Brookings | On Thursday, March 4, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for an independent assessment amid reports of a quickly deteriorating situation for human rights in the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia this year. Justifying the probe, Bachelet said, “Deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us, as well as reports of continued fighting in central Tigray in particular. … Credible information also continues to emerge about serious violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict in Tigray in November last year.”

On March 3, the government of Ethiopia announced an investigation into an alleged massacre of several hundred people in the city of Axum last November, reversing a firm denial issued just a few days before. The presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray is disputed by the Ethiopian government, though even government-appointed interim Tigray leaders confirmed their presence back in January.

In February, the Eritrean government had rejected a story about the incidents in Tigray reported by the Associated Press as “outrageous lies.” In late February, Amnesty International firmly disputed that account, stating, “The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity.” Around the same time, the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that its preliminary investigations had similarly confirmed lootings and sexual violence in the region.

New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call this week for Ethiopian troops to withdraw from Tigray was rejected by the Ethiopian government. The situation has increasingly drawn attention from the new Biden administration: In February, Blinken called on the African Union to investigate the allegations. Around the same time, The New York Times reported that an internal U.S. government report says that the Ethiopian government has engaged in “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Tigray.

For more on the complex crisis unfolding in Ethiopia, see the November 2020 event, “Crisis in Ethiopia and its regional repercussions,” as well as Zach Vertin’s Brookings blog, “Averting civil war in Ethiopia: It’s time to propose elements of a negotiated settlement.”

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