In November 2020, global attention turned to the outbreak of conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region between Ethiopian government forces and its allies against Tigrayan forces. The fighting followed a year of growing political tensions between the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray’s regional authorities, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
By July 2021, the conflict had spread to Tigray’s neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara. Original research by Human Rights Watch found serious violations of international humanitarian law by warring parties, including summary executions, widespread sexual violence, and the pillage of property. Tigrayan civilians have also faced a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. Despite the declaration of a humanitarian truce in late March 2022, abuses are still ongoing.
Yet, well before the conflict in northern Ethiopia, there has been widespread impunity for ongoing rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, including in areas already suffering from conflict. Many of these abuses still persist and require urgent international attention.
This week marked the two-year anniversary of the assassination of the popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa, who was gunned down in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa.
THE KILLING OF AN ICON
The killing of an icon of the country’s Oromo protest movement triggered widespread unrest and violence — particularly in the Oromia region — that left at least 178 people dead. These events marked a turning point in the deteriorating rights environment in the country.
At the time, in 2020, protesters mourning Hachalu’s death took the streets across Oromia and in Ethiopia’s capital. Security forces cracked down on the mourners, killing or injuring dozens. Hachalu’s uncle was among several mourners that security forces killed in front of the Hachalu’ family home in Ambo town before the burial. One witness told us, “It was Hachalu’s uncle that was shot first in the neck, he couldn’t survive and immediately passed away. Then heavy firing erupted. The shooting killed many others.”
Ethnic and religious minorities, primarily ethnic Amharas, were also killed in brutal attacks that erupted in several towns in Oromia, with government forces failing to intervene in some areas. These communities also suffered massive property destruction and widespread displacement. For example, an Amhara woman described how her father, a hotel owner in Arsi Negelle town, and uncle were killed when a group of unidentified attackers descended on their hotel and demanded that Amharas leave. Her father’s body was later hung from a tree. A relative who collected the body explained months later: “I can’t get it out of my mind. I’m still living it.”
Affected communities across the board repeatedly called for credible investigations and redress. Instead, the government arbitrarily arrested thousands of Oromos and left many languish in overcrowded detention sites such as warehouses, police stations, and schools for months without ever facing trial. In May 2021, Ethiopia’s national human rights commission documented widespread arbitrary detentions that lacked any judicial oversight.
Authorities also arbitrarily arrested dozens of politicians from across the political spectrum, reportedly denying many basic due process rights in connection with the unrest. While most were released in early 2022, opposition politicians from the Oromo Liberation Front remain in detention despite multiple judicial orders instructing they be released on bail. In addition, some have become ill, reportedly due to a lack of adequate medical care.
WIDESPREAD ABUSES IN OROMIA
In western Oromia, an abusive government counter-insurgency campaign against an armed group, the Oromo Liberation Army, was already underway, with civilians caught in between suffering numerous abuses. By early 2019, the government had established a federal command post, which coordinates federal and regional security forces in western Oromia. In addition, the authorities have sporadically cut communications in western Oromia, including imposing a three-month shutdown in early 2020. Aid agencies, the media, and rights groups have also had limited access to the region.
Despite these restrictions, human rights groups and the media have been able to report on serious abuses by government forces, including summary executions and arbitrary detentions. Armed groups have also abducted or killed minority community members and government officials.
Security forces have targeted young Oromos, accusing them of support for or affiliation with the armed group. In May 2021, government security forces summarily executed a 17-year-old Oromo boy in broad daylight. Government officials callously filmed the execution and later posted segments put on a government Facebook page. Instead of immediately investigating this horrific incident, government officials intimidated and arrested the boy’s family members and friends.
A culture of impunity for security abuses has only emboldened unaccountable security forces and done nothing to prevent further harm.
Most recently, on Jun. 18, 2022, armed attackers brazenly attacked Amharas, and killed dozens if not hundreds, including many women, children, and older people in Gimbi district in western Oromia, forcing at least 4,800 people to flee. Survivors speaking to the media accused the Oromo Liberation Army of the attacks, though it has denied responsibility. While communications have hampered real-time reporting on the events, according to the UN, the attack followed fighting between armed groups and security forces in the area.
Such large-scale attacks on minority communities in the area are not new. For example, dozens of Amharas were killed in an attack in Guliso district in early November 2020, and over a dozen more Amharas were killed in a March 2021 attack in Babo Gembel district.
Ethiopia’s government and its partners should no longer ignore the mounting tragedies affecting families throughout Oromia. There is a deep need for structural reforms of the abusive security apparatus and for social repair.
The government can start by facilitating credible independent investigations into the serious abuses by its own forces and by armed groups, as communities demanded. This would help demonstrate that it is serious about ending the abuses that have wreaked havoc on Oromia residents.