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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

Partnership with Private Sector is Key in Closing Rwanda’s Infrastructure Gap

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The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has pushed the Rwandan economy into recession in 2020 for the first time since 1994, according to the World Bank’s latest Rwanda Economic Update.

The 17th edition of the Rwanda Economic Update: The Role of the Private Sector in Closing the Infrastructure Gap, says that the economy shrank by 3.7 percent in 2020, as measures implemented to limit the spread of the coronavirus and ease pressures on health systems brought economic activity to a near standstill in many sectors. Although the economy is set to recover in 2021, the report notes the growth is projected to remain below the pre-pandemic average through 2023.

Declining economic activity has also reduced the government’s ability to collect revenue amid increased fiscal needs, worsening the fiscal situation. Public debt reached 71 percent of GDP in 2020, and is projected to peak at 84 percent of GDP in 2023. Against this backdrop, the report underlines the importance of the government’s commitment to implement a fiscal consolidation plan once the crisis abates to reduce the country’s vulnerability to external shocks and liquidity pressures.

“Narrowing fiscal space calls for a progressive shift in Rwanda’s development model away from the public sector towards a predominantly private sector driven model, while also stepping up efforts to improve  the efficiency of public investment,” said Calvin Djiofack, World Bank’s Senior Economist for Rwanda.

According to the Update, private sector financing, either through public-private partnerships or pure private investment, will be essential for Rwanda to continue investing in critical infrastructure needed to achieve its development goals. The analysis underscores the need to capitalize further on Rwanda’s foreign direct investment (FDI) regulatory framework, considered one of the best in the continent, to attract and retain more FDI; to foster domestic private capital mobilization through risk sharing facilities that would absorb a percentage of the losses on loans made to private projects; and to avoid unsolicited proposals  of public–private partnership (PPP) initiatives; as well as to build a robust, multisector PPP project pipeline, targeting sectors with clearly identified service needs such as transport, water and sanitation, waste management, irrigation, and housing.

While the report findings establish clearly the gains of public infrastructure development for the country as whole, it also stressed that these gains tend to benefit urban and richer households most.

 “Rwanda will need to rebalance its investment strategy from prioritizing large strategic capital-intensive projects toward projects critical for broad-based social returns to boost the potential of public infrastructure to reduce inequality and poverty,” said Rolande Pryce, World Bank Country Manager for Rwanda. “Any step toward the Malabo Declaration to allocate 10 percent of future infrastructure investment to agriculture, allied activities, and rural infrastructure, will go a long way to achieving this goal.

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Greenpeace Africa responds to the cancellation of oil blocks in Salonga National Park

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© Kim S. Gjerstad

On Monday the UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided to remove Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the List of World Heritage in Danger. The decision follows clarification “provided by the national authorities that the oil concessions overlapping with the property are nul[l] and void and that these blocks will be excluded from future auctioning.”

Oil blocks overlapping with Salonga were awarded by President Joseph Kabila in the twilight of his regime. Greenpeace Africa has repeatedly demanded their cancellation, while local leaders voiced their opposition to the project in light of its impacts on communities. 

“A decision by President Felix Tshisekedi to cancel all oil blocks in Salonga Park must be followed by a decision to cancel oil blocks in Virunga Park and across the Cuvette Centrale region. These are vast areas rich in biodiversity that provide clean water, food security and medicine to local communities and which render environmental services to humanity,” says Irene Wabiwa Betoko, International Project Leader for the Congo Basin forest. 

The Salonga National Park, which is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest reserve, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1984. The park plays a fundamental role in climate regulation and the sequestration of carbon. The park is also home to numerous endemic endangered species such as the pygmy chimpanzee (or bonobo), the forest elephant, the African slender-snouted crocodile and the Congo peacock. Salonga had been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1999, due to pressures such as poaching, deforestation and poor management. The government of DRC later on issued oil drilling licences that encroached on the protected area, posing a threat to the wildlife-rich site.

“DRC’s auctioning of oil blocks has not only been scandalously lacking transparency and menacing for particularly sensitive environmental areas – they neither benefit Congolese people nor the planet. Instead of privileging a small group of beneficiaries of the toxic fossil fuels industry, diversifying the DRC’s economy should be done through renewable energy investments that will make energy accessible and affordable for all,” Irene Wabiwa concluded.

Greenpeace Africa urges full transparency from both UNESCO and the DRC government and calls for the publication of all supportive documents regarding the decision to cancel the aforementioned oil blocks, as well as the map of the nine oil blocks that are still being auctioned in the Cuvette Centrale region.

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Domestic violence, forced marriage, have risen in Sudan

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photo: UNDP/Ahmed Alsamani

Deteriorating economic conditions since 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have fuelled an increase in domestic violence and forced marriage in Sudan, a UN-backed study has revealed. 

Voices from Sudan 2020, published this week, is the first-ever nationwide qualitative assessment of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country, where a transitional government is now in its second year. 

Addressing the issue is a critical priority, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Government’s Combating Violence against Women Unit (CVAW), co-authors of the report. 

“The current context of increased openness by the Government of Sudan, and dynamism by civil society, opens opportunities for significant gains in advancing women’s safety and rights,” they said

Physical violence at home 

The report aims to complement existing methods of gathering data and analysis by ensuring that the views, experiences and priorities of women and girls, are understood and addressed. 

Researchers found that communities perceive domestic and sexual violence as the most common GBV issues. 

Key concerns include physical violence in the home, committed by husbands against wives, and by brothers against sisters, as well as movement restrictions which women and girls have been subjected to. 

Another concern is sexual violence, especially against women working in informal jobs, but also refugee and displaced women when moving outside camps, people with disabilities, and children in Qur’anic schools.  

Pressure to comply 

Forced marriage is also “prominent”, according to the report. Most of these unions are arranged between members of the same tribe, or relatives, without the girl’s consent or knowledge. 

Meanwhile, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains widespread in Sudan, with varying differences based on geographic location and tribal affiliation.  Although knowledge about the illegality and harmfulness of the practice has reached community level, child marriage and FGM are not perceived as key concerns. 

Women’s access to resources is also severely restricted.  Men control financial resources, and boys are favoured for access to opportunities, especially education. Verbal and psychological pressure to comply with existing gender norms and roles is widespread, leading in some cases to suicide.  

The deteriorating economic situation since 2020, and COVID-19, have increased violence, especially domestic violence and forced marriage, the report said. Harassment in queues for essential supplies such as bread and fuel has also been reported.  

Data dramatically lacking 

Sudan continues to move along a path to democracy following the April 2019 overthrow of President Omar Al-Bashir who had been in power for 30 years.  

Openly discussing GBV “has not been possible for the last three decades”, according to the report.   

“GBV data is dramatically lacking, with no nation-wide assessment done for the past 30 years, and a general lack of availability of qualitative and quantitative data,” the authors said. 

To carry out the assessment, some 215 focus group discussions were held with communities: 21 with GBV experts, as well as a review of existing studies and assessments. 

Research was conducted between August and November 2020, encompassing 60 locations and camps, and the data was scanned through a software for qualitative analysis, followed a model first used in Syria. 

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