Ethiopia, civilians in danger as ultimatum expires for assault

Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia fleeing to neighbouring Sudan Refugees from the Tigray region of Ethiopia fleeing to neighbouring Sudan Marwan Ali/ABC News

25 November 2020

Ethiopian government warnings have caused international uproar on the obligation to protect civilians as assault operation launches in Mekelle

On 22 November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed set a 72-hour ultimatum for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to surrender peacefully or face assault on the highland regional capital city of Mekelle. Hours after the ultimatum’s expiration, Ahmed released a statement posted in a Tweet ordering the Ethiopian Army to move to Mekelle and begin “the final phase.” Residents and civilians were warned to “stay indoors.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stressed that, despite the government’s warning, it does not absolve the government of its obligation to take constant care to protect civilians. Since more than 500,000 people reside in the city of Mekelle, Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concern of the use of airpower and heavy weaponry in the area, noting that some civilians are unable to heed a warning to evacuate. For example, civilians may be facing health issues, disabilities, fear, or lack of a safe place to go. Nevertheless, civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by international law. HRW further instructed that attacks must be cancelled when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain.

Jake Sullivan, United States President-elect Joe Biden’s appointee as national security adviser, has expressed concern in a Tweet about not only the risk of violence against civilians, but for the potentiality of war crimes to be committed as a result of the fighting around Mekelle.

According to Al Jazeera, thousands of people are already believed to have been killed since the conflict escalated on 4 November 2020. Moreover, there has been confirmed widespread property and land destruction from aerial bombardment and ground fighting. Around 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled into a remote area of Sudan. Humanitarian groups and local communities are struggling to feed, treat, and shelter them, with many refugees waiting “more than a week” to access aid. However, it has been impossible to confirm basic details about the situation on the ground since phone and internet connections are largely down and access to the area is strictly controlled.


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Author: Catherine Gregoire

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