“Today or tomorrow, they should be brought before Justice” – Rape, Sexual Slavery, Extrajudicial Executions, and Pillage by Eritrean Defense Forces
When Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) on 2 November 2022, there was hope it would end the crimes under international law and other human rights abuses that had characterized the conflict in northern Ethiopia. Yet, Amnesty International has found that crimes under international law took place during the final days of the negotiations for the CoHA, between 25 October and 1 November 2022, with Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) extrajudicially executing civilians in Mariam Shewito, a district in the Tigray region. We have also found that for nearly three months after the signing of the CoHA, EDF soldiers raped and sexually enslaved women, and extrajudicially executed civilians, largely men, in Tigray’s Kokob Tsibah district. These serious violations constitute war crimes and may also amount to crimes against humanity.
- Despite the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), atrocities against civilians in Tigray continued.
- Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) extra-judicially executed civilians and sexually enslaved women for months after the signing of the CoHA.
- The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) should renew the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) to preserve evidence of crimes under international law and support future accountability efforts.
The Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in the Tigray region, immediately before and after the signing of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2022, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
The report, “Today or Tomorrow, They Should Be Brought Before Justice” – Rape, Sexual Slavery, Extra-Judicial Executions and Pillage by Eritrean Forces in Tigray, documents how EDF soldiers, allied to the Ethiopian federal government, were responsible for rape and sexual slavery, extra-judicial executions, and pillage. Amnesty International interviewed witnesses, survivors and family members, who testified about the extra-judicial execution of at least 20 civilians, primarily men, by the EDF in Mariam Shewito district between 25 October and 1 November 2022. In addition, a social worker who documented extra-judicial executions in the district provided a list of more than 100 names of people who they said had been extra-judicially executed within this period, although Amnesty International was not able to independently corroborate all these cases remotely. For nearly three months after the signing of the CoHA, EDF soldiers raped and sexually enslaved women, and extra-judicially executed 24 civilians in Kokob Tsibah district.
Despite the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, atrocities against civilians in Tigray continued with Eritrean soldiers subjecting women to horrific abuse including rape, gang rape and sexual enslavement, while civilian men were extrajudicially executed,”Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa
“Despite the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, atrocities against civilians in Tigray continued with Eritrean soldiers subjecting women to horrific abuse including rape, gang rape and sexual enslavement, while civilian men were extrajudicially executed,” said Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa
At the time these crimes were committed, the conflict in northern Ethiopia, including the Tigray region, was a non-international armed conflict governed by international humanitarian law which, among other things, seeks to protect civilians and fighters who have ceased to take part in hostilities. The serious violations documented in this report amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.
Survivors of sexual violence and witnesses to killings told Amnesty International they identified perpetrators through their camouflage, the Tigrigna dialect the soldiers spoke, and the type of interrogation questions they asked. Kokob Tsibah and Mariam Shewito are near the Eritrean border, and survivors say they could easily identify Eritrean soldiers.
Rape and sexual slavery against women
Amnesty International interviewed 11 survivors of rape and sexual slavery in Kokob Tsibah district, where more than 40 women told a local civil society organization that they had been subjected to rape and sexual slavery in the period after the signing of the CoHA. Some women were raped inside an EDF military camp, others in their own homes or inside homes taken over by the EDF.
Amnesty International interviewed four survivors of sexual violence who were held in an EDF camp in Kokob Tsibah district for nearly three months and subjected to rape and sexual slavery.
Fanta*, one of the survivors, told Amnesty International that five EDF soldiers gang-raped her for three consecutive days from 1 – 3 November 2022. She was kept in a house the EDF had occupied, before being moved to the EDF military camp where she was held captive with 14 other women.
They kept taking turns raping me for the entire three months. They never left me for the entire three months.Fanta*, rape survivor
Fanta said: “They kept taking turns raping me for the entire three months. They never left me for the entire three months. When one of them leaves, the other will come. Is there anything that EDF didn’t do? We were locked [inside the camp] since the day they [EDF] took us to the camp. We could not go out and get medical support. We could not visit our family. There were many women detained with me.”
According to testimonies of survivors, a social worker based in Kokob Tsibah and local interim government officials, EDF detained the women in the camp on suspicion that their spouses, sons, or relatives were members of the Tigrayan forces.
Bezawit*, a 37-year-old mother of two, was forced into a nearby forest by EDF soldiers after they entered Kokob Tsibah district on 2 November 2022. She was raped by three EDF soldiers and held captive in her own house for nearly three months.
“They told me, ‘Whether you shout or not, no one is going to come and rescue you.’ And then they raped me for around three months since then. They were taking turns on me, just like a doorkeeper,” she told Amnesty International.
Crucial post-sexual violence care must be administered within 72 hours to provide preventive measures for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Despite suffering numerous injuries, survivors of rape and sexual slavery interviewed for this research did not receive post-sexual violence care or any comprehensive medical care. Most of them only obtained medical treatment after the EDF left Kokob Tsibah on 19 January 2023.
Taken together with previous documentation by Amnesty International, the cases of rape and sexual slavery documented in Kokob Tsibah can be considered as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against the civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity.
Extrajudicial execution of civilians and pillage
Eritrean soldiers stationed in Mariam Shewito and Kokob Tsibah districts engaged in intentional killings of civilians, mostly men, while conducting house-to-house searches of houses and residences, allegedly in pursuit of members of the Tigrayan forces and their supporters. Multiple interviews supported claims that victims of extra-judicial executions were civilians. Given that these acts were committed in a non-international armed conflict, such executions amount to the war crime of murder.
Priest Meheretab*, a member of the clergy, was sheltering with his wife, children and other residents in St Michael Church in Kokob Tsibah district on 2 November 2022, when EDF soldiers swarmed the building looking for Tigrayan forces. The soldiers forced everyone to lie on the ground and beat them while interrogating them about their identities.
Priest Meheretab* said a 70-year-old priest was shot dead by the EDF during the assault in the church. Fifty-eight-year-old Yemane*, who was in the same room as the victim, and witnessed the incident described the killing to Amnesty International:
“I do not know what the priest said to one of the soldiers, but he shot the old man in the chest at point blank. Then, he [the EDF soldier] came to us and said, “If anyone tries to pick the body or try to bury him, you will all be killed.”
I do not know what the priest said to one of the soldiers, but he shot the old man in the chest at point blank. Then, he [the EDF soldier] came to us and said, “If anyone tries to pick the body or try to bury him, you will all be killed.Priest Meheretab*
Most of the 49 survivors, witnesses, and family members of victims interviewed by Amnesty International said Eritrean soldiers also looted their properties and livestock. Many have been forced to depend on family members for shelter and food, while some have resorted to begging to survive.
Effective investigations into violations are critical.
Since the outbreak of the armed conflict in the Tigray region in November 2020, Amnesty International has documented crimes under international law and other human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, including Eritrean forces.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have an obligation to effectively investigate and, where there is sufficient evidence, prosecute crimes under international law, including alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. This must be done in line with international standards on the right to a fair trial and without resort to the death penalty.
Amnesty International is calling for the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) to be renewed during the upcoming UN Human Rights Council’s 54th session starting on 11 September 2023.
Amnesty International is also calling on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to rescind its decision to terminate the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on the Situation in the Tigray Region of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia established in May 2021. In June 2023, the mandate was terminated before the Commission of Inquiry had produced a final report.
“Amidst continued gross human rights violations and abuses, and bleak prospects for domestic accountability, Amnesty International is calling for the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia to be renewed and fully supported. The African Commission should also reinstate the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry and ensure it concludes with a report of its findings and recommendations,” said Tigere Chagutah.
Amnesty International conducted 49 interviews remotely, via telephone, between 17 May and 10 June 2023, in Mariam Shewito and Kokob Tsibah districts. Testimonies of survivors and witnesses were corroborated with satellite imagery and further information from social workers, medical experts who treated victims and survivors, local government officials, and civil society organizations.
Kokob Tsibah is in Genta Afeshum Woreda, in Tigray’s Eastern Zone, near the Ethiopia-Eritrean border. The violations in Kokob Tsibah began a day before the signing of the CoHA. Acts of sexual violence perpetrated by the EDF against women continued for nearly three months until 19 January 2023.
Mariam Shewito is a district located in Tigray’s Central Zone, near the historic city of Adwa. Violations documented in Mariam Shewito occurred between 25 October 2022 and 1 November 2022 while negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF were underway.
Amnesty International shared preliminary research findings with the Ethiopian federal government and the Eritrean government on 17 August 2023. At the time of writing, the organization had not received a response.