants were celebrating mass”. The Eritrean government denied any attacks and involvement of Eritrean soldiers in atrocities committed in the Tigray region.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations are calling for an independent investigation of alleged war crimes and human rights violations, as well as withdrawal of foreign troops from Tigray. There are numerous reports of Tigrayans being deported from the Western Tigrayan Lowlands by Amhara regional forces. They are being deported to central Tigray. Only those that they identify as Amharic can remain.

The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation urged competent authorities not to overlook “human rights violations, and even genocidal actions” while tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Dutch aid workers reported that tense situation is also affecting refugees residing in Tigray. Karla Bil, medical director of Médecins Sans Frontières – Holland, recalls conversation with refugees.

“They were told: run or you will be killed. They were stories full of violence, destruction and rape” states Bil for Trouw. World Health Organization Director for the Health Emergency Programme, Michael Ryan, expressed concern over the situation in Tigray, stating that malnutrition and other conditions exacerbate the risk of outbreak of disease.

Ethnic targeting and ethnic cleansing

An internal United Status report indicates that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and allied militia have been targeting Tigrayan people with the aim to kill and drive them from their houses, in acts of systematic ethnic cleansing.

The report describes villages completely destroyed and houses looted, while the inhabitants disappeared. The report shows that fighters and officials from the Amhara region of Ethiopia, who entered Tigray sustaining the ENDF troops, were “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,”.

In addition, as reported by Vice World News, not only have several cities been destroyed, but also at least four villages have been completely erased and people killed, with houses burned in the process. These atrocities happened after the victory declared by PM Abiy Ahmed which would have led to the end of fighting. Witnesses and satellite images confirmed the destruction.

The NGO DX Open Network, analysing the images, stated that: “[a]bsence of scorching between blackened structures suggests intentional burning, not the result of a wildfire.”

In addition, there were no indicators of valid military targets. Tigrayan peacekeepers deployed in South Sudan also complained of ethnic targeting by ENDF officials. Tigrayan soldiers refuse to return to Ethiopia, because of the fear of being targeted once they arrive in Tigray. Furthermore, ENDF officials accused Tigrayan soldiers of representing the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) party, and for this they are considered as traitors.

EEPA is a Centre of Expertise with in-depth knowledge, publications, and networks, specialised in issues of peacebuilding, refugee protection and resilience in the Horn of Africa. It has published extensively on issues related to movement and/or human trafficking of refugees in the Horn of Africa and on the Central Mediterranean Route.

EEPA cooperates with a wide network of universities, research organisations, civil society and experts from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and across Africa.  Key in-depth publications can be accessed on the website.

EEPA is sending extra news highlights on the conflict in the Horn of Africa. Previous highlights extra and EEPA’s daily situation reports on the Horn crisis are available its website. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 March 2021]

Photo: Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country’s northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR’s Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. Credit: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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