This Q&A discusses key findings of a new joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia's Western Tigray Zone.
6. The November 2021 Report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) did not find that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Western Tigray during the period covered by your report. How do your findings compare with theirs?
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch’s report concludes that new administrators in the Western Tigray zone, as well as regional officials and security forces from Ethiopia’s Amhara region, are responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing, carried out through crimes against humanity and war crimes, targeting Tigrayan civilians in Western Tigray since the war began in November 2020.
Western Tigray (referred to as Welkait-Tegede by Amharas) has been the site of unaddressed, and decades-long boundary disputes, simmering tensions, and rights abuses. With the outbreak of conflict in November 2020, Amhara forces, militias, and authorities with long-standing grievances and an interest in claiming the land, acted in close coordination with the federal government to take control of these areas.
We highlight how interim authorities in control of the area, as well as Amhara authorities and forces, made it clear – via oral and at times written threats – that they intended to push Tigrayans out of “this land” and east across the Tekeze river (a natural boundary with the Northwestern Zone of Tigray). These forces, at times with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces, carried out unlawful killings, including the summary execution by Amhara Special Forces of around 60 Tigrayan men near the Tekeze River Bridge on January 17, 2021, sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls, mass detentions, the discriminatory withholding of humanitarian aid and services, and the forcible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans from the territory. These forces, in some cases alongside Eritrean forces, pillaged livestock and crops.
The report also finds that during the first ten days of the government offensives in Western Tigray, after the conflict broke out in November 2020, Ethiopian federal defense forces together with Amhara forces committed war crimes against Tigrayan communities throughout the zone. In addition, Tigrayan militias carried out war crimes against Amhara residents and laborers during a massacre on Mai Kadra town on November 9.
The organizations concluded that newly appointed authorities in the Zone and Amhara regional security forces, with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces, committed numerous grave abuses. This includes murder, torture, forcible transfer, rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearances, widespread pillage, imprisonment, possible extermination, and other inhumane acts as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the Tigrayan civilian population. The organizations found that these abuses amount to crimes against humanity as well as war crimes.
This report is the product of over a year of work. Given the scale and severity of the violations, we needed to gather numerous testimonies across Western Tigray to give a faithful account of what unfolded across such a large area, and to be confident in our findings.
Western Tigray has been the site of some of the worst atrocities committed in the conflict in northern Ethiopia. The abuses we documented in this report amount to crimes against humanity. Some are ongoing abuses but, for various reasons, these events have received very little attention internationally. Time is critical, as the risks to the Tigrayan population still in Western Tigray Zone, including the hundreds if not thousands who are arbitrarily detained, remain.
In December 2021, while finalizing this research, we released a statement documenting the latest wave of abuses, during which thousands of older people, women, and young children were forcibly transferred to other parts of Tigray, while other men and women were rounded up and held in horrific conditions.
Journalists and independent humanitarian organizations have had very little access to the territory and faced operational constraints and harassment.
Those responsible for the crimes we have documented in this report remain in their positions as crimes in the area are ongoing. To protect civilians and deter further abuses, the perpetrators need to face consequences and, at the very least, they must be suspended from positions of power pending effective investigations and prosecutions.
The wellbeing of Tigrayans who remain in the area should be a concern and a priority for the Ethiopian government, any actors involved in mediation efforts, and other governments.
Between December 2020 and March 2022, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch researchers conducted over 400 interviews with survivors of abuses, their family members, and witnesses, to investigate abuses and trends across over a dozen towns and villages in Western Tigray. The report also draws on previous documentation by Amnesty International of human rights violations in Western Tigray prior to the outbreak of conflict in November 2020.
We carried out extensive in-person interviews with Tigrayan refugees during five separate research visits to Sudan, and conducted remote interviews between March 2021 and March 2022, primarily with Tigrayans displaced from Western Tigray, as well as with local Amhara and Walqayte residents and those from the Amhara region. We also drew on medical and forensic reports, satellite imagery, and the few available videos and photographs. We also consulted academic articles, books, government decisions, and reports to better understand the history and context of the territory.
While both organizations made formal requests to the Ethiopian government to gain access to Tigray to carry out our research, our letters went unanswered.
This research is not, however, an exhaustive account of abuses in Western Tigray since November 2020. Ongoing independent investigations are needed, including by the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the United Nations-established International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia.
Since November 2020, reports by the United Nations, international NGOs, and the Tigray interim authorities estimate that several hundred thousand Tigrayans have been displaced from the Western Tigray Zone.
In the first ten days or so after the conflict broke out, tens of thousands of Ethiopians from Western Tigray fled, to flee from indiscriminate shelling and other abuses, including extrajudicial executions carried out by Ethiopian federal forces acting in coordination with forces from the Amhara region, or out of fear. Many sought protection in neighboring Sudan.
By mid-November 2020, once the government controlled Western Tigray, Amhara officials and security forces conducted an ethnically-targeted campaign of threats, intimidation, restrictions, and violence against Tigrayans living in the Zone. The exodus that ensued cannot be considered “voluntary” by any measure, but amounts to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands.
Sometimes, Amhara interim authorities and security forces in Western Tigray organized the buses and trucks that forcibly transported Tigrayans away. In other incidents, security forces rounded up thousands of Tigrayans, and loaded them at gunpoint onto trucks, or put them on trucks directly from detention facilities where they were unlawfully detained. Tigrayans also fled because they faced extreme hunger.
- What are your findings on the Mai Kadra massacre? What steps did you take to address reports of violations in Mai Kadra against the Amhara community?
Our organizations found that pre-existing tensions among residents and laborers in Mai Kadra town rose sharply following the outbreak of conflict in early November 2020, as news of abuses against Tigrayans reached the town. As Tigrayan militia and special forces fought against Ethiopian and federal forces outside the town, residents were left to maintain security. Tigrayan youth began carrying out house-to-house searches.
By the afternoon of November 9, 2020, the opportunistic looting of Tigrayan businesses sparked arrests of Amhara residents and daily workers. Targeted attacks of Amhara residents and daily workers then followed. Up until the evening, Tigrayan men and boys beat, stabbed, and hacked, with knives, machetes, and axes, mainly Amhara victims, leaving scores dead and over a hundred injured. At one point that evening, both sides committed violence, as armed Amharas also began to attack Tigrayans in town, with Tigrayan residents also shot and killed.
After federal and allied forces captured the town by 10 a.m. on November 10, Tigrayan residents were targeted in revenge killings, detentions, pillage, and eventual mass expulsion. We have not been able to conclusively determine the number of people killed in Mai Kadra on November 9 and in the days that followed. Further, on-the-ground investigations by independent investigators, including forensic experts, are urgently needed, and should be facilitated, to shed further light on a massacre that has fuelled hatred, mutual fear, and mistrust well beyond the town.
- The November 2021 Report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) did not find that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Western Tigray during the period covered by your report. How do your findings compare with theirs?
The joint OHCHR-EHRC report acknowledged that it was not a comprehensive investigation into the crisis in northern Ethiopia, emphasizing that their investigators faced security, operational, and administrative challenges to carry out planned visits to parts of Tigray. While their team visited Dansha, Mai Kadra, and Humera towns, which we also reported on, it was unable to conduct interviews in the town of Shire, or in Sudan, key locations where people from the Western Tigray Zone sought protection.
There are a number of key differences in our findings. The OHCHR-EHRC report contained little mention of the abuses and terrorizing tactics used by Amhara authorities and security forces against ethnic Tigrayans. It did not describe how Amhara security forces committed gang rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls in Western Tigray. The report states that both Tigrayan and Amhara communities in Western Tigray were forcibly displaced, that the Tigrayan population was significantly affected, and that the forced displacements in Tigray may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, apart from Mai Kadra, it largely overlooked the responsibility of officials and Amhara security forces in the ethnically-targeted violence, intimidation, threats, restrictions, and expulsions that Tigrayan communities experienced.
Although the OHCHR-EHRC report examines arbitrary detentions by both Tigrayan forces and Amhara militia forces in some locations, it does not address the range of extremely serious abuses that took place within the context of these detentions. Our report, in contrast, details how from November 2020 to date, Amhara security forces have tortured, deprived of food, and extrajudicially executed Tigrayan detainees in Western Tigray.
Finally, the OHCHR-EHRC investigation addressed the period from November 2020 to late June 2021, while our report covers events up until December 2021.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented a pattern of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law in Western Tigray carried out as part of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”
Although the term ethnic cleansing is not formally defined as a crime under international law, it does have a widely understood meaning. Notably, the United Nations Commission of Experts, mandated to look into violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, defined ethnic cleansing as a “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means, the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” (See also the December 2014 report of the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, among others.)
- Since ethnic cleansing isn’t a recognized crime under international law, why is it important to describe the actions in Western Tigray as ethnic cleansing?
The term “ethnic cleansing” has been repeatedly used in United Nations resolutions and reports, and in the judgments and indictments of individuals accused before international courts and tribunals.
The acts of violence and intimidation that make up a campaign of ethnic cleansing in many cases amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, which are recognized crimes under international law. When international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed, the governments of the countries where the acts occurred have an obligation to hold perpetrators to account. However, other governments also have obligations with respect to those who committed these crimes.
Yes. Amnesty International has found that the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) carried out ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq; that militias were responsible for ethnic cleansing against Muslims in western parts of the Central African Republic; and that the attacks by the Myanmar security forces against the Rohingya population in Rakhine (Arakan) State amounted to ethnic cleansing carried out through crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch has found ethnic cleansing in a number of situations. It similarly concluded that the violent expulsion of the Rohingya population in Rakhine (Arakan) State constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In the 2000s, it also found that Sudanese forces and Janjaweed militias were responsible for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
- Have you concluded that crimes against humanity may have been committed in Ethiopia or in other country situations?
Amnesty International recently found that the draconian repression of Muslims in Xinjiang amounts to crimes against humanity. It has also found crimes against humanity in Syria, South Sudan, Darfur (Sudan), Iran, Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Central African Republic, among others.
Human Rights Watch also concluded, for instance, that Chinese authorities have committed crimes against humanity against the Turkic Muslim population in Xinjiang. It also found crimes against humanity in Egypt, Myanmar, Syria, and the Central African Republic.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have previously found that abuses may amount to crimes against humanity in other parts of Ethiopia. Amnesty International also found that the Axum Massacre in 2020, and the widespread sexual violence in the northern Ethiopia conflict, may amount to crimes against humanity. In February 2022, Amnesty International found that Tigrayan forces committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in parts of the Amhara region since the conflict’s expansion in July 2021. Human Rights Watch has also previously documented crimes against humanity in Ethiopia, such as murder, rape, and torture by the Ethiopian military against the Anuak population in the southwestern region of Gambella in 2003; and murder, torture, rape, and forcible population transfers against the Somali population in the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2007.
- Are Eritrean forces also present in Western Tigray? What abuses are Eritrean forces responsible for?
Our research found that Eritrean forces were present in Western Tigray, following the initial offensive in the area, in November 2020. We also found that Eritreans have continued to be present in certain towns in Western Tigray, and have carried out abuses, including looting of civilian property, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence against the Tigrayan population. Additionally, our research through December 2021, found that Eritrean forces present in the towns of Humera, Adebai, and Rawyan acted alongside Amhara security forces and militias to carry out the roundups of ethnic Tigrayans who remained in the area.
Survivors and families of victims of abuses are seeking redress and accountability, but the government’s continued denial that abuses against Tigrayans occurred in Western Tigray compounds their suffering.
The Ethiopian government should first acknowledge their suffering, support unhindered humanitarian access, and facilitate access to independent international investigators.
It should also take concrete steps to make sure communities in Western Tigray are protected, notably by releasing all those who are arbitrarily detained there, and facilitating safe, sustained, and unhindered humanitarian access.
Ethiopian authorities should also demobilize and disarm abusive irregular forces, including Fano and other militias in the area. It should suspend civilian officials linked to abuses in Western Tigray from their posts, including interim Amhara authorities, and security force personnel from the Amhara Special Forces and Ethiopian federal forces, and ensure that they are not reinstated to government and security positions. The government should also carry out the vetting of Ethiopian federal and Amhara regional government forces to ensure those implicated in serious crimes are removed, and appropriately disciplined, or prosecuted according to international fair trial standards.
We also call for any agreement by the parties to the conflict to include the deployment of an AU-led international peacekeeping force in Western Tigray with a robust mandate to protect civilians, monitor rights violations, and support unhindered humanitarian access. Ethiopia’s regional and international partners should press for, and support, an end to these atrocities and concretely push for these calls to be implemented.
- Could a finding that officials and security forces were responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing impede ongoing efforts to stop the conflict?
Any ceasefire or mediation efforts cannot preclude discussions around ending ongoing abuses, civilian harm, and restrictions on humanitarian access. These issues need to be central to the mediation and a national dialogue process that is inclusive of all stakeholders and communities.
At the same time, any future peace talks cannot defer calls for accountability. The failure to tackle past and ongoing abuses and the grievances of specific communities has contributed to cycles of violence and impunity that have been devastating communities across Ethiopia for many years. These will need to be addressed.
- By calling for the demobilization and disarming of abusive irregular forces in the area, are you calling for Western Tigray to be controlled by Tigrayan authorities and forces?
No. Our organizations do not take a position on disputes between warring parties, or on which group or authorities should control a territory. Our report has found that authorities currently in control of Western Tigray, including regional officials and Amhara security forces, were responsible for grave human rights violations with an intent to permanently remove Tigrayans from the area; actions that amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. There are therefore medium-term actions that need to be taken to ensure that those most responsible are held to account, but also immediate steps to protect communities in Western Tigray. For this reason, we are calling on the federal and regional authorities to suspend interim authorities linked to abuses in Western Tigray from their positions, and ensure that they are not reinstated into official positions pending an investigation into possible abuses. Federal and regional government forces should also be vetted, and those responsible for serious abuses removed, and subjected to appropriate disciplinary measures. Finally, any consensual agreement by the warring parties should include an AU-led international peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to protect civilians, promote human rights, and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. Its mandate should be to protect all communities in this region, regardless of their ethnicity.
We urge that any mechanism for addressing grievances between groups, including regarding administrative boundaries, should be established in consultation with a diverse range of stakeholders, independent institutions, and operated in full respect of individuals’ human rights, including the right to return.
To date, federal government forces have been involved in serious abuses and have failed to protect communities at risk. There is a pressing need for the presence of a neutral protection force in Western Tigray, one that can be trusted by all communities in the area, and deter future abuses. All communities in and from this contested area have very real protection concerns, both immediate and medium-term.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are urging that any consensual agreement between the warring sides include the deployment of an AU-led peacekeeping mission with a robust civilian protection mandate. The deployment of such a mission would be predicated on all parties to the conflict consenting to the mission’s presence and agreeing to its mandate.
In addition, the Ethiopian government, and other warring parties, should acknowledge communities’ past and ongoing protection concerns.
- What work have Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch done on serious human rights violations committed by Tigrayan forces in the Amhara and Afar regions?
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented and condemned human rights violations and abuses by all parties to this conflict. For instance, our organizations have documented the massacre of hundreds of civilians by the Eritrean military in Axum, and the killings, sexual violence including rape, and destruction and pillaging of civilian institutions in the Amhara and Tigray regions, as well as attacks on Eritrean refugees by Tigrayan fighters. We have continued to call on Tigrayan forces to end attacks on civilians and civilian objects and cooperate with independent investigations into abuses, whether in the Amhara and Afar regions, or the Tigray region.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not found the crime of genocide in Western Tigray based on the evidence we collected, but our organizations do not exclude the possibility. We also note that there is no formal hierarchy of crimes under international law: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are all considered the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.
The crime of genocide, as defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), covers a number of unlawful acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. The forcible displacement of a particular group does not, in itself, fall within that definition. And, while the implementation of a policy to carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign may be evidence of genocidal acts, it does not, in itself, demonstrate genocidal intent.
Given the very real constraints of research throughout the conflict in northern Ethiopia, it is critical that independent investigations continue.
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration took office in Ethiopia, both our organizations have raised concerns as to how commitments to hold perpetrators of crimes to account have yet to result in credible justice efforts, be it for violence in the Oromia and Amhara regions, or for abuses elsewhere in the country. It is primarily the state’s responsibility to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by members of its own security forces in civilian or military courts. Credible and transparent efforts by the Ethiopian authorities to try those responsible for serious abuses in civilian courts should be supported. Yet, to date, we’ve seen little indication that such efforts are being carried out or even seriously considered.
As we’ve said above, those who have overseen some of the worst abuses in the Western Tigray Zone are still in positions of power. A first important step to counter prevailing impunity is to ensure they are removed from their positions. These steps are evidently not to be seen as a substitute for meaningful accountability.
Given the scale and gravity of the crimes committed, and limited domestic efforts so far, ensuring that international investigations continue in parallel are key. Hence our call on the Ethiopian authorities and all other warring parties to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry established by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as the newly-established International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) of the UN Human Rights Council. Notably, the three-person UN commission includes an evidence preservation mandate and a role in spelling out robust recommendations around future justice efforts, including at the international level.
In addition, given the seriousness of the crimes we describe in this report, it is important for states to consider bringing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction.