To heal, Ethiopia must urgently investigate sexual violence in Tigray conflict


International pressure is mounting on warring parties in Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden Tigray region to halt attacks against civilians as reports of human rights abuses snowball. The UN recently raised the alarm over the atrocities and, in particular, called for a stop to the targeted attacks of sexual and gender-based violence which are apparently occurring across the region.

Horrific details of the alleged abuses have trickled out as aid workers fear that the true number of victims may be far higher than reported figures suggest, since many survivors may be suffering in silence due to the pervasive stigma surrounding gender-based violence. As past examples from around the world—such as the experience of the Lai Dai Han in Vietnam— have shown, if wartime sexual violence remains unaddressed it can continue to divide communities long after the conflict itself is over. If Ethiopia wishes to avoid a scarred society for decades to come, it must act now to stop these atrocities, hold the perpetrators to account and provide support to survivors.

War crimes in Tigray

For months, Ethiopia insisted that the regional conflict was limited to a brief military operation targeting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It’s become increasingly clear, however, both that other forces are involved—including Eritrean soldiers fighting on Addis Ababa’s side—and that the conflict has become a dirty war on all sides. Outside observers fear that the fighting has already been responsible for thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.

But some of the most appalling allegations concern the wave of war crimes which it’s apparently unleashed, including widespread sexual assault against Tigrayan women. Over 500 women have officially reported acts of sexual violence, although the actual toll is believed to be much higher, with health workers in the area recording new cases every day. Fear of reprisals mean that terrible crimes go unreported and patients remain anonymous.

Experts have warned that these war crimes must be investigated and addressed urgently, or Ethiopia will be divided for years. Indeed, research has repeatedly shown that a credible criminal justice process which presses for proper accountability is a crucial part of preventing a recurrence of war crimes. UN representatives and human rights groups agree that any peaceful solution to the conflict must include international investigations of war crimes in Tigray—yet there are concerns that Addis Ababa is trying to protect its own soldiers and is not equipped to impartially investigate the atrocities.

Last month, in the wake of pressure from the UN as well as from EU and US envoys, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed finally acknowledged in parliament that sexual assault had become endemic in the region’s bitter and bloody conflict. Abiy vowed to prosecute the criminals and has charged the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) with the task of investigating human rights abuses in the country through a series of fact-finding missions. However, the narrow geographical scope of the EHRC team means that many crimes are likely to go uninvestigated, while government critics are sceptical that any federal inquiry will be pursued with the rigor necessary to ensure victims get the justice they deserve.

The long fight for justice

Accountability for these crimes and support for the victims—together with any children they may give birth to as a result of the attacks, a mounting concern given that in one hospital, 160 out of 200 assaulted women were pregnant—is essential. Otherwise, Ethiopia’s current crisis will stamp an indelible mark on its society for decades to come.

Just look at past examples of wartime sexual violence and the years of terrible consequences they have wrought. During the Vietnam War, for example, thousands of Vietnamese women were raped by South Korean soldiers. They, along with the children born following these assaults—the so-called “Lai Dai Han”— have spent decades fighting for justice and facing significant stigma and lack of access to basic public services in their native Vietnam, while South Korea refuses to recognise the crimes committed by its troops.

The group Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) continues to campaign for recognition for the tens of thousands of children born as a result of rape by Korean troops, and for their mothers, of whom around 800 are still alive today. South Korea’s intransigence on the subject has not only caused these women and their children a lifetime of suffering, but has been to Seoul’s discredit as well. As former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, an international ambassador for JLDH, noted: “Facing up to unacceptable behaviour by troops is difficult for any country. However […] uncovering the truth not only gives victims and their families closure but can strengthen a nation and its values”.

It’s a message which Addis Ababa should take to heart. Not only does the Ethiopian government have a moral imperative to ensure that Tigrayan women do not endure decades of suffering and ostracization like the Lai Dai Han and their mothers, but cracking down now on the use of rape as a weapon of war could help Ethiopia’s government regain some of the credibility which it has lost on the international stage over the past months.

Indeed, it now seems startling that in 2019 Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee cited Abiy’s successes in the resolution of a territory dispute between Kenya and Somalia, as well as his mediation role between Sudan and South Sudan. But it was his rapprochement with neighbouring Eritrea that sealed his reputation and won him the historic award.

The decision courted controversy even at the time, and looks extremely short-sighted now given the ongoing atrocities in the Tigray region. Abiy still has a chance, however, to repay some of the Nobel committee’s faith: by fully supporting his citizens who have survived war crimes and ensuring that any and all perpetrators of sexual violence in the Tigray conflict are brought to justice—even if they are Ethiopian soldiers.


Image: The Tigray region of Ethiopia, by Rod Waddington. Creative Commons License 2.0.