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Ethiopia’s Axum Findings Ignore Massacre of Civilians

Government’s Investigation Underscores Need for Independent, International Inquiry

Priest on his way to church in Axum, Tigray region, Ethiopia on January 25, 2011. [Matjaz Krivic via Getty Images]

This week Ethiopia’s attorney general’s office released its findings into allegations of atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray’s historic city of Axum in late November 2020. The press release stated that most of those killed were fighters who died in clashes with Eritrean troops, and not civilians.

Human Rights Watch’s own reporting found that young civilian men, some armed, joined a small group of Tigray militia to ambush Eritrean troops atop the town’s May Quho hill.

But what is most revealing in the attorney general’s press release is what it ignores – namely – the widespread pillaging that occurred the week Ethiopian forces captured the town and the horrific massacre by Eritrean forces that unfolded over 24-hours from the afternoon of November 28 through November 29.

The Ethiopian government should explain its silence on this 24-hour period, long after the clashes ended, when Eritrean forces summarily executed scores of residents, shot civilians in their homes, killed others on the street, and summarily executed some men in custody. Most killed were men and boys, but people with disabilities, older people, and women, including a mother-of-five, were also killed.

The findings, as well as reports of atrocities committed throughout the conflict, raise questions about how the Ethiopian government distinguishes between combatants and civilians. Under international humanitarian law, military forces can only attack civilians if they are directly participating in hostilities, even if they had participated in fighting in the past. Captured fighters and detained civilians must be treated humanely, and never summarily executed or otherwise mistreated.

Eritrean officials are already interpreting the attorney general’s findings as a vindication of their forces’ actions in Axum. Far from genuine attempts at accountability, these findings whitewash abuses and signal that such crimes are permitted.

Previous Ethiopian government investigations into human rights abuses and violence elsewhere in the country have been stalled, met with denials, or marred by due process violations, making this one of several official inquiriesthat failed to properly investigate security force abuses or hold those responsible to account.

The attorney general’s Axum findings should signal to Ethiopia’s foreign and regional partners that a robust, independent international inquiry may be the only way to give the hundreds of victims and their families in Tigray the justice to which they are entitled.

© Laetitia Bader for Human Rights Watch, 2021


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