On November 4, 2021, the Ethiopian government passed a sweeping nationwide state of emergency granting the authorities unchecked power as fighting in northern Ethiopia spreads amid rising political and ethnic tensions. In a virtual meeting on November 8, the AU Peace and Security Council was briefed by Olusegun Obasanjo, the AU special envoy on the Horn of Africa, after speaking to warring parties about how to deescalate tensions. The UN Security Council also met in an open session in New York, where it discussed these developments.
“The Ethiopian government, its allies, and opponents should stop actions and policies that risk inciting abuses, and take urgent steps to ensure that the rights of all communities are fully protected,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s critical for African leaders and UN Security Council members to work together to take immediate action to avert further atrocities – or they will have failed the Ethiopian people.”
Warring parties need to ensure that civilians are protected and enable the provision of critical humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said.
Tigrayan forces affiliated with the country’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and armed forces known as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) reportedly have captured key towns on the route toward Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Ethiopian federal and regional authorities and public figures responded with public statements that risk inciting violence and discrimination against Tigrayans and others deemed to support “the invading forces.”
Facebook removed an October 31 statement by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed calling on all Ethiopians to “take up arms and bury the TPLF.” Human Rights Watch previously reported on the increase in ethnic profiling, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearances of scores of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa after Ethiopian government forces withdrew from most of the Tigray region and Tigrayan forces recaptured of the regional capital, Mekelle, in late June.
Ethiopian authorities, in their recent public statements, including on social media, have increased the likelihood of violence against specific ethnic groups, though international law requires them to seek to prevent violence. Foreign journalists and aid workers are also at risk. A November 4 social media post by the government’s communication service threatened those “working with the enemy in propagating its false narratives,” accused Reuters of “spreading misinformation,” and referred to Tigray forces as “a rat that strays far from its hole.” The authorities in Addis Ababa also called on residents to register their arms and prepare to defend their neighborhoods, increasing the risk of communal violence.
Amid rising tensions in the country, all warring parties and public officials should be denouncing statements that incite hostility, violence, or discrimination rather than encouraging them, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 4, Ethiopia’s parliament passed a six-month nationwide state of emergency. It grants the government far-reaching powers to arrest and detain people based on “reasonable suspicion” of cooperation with “terrorist groups” without a court warrant and judicial oversight while the proclamation is in effect.
It includes vague provisions that restrict expression that “contributes to the success of terrorist groups … or terrorizes the civilian population,” and allows the authorities to suspend licenses for civil society, media organizations, and journalists that provide direct, indirect, or moral support to terrorist groups. It allows the security forces to use “proportional force which it finds necessary for the execution of state of emergency measures.”
The emergency provisions not only heighten the risks of arbitrary arrest and detention against at-risk communities, but could have a chilling effect on humanitarian activities, induce self-censorship by the media, activist groups, and human rights organizations, and risk emboldening abusive elements within the security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
Since the law came into effect, Human Rights Watch has learned of security forces in Addis Ababa carrying out neighborhood searches and detaining Tigrayans, without a court warrant or access to their family. Human Rights Watch also has received reports that ethnic Oromos have been detained outside of the capital. On November 7, the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a statement expressing its concerns about the arrests along ethnic lines, following the issuance of the state of emergency.
Successive Ethiopian governments have a long history of using vague and overbroad legislation to clamp down on basic rights. They include problematic nationwide state of emergency declarations – in 2016, 2018, and its 2020 law in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the now-amended counterterrorism, mass media, and charities and societies laws.
While international law allows governments to impose certain emergency measures in response to significant threats to the life of the nation, derogations of basic rights must be strictly necessary and proportionate to the emergency and be for the shortest duration possible. Although the Ethiopian Constitution permits such derogations during times of emergency, international human rights law forbids authorities from limiting some specific human rights, including the right to life and the right to be free from torture, including during national emergencies.
Further, the Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa, which were adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2015, outline that “states should not use combatting terrorism as a pretext to restrict fundamental freedoms.”
Rather than assuaging fears, the government’s emergency provisions, along with officials’ hateful public rhetoric, risk stoking fear among communities across the country, can limit critical humanitarian assistance, and empower the authorities to commit ethnically motivated arbitrary arrests and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
In a November 5 statement, the UN Security Council called “for all parties to refrain from hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness.” The UN secretary-general issued a statement on November 2 saying he was “extremely concerned” about the “recent declaration of the state of emergency,” and the UN high commissioner for human rights said on November 3 that “far from stabilizing the situation, these extremely broad measures … will deepen divisions, endanger civil society and human rights defenders, provoke greater conflict and only add to the human suffering already at unacceptable levels.”
Since the beginning of the armed conflict in Tigray in November 2020, Ethiopian government and allied forces have massacred and forcibly displaced civilians, carried out brutal acts of sexual violence, and destroyed and pillaged crops, healthcare centers, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. Since June when Ethiopian and Eritrean federal forces pulled out of most of Tigray, Ethiopian authorities have effectively besieged the region by unlawfully blocking critical access to humanitarian assistance and services.
Attacks also continue in the region. Human Rights Watch has also documented serious abuses committed by Tigrayan militias against Eritrean refugees in Tigray and received reports of summary executions and sexual violence by Tigrayan forces against Amhara civilians as the fighting expanded to that region in July, increasing humanitarian needs.
Obasanjo, in his briefing to the AU Peace and Security Council, also said that the Council should urge parties to ensure respect and compliance with international humanitarian and human rights laws.
“The UN and African Union security councils should urgently press Ethiopia’s warring parties to respect international humanitarian law and hold their troops accountable for war crimes,” Roth said. “The UN Security Council should impose a global arms embargo on both Ethiopia and Eritrea to avoid fueling further war crimes and make it clear that the council will no longer sit on the sidelines as atrocities in Ethiopia mount.”