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Reported Ethiopia massacre: UN rights chief warns of spiralling situation, war crimes

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A girl stands outside her home in the Tigray Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/Tanya Bindra

Disturbing reports of an alleged massacre have surfaced in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, amid fighting between national and regional forces that may become impossible to control, the UN human rights chief warned on Friday. 

Reacting to emerging details of mass killings involving scores of victims in the town of Mai-Kadra, Michelle Bachelet said that “if the Tigray national (and) regional forces and Ethiopian Government forces continue down the path they are on, there is a risk this situation will spiral totally out of control”. 

This risked “heavy casualties and destruction, as well as mass displacement within Ethiopia itself and across borders”, her spokesperson, Rupert Colville, told journalists at a press briefing in Geneva. 

Equally worrying were “ethnically and religiously motivated hate speech, incitement to violence”, arbitrary arrests, killings, mass displacement and destruction in various parts of the country, said senior UN prevention of genocide special adviser Pramila Patten, and the UN’s Responsibility to Protect senior adviser Karen Smith

Such ethnically motivated attacks and reportedly ethnic profiling of citizens heightened the risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, the UN senior officials added. 

War crimes 

Although the UN rights chief noted that the details of the alleged atrocity reported by Amnesty International in southwest Tigray “have not yet been fully verified”, she urged a full inquiry.  

“If confirmed as having been deliberately carried out by a party to the current fighting, these killings of civilians would of course amount to war crimes”, she said.   

The High Commissioner repeated her call to “stop the fighting and prevent any further atrocities from taking place”, before highlighting the devastating military power being brought to bear in the conflict. 

“Despite the severing of communications with Tigray making it difficult to verify the extent of the damage so far, we’ve received reports from a variety of sources suggesting increased airstrikes by Government forces as well as fierce ground fighting between the opposing forces”, she said. 

Cuts to water, electricity 

Cuts to essential services for vulnerable populations as well as a communications blackout and access problems “by road and by air” for relief agencies were also deeply worrying, Ms. Bachelet added.  

Regional and political tensions have risen since 2018, when newly-elected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed merged several ethnically based regional parties into a single national force, amid an ambitious reform programme.   

Violence erupted at the start of the month in Tigray involving federal and local forces, following the reported takeover of an army base in the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, which prompted the Prime Minister to order a military offensive.   

Prior to the Tigray escalation, dozens of people in western Oromia region were killed and injured in attacks.  

Refugee alert 

In a new alert over the safety of civilians in Tigray, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reiterated concerns for the safety of more than 96,000 Eritreans living in four refugee camps, and host communities living alongside them.  

They are in addition to the 100,000 people in Tigray who were already internally displaced at the start of the conflict.  

“Fighting in Tigray yesterday moved closer to Shimelba refugee camp – which hosts 6,500 Eritrean refugees – raising concerns of mass displacement from the camp itself”, said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson. “UNHCR is making preparations to receive refugees who have already begun arriving at another refugee camp, Hitsats, 50 kilometres away, and is considering further relocation options in the region.” 

Refugees from Ethiopia continue to flee into neighbouring Sudan “increasingly rapidly”, Mr. Baloch said, “with over 4,000 crossing the border in just one day”. 

Inside Sudan, those arriving from Ethiopia have been offered temporary shelter in transit centres near the border entry points of Ludgi in Gederef and Hamdayet in Kassala state.  

They receive water and meals, while UNHCR and local authorities jointly screen and register the men, women and children seeking safety.  

“The transit centre at Hamdayet border crossing has a capacity to accommodate only 300 refugees, but is already overwhelmed with 6,000 people”, Mr. Baloch explained. “Sanitation facilities are insufficient, impacting hygiene.” 

No winners from conflict 

Reiterating her 6 November appeal for talks and resolve differences “without delay” and an immediate cessation of hostilities, UN Human Rights chief Bachelet insisted that both sides should understand that fighting would produce “no winner”. 

A protracted internal conflict “will inflict devastating damage on both Tigray and Ethiopia as a whole, undoing years of vital development progress,” she said. “It could, in addition, all too easily spill across borders, potentially destabilizing the whole sub-region.” 

In a statement condemning reports of targeted attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or religion, UN Special Advisers Patten and Smith said that ethnic violence in Ethiopia had reached an alarming level over the past two years.  

The stigmatization of certain ethnic groups – including the Tigray, Amhara, Somali and Oromo – has significantly contributed to ethnic intolerance in the country, they insisted.  

Genocide risk 

“We strongly urge the Ethiopian authorities to take urgent measures to protect its population from further violence and strongly encourage them to seek assistance from the international community”, the Special Advisers said.  

The need to de-escalate rising tensions in the country was especially important ahead of forthcoming elections”, the Special Advisers stated, in reference to the national poll that was suspended in August because of the COVID-19 crisis for nine to 12 months, to give the authorities sufficient time to get the pandemic under control. 

They warned that if these urgent measures are not immediately taken, the risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia remains high. 

Children under fire 

The UN Children’s Fund has also been voicing fears that the most vulnerable civilians, will suffer the most: “UNICEF is deeply concerned about the safety and wellbeing of children affected by ongoing military operations in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed Malick Fall.  

“UNICEF calls on all parties to the conflict to adhere to international humanitarian law and to protect children from harm. UNICEF also calls on all parties to ensure that humanitarian actors have unconditional and sustained access on the ground to reach civilians in need, and to preserve children’s access to basic social services.”

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Africa Today

Somalia at a crossroad, UN envoy urges ‘deepened’ political consensus

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Children wait to be vaccinated against polio in the back streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. © UNICEF/Ismail Taxta

The “broad political consensus” reached in September that ended a two-year stalemate in Somalia must be “preserved and indeed deepened”, the country’s UN envoy told the Security Council on Monday. 

Although the agreed model of voting “regrettably fell short” of the constitutional requirement for parliamentary elections based on the principle of universal suffrage, Special Representative James Swan, who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), acknowledged that it did reflect “wide Somali political consensus and ownership”.  

“In addition to the support of the President and federal member state leaders, the indirect model was also endorsed by other key Somali stakeholders, including political parties and civil society, and was ratified by the Federal Parliament”, he said via videoconference. 

“A transition year’ 

The UN official painted a picture of a country facing critical decisions, namely “an electoral process to choose the parliament and president in the coming few months; a security transition so that Somalis can assume lead security responsibility by the end of 2021; and urgent priorities for humanitarian response and economic reforms”. 

Dubbing 2021 “a transition year in which Somalia takes lead responsibility on security matters”, Mr. Swan sought a “strategic vision” for the country’s security that would be supported by diverse backers, including “external actors”. 

He also lauded, among others, the Somali security forces and African Union (AU) Mission in the country, for contributing to collective gains in the security realm. 

Inclusive processes 

The UNSOM chief underscored that agreed-upon processes must be “more participatory and inclusive” and welcomed the agreement of political leaders to ensure a 30 per cent quota for women to sit in Parliament. 

As Somalia focuses on the electoral process, he upheld that the UN would continue to press for “participation by historically underrepresented groups”, including women, youth and marginalized communities.  

“They all have much to contribute to peace, stability, and development in their country”, upheld the Special Representative. 

Turning to the longer-term, Mr. Swan explained that in collaboration with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the U Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS) and international partners, UNSOM would contribute to implementing the electoral agreement and “universal suffrage elections in the future”. 

“To this end, we urge Somali leaders to prepare consensually a roadmap with clear timelines and benchmarks to ensure one-person-one-vote elections take place in 2024/25”, he said. 

Freedom and respect 

The UN’s development work in Somalia is centred around human rights and justice, according to the UNSOM chief. 

“With elections approaching, I underscore my previous calls for the protection of political space, for tolerance of divergent opinions, for respect of free speech and association, and for media freedom”, he reiterated. 

In closing, Mr. Swan assured the Council of UNSOM’s ongoing work in promoting political cooperation.  

“Our good offices are aimed at fostering the widest levels of inclusion and consensus possible”, he stated. 

Protracted dialogue necessary 

Also briefing was Francisco Caetano Jose Madeira, Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission for Somalia and Head of the AU Mission, who said that “protracted and painstaking” dialogue was needed to achieve consensus on a parliament-endorsed electoral process. 

Mr. Madeira also expressed confidence regarding recent State efforts to improve governance, promote dialogue and strengthen security while underscoring the AU’s role in ensuring successful elections and highlighting the need for increased support and training of Somali police forces.

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Training women to avoid conflict in Sierra Leone

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In the West African country of Sierra Leone, the UN is supporting a government programme, training women and men to take on leadership roles in areas such as peacebuilding, with the aim of promoting peace and non-violence.

“We have learned how to see the sparks before they turn into fires, metaphorically speaking,” says Susan Pessima, from Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District, in the south of Sierra Leone. “That’s important, because fires can spread fast if the conditions are right for it”.

Ms. Pessima is talking about the fires of conflict and violence, fanned in part by the climate crisis, and dwindling natural resources. Often these take the form of land disputes. For example, there may be a disagreement over the boundary line between two properties. The problems often seem small, but they reflect larger and long-simmering tensions over class, ownership, and land rights. Sometimes, these disputes turn violent, and may even unleash bigger waves of violence.

‘Women see things other people don’t’

That’s why the government is training local people, including Ms. Pessima, to take on new leadership roles in peacebuilding, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and governance in their communities. So far, a total of 80 “community peace and conflict monitors” have been trained to work in their villages and towns to spot the signs of conflict before it leads to violence.

A big emphasis has been placed on training women, who make up three quarters of the peace and conflict monitors. “It’s no coincidence that these problems sprout and grow bigger even as women are discriminated against,” says Nyabenyi Tito Tipo, Country Representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sierra Leone. “Any solution that leaves out half the population is bound to fail.”

Women, says Ms. Pessima, are essential to building peace, and must be empowered. “We women know our communities well. We are in the homes, we are in the markets. We go out on the streets. We see things that other people don’t.”

Taking charge

The project involves women not just in making peace but in making decisions. Women have been appointed to half of the positions in all of the 16 newly created “village area land committees” in the four participating districts, and two villages have their first-ever women Town Chiefs.

Another training session brought together Paramount Chiefs, local leaders, and “mammy queens” (important women leaders) in selected chiefdoms to help empower women in implementing the government’s National Land Policy.

One of the training participants was Desmond Kagobai, Paramount Chief of Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District. He says the message of the training was strong, and the practical guidance was useful. “If we want lasting peace and prosperity in our communities, then women must be involved from top to bottom and from start to finish.”

Mutual support

The four-district program has also trained nearly 1,000 farmers—85% of them women—on finance and cooperatives. Women farmers have a harder time to secure resources than their male counterparts, as they are liable to be discriminated against in financial services—a big factor in poverty. Participants have formed Village Savings and Loan Associations (VLSA) for mutual support.

VLSA members can get small loans to cover expenses such as school fees and medical bills without selling farm equipment or other productive assets. That means they can contribute more to their household incomes. With support from UN-backed programmes, eight new farming cooperatives are now being registered with the government.

Another 2,500 people—80% of them women—have been trained in climate smart agriculture (CSA), with a focus on groundnuts, cassava, rice, and pepper and other leafy vegetables. Previously, most women farmers were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture; such practices may be more profitable in the short-term, but they damage the land and environment in the long-term. So, farmers have been taught good farming practices such as, mulching, soil and water conservation techniques, liquid and organic manure, among other conservation practices.

Imaging a better future for Sierra Leone

Training programme officials and participants say they feel more hopeful than ever before about the prospects for their villages and their country. “I learned a lot in the training, and I appreciate that,” says Paramount Chief Desmond Kagobai. “Just as important is the fact that the government and the United Nations have affirmed the role of women in the country’s future.”

One solution to the problems of Sierra Leone and the Sahel is simple but very difficult”, says Ms. Tipo. “Women have got to be empowered and men have got to embrace women’s power. There’s nothing we can’t do if we do it together.”

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Heartbreaking stories from refugees fleeing Ethiopia violence

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Insecurity in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is driving people into Hamdayet in Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

In a briefing to journalists on Thursday, a senior UN humanitarian official in Sudan recounted moving testimony from refugees who are crossing the border from Ethiopia in their thousands, fleeing fighting in Tigray province.

“Many of the refugees left behind children, and parents. They did not have time to assemble their families and leave together”, said Babacar Cissé, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan. “They arrived at the camps after having walked for several days, exhausted and with nothing. Seeing families and children sleeping in the open was heartbreaking”.

Many of the refugees are young men, who told UN staff that they had been targeted by armed fighters. One man told Mr. Cissé that he had walked for two days, and had seen two family members killed. Another, a medical doctor, said that he had been forced to leave his family behind: he is now treating other refugees in the camp.

Response plan by the weekend

With the influx of refugees higher than expected, the UN in the region is planning for the arrival of some 200,000 over the next six months, said Mr. Cissé.

The UN, donors, and local authorities, are working closely on a response plan, which should be finalized by this weekend, he added. In the meantime, enough food to support 60,000 people for one month is being prepared for delivery from Kassala in the coming days.

“This crisis started on 7 November. After a week, we had about 20,000 and now over 30,000 refugees”, Mr. Cisse explained. “People were in reception centres for registration before being relocated in refugee camps. They are not supposed to stay there for more than two days and we are committed to immediately addressing this urgent challenge.”

Mr. Cissé was speaking following his return from a two day mission – along with the country representatives of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), UN Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) and UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – to assess the situation in refugee camps in the southeastern region of Sudan.

So far, the largest number of refugees are entering Sudan at the small town of Hamdayet. During the two-day mission, the UN officials, and Sudanese authorities, visited the Hamdayet Reception Centre, where an emergency response has been set up to register and provide assistance to thousands of women, children and men crossing into the country.

Urgent health needs

The main concern centres around hygiene, as more and more people arrive. At their arrival in the camp, refugees can access clean water and soap, and receive hot meals and high-energy food supplies. More latrines are being built, and WFP has delivered supplies such as cooking pots, tank loads of water, and a mobile storage unit.

Tigray is Ethiopia’s third most-affected region in terms of COVID-19, and there is concern surrounding the movement of people and the risk this entails for the spread of pandemic.

Mr. Cissé warned that refugees are arriving at the camps without any masks or other forms of protection against the virus. Masks are being distributed in the camps but, as of now, there is no capacity for testing.

The most urgent needs are food, clean water, and shelter. The UN and partners are providing health and nutrition services, as well as hygiene and other non-food kits, and are working non-stop to address the needs of the population.

This includes supporting pregnant women, those who are breastfeeding, traumatized children and others who immediately need psychosocial assistance.

‘Keep children out of harm’s way’ 

Also on Thursday, UNICEF underscored the growing risks children on both sides of the border – the child refugees sheltering in Sudan, and the children inside Ethiopia’s Tigray region. 

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said that conditions for refugee children are “extremely harsh” and that the UN agency is working to urgently provide critical life-saving support, including health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene services. 

Inside Ethiopia’s Tigray region, “restricted access and the ongoing communication blackout have left an estimated 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance and out of reach,” she added.  

According to UNICEF, there is also a growing threat of malnutrition rates in the region, with acute malnutrition rates rising by a third since last year, primarily due to a desert locust infestation and COVID-19. 

“I am concerned that, without sustained humanitarian access, many more children will be at risk as malnutrition treatment supplies in the region will last only until December,” warned Ms. Fore. 

She called on all parties to the conflict to allow urgent, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all affected communities, underscoring that “every effort” be made to keep children out of harm’s way, and to ensure that they are protected from sexual and gender-based violence, as well as from recruitment and use in the conflict. 

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