Sexual violence and large-scale displacement continue across northern Ethiopia

A group of 10 UN Special Procedures, Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated human rights experts, expressed grave concern on 3 December regarding widespread sexual and gender-based violence committed against women and girls in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions of Ethiopia by parties to the conflict. According to the experts’ statement, a total of 2,204 survivors reported incidents of sexual violence to health facilities across Tigray from November 2020-June 2021. The number of incidents is likely significantly underreported given stigmatization and inaccessibility to health or support centers. Essential aid and humanitarian workers, who are providing health care, mental health, and psychosocial support services for victims and survivors, have been routinely targeted and obstructed from reaching vulnerable populations.

On 7 December Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, also expressed concern regarding ongoing sexual and gender-based violence, highlighting its systematic use “as a weapon of war, a form of retaliation, punishment, humiliation and… to stigmatize individuals based on their real or perceived ethnic identity.” Ms. Patten said that the UN has documented “numerous and disturbing” patterns of sexual violence that have been perpetrated with “appalling levels of brutality,” including cases of rape and gang rape.

An estimated 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance amidst ongoing offensives in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. An increase in fighting in Chifra Woreda, Afar region, has newly displaced tens of thousands of people. Large-scale displacement is also occurring in Western Tigray, which is currently under the control of Amhara regional forces and their allies. At least 21,000 newly displaced persons have arrived in other areas of Tigray since 22 November following reports of Amhara forces raiding areas of Western Tigray. The UN estimates that more than 1.2 million people have been displaced from Western Tigray to other parts of Tigray since the start of the conflict last year.

Worrying patterns of ethnic targeting are continuing outside the conflict zone. After the government announced a sweeping state of emergency on 2 November, authorities in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, have commenced house-to-house searches for anyone deemed “sympathetic” to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, targeting Tigrayan residents. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from 9-16 November more than 1,000 Tigrayans were arrested, including dozens of UN staff and subcontractors. Reports indicate that tens of thousands of Tigrayans are being kept in makeshift detention centers in deplorable conditions.

Given the pervasive and systematic nature of the ongoing atrocities throughout Ethiopia, urgent action is needed to not only end the fighting but also to ensure accountability for victims. All parties to the conflict must immediately facilitate full and unhindered humanitarian access to populations, including survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. The international community should support the regional African Union-led negotiation efforts, as well as urgently hold a special session of the HRC in order to establish an investigative mechanism into all war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender-based violence, in Ethiopia.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) is an independent organization that focuses on conducting research analysis and advocacy in relation to mass atrocity.

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