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Ethiopia: Tribalism Versus National Consciousness

Ethiopians struggle to forge a national consciousness that supersedes ethnic tribalism, while international human rights NGOs discuss their “responsibility to protect” them, writes Ann Garrison.

“Fierce new ethnic nationalisms were born as a result of the TPLF’s brutal 30-year rule and its divide-and-conquer ethnic strategy, and this is very dangerous.”

Nearly 554,000 people are sleeping on the streets in the US — 40% of them are Black. Of 2.3 million US prisoners, 34% are Black. However, the 06/01 quarterly report of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect  (GlobalR2P) says that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is the only human rights crisis in the Western hemisphere that warrants the attention of international law established by the United Nations. Those are just a few reasons to take its alarms about the ongoing human rights crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia, with a grain of salt or a hot pepper salad of skepticism.

A coalition of twelve NGOs, including GlobalR2P, has submitted a Joint NGO Call for a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the ongoing human rights crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia , for consideration at the 47th Session of the UN Human Rights Council , which will take place in Geneva between June 21 and July 15. The coalition includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and nine lesser known international human rights organizations, three of which appear to be African.

This is the text of this NGO coalition statement:

Joint NGO Call for a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the ongoing human rights crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia

11 June 2021


To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council (Geneva, Switzerland)

Your Excellency,

We, the undersigned human rights non-governmental organizations, strongly urge the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to adopt a resolution at its upcoming 47th session (HRC47) on the ongoing human rights crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia .

Over the last seven months an overwhelming number of reports have emerged of abuses and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law (IHL/IHRL) during the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Reports by civil society organizations have detailed widespread massacres, violence against civilians and indiscriminate attacks across Tigray while preliminary analysis  by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicates that all warring parties have committed abuses that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is now ample evidence[1]  that atrocities continue to be committed, notably by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean  Defense Forces, and Amhara regional special police and affiliated Fano militias. These include indiscriminate  attacks  and direct attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, widespread and mass extrajudicial executions , rape and other sexual violence , forced displacement , arbitrary detentions, including of displaced persons , widespread destruction  and pillage of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals , schools , factories and businesses, and the destruction of refugee camps , crops and livestock.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict has repeatedly expressed alarm over the widespread and systematic commission of rape and sexual violence in Tigray. On 21 April she stated  that women and girls in Tigray are being subjected to sexual violence “with a cruelty that is beyond comprehension,” including gang rape by men in uniform, targeted sexual attacks on young girls and pregnant women, and family members forced to witness these horrific abuses. The SRSG also stated that these reports, coupled with assessments by healthcare providers in the region, indicate that sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war.

Thousands of civilians are estimated to have been killed, while the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs believes at least 1.7 million people remain displaced. On top of ethnic targeting and massacres within Tigray, there have been reports  of government discrimination , demonization and hate speech directed at Tigrayans in other parts of Ethiopia. A number of UN officials, from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees  to UNICEF’s Executive Director  and the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect , have publicly called for urgent action to end the abuses in Tigray and alleviate the conflict’s devastating impact on the region’s civilian population.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator has also warned  that famine is imminent in Tigray and that without a drastic upscaling of funding and access, hundreds of thousands of people could starve. Despite this looming risk, humanitarian workers have also been targeted throughout the conflict, with nine aid workers killed since November, the most recent on 29 May.

On 25 March, OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission announced the launch of a joint investigation  into the ongoing reports of atrocity crimes in Tigray. On 12 May, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) adopted an important resolution  establishing a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate violations of IHL [international humanitarian law] and IHRL [international human rights law] and identify perpetrators. Unfortunately, the HRC has so far remained largely silent on Tigray, aside from a welcome joint statement  delivered by Germany on behalf of 42 states on 26 February 2021.

A robust, dedicated and coordinated approach to this human rights crisis by the international community is both critical and urgent, given the gravity of ongoing crimes, the complex nature of the situation, and the involvement of various parties. After seven months of serious violations and abuses, the HRC can no longer stay silent. It should take urgent action to address the crisis and fulfill its mandate to address and prevent violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations and abuses, and to respond promptly to emergencies. We therefore respectfully urge your Mission to work towards the adoption of a resolution at HRC47 that:

  • Recognizes the serious concerns expressed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and Responsibility to Protect, and other senior UN officials regarding possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray;
  • Requests the High Commissioner to report on her investigations, findings and recommendations to date regarding the human rights situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, and possible violations of IHL and IHRL at the HRC’s 48th session in the context of an enhanced interactive dialogue;
  • Also invites the ACHPR’s CoI to brief the HRC on its investigation at the enhanced interactive dialogue at the 48th session;
  • Emphasizes the important role of the HRC’s prevention mandate, as outlined in Resolution 45/31, and requests the High Commissioner to brief UN member states intersessionally and on an ad-hoc basis to update the HRC on the situation in Tigray.

The adoption of such a resolution would provide a concrete foundation for the HRC to decide on the action needed to prevent further human rights violations and abuses in Tigray and ensure accountability.

Excellencies, please accept the assurances of our highest consideration,

  1. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  4. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  5. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  6. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  7. Global Justice Center
  8. Human Rights Watch
  9. International Service for Human Rights
  10. Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
  11. Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations
  12. World Federalist Movement/Institute for Global Policy

[1]  Amnesty International, Ethiopia: The Massacre in Axum , 26 February 2021; Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia: Eritrean Forces Massacre Tigray Civilians , 5 March 2021.

Ann Garrison: I asked Ethiopian American human rights lawyer and activist Fitsum Alemu what he thinks of the resolution.

Fitsum Alemu: I fully agree with you. I’m in court every day and see who are the majority of people charged and imprisoned. Overall, the call for this resolution is one-sided. it could be quoted by all pro-Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) media, including the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, and Associated Press.

But one good thing about it is that it does not spare the TPLF, who are included in the list of perpetrators of human rights crimes.

Ann Garrison: I noted that one thing that distinguishes it from much of the press you mentioned.

FA: As to discrimination against Tigrayans within Ethiopia, I have no information. Millions of Tigrayans live outside of Tigray, but I do not have any evidence that the government or any other group has engaged in demonization and hate speech against Tigrayans, as is alleged in this document. There might be some groups doing that, but I do not see any evidence of a government discrimination campaign. In fact, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his government want the Tigrayan people to help them root out TPLF fighters in Tigray.

I know that the government has for some months closed some bank accounts opened in Tigray Province to prevent the TPLF from taking out money. But that has stopped. In fact, the government and prominent Ethiopians have been campaigning to raise money and collect food and other essentials for the people of Tigray Province. It was the TPLF activists who campaigned against it.

As to rape and sexual violence, there could be evidence of that becoming part of the war in Tigray, but when the TPLF dominated the federal government, there was widespread rape and sexual violence, and women protested that the TPLF was not protecting them.

“The government and prominent Ethiopians have been campaigning to raise money and collect food and other essentials for the people of Tigray Province.”

Also, we need to consider the fact that the TPLF freed thousands of convicted felons from prison, leaving the Tigrayan people defenseless against them, when it left the provincial government to go to war with the federal government.

In the end, this call for a resolution completely ignores the three thousand Amharas killed and one million Amharas deported from Be nis h a ngul-Gumuz , Oromia , and Southern Region , and the destruction of their churches, the confiscation of their properties, and the brutalities they have suffered in the past year. The Amhara provincial government says that there are now 800,00 internally displaced Amharas in its region who were expelled from these other regions because of their ethnicity.

AG: So Ethiopians had been suffering inter-ethnic violence in other regions before and after the war in Tigray Province began in November 2020, but none of these groups have attacked any federal military bases as the TPLF did in Tigray. Is that right?

FA: Yes.

AG:  You yourself are an Ethiopian American of the Amhara ethnicity, correct? FA: Yes.

AG: So I imagine you’re particularly concerned with this inter-ethnic violence against the Amhara, but is there other inter-ethnic violence occurring in other regions?

FA: Yes.  Ethnic violence and crimes against humanity are also being committed against the Southern ethnicities including the Gedeo, Amaro and Kore.

AG: What does the so-called multinational federalist constitution adopted in 1995, after the TPLF came to power, have to do with this?

FA:  The root cause of these ethnically targeted attacks and the instability of Ethiopia are the ethnic-based federal and regional constitutions instituted by the TPLF in 1995. I believe that the current constitutional system set up then has created regional apartheid systems. It gave regional governors all but absolute power and impunity from prosecution for human rights crimes. These governors, like the governors of Oromia, Benishangul, Somali, and the Southern Region, believe that their region is only for them, their ethnic majority. They ordered the deportation of other ethnic groups. The Somali governor deported Oromos, and the Oromo regional governor did vice versa.  The Southern Regional governors deported 20,000 Amharas in 2012. People lost their lands and their livelihood simply because of their ethnicity.

“The current constitutional system set up then has created regional apartheid systems.”

The Constitution creates no federal protection against deportation from one ethnic state to another. This ethnic-based government system is not based on historical facts or tradition. For instance, the constitutions of the Oromia and Benishangul-Regional states consider “indigenous” people of the region as only Oromos and Gumuz, Berta, and Shinasha, respectively.  Thus, the “non-indigenous” people within those regions have no political, economic or cultural rights in their own country. As a result, neither the regional nor the federal government provides protection for people of one ethnicity in a province allocated to another.

AG: Some of the Ethiopians I’ve spoken to have described the challenge that Ethiopia is facing is that of national consciousness versus tribalism, which Frantz Fanon wrote about in the third chapter of the Wretched of the Earth, The Pitfalls of National Consciousness .  Would you agree with them?

FA: I agree. Ethiopia has been a guinea pig first for Soviet-style socialism and then this ethnic federalism. Both experiments have failed. If Ethiopians cannot change the current Constitution, create a new national consciousness, and prosecute human rights crimes, they will face more civil war and even disintegration into ethnolinguistic states. Now there is massive displacement, civil war, flagrant human rights abuse, ethnic massacres, and one-party rule. Fierce new ethnic nationalisms were born as a result of the TPLF’s brutal 30-year rule and its divide-and-conquer ethnic strategy, and this is very dangerous. Overcoming them is the greatest challenge that Ethiopians face.

AG: Supporters of Prime Minister Abiy seem to believe that he is trying to replace tribalism with Ethiopian citizenship, and that that is what is at stake in the national election coming up on June 21 .  Do you agree with them, and if not, what do you think should be done, and by whom?

FA: No. Abiy speaks of forming national consciousness, but he is a person who joined an ethnic Oromo party at age 14. He is still not a democrat, but an ethnic party member and leader. During the daytime, he talks about Ethiopian nationalism and in the evening he talks with Oromo nationalists about how to bring Oromos to power. That is likely to lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia. Until the three largest ethnic groups, the Amharas, Oromos, and Tigrayans, learn to live in harmony, there won’t be peace in Ethiopia.

AG: OK, but I feel I need to say here that we at Black Agenda Report have spoken to a number of people who feel that Prime Minister Abiy is a promising or even great leader, and we see the US and its human rights NGO satellites trying to undermine him. I myself haven’t come to any conclusions about Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and, like Black Agenda Report, I’m committed to opposing imperial aggression in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. I’m just trying to figure out what that might mean in the current Ethiopian context.

FA: Personally, I do not trust Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Some analysts considered him as “the Gorbachev of Ethiopia.” He was the leader of the reformers. The reformers agreed to release political prisoners, allow dissidents to openly participate in the political process, invited armed political groups to enter the country and continue their activism, and promised free media.  As a part of the reform, the Abiy-team named a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and new Chairman of the National Electoral Board.

However, he failed to initiate constitutional reform. He failed to hold an election in a timely manner as mandated by the Constitution, and filled the judiciary and the executive branch with supporters and sympathizers. He jailed opposition leaders, like Eskinder Nega , banned anti-government rallies, and allowed ethno-nationalist regional violence.

AG: OK, and once again, I feel compelled to say that this is not my viewpoint or that of Black Agenda Report. We have not taken a position for or against the Abiy government, but against US aggression in Ethiopia and the region.

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