The humanitarian situation in Tigray Contents

Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

Figure 1: Access map of the Tigray region

Source: UN OCHA, Ethiopia: Access Map–Tigray Region (as of 23 March 2021), 5 April 2021

The present conflict

1.Tigray has endured months of conflict. Tensions between Ethiopia’s Federal Government and the Tigray Regional Government, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has intensified since the Federal Government postponed the election due to take place in August 2020. The Ethiopian Parliament voted to extend officials’ mandates, which would otherwise have expired in October 2020. The TPLF rejected this decision and in September held regional elections, which were subsequently deemed illegal by the Ethiopian Parliament.1 On 29 October a senior officer, appointed by Prime Minister Abiy, was prevented from taking up his new position in Tigray because the TPLF believed that the Prime Minister no longer had a mandate to make such appointments.2 Ethiopia’s Parliament has voted to dissolve the government of the Tigray region.3 Both sides regard the other as illegitimate.4

2.On 4 November 2020 the Ethiopian Government began an offensive against regional forces in Tigray,5 after the Prime Minister accused the TPLF of attacking a military camp in the region and attempting to loot military assets.6 The first military clashes took place along the border with Sudan and between Amhara Region and Western and North-Western Tigray, but quickly moved towards other parts of Tigray as the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) security operations in Tigray tried to dislodge the TPLF-led Regional Government.7 There have been reports of airstrikes by the ENDF and rocket attacks by Tigray Regional Security Forces (TRSF) as well as the involvement of unidentified troops and regional militias.8 Western Tigray is now controlled by the Amhara regional authorities and there have been reports of ethnically motivated violence and forced displacement.9 At the end of a visit to Ethiopia in early February, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi described the situation in Tigray as “extremely grave” and said that “without further action it will get worse”.10

3.The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also corroborated information about some of the incidents that occurred in November last year, of indiscriminate shelling in Mekelle, Humera and Adigrat in Tigray, and of grave human rights violations and abuses including mass killings in Axum, and in Dengelat in central Tigray, including some allegedly carried out by Eritrean forces.11 Eritrea’s Government has denied any involvement.12 Despite this denial, there have been many reports of Eritrean forces on the ground in Tigray acting in support of the Ethiopian Government and of infiltrations of refugee camps by armed actors and Eritrean forces.13 The UK Government said it was,

… concerned by [the] involvement of Eritrean forces in hostilities throughout the Tigray region … and the growing weight of credible evidence of their involvement in human rights violations.14

The US and EU went further and called on Eritrea to withdraw its forces.15 On 23 March the Ethiopian Government confirmed that Eritrean troops had entered Tigray during the recent conflict.16 On 26 March, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw troops from the border area. The Eritrean Government has not confirmed its troops are in Tigray.17

4.The conflict has created a humanitarian crisis in Tigray. Edward Brown, National Director, World Vision Ethiopia, told us:

Throughout Tigray region—west, north, east and south—there has been widespread violence and conflict, and civilians are suffering every day. That has not stopped. It is very fluid and unpredictable …18

5.The fighting has limited humanitarian operations across parts of Tigray.19 The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) 8 March situation update said:

The humanitarian situation in Tigray remains extremely concerning, while reports of intensified fighting and lack of assistance in rural areas continue to drive displacements of people across the Region. Aid workers received reports of children hungry and weak particularly from those fleeing areas that are currently hard to reach, as many faced four months without assistance after their harvests were burnt, livestock slaughtered, and property looted. The security situation remains fluid, and access to some previously reachable locations around Mekelle and in southern Tigray have not been possible for the past three weeks. The presence of various armed forces on the ground and shifting line of control pose serious challenges to partners’ operations.20

6.Although the Ethiopian Government declared an end to operations on 28 November, conflict in the region between forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and Government forces and other regional militias has continued.21 James Duddridge MP told us:

The TPLF has not put down its arms, so it is about stabilising the region, getting access, getting an understanding of what the needs are and then providing, in a sensible order of priority, against needs. … critical to that is the Eritreans leaving, and getting that access and stability.22

7.International efforts to seek a resolution to the crisis have had limited impact to date. The US has announced that it is creating the post of a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa to strengthen its response to the Tigray crisis, building on the existing work of Senator Chris Coons.23 Peeka Haavisto, Finnish Foreign Minister, recently travelled to Ethiopia for a visit mandated by the EU High Representative Josep Borrell to discuss the crisis in Tigray and implications for the region.24 The UK formed part of the G7’s statement calling for “a clear inclusive political process” as a means to ending the conflict.25

8.The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary, said:

We believe that it is vital that any conflict resolution mechanism is as inclusive as possible—to ensure that the views of all groups are represented and to give it the greatest chance of success. We are committed to pushing all stakeholders to ensure an inclusive dialogue process, including exploring where FCDO programme support could help achieve this.26

He went on to wholeheartedly agree that the situation in Tigray was the sort of crisis that the FCDO’s combined diplomatic and development capability is designed to respond to.27

9.Conflict is a key cause of the current humanitarian crisis in Tigray. Continued fighting is hampering efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need.

10.We welcome the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary’s wholehearted acceptance that the situation in Tigray is an early test of the UK’s commitment to the principles and approach of the UK as a ‘force for good’ as set out in the Government’s Integrated Review. The Tigray crisis will be a test of the FCDO’s desire to combine ‘diplomacy and development’ and to establish an integrated approach to conflict and instability. Failing this early test could damage the credibility of the UK’s new strategy.

11.We urge the UK Government to redouble its efforts to seek an end to the conflict, using all the diplomatic means at its disposal. It should work multilaterally through organisations such as the UN and the African Union, and bilaterally with its partners, the Ethiopian Government, neighbouring states, and representatives of the parties to the conflict, to foster peace through an inclusive political settlement.

Killings and sexual violence

12.Reports of fighting are accompanied by distressing reports, some from people displaced by the conflict, of gender-based and sexual violence.28 Situation updates and media reports implicating various armed actors, including the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia, have documented:

13.The UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, said she was alarmed at the “continued escalation of ethnic violence” following reports of civilians being targeted based on their ethnicity and region.30 The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has repeatedly called for independent investigations that follow high standards when investigating cases of human rights violations. On 24 March 2021 the EHRC released preliminary findings of its investigation of the events in Axum at the end of November 2020. They found that over 100 civilians were killed, allegedly by Eritrean soldiers.31 On 25 March 2021, the EHRC and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that they would conduct a joint, independent investigation, initially for three months, into human rights violations and abuses in relation to the conflict in Tigray to enhance accountability.32 In his letter of 12 April the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary welcomed the joint investigation but noted the arrangements for it were “not yet clear”.33

14.Pramila Patten, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said she was greatly concerned about the high number of reported rapes in Mekelle and the disturbing allegations of “individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family”.34 Along with Alice Nderitu she has called for an independent and impartial investigation.35 By early March there were at least 417 self-reported cases of gender-based violence (GBV) from Mekelle, Wukro and Adigrat alone.36 Survivors of GBV have not been able to access local community support due to the collapse of social services.37 Between December 2020 and January 2021 more than 136 cases of rape were reported in the east of Tigray region, with indications that many more cases were unreported38 (rapes are often underreported due to stigma and fear of retaliation, the actual number of cases is likely to be significantly higher than those reported).39 Edward Brown, World Vision Ethiopia, told us that:

… there is definitely gender-based violence and rape as a weapon of war. We do dignity kits and we have child-friendly spaces, but, again, it is primarily in urban areas, where the lucky have managed to escape. We have a lot of concern for areas where there is not that access.40

15.On 4 March the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said an objective, independent assessment of the facts on the ground in the Tigray region of Ethiopia was needed, as credible information emerged about serious violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. She 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 … victims and survivors of these violations must not be denied their rights to the truth and to justice. We urge the Government of Ethiopia to grant my Office and other independent monitors access to the Tigray region, with a view to establishing the facts and contributing to accountability, regardless of the affiliation of perpetrators.41

On 21 April, Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, said:

I have been extremely concerned by the numerous and horrific reports received from multiple and credible sources, about the extent and cruelty of acts of sexual violence being committed against women and girls. Images of the brutality of the violence and terror being inflicted on women and girls has sent shock waves around the world. Testimonies of some brave survivors revealed the brutal and hideous war being waged on the bodies of women and girls.42

16.James Duddridge MP, Minister for Africa, told us:

… there have been egregious reports of really awful humanitarian rights violations. It is clear that there has been widespread murder, rape and looting, pillaging and destruction of property. Her Majesty’s Government are clear that there needs to be an end to this impunity in the region.43

17.The UK Government has raised its concerns with Ministers in both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and made clear “the overriding need to protect civilians and adhere to international law and international human rights law”.44 During our evidence session on 18 March, Dr Alastair McPhail CMG OBE, British Ambassador to Ethiopia, told us that any solution to the conflict would have to stem from regional and Ethiopian institutions, with the FCDO playing a supportive role. He said

We have made it clear from the very first day that there is no military solution to the difficulties between the central Government and the TPLF. … We are not short of ideas or, indeed, of energy. We are co-ordinating with those who also bring the same sort of experience, but, primarily, this will be solved and resolved on the continent.45

18.On 2 April, the G7 Foreign Ministers and the High Representative of the European Union issued a joint statement on the situation in Tigray, condemning human rights abuses and calling on all parties to the conflict to,

… exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law.46

Noting their deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls in the Tigray region, on 22 April members of the UN Security Council called for investigations to find those responsible and bring them to justice.47

19.OCHA’s 8 March situation update reported the looting of humanitarian supplies and the destruction and vandalisation of humanitarian infrastructure.48 James Duddridge MP, Minister for Africa, told us that five Ethiopians working for international organisations that received UK funding were killed “while putting their lives at risk trying to help others”.49

20.We are appalled by the distressing reports of human rights abuses, gender-based violence and sexual violence in Tigray. The horrors that have been inflicted on people and their suffering during this conflict are unimaginable, and we are particularly saddened that, once again, women and girls are being targeted. It is essential that the fighting ends as soon as possible. The services needed to support those who have suffered so terribly must be restored and expanded to meet present and future needs without further delay. It is crucial that these crimes are investigated and that those responsible face justice. We are particularly saddened by the targeting and killing of aid workers.

21.We welcome the statement by the G7 group condemning the killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate shelling and forced displacement of civilian populations. We recommend that the UK Government uses its long-standing diplomatic and development relationship with Ethiopia to ensure the Ethiopian Government acts on its responsibility to protect its population from violence, and works to ensure the immediate protection of communities in the region from human rights abuses, including sexual violence. The UK Government must use all diplomatic means possible to remind the Government of Ethiopia that, under the principle of the responsibility to protect, it is responsible for protecting its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The UK Government should bear in mind its obligations to take appropriate action in line with the UN Genocide Convention should the Ethiopian Government fail to take the actions it needs to take to protect its people.

22.In line with the recent G7 statement on the importance of an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into crimes reported in Tigray, the UK Government should work with the appropriate authorities to enable access for independent monitors to Tigray to ensure that evidence of the crimes that have been committed is secured and to bring those who are responsible to justice. The Government should continue to press for clarity on how the joint investigations by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  will work.

23.Drawing upon lessons learned from other atrocities, we recommend that FCDO arranges atrocity prevention training for staff at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa and neighbouring posts as a matter of urgency and designates a named atrocity prevention lead. Staff in these posts should have clear lines of communication to colleagues in Whitehall so they can quickly raise and respond to concerns about human rights abuses. Furthermore, the FCDO should embed an atrocity prevention strategy in its updated country strategy for Ethiopia and neighbouring states.

5 OCHA, Humanitarian Needs Overview Ethiopia, February 2021, p.12

8 OCHA, Humanitarian Needs Overview Ethiopia, February 2021, p.16

9 OCHA, Ethiopia - Tigray Region Humanitarian Update: Situation Report, 22 March 2021

13 Ethiopia: situation in Tigray, Briefing Paper Number 09147, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021, p.5; UNHCR, Remarks by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi at the press conference in Addis Ababa., 1 February 2021

14 HL 12852, 12 February 2021

18 Q6 [Edward Brown]

19 OCHA, Ethiopia – Tigray Region Humanitarian Update: Situation Report, 22 March 2021

21 Ethiopia: situation in Tigray, Briefing Paper Number 09147, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021

22 Q31 [James Duddridge]

23 Bloomberg, US creates special envoy post, 25 March 2021

26 Letter from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary dated 12 April 2021

27 Letter from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary dated 12 April 2021

30 Ethiopia: situation in Tigray, Briefing Paper Number 09147, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021, p.5

34 Ethiopia: situation in Tigray, Briefing Paper Number 09147, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021, p.5

35 Ethiopia: situation in Tigray, Briefing Paper Number 09147, House of Commons Library, 25 February 2021, p.5

40 Q19 [Edward Brown]

42 United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Remarks from SRSG Pramila Patten: Georgetown University virtual event, “The Crisis in Tigray: Women and Girls Under Violent Assault”, 21 April 2021

43 Q21

44 HL12328, 3 February 2021

45 Q41 [Dr Alastair McPhail]

47 United Nations Security Council, Security Council Press Statement on Ethiopia, SC/14501, 22 April 2021

49 Q21

Published: 30 April 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement