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Ethiopia: Country on brink of catastrophe as Tigray conflict escalates

A woman walks in front of a shell damaged house earlier this year
A woman walks in front of a shell damaged house earlier this year © EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Several regions have asked civilians to take up arms

Alarming rise in social media posts advocating ethnic violence

New emergency powers threaten human rights

‘The sweeping nature of this state of emergency is a blueprint for escalating human rights violations’ - Deprose Muchena

Ethiopia is teetering on the brink of a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe, Amnesty International warned today, amid worrying developments linked to the escalating Tigray conflict.

Yesterday (4 November) the Ethiopian government granted itself sweeping new emergency powers which arbitrarily restrict human rights and threaten the independence of the judiciary - exactly a year after armed conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front began.

Meanwhile there has been an alarming rise in social media posts advocating ethnic violence, and government officials have called on civilians to take up arms against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army, which have recently joined forces against the central government.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Director, said: 

“The dire humanitarian and human rights crisis which began one year ago in Tigray has been spilling into other areas of the country.

“To stop the situation spiralling out of control, the Ethiopian authorities must urgently take serious action to ensure human rights and international humanitarian law are respected.

“African leaders and other international actors with influence must make clear to all the parties in Ethiopia that they must step back from the brink, protect civilians, end incitement, allow unhindered humanitarian access and monitoring, and respect human rights.

“The parties must understand that those responsible for war crimes and other violations will be held accountable.”

State of emergency

Yesterday’s state of emergency proclamation is overly broad, extending to the entire country and restricting human rights that should not be limited or suspended under any circumstances according to international law.

For example, it allows the authorities to arrest anyone without a warrant if there is “reasonable suspicion” of cooperation with “terrorist groups”, and to detain them without judicial review for as long as the proclamation is in place, currently for six months. This could severely impact human rights defenders and journalists. The emergency proclamation also allows for NGO and media outlet licences to be suspended or cancelled if they are suspected of providing direct or indirect material or moral support to “terrorist organisations” - terms which are ill-defined and open to broad interpretation.

Earlier this year, Amnesty documented mass round-ups and arbitrary detentions of Tigrayans, including journalists and a human rights activist, whom the government claimed had ties to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, designated a terrorist group by the Ethiopian federal government.

The emergency proclamation also allows for the prohibition of any form of expression opposed to “the Emergency Operation and the purpose of the Proclamation”.

Deprose Muchena added:

“The sweeping nature of this state of emergency is a blueprint for escalating human rights violations, including arbitrary detention - particularly of human rights defenders, journalists, minorities and government critics. And it puts detainees at heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”

Civilians asked to take up arms

In another worrying development, government officials in several Ethiopian regions have recently called on civilians to take up arms to repel the ongoing Tigray People’s Liberation Front offensive. In the capital Addis Ababa, government officials have asked civilians to organise themselves to safeguard their surroundings, and to register arms or hand them to neighbours if they are unable to use them themselves. Similar calls have been made by the Amhara, Oromia and Somali regional governments.

This call to arms puts people’s rights and lives at risk by encouraging the formation of untrained and unaccountable militias. Such groups have already committed war crimes in this conflict - including unlawful killings, rape and other sexual violence targeting people on the basis of their ethnicity.

Rise in online hate speech

On Wednesday (3 November), Facebook removed a post by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, saying it had violated the platform’s policies against inciting violence.

However, Amnesty has noted a significant rise in other recent social media posts inciting violence and using ethnic slurs against Tigrayans, some of which have gone unchecked. According to analysis from a local human rights organisation, journalists and political figures were among those sharing the posts, and social media platforms were slow to remove them.

Deprose Muchena added:

“Ethiopian authorities have an obligation to prohibit advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence.

“The authorities must urgently denounce any statements, online or otherwise, which advocate violence against a specific ethnic group.

“Given the rising political and ethnic tension in Ethiopia, social media companies also have a responsibility to rapidly scale up their content-moderation efforts, and ensure that the algorithms behind their platforms are not fuelling advocacy of violence.”

Civilians at risk amid escalation

Amnesty has reiterated its call on all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians. Since the Tigray conflict began a year ago, Amnesty has documented war crimes by the Ethiopia National Defence Forces, Eritrean forces, and Amhara forces, and has been documenting an increasing number of allegations of war crimes by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front The Oromo Liberation Army has repeatedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, mainly attacks targeting ethnic Amhara minorities in Western Oromia.

Violations by the warring parties have included massacres, extrajudicial killings of captives and sexual violence targeting women and girls. Barriers to access for humanitarian organisations to areas affected by the conflict and attacks targeting aid workers and facilities, have greatly worsened the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the conflict.

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