U.N. experts say Ethiopia’s conflict left more than 10,000 survivors of sexual violence

A person sits with their back to the camera in a dark room with a light at their feet..
A Tigrayan refugee rape victim who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray sits for a portrait in eastern Sudan near the Sudan-Ethiopia border on March 20, 2021.
(Nariman El-Mofty / Associated Press)

U.N.-backed human rights experts say war crimes continue in Ethiopia despite a peace accord signed nearly a year ago to end a conflict that engulfed the country’s northern Tigray region. The violence has left at least 10,000 people affected by rape and other sexual violence — mostly women and girls, they found.

They warned of “hallmark risks” that the violence could spread further, producing more “atrocity crimes” and jeopardize security more broadly in East Africa. With a multiethnic population of about 120 million, Ethiopia is by far the most populous country in the region.

The experts’ report, published Monday, comes against the backdrop of an uncertain future for the team of investigators who wrote it: The U.N. Human Rights Council is set to decide early next month whether to extend the team’s mandate in the face of efforts by the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to end it.


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The violence erupted in November 2020, centering largely — though not exclusively — on the northern Tigray region, which for months was shut off from the outside world. The report cites atrocities by all sides in the war, including mass killings, rape, starvation and destruction of schools and medical facilities.

Mohamed Chande Othman, chairman of the international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia, said the situation remains “extremely grave” despite a peace accord signed in November.

”While the signing of the agreement may have mostly silenced the guns, it has not resolved the conflict in the north of the country, in particular in Tigray, nor has it brought about any comprehensive peace,” he said.

“Violent confrontations are now at a near-national scale, with alarming reports of violations against civilians in the Amhara region and ongoing atrocities in Tigray,” Othman added.

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Speaking to reporters in Geneva, he said patterns of grave rights violations and growing “securitization” in Ethiopia “bear hallmark risks of further atrocity crimes.”

The report said troops from neighboring Eritrea — which the commission said were the worst offenders — and militia members from Ethiopia’s Amhara militia continue to commit grave violations in Tigray, including the “systematic rape and sexual violence of women and girls.”


Commissioner Radhika Coomaraswamy said the presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia showed not only “an entrenched policy of impunity, but also continued support for and tolerance of such violations by the federal government.”

“Entire families have been killed, relatives forced to watch horrific crimes against their loved ones, while whole communities have been displaced or expelled from their homes,” she said.

The team faulted a “lack of cooperation” from the Ethiopian government, and said the Eritrean government did not respond to questions about its alleged role in the crimes in Ethiopia. The government in Addis Ababa has sought to set up its own transitional justice system, which the commission said was an attempt to evade international scrutiny.

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Citing consolidated estimates from seven health centers in Tigray alone, the commission said more than 10,000 survivors of sexual violence sought care between the start of the conflict and July this year.

But accountability and trust in the justice system in Ethiopia have been lacking.

The commission said it knows of only 13 completed and 16 pending military court cases addressing sexual violence committed during the conflict.

The figures in the report offer a sweeping look at a conflict that was known to be rife with cases of sexual violence, even after the signing of the peace deal.


Ethiopia announced a state of emergency in the Amhara region last month, and the experts cited reports of “mass arbitrary detention of Amhara civilians,” including at least one drone strike carried by government forces.

Amhara, Ethiopia’s second most populous region, has been gripped by instability since April, when federal authorities moved to disarm its security forces following the end of the war in neighboring Tigray.