(New York) - Human Rights Watch today condemned attacks on civilians during the current conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Dozens, mainly civilians, have died in air raids launched since the escalation of the undeclared war between the two countries. Human Rights Watch welcomed the agreement reached between the two countries on June 14 to halt air strikes, and urged them to stop all military attacks on civilians. It also condemned the rounding up and expulsion of long-term Eritrean residents from Ethiopia and of Ethiopian nationals from Eritrea, and called on the two countries to immediately halt the harassment and targeting of civilians.

Background

Hundreds have died in the fratricidal conflict between the two former allies and thousands of civilians were displaced as a minor border dispute escalated into an undeclared war in the first week of June. Many of the victims are civilians. Four persons were reportedly killed and twenty-six were wounded when Ethiopia raided Asmara's airport on June 5. On the same day, forty-seven people, including many school children, were killed when Eritrean planes bombed the Ethiopian town of Mekele. On Thursday, June 11, four people were killed and dozens more were wounded in an Eritrean air raid on the northern Ethiopian town of Adigrat. Thousands of the inhabitants fled to surrounding villages fearing further attacks.

Harassment of Ethiopians in Eritrea and of Eritrean residents in Ethiopia is on the increase. Eritrean authorities reportedly rounded up dozens from among the estimated 100,000 Ethiopians living in the country. Fearing for their safety, hundreds more Ethiopians rushed to their embassy in Asmara to seek travel documents to leave the country. Although Eritrea denied Ethiopia's claim that it had expelled 3,000 Ethiopians, it was independently reported that Eritrean soldiers at border posts with Ethiopia turned back busloads of fleeing Ethiopians, invoking security concerns.

On the other side of the border, it is known that some 130,000 Eritreans residents had voted during the 1993 referendum on the independence of Eritrea, but unofficial estimates put the number of Eritrean residents at 550,000. In an official "policy" statement issued on June 11, the Ethiopian government ordered members of Eritrean political and community organizations to leave the country, accusing them of supporting the Eritrean war effort. According to the same policy, Eritreans in management positions in "sensitive" sectors of the economy would be compelled to take a one-month leave of absence. While the statement suggested an option of voluntary departure for the targeted categories of Eritrean residents, Ethiopian authorities proceeded this week to selectively round up Eritreans accused of espionage and supporting the ruling front in Eritrea. As many as eight hundred of these were reportedly expelled to the border. Those detained and expelled include many elderly, retired citizens, mainly businessmen, who have lived most of their lives and raised their children in Ethiopia. Many of the younger deportees could reportedly face trouble in Eritrea for having dodged the national service there or engaged in the exiled opposition. Ethiopia also detained twenty local workers after the closure of Eritrean consulates in the country.

Recommendations

Human Rights Watch calls on the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to:

  • issue clear and binding instructions to their armed forces to respect the basic principles of humanitarian law regarding the protection of noncombatants;
  • take steps to investigate incidents where civilians were either deliberately or indiscriminately targeted by their armed forces, and prosecute troops responsible for these violations of the laws of war;
  • treat all prisoners of war, and all those detained in relation to the conflict, humanely, and allow access to them by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and other international observers;
  • cease the arbitrary arrest and expulsion of residents from each country;
  • take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of civilians exposed to risks due to the current conflict.

Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to: press the two governments to strictly abide by the basic principles of humanitarian law by halting all attacks on civilians;

  • press the two governments to immediately investigate incidents where civilians were either deliberately or indiscriminately targeted by their armed forces, and to bring the military responsible for these attacks to justice;
  • urge the two governments to halt the arbitrary detentions and expulsions of nationals from the other country;
  • send observers to monitor the detention conditions of civilians held in relation to the conflict and press for them to be immediately released or charged with recognizable crimes before a regular court of law.