The UN has a clear message: what is happening in Ethiopia is unacceptable

Mass murder, sexual violence and famine – the crossfire in the Ethiopian conflict area of Tigray has triggered a humanitarian crisis. On 13 July 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to put pressure on the warring parties. How could the situation in Ethiopia get so out of hand, and what does the resolution mean?

United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC
Image: ©UN Photo / Pierre Albouy
Room XX of the United Nations Human Rights Council (before the coronavirus pandemic).

In order to explain the situation in Ethiopia, Luuk van de Vondervoort, country officer for Ethiopia at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describes what is happening in Tigray.

The situation in Tigray

‘The situation is extremely concerning. At present, Tigray is in the midst of the greatest famine the world has seen in the past 10 years. A famine that has nothing to do with drought or failed harvests. This famine is caused entirely by war, and the parties to the conflict are deliberately blocking humanitarian aid, according to the UN. UN figures show that over 400,000 people in the Tigray region are at risk of starving and 5 million are undernourished.

Earlier this year Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy to the Horn of Africa, said: “Ethiopia has 110 million inhabitants. If the current conflict there spreads beyond Tigray, it will make the Syrian refugee crisis look like child’s play.”’

To understand how the situation has come to this, we need to go back to the beginning.

In brief: the roots of the conflict in Ethiopia

‘When Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018, he took over control from a coalition of regional parties. The most influential of them was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Tigray parties’ loss of power led to increasing tensions with the Ethiopian government, which came to a head with the Tigray regional elections in September 2020.

The regional elections were going to be postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, but the TPLF made sure they went ahead. In response, Prime Minister Ahmed declared the result of the Tigray regional elections invalid. The TPLF then ceased to recognise the Ethiopian government, and the Ethiopian government ceased to recognise the TPLF. The tensions between the two parties erupted into violence during the night of 4 November 2020 when Tigray troops launched an attack on the Ethiopian military headquarters in Mek’ele, Tigray’s capital. From there the situation went from bad to worse.’

From bad to worse

‘The main victims of the armed conflict that has unfolded since then have been the people of Tigray. Random shootings, mass murder of civilians, sexual violence, looting and destruction of humanitarian aid. These are just a few examples from the long list of human rights violations that have happened in Tigray. Huge numbers of inhabitants are being displaced.

Until recently, Tigray had enjoyed a reasonably long period of food security. Over the past 30 years, thanks in part to the international community, great efforts have been made to end the famines there. But now, within a period of six months, all that progress has been swept away by destruction and violence.’

A conflict between multiple parties

‘What we’re looking at is a multilateral conflict. And every party bears responsibility for the humanitarian crisis that is now unfolding. Apart from the TPLF and the Ethiopian government under Abiy Ahmed, neighbouring Eritrea is also playing a major role in the hostilities. Eritrea (to the north of Tigray) was part of Ethiopia until 1993. But since it declared its independence, there has been a lot of fighting over its borders. That led to very poor relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which at that time was controlled by the TPLF.

In the present conflict, Eritrean troops have backed the Ethiopian government and occupied the disputed areas of Tigray. There are strong signs that these offensives have been accompanied by horrific acts of violence. The Tigray forces have made clear that they will continue fighting until they have recaptured the areas taken by Eritrea and driven out all Eritrean troops.

The United States and the European Union have also called on the Eritreans to leave Tigray. Because in the areas occupied by Eritrean soldiers it has proven extremely difficult to get aid to the civilian population.’

UN Human Rights Council resolution

On 13 July, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a major resolution on Tigray. The Netherlands, as one of its 47 members, played a key role in this regard. Daniëlle Drost, Second Embassy Secretary to the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations in Geneva, explains what the resolution entails.

‘The Human Rights Council’s resolution calls for an immediate end to the violence and human rights violations in Tigray. It also calls for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the region and for all parties to respect the ceasefire.’

Investigation in Tigray

‘At the moment an investigation is being conducted into the situation in Tigray by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). In a complex conflict such as the one in Tigray, more information and evidence is vital, in order to be able to launch a dialogue and put pressure on the warring parties. The OHCHR and the EHRC are both playing a major role in documenting the human rights violations committed and calling the perpetrators to account. But it will not be easy. The ongoing fighting is making the investigation in Tigray very difficult and dangerous.’

Our message to the warring parties

‘This resolution puts Tigray high on the Human Rights Council’s agenda. The entire international community is watching the situation in Ethiopia. Now it’s about sending a signal: that one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies is actively addressing one of the biggest human rights crises in the world today.

The Netherlands, the EU and the UN Human Rights Council have sent a very clear message to the parties involved in the conflict: that the violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and refugee law in Tigray are unacceptable.’