Humanitarian agencies and ICRC alarmed
By John Zarocostas
April 22, 2021
At a closed session in New York of the UN Security Council on April 15, the UN's top humanitarian official delivered a chilling account of new atrocities and gross violations—including mass killings, executions, and widespread sexual violence—committed in the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, The G|O has learned. Here in the human rights capital, Geneva’s human rights experts expressed surprise that no special session of the Human Rights Council has been held to put the spotlight on gross violations given the large number of gross violations reported since the conflict broke out nearly six months ago.
Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator stated in the session that he had received a report that day concerning 150 people dying from hunger in Ofla woreda (district) south of Mekelle and that earlier in the week he had received a report of four internally displaced people dying from hunger.
“Some 5.2 million people, or 91% of Tigray's population, need emergency food assistance but humanitarian agencies lack sufficient resources to respond quickly and in full to save lives and livelihoods in the region,”
“This should alarm us all, starvation as a weapon of war is a violation,” he stressed to Council members, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the meeting.
The dire situation has also been flagged by the UN's World Food Programme, the World Health Organization's top emergencies official, and UNICEF, the UN Children's agency, among others.
“Some 5.2 million people, or 91% of Tigray's population, need emergency food assistance but WFP and other humanitarian agencies lack sufficient resources to respond quickly and in full to save lives and livelihoods in the region,” said Tomson Phiri, WFP spokesperson.
“The situation in Tigray in Ethiopia remains very, very dire at the moment. The situation is not improving. We have unpredictable access, increasing humanitarian needs, increasing sexual violence. The response has been hindered by armed clashes throughout the region and many areas are still not receiving food or other assistance,” Mike Ryan, the WHO Executive Director for Health Emergencies, said on April 19.
“We've got 4.5 million people affected by this crisis. 2.5 million of them have no access to services whatsoever. Half a million people have no access to food,” Dr Ryan noted.
In his briefing to the Security Council, The OCHA chief also put the spotlight on the reports of systematic rape, gang rape and sexual violence which he emphasized are especially disturbing and “alarmingly widespread.” The majority of rapes are committed by men in uniform, Lowcock noted and outlined that cases reported “have involved Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense forces, Amhara Special Forces, and other irregular groups or aligned militia."
Nearly a quarter of reports received by one agency, “involve gang rape,” and in some cases, Lowcock noted, women have been repeatedly raped over a period of days, and that girls “as young as eight” are being targeted. “There is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize an entire population today and into the next generation.”
The WHO's Ryan indicated the magnitude of sexual violence cases, saying “We've had over 800 cases of sexual and gender-based violence reported from just five hospitals alone; that many cases.”
A study by the humanitarian organization Insecurity Insight on “Sexual Violence in Ethiopia's Tigray Region,” that examined 36 reported incidents between November 2020 and March 2021 (from hundreds of emerging reports), found that medical students had been raped inside a hospital in Mekelle city, where government soldiers were stationed to guard the hospital. Two medical doctors were also raped inside the same hospital by government soldiers, it noted. Moreover, in Wukro town Eritrean soldiers, the report notes, “raped an unspecified number of nuns in a convent."
James Elder, a UNICEF spokesperson, just back from a mission to Tigray, told reporters on April 20, “The personal statements I received from children who had been raped or testimonies of women who were victims of sexual violence were harrowing … I heard traumatic stories from survivors, one as young as 14. I heard reports of gang rapes. The level of cruelty described was bewildering.”
Asked by The G|O how many of the victims are being medically treated and receiving psycho-social support, Elder noted, “Survivors of sexual assault have been provided with medical assistance, psychosocial support and dignity kits at the One-Stop Centre that has been supported by UNICEF.” But he was quick to add that “as this is an active conflict zone, it’s also incredibly hard for survivors to seek help … many women don’t get support; most get there after 72 hours and that first 72 hours is critical when it comes to post-exposure prophylactic kits and protecting survivors from HIV and other diseases.”
The UNPFA told The G|O it has dispatched 82 post-rape treatment kits to benefit 4,100 adults and 820 children in the Tigray region alone. However, the situation is aggravated by the widespread destruction and damage of health facilities. UNFPA said assessments show that only 27% of health facilities are fully functioning and “a mere 1% have the capacity to provide post-rape treatment.”
The Geneva-based ICRC is also gravely concerned by the situation. “As the ICRC is stepping up its humanitarian response in the region, supporting the services for survivors of sexual violence is one of our most urgent priorities,” said Alyona Synenko, ICRC regional spokesperson for Africa.
“We've done a health facilities survey throughout the region in 264 health facilities. As of now only 72 of those facilities are operational and 40 of those are only partially accessible. Nineteen hospitals have been completely damaged or destroyed; 15 more with major damage. There are inadequate supply chains across the board,” noted Ryan. “The situation in Tigray could not be more dire, the people there could not be in more need of support and help. The situation is deteriorating. The situation is very much a massive concern on a purely humanitarian basis here. There is a health crisis on top of a humanitarian crisis,” he declared.
Senior diplomats are also weary whether the investigation to be conducted jointly by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on violations and abuses committed by all parties in the context of the Tigray conflict (announced on March 25) can deliver an impartial report, given the continued violations by Ethiopian government forces.
Indeed, on April 14 the US Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield told a session of the UN Security Council on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “Independent, credible investigations must be conducted to hold perpetrators of these, and other human rights abuses and violations committed in Tigray, accountable.”