The governments counter-insurgency response involves a multi-pronged approach aimed at cutting off economic resources, weakening the ONLFs civilian support base, and confining its geographic area of operation. To achieve these aims the Ethiopian armed forces have committed numerous violations of human rights, violations of the laws of war that amount to war crimes, and crimes against humanity against the civilian population. These have included widespread forced relocations of civilians, destruction of their villages, willful killings, and summary executions, and torture, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.
Some of the current governments counter-insurgency strategiessuch as attempting to constrict rural civilian movement and assets and using brutal force to terrorize civilian populationshave a long history of use by previous governments. However, the EPRDF government has also introduced new methods, such as forced recruitment of local militia and the manipulation of clan dynamics.
The pattern of abuses by government forces in 2007, although intensified, is unfortunately not new. In the course of conducting the research for this report, eyewitnesses to atrocities frequently told Human Rights Watch researchers about previous incidents of village burnings, summary executions, rape, and torture at the hands of security forces, some dating back a decade.
In an attempt to cut off civilian support to the ONLF and concentrate its rural support base in designated larger villages and towns, Ethiopias scaled up counterinsurgency campaign against the ONLF has involved widespread forced displacement, particularly between June and August 2007. The government has ordered civilians to relocate from small villages and pastoralist settlements to designated towns throughout the conflict-affected zones, typically ordering the villagers and nomads to move within two to seven days. To secure compliance with the evacuation orders, the Ethiopian army repeatedly implemented a phased system of terror involving the confiscation and killing of livestock, public executions, and the destruction of villages by burning.
Villagers and pastoralists who refuse to evacuate have been killed, and many villages and nomadic settlements have been burned by the army, while water sources and wells have been destroyed. Evacuated villages and settlements become no-go areas: civilians who remain behind risk being shot on sight, tortured, or raped if spotted by soldiers. Human Rights Watch received reports of 87 villages and nomadic settlements that were partially or totally burned and/or forcefully evacuated during government military operations between June 2006 and August 2007, but the actual number of such burned or evacuated villages is likely to be much higher, even within that time period.
International humanitarian law prohibits the forced transfer of the civilian population during a conflict unless specifically for the security of the civilian population or because it is required for imperative military reasons.74 Relocating civilians to prevent them from assisting insurgent forces or to punish them for doing so is prohibited. The destruction of civilian property is also unlawful.75 The Ethiopian governments forced relocation of thousands of civilians in conflict-affected areas of Somali Region amounts to the unlawful transfer of the population and collective punishment of Ogaadeeni communities perceived to be supporting the ONLF. Individuals who ordered or carried out such acts intentionally or recklessly are responsible for war crimes.