By Sean Buchanan
With Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed having ordered federal armed forces to launch a “final offensive” on the country’s Tigray region after a 72-hour ultimatum that dissident local leaders surrender expired, there are fears that those most likely to suffer will be innocent civilians.
In an attempt to counter such fears, Abiy Ahmed released a statement November 26 on his Twitter page saying that care would be to protect innocent civilians from harm.
“All efforts will be made to ensure that the city of Mekelle, which was built through the hard work of our people, will not be severely damaged … We call on the people of Mekelle and its environs to disarm, stay at home and stay away from military targets, and take all necessary precautions.”
However, just a few days earlier, military officials had warned of “no mercy” if residents of Mekelle did not distance themselves from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the local ruling party which had refused to be part of the Prosperity Party established by Abiy Ahmed in November 2019, declaring it illegal.
The Prosperity Party, successor to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formed through the merging of three former EPRDF member parties, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The TPLF had been the dominant party in the former EPRDF for 27 years.
The TPFL saw creation of the Prosperity Party as an attempt to centralise power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system, and in September 2020 defied the central government to hold its own regional election. The central government, which had postponed national elections because of coronavirus, said it was illegal.
The dispute quickly escalated when the central government suspended funding to and cut ties with Tigray, which the TPLF said amounted to a “declaration of war”.
The situation exploded when Abiy Ahmed accused Tigrayan forces of attacking an army base to steal weapons, saying that the federal government was therefore “forced into a military confrontation.”
Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for his peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, launched the military campaign against the TPLF on November 4, accusing it of seeking to destabilise the country.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said November 24 that his people are “ready to die” defending their homeland, rejecting the prime minister’s demand that they lay down their arms within 72 hours.
Estimates put the number of dead in the conflict so far in their hundreds, if not thousands, and up to one million people have been displaced. Efforts by the African Union and the United Nations to defuse the crisis have failed, with Abiy Ahmed rejecting them as “interference” in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
The head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, stressed that “extreme caution to avoid civilian harm is of even greater importance, now, at this stage of the conflict.”
On November 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on the parties to the conflict in the Tigray region to give “clear and unambiguous order to their forces not to target civilians and protect them from assault”.
She voiced concern that rhetoric on both sides ahead of what it is feared will be a major battle for the regional capital, Mekelle, “is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger”.
“I fear such rhetoric will lead to further violations of international humanitarian law”, she warned.
“Such rhetoric suggests possible breaches of the cardinal principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities that are designed to ensure the civilian population is protected.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement November 24 that he was “deeply concerned over the unfolding situation in the Tigray region”, and urged “the leaders of Ethiopia to do everything possible to protect civilians, uphold human rights and ensure humanitarian access for the provision of much-needed assistance.”
He also called for “the free and safe movement of people searching for safety and assistance, regardless of their ethnic identity, across both national and international borders.”
In her statement, Bachelet also responded to reports that TPLF fighters were stationing themselves among the civilian population.
However, she said, this does not give the Ethiopian Government “carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas” as it seeks to take control of the region.”
She stressed that under international law, parties to a conflict should take all possible measures to protect civilians.
“I remind all parties to the conflict that the obligation to respect international law is not conditional on the other party’s behaviour. All parties to the conflict are bound to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law as applicable. The protection of civilians is paramount.”
Meanwhile, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Ethiopian refugees continue to stream into Sudan, with the number surpassing 40,000 since the crisis began.
With humanitarian needs outpacing response capacity, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told journalists at a press briefing in Geneva that UNHCR had been able “to deliver and distribute life-saving aid, including food, to more people. But the humanitarian response continues to face logistical challenges and remains overstretched. There is not enough shelter capacity to meet the growing needs.”
Baloch also voiced concern over the situation of civilians, including displaced persons and aid workers in the Tigray region.
He reiterated the call on all parties to enable the free and safe movement of affected people in search of safety and assistance, including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic background.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), around half a million people, including about 200 humanitarian workers remain in Mekelle.
OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke said that the UN and partners in Ethiopia remain ready to provide assistance to people affected by the conflict, adding that “free, safe and unhindered humanitarian access is urgently needed” to allow that to happen.
He also said that OCHA has finalised a humanitarian preparedness plan intended to help two million people with assistance in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions, which includes existing humanitarian caseloads and an additional 1.1 million people expected to be in need of assistance as a result of the conflict.
Due to a near total communications blackout across Tigray, establishing facts on the ground is difficult, but UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that more than half a million people remain in Mekelle and “the UN and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia are urgently calling on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including health facilities, and water systems.”
Humanitarian organisations are stressing that it is urgent that all parties to the conflict enable the free and safe movement of civilians fleeing in search of safety and assistance, “including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic identification.”
Nearly 39,000 people have now fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan, including 17,000 children. The response is scaling up,” said Dujarric, “but the influx of arrivals is outpacing the capacity on the ground and additional funding is urgently needed.”
UNHCR is relocating refugees from transit centres to a displacement settlement in Um Raquba, where the UN sexual and reproductive health agency UNFPA is working with partners to provide critical services.
A majority of the relocated refugees are women and children: “I have seen men are slaughtered in front of my own eyes. I cannot forget that”, one young woman told UNFPA officials in the southeast Sudanese camp at Um Raquba. “I ran from home when the gunfire was going off. I still don’t know where my father and brothers are.”
Many of the women and girls are fearful for their safety. Vulnerability to gender-based violence often increases during humanitarian crises.
“When I left, I fled with seven children. We travelled for four nights on foot across the bush and forest. During the day, we hid”, one 37-year-old refugee told UNFPA. “I have two daughters, 20 and 18 years old. I cannot sleep soundly because I have anxiety over the safety of my daughters.”
Additionally, refugees lack safe toilets and private shower facilities. Women and girls have resorted to walking some distance from the settlement to relieve themselves in the open, exposing them to potential violence.
Women’s reproductive health needs are also dangerously unmet. The nearest referral health facility able to provide post-rape treatment or emergency obstetric care is about 40 minutes from Um Raquba.
“One woman lost her baby after nine months of pregnancy due to a lack of services”, said Massimo Diana, UNFPA’s Representative in Sudan. The woman had arrived at the health centre too late to deliver safely.
“No woman should have to go through this, and we are working to ensure services are available to save lives”, he added.
UNFPA estimates that, of the newly arrived refugees in Sudan, more than 700 are likely to be pregnant, and there may be around 150 survivors of gender-based violence in need of assistance. More than 7,500 refugees are estimated to be women of reproductive age.
“The situation for these women and girls is extremely difficult, and there is widespread trauma. We are working urgently with our partners to provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and psychosocial support, and to protect women and girls from harm”, said Dr Natalia Kanemv, UNFPA Executive Director.
“With many more people expected to cross the border, additional support will be critical to meet rising needs.”