The situation in Ethiopia “is spiraling out of control with appalling impact on civilians” and urgently requires external monitoring, the UN human rights chief warned on Wednesday.
Ethiopia, however, has rejected calls for independent investigations into the deadly fighting in its region of Tigray, saying it “does not need a babysitter”.
The government statement came amid international calls for more transparency in the month-long fighting between Ethiopian forces and those of the fugitive Tigray regional government that reportedly killed thousands, including civilians. At least one large-scale massacre has been documented by human rights groups, and more are feared.
Senior government official Redwan Hussein told reporters on Tuesday Ethiopia would only seek help if it felt “it had not investigated”.
He added that assuming he cannot conduct such inquiries “belittles the government”.
“ Flagrant violations of rights ”
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called the situation “extremely worrying and volatile” with fighting reported in areas surrounding the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, and the towns of Sheraro and Axum, “Despite the government’s statements to the contrary”.
“We have corroborated reports of gross human rights violations and abuses, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, looting, kidnappings and sexual violence against women and girls,” Bachelet told journalists.
“There are reports of forced recruitment of young Tigrayans to fight against their own communities.”
However, she said, “we were unable to access the most affected areas.”
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, meanwhile, has diverted his attention from the war by opening a cross-border highway to Kenya at the opposite end of his country. Abiy cut the ribbon on a mega-highway connecting southern Ethiopia to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, alongside Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, as part of Ethiopia’s aspirations to become a regional power.
“Just like infrastructure, we need to work on peace and security,” he told the border town of Moyale, refraining from mentioning Tigray.
“Peace is the foundation of everything we aspire to transform the lives of our people.”
Frustration grows as the northern Tigray region remains largely cut off from the world with food and medicine that the population of six million people desperately need – around a million are now believed to be displaced.
The lack of transparency, with most communication and transport links cut, complicates efforts to verify the warring party’s claims.
It also hides the extent of the atrocities allegedly committed since Abiy announced on November 4 that fighting had started with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has dominated the Ethiopian government for nearly 30 years. before Abiy seized power and removed it.
Each government now considers the other illegal, as the TPLF opposes the postponement of national elections until next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and considers Abiy’s term to have expired.
The Ethiopian government opposes what it calls “the interference” of dialogue efforts in the delivery of aid, drawing on its history as a rare African country never colonized, a source of deep national pride .
“Despite an agreement between the government and the UN, unhindered humanitarian access has not been possible,” Bachelet said, calling on the government to “guarantee humanitarian access and ensure that access to the water, electricity and other basic needs be restored ”. .
The government said on Tuesday that its forces shot and detained UN personnel who allegedly passed through checkpoints trying to reach areas “they weren’t supposed to go” to.
The incident “is really costly” because it further delays humanitarian operations for the inhabitants of Tigray who have been waiting for aid for five weeks, “UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told the news agency. Associated Press.
He said the six-member UN team, which was detained in Humera and released two days later, were the first sent to Tigray and were carrying out safety assessments along the routes that had been previously agreed upon. with the Ethiopian government. Such assessments are crucial before aid can be transferred.
“We now need to work out additional operational details with the government,” especially on security, said Abreu, repeating the UN call for unfettered and unconditional access.
The needs are crucial. Mekelle, a city of half a million inhabitants, is “today essentially without medical care,” the director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, said on Tuesday. Ayder’s referral hospital is running out of supplies, including fuel for the generators.
“Doctors and nurses were forced to make horrible life and death decisions,” Mardini said. “They have suspended intensive care services and are having a really hard time caring, like childbirth or dialysis.
A joint ICRC-Ethiopian Red Cross convoy supplying hundreds of wounded is ready to go to Mekelle, pending its approval, he said. It would be the first international convoy to reach the city.
While the risk of insecurity remains in the capital of Tigray, there is no active fighting, Mardini said.
Overall, he said, “Tigray residents have been cut off from services for almost a month. They had no phone, no internet, no electricity, no fuel. Money is running out. This, of course, adds to the tension.
In neighboring Sudan, nearly 50,000 Ethiopian refugees are now finding refuge. Some resist being transferred to a camp far from the border in the hope that missing family members, separated by the fighting, can be found.
“How can we get there?” asked a refugee, Haile Gebremikeal. “If we can stay here for a month or two, if they give us a chance, we can look for our family or our family can look for us. There is no telephone, no Internet. We have nothing.
Bachelet also expressed concern over the situation beyond Tigray, highlighting inter-communal violence in recent weeks in other parts of Ethiopia, with deaths reported. And she warned that Tigrayans in other parts of the country appeared to face “ethnic profiling”, including in the capital Addis Ababa.
“We have reports of layoffs, including in the civil service, harassment of Tigrayan journalists and hate speech against Tigrayans,” she said.
“Such discriminatory actions are deeply unjust, but they also promote divisions and sow the seeds of further instability and conflict,” she warned, calling on the government to take “immediate steps to end to this discrimination ”.
Ethiopia has tried for years to position itself as an emerging industrial hub that would attract its 115 million people – the second largest in Africa – off subsistence farms and factories.
For more than 10 years, the government has invested billions of dollars in hydroelectric dams, industrial parks, railways and highways. Then, when Abiy took power in 2018, he started opening up sectors like telecommunications to private investment.
These aspirations are now under threat, as instability frightens investors already worried about the effect of COVID-19 and Ethiopia’s rapidly growing public debt.