Human Rights Watch asks UN security council to ‘end inaction’ on Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis, urges António Guterres to be more involved

The United Nations Security Council should urgently act to address the dire human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

The organization called on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to press the Security Council to meet regularly and publicly on the situation, which has triggered a man-made humanitarian crisis and been characterized by widespread atrocities, including massacres and horrific sexual violence.  

At the request of Ireland, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and with the support of France, Estonia, and Norway, the Security Council is expected to hold its first open meeting on Tigray on July 2, 2021. However, the meeting will be held under the agenda item, “peace and security in Africa,” which does not ensure any sustained attention to Tigray afterward.

“For eight months, the Security Council has failed to even meet publicly on Tigray, let alone act to prevent further atrocities,” said Akshaya Kumar, crisis advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Convening an open briefing is a start but given the council’s abdication of its responsibilities, diplomats need to move from making statements to taking action.”  

Since the start of the conflict in November 2020, the Security Council has issued a single media statement on Tigray’s human rights and humanitarian crisis. The council has kept its deliberations and diplomacy behind closed doors despite abuses that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rights groups have documented large-scale massacres, summary executions, widespread sexual violenceindiscriminate shelling, pillage, destruction of crops and refugee camps, attacks on civilian infrastructure, such as factories, schools, and hospitals, and obstruction of humanitarian assistance, leaving millions at risk of famine.  

Previous attempts to schedule a public session on Tigray were reported to have been blocked by Russia and China. India, Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines have also been reluctant to support public engagement on the issue. The July 2 open session could be a turning point in international engagement for preventing further atrocities in Tigray, Human Rights Watch said.

The request for the session came after nearly two weeks of heavy fighting in Tigray, during which three aid workers were killedairstrikes hit a marketplace, and the Tigrayan armed group, known as the Tigrayan Defense Forces, took over key towns and areas, including Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle.

On June 28, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire, citing humanitarian reasons. But the government again cut off communications and basic services and is limiting access within and to the region. On July 1, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that a key access bridge on the Tekeze River was destroyed and that a convoy of 29 trucks carrying food aid was denied access to Tigray and forced to turn back.

The humanitarian needs in Tigray have reached a dire point. The Security Council should immediately add Ethiopia to its formal agenda and request regular briefings from the secretary-general on the situation. If the council is unable to reach agreement on the need to address the issue, the secretary-general should step in to urge sustained attention to the crisis.

Given the scale of the crisis, scrutiny at the UN needs to go hand-in-hand with swift, concrete actions by UN member countries aimed at promoting accountability for grave violations and preventing further atrocities, including individual sanctions on those responsible for violating international human rights and humanitarian law, prosecutions of those responsible for serious international crimes, and an arms embargo, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s a travesty that the Security Council still doesn’t consider Ethiopia among the dozens of issues and countries that are formally on its agenda,” Kumar said. “If council members won’t take that step, then the secretary-general would be justified to bang down the door. Not only is the UN’s credibility on the line, but millions of lives are at stake as well.”

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