A new report on Thursday revealed that scores of women and girls in Ethiopia’s Tigray region were sexually assaulted, often by multiple men, after a peace agreement ended the conflict in the region. The report from Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa, along with a commentary in The Lancet medical journal, looked at more than 300 randomly selected medical records from Tigray health centers focused on helping survivors of sexual violence.
The report says that, “Reports of conflict-related sexual violence as a significant element of the conflict surfaced both before and after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) in November 2022 by the government of Ethiopia and the [Tigray People’s Liberation Front]”. The report documents the youngest victim as being an 8 years old. It further found at least 128 sexual assaults occurred after the CoHA peace agreement was signed, and that most health facilities have been destroyed or looted, leaving many women without treatment for months. Some now have HIV or are raising their rapists’ children. It suggests that these acts were not isolated incidents, but a systematic use of rape as a weapon of war.
The report further found that medical records reveal a systematic and widespread infliction of conflict-related sexual violence by government armed forces and militias. The majority of documented acts were committed by multiple perpetrators, with most incidents occurring in groups with an average of three perpetrators. Captivity and weapon use were common. Survivors identified perpetrators as belonging to Eritrean or Ethiopian armed forces, often speaking the Tigrignaii language. They also identified perpetrators as belonging to military and paramilitary groups, and were previously unknown to survivors.
Survivors have serious health needs stemming from conflict-related sexual violence, but face delays in medical care. The records show a number of physical and psychological consequences, including mental health issues, unintended pregnancy and reproductive organ injuries and disorders. The data also shows significant delays in seeking medical care, with an average period of five months between reported incidents and survivors presenting at health facilities. Conflict-related sexual violence is ongoing, even after the 2022 CoHA peace agreement, with 169 incidents occurring before the CoHA and 128 incidents after. The scale and nature of these violations have not materially changed since the peace agreement was signed, except for the fact that 95% of conflict-related sexual violence experienced by children and adolescents under 18 years old occurred after the CoHA’s signing.
In its conclusion, the report states:
This data points to the high likelihood that military forces, likely associated with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, have caused serious violations of human rights and committed atrocity crimes such as war crimes (e.g., torture and humiliating or degrading treatment, rape and sexual violence, sexual slavery) and crimes against humanity (e.g., persecution, torture, enslavement and sexual slavery, rape) as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and in international jurisprudence. These violations have caused survivors significant harm, leading to an urgent need for medical and psychosocial support.
The report also notes that Ethiopia is under the CoHA’s mandate to implement a transitional justice process, but monitoring benchmarks have not been released publicly and accountability is unclear. The report reveals ongoing involvement of forces aligned with the Ethiopian government in conflict-related sexual violence, raising doubts about the credibility of investigations, documentation, and accountability processes.
As the risk of future human rights violations increases due to intensifying conflict in other parts of Ethiopia, the report stresses the urgent need for international and regional action to ensure credible monitoring, documentation, investigations, prosecutions, and justice for the grave violations committed. The UN International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) is expected to provide a summary report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2023, but its mandate may not be renewed beyond that time due to pressure from the Ethiopian government to defer to national mechanisms. The Commission of Inquiry (COI) has also faced opposition from the Ethiopian government.