crimes of war

Pressure grows on Abiy as Ethiopia admits rape widespread in north

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on February 12, 2021 16:27

The Ethiopian Prime Minister is under pressure. Will admissions of widespread rape in the north from the Minister for Women – and expressions of remorse from the Prime Minister – be enough to get partners back onboard the Abiy project?

European politicians such as Assita Kanko have called for access to the region.

“Two million civilians are reported to have been driven from their homes’, says Kanko, a Belgian MEP. “In the North, the harvest is said to have been burned. It seems that the Ethiopian Government is deliberately withholding food in order to starve people. Central and East Tigray are on the brink of famine”.

“It is also reported that sexual violence is a weapon of war in this conflict”, adds Kanko.

Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities”

The Ethiopian Red Cross says 80% of Tigray cut off from aid, and has warned of mass starvation.

The EU has provided over a billion euros of aid to Ethiopia over the last decade, but has suspended support after the UN spoke of “major violations of international law in Tigray”, after two refugee camps appeared to have been attacked and burnt.

“There is significant international pressure to resolve the conflict in Tigray, particularly from the US, EU and UK, who are important partners of Ethiopia’s government”, says Ahmed Soliman of UK think tank Chatham House.

“Diplomatic approaches vary, there is a sense that the best way to influence Prime Minister Abiy is through constructive and conditions-based dialogue rather than a punitive approach – emphasising the need to bring the conflict to an end to ensure the long-term stability of Ethiopia and region, as well as supporting continued reforms.”

Ministerial remorse

Writing in The Africa Report, Abiy admits: “The suffering and deaths that occurred despite our best efforts have caused much distress”.

When it comes to the repeated allegations of sexual violence against women in the North, those efforts appear to have fallen short, according to Ethiopia’s Minister of Women.

“We have received the report back from our Taskforce team on the ground in the Tigray region, they have unfortunately established rape has taken place conclusively and without a doubt”, wrote Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed, the Ethiopian Minister of Women, Children and Youth.”

Minister Filsan was contacted for comment for this story.

The high levels of sexual violence against women in Tigray has up to now been anecdotal, given the severe media blackout the region is under.

But there have been multiple reports from credible sources, including women who spoke to Reuters about women raped when the city of Mekelle fell.

UN criticism

“I am greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle”, says the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten.

“There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence”, says Patten. “Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centres have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which is often an indicator of sexual violence in conflict”.

The original celebration of gender parity in Abiy Ahmed’s administration – including the positions of President of Ethiopia, minister of defence, and 37% of members of parliament – now seems jarring to some observers.

Beyond the violence against women, and the alleged use of hunger as a tactic of war, Human Rights Watch say Ethiopian federal forces carried out apparently indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in the Tigray region in November 2020 “in violation of the laws of war”.

“At the war’s start, Ethiopian federal forces fired artillery into Tigray’s urban areas in an apparently indiscriminate manner that was bound to cause civilian casualties and property damage,” says Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks have shattered civilian lives in Tigray and displaced thousands of people, underscoring the urgency for ending unlawful attacks and holding those responsible to account.”

Resentment at Eritrea’s presence

It is not just external pressure that Abiy is under.

There is mounting internal pressure to do something about the actions of Eritrean forces in North-western and Eastern Tigray and Amhara militia forces in the South and West, says Soliman, although the government publicly denies the presence of Eritrean soldiers in Ethiopia.

“There is little information over the command and control of these forces, the status of disputed territories in border areas, ongoing rights abuses against local communities, and when they are likely to leave”, says Soliman. “Parts of Tigray are under the Amhara region’s administration, making it difficult to fully re-establish the regional governmental structure, and this could fuel further resentment between Tigrayans and Amharas.”

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