WHO worried about humanitarian catastrophe in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, as U.S. report warns against ‘ethnic cleansing’ led by government forces and militia

The World Health Organization (WHO) is “gravely concerned” about the worsening humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray Region.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Head of World Health Organization 
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Head of World Health Organization

At a press briefing from Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, March 1, 2021, Dr. Michael Ryan, Director of WHO Health Emergencies Program, described the dire situation on the ground that has left little room for humanitarian assistance and proper healthcare.

Dr. Ryan was responding to a question from Today News Africa’s Senior News Correspondent, Simon Ateba, about the COVID-19 vaccination efforts being put in place in the Tigray Region.

“The situation in Tigray in Ethiopia remains of grave concern. There has been disrupted access to water, sanitation, food, safe shelter, essential health services, and commodities and drugs. There has been a disruption of the COVID 19 response. WHO has worked to provide essential supplies to 450,000 people, less than 10 percent of the population, for three months. But several health services, including maternal and child health services, have been very very disrupted,” responded Dr. Ryan.

The Prime Minister of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia H.E. Mr. Abiy Ahmed arrives in Sochi to take part in the Russia–Africa Summit in October 2019 Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

He described a no-win situation where overcrowded displacement camps lead to infectious diseases like malaria and increased violence and sexual violence.

According to the health expert, the WHO is willing to work with agencies or organizations that can give them better access and will continue to work with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health as so much as they are willing to.

It appeared that from the WHO perspective, they’re concerned about a growing epidemic due to malnutrition and malaria spreading and can quickly get out of control if not addressed now. The Ethiopian government is currently incapable of addressing this crisis on its own.

The concern by the WHO was first expressed by the Biden administration last week.

President Joe Biden boards Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland en route to the White House Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, concluding his trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden boards Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland en route to the White House Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, concluding his trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration remains “gravely concerned” by reported “atrocities” and the overall “deteriorating situation” in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

He wrote: “We strongly condemn the killings, forced removals and displacements, sexual assaults, and other extremely serious human rights violations and abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.  We are also deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis.  The United States has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full, independent, international investigation into all reports of human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities.  Those responsible for them must be held accountable.

“The United States acknowledges the February 26 statements from the Ethiopian Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promising unhindered humanitarian access, welcoming international support for investigations into human rights violations and abuses, and committing to full accountability.  The international community needs to work collectively to ensure that these commitments are realized.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Vice President Kamala D. Harris, National Security Advisor to the President Jake Sullivan, and National Security Advisor to the Vice President Nancy McEldowney at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

“The immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential first steps.  They should be accompanied by unilateral declarations of cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict and a commitment to permit unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray.  The United States is committed to working with the international community to achieve these goals.  To that end, USAID will deploy a Disaster Assistance Response Team to Ethiopia to continue delivering life-saving assistance.

“We ask international partners, especially the African Union and regional partners, to work with us to address the crisis in Tigray, including through action at the UN and other relevant bodies.

“The United States remains committed to building an enduring partnership with the Ethiopian people.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken records a video message at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken records a video message at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 2021. [State Department Photo by Freddie Everett

Confidential U.S. government report finds Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed leading an ethnic cleansing in Tigray region

A confidential U.S. government report has concluded that the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia along with allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

“Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased,” the report, first obtained by The New York Times, says.

It adds that fighters from the neighboring Amhara region of Ethiopia who moved to Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”

The report was written early this month, and documents as The Times put it, “a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are uncounted for.”

Ethiopia is an ally of the United States in Africa, but President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has also vowed to defend democracy and human rights around the world, a pledge that now puts him in a position to act and send a clear message to other despots in Africa that ethnic cleansing will not be tolerated.

President Joe Biden gets briefed by Liz Sherwood Randall, Julie Rodriguez and participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by the snow storm in the middle of the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) 
President Joe Biden gets briefed by Liz Sherwood Randall, Julie Rodriguez and participates in a conference phone call with governors affected by the snow storm in the middle of the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 16, 2021, in Washington. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Amnesty International finds grave human rights violations in Tigray

On Friday, Amnesty International also released a report saying that soldiers from Eritrea had systematically killed hundreds of Tigrayan civilians in the city of Axum over a 10-day period in November. They shot dead some of them in the streets.

“The evidence is compelling and points to a chilling conclusion. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops carried out multiple war crimes in their offensive to take control of Axum. Above and beyond that, Eritrean troops went on a rampage and systematically killed hundreds of civilians in cold blood, which appears to constitute crimes against humanity,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. “This atrocity ranks among the worst documented so far in this conflict. Besides the soaring death toll, Axum’s residents were plunged into days of collective trauma amid violence, mourning and mass burials.”

Human Rights Watch concludes Abiy troops massacred innocent people in Tigray

On February 10, Human Rights Watch concluded that Ethiopian federal forces carried out apparently indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in the Tigray region in November 2020 in violation of the laws of war. Artillery attacks at the start of the armed conflict struck homes, hospitals, schools, and markets in the city of Mekelle, and the towns of Humera and Shire, killing at least 83 civilians, including children, and wounding over 300.

President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, prior to boarding Air Force One to begin his flight to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe) 
President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, prior to boarding Air Force One to begin his flight to New Castle County Airport in New Castle, Delaware. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)

“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,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “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 human rights organization recalled that on November 4, the Ethiopian military began operations in Tigray in response to what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as attacks on federal forces and bases by forces affiliated with the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 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 neighboring Sudan.

It wrote: “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. Interviews were conducted in person in Sudan and by phone between December 2020 and January 2021. Human Rights Watch also examined satellite imagery, and reviewed photographs and videos from the site of six attacks that corroborated witness accounts.

“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 that month. A government Twitter account created during the conflict claimed that federal forces had “avoided combat in cities and towns of the Tigray region.”

“Witnesses described to Human Rights Watch a pattern of artillery attacks by Ethiopian federal forces before they captured Humera, Shire, and Mekelle in November. In each of these attacks the Tigrayan special forces appeared to have withdrawn, while in Humera local militias lacked a significant presence to defend the town. 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.

“In the western border town of Humera, residents said that on November 9, artillery fired from Eritrea terrified unsuspecting civilians, striking them in their homes and as they fled. The shelling damaged residential areas in the Kebele 02 neighborhood, and struck near a church and a school, near a mosque in Kebele 01, and hit areas near the town’s main hospital.

“A man who was transporting the wounded on his motorbike said he saw a shell tear through the roof of a house made of steel sheets about 100 meters away from Saint Gabriel church: “Five people were dead. We only found a 7-month-old infant crying among them. He was barely alive, so we took him to the church.”

“Doctors from the town’s main Kahsay Aberra’s hospital said they were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of dead bodies and patients with severe injuries. One estimated that the shelling on November 9 killed at least 46 people and wounded over 200.

“In the northwestern town of Shire, shelling began on November 17 and hit buildings in the center of town and an industrial area. Civilians were killed and injured as they fled near the Abuna Aregawi church. Later that day, witnesses saw Ethiopian forces pass through Shire alongside Eritrean forces.

“Residents from the regional capital, Mekelle, said that heavy shelling on November 28 killed 27 civilians, including children, and wounded over 100. In one attack, shells struck a residential compound near a market, mosque, and an empty school in Ayder sub-city, and killed four members of a single family, including two young children, and wounded five adults and a 9-year-old child.

“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. Indiscriminate attacks include those not directed at a specific military target and that use means of attack that cannot be directed at a specific military target. Bombardments that treat distinct military targets in a city or town as a single military objective would also constitute an indiscriminate attack. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war deliberately or recklessly are responsible for war crimes.

“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. Though several residents in Humera and Mekelle said they saw the use of apparent spotters to direct mortar fire, Human Rights Watch could not determine whether spotters were systematically used or effective, as shells repeatedly struck populated areas that contained no evident military targets.

“As fighting in Tigray continues, all parties to the conflict should abide by the laws of war. Ethiopian federal forces should cease indiscriminate attacks, investigate alleged laws-of-war violations, and refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. All sides should allow unhindered access by humanitarian agencies and ensure that health facilities can adequately function. Access to essential services and communications should also be restored.

“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.”

Biden, Harris react

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday spoke with the chairperson of the African Union and President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi.

They discussed several issues, including business opportunities, the Ebola outbreak in the country, COVID-19, and the ravaging humanitarian crisis in Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.

Vice President Kamala Harris sits for an interview with NBC’s “The Today Show”, Feb. 17, 2021, from her ceremonial office in the EEOB in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) 
Vice President Kamala Harris sits for an interview with NBC’s “The Today Show”, Feb. 17, 2021, from her ceremonial office in the EEOB in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

“The Vice President emphasized the serious concern of the United States about reports of significant human rights violations and a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. They agreed to collaborate to reduce conflict, support dialogue, and secure peace in eastern DRC and the region,” the White House said.

Harris also congratulated President Tshisekedi on assuming the African Union Chairmanship, the White House said, adding that the two leaders committed to work together to strengthen health security, increase regional trade and investment, promote human rights and good governance, and to address the challenges of climate change. 

“The Vice President committed to working with the DRC government to advance girls’ education and to bolster economic opportunities for all Congolese,” added the White House.

The President of Democratic Republic of the Congo Mr. Felix Antoine TSHISEKEDI TSHILOMBO arrives in Sochi. Felix Antoine TSHISEKEDI TSHILOMBO will take part in the Russia–Africa Summit on 23–24 October. Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

On Thursday, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, the first African leader since his inauguration on January 20.

Biden and Kenyatta discussed many issues, including the “humanitarian and human rights crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and ensure humanitarian access,” the White House said.

“President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. The President affirmed the importance of the strong U.S.- Kenya bilateral relationship,” the White House said of their conversation.

President Biden also emphasized the United States’ continued commitment to working closely with Kenya to support regional peace and security, including at the United Nations Security Council. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta at a past interview event. [Source:Uhuru Kenyatta:Facebook] 
President Uhuru Kenyatta

“The President applauded Kenya’s leadership in the Horn of Africa and commitment to counterterrorism, economic growth, addressing climate change, and sustainable development. 

“Presidents Biden and Kenyatta discussed the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the need to prevent further loss of life and ensure humanitarian access. The leaders also discussed the need for cooperation on other matters of regional stability,” the White House added.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Secretary of the Treasury Dr. Janet Yellen and business leaders Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Secretary of the Treasury Dr. Janet Yellen and business leaders Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Biden has vowed to defend democracy and human rights around the world, and Ethiopia may become a good place to start.

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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