Urban areas in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has suffered from indiscriminate shelling by federal forces in November 2020, in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch reported on Thursday.
Homes, hospitals, schools, and markets in the city of Mekelle, as well as the towns of Humera and Shire were struck with artillery shells at the start of the armed conflict, resulting in the deaths of at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300, the report said.
Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch said, “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.”
“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.”
The Ethiopian military began operations in Tigray on November 04, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded to attacks on federal forces and bases by forces affiliated with the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades as part of a ruling coalition that was responsible for serious human rights violations, before Abiy became prime minister in April 2018.
Tensions between the federal government and the Tigray regional authorities increased after the federal government reconfigured the ruling coalition into a single party in 2019, and postponed highly anticipated national elections citing COVID-19 related health risks in March 2020.
As of February 2021, many Tigray residents lack adequate access to food, fuel, water, and medicines. More than 200,000 people are internally displaced, while tens of thousands have also fled to neighbouring Sudan.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 witnesses and victims of government attacks on Humera, Shire, and Mekelle, as well as 9 journalists, aid workers, and human rights and forensic experts while also examined satellite imagery, and reviewed photographs and videos from the site of attacks.
Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its preliminary findings to the Ethiopian government but received no response.
In a parliamentary address on November 30, Prime Minister Abiy maintained that Ethiopian federal forces had not caused civilian casualties during their military operations in Tigray and a government Twitter account claimed that federal forces had “avoided combat in cities and towns of Tigray region.”
But witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces before they captured Humera, Shire, and Mekelle in November.
Many of the artillery attacks did not appear aimed at specific military targets but struck generalized populated areas. Human Rights Watch found similar patterns in interviews with 13 people from the towns of Rawyan and Axum.
These attacks caused civilian deaths and injuries; damaged homes, businesses, and infrastructure; struck near schools; disrupted medical services; and prompted thousands of civilians to flee.
The laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Tigray prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks expected to cause greater harm to civilians than the anticipated military gain.
All forces have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians. They are required to take all feasible precautions to ensure that attacks are directed at military targets, and not civilians.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights should send a fact-finding team into the region to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war in Tigray, and to ensure that evidence of abuses is preserved, Human Rights Watch said.
“As the civilian toll of the Tigray conflict comes to light, it is clear that a thorough inquiry into alleged laws-of-war violations in the region that pave the way for justice is desperately needed,” Bader said.
“The Ethiopian government should promptly allow UN investigators into Tigray to document the conduct by warring parties in a conflict that has devastated the lives of millions and should no longer be ignored.” (Source: HRW)