Human Rights Abuses in Tigray Need Global Action


Last week marked the two-year anniversary of the Axum massacre in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where Eritrean forces killed hundreds of Tigrayans over the course of 24 hours. Since then, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have continued to commit mass atrocities and human rights abuses against Tigrayans. Evidence has mounted of staggering sexual violence, forced displacement, and mass killings, in what Human Rights Watch has termed a campaign of ethnic cleansing. A United Nations commission of experts found that Ethiopian and allied forces blocked humanitarian aid from the Tigray region, and used starvation as a weapon of war. There is also emerging evidence that these crimes may amount to genocide.

As these crimes continue, and the Tigrayan people continue to suffer, rights-respecting countries like the United States should take action.

The war on Tigray rages on. Ethiopia signed a peace agreement with Tigrayan forces on Nov. 2, 2022, but Ethiopia breached the agreement within 24 hours. Drone strikes launched the next day caused civilian casualties in Tigray, and humanitarian aid remained blocked from the region for weeks. Most concerningly, Eritrean forces are still present in Tigray, and reports indicate that they are continuing to commit atrocity crimes against Tigrayans.

Eritrea’s actions in Tigray are equally alarming, reflecting its reputation as among the most repressive regimes in the world. The United Nations commission of experts found reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean forces “committed the war crimes of violence to life and person, in particular murder; outrages on human dignity, in particular humiliating or degrading treatment; rape; sexual slavery; and sexual violence.”

Not only are Eritrean forces continuing to commit sexual assaults, killings, massacres, and property looting in Tigray, their presence is escalating, with reports of Eritrea deploying additional troops to the region over the last month. Other authoritarian regimes, including Turkey, have been implicated in the conflict as well.

A truck carrying grains to Tigray
A truck, carrying grains to Tigray and belonging to the World Food Program (WFP), burns out on a route 80 kilometers from Semera, Ethiopia, on June 10, 2022.EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The leaders of the free world should respond. The U.S. can and should impose targeted Magnitsky sanctions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials who bear responsibility for these crimes. Other countries with similar legislation can and should do the same.

The Biden administration should also allow displaced Tigrayans to seek refuge in the United States, and encourage its allies to do the same. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Tigray in November 2020, over 65,000 refugees have been stranded, in horrendous conditions, in Sudan, while over 2 million are internally displaced within Ethiopia.

The United States should also make a public determination on the question of genocide. In September 2021, the U.S. State Department launched a legal review to determine whether the crimes amount to genocide against Tigrayans. In December 2021, the review was shelved as peace negotiations were ongoing. Now that the peace agreement has been signed, and crimes against Tigrayans have continued, the genocide determination should be re-opened and made public. This will be critical to prevent impunity.

We cannot be misled by the recent peace agreement into thinking that our work here is over. Two years out from the Axum massacre, and the very same Eritrean forces that committed atrocities in Tigray are still present and wreaking havoc in the region. There is no peace. There will never be peace until Eritrea is out of the region, until Ethiopia stops bombing civilians, and until there is justice and accountability for Tigray.

Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer.

Enes Kanter Freedom is an NBA player and human rights activist.


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