We are concerned Eritreans who are deeply troubled by events in the Tigray, where civilians are being deliberately targeted in a campaign that bears the hallmark of genocide It is saddening and regrettable that these severe violations are reported to be committed largely by soldiers from Eritrea, whose presence in the country also poses a grave threat to the wellbeing of Eritrean refugees who had sought refuge in Ethiopia from their own repressive government.
Eritrea has been under the unelected leadership of President Isaias Afwerki since 1991, who adopted totalitarian practices aimed at perpetuating power by comprehensively disregarding the rights of citizens through extrajudicial killings, political repression, and violations of the freedoms of religion or belief, speech, the assembly. To date, there is no functioning constitution, judiciary bodies, or independent press. The regime constantly limits people’s access to food, water, fuel, medicine, electricity, and transportation, and money withdrawn from bank accounts is limited to small sums, regardless of the amount available, all in order to keep Eritrean citizens in a constant state of trauma and anxiety. Over 400,000 Eritreans have been enslaved in the national army to benefit individuals or private enterprises. Arbitrary detention without charge, trial, or set release date is commonplace, and Eritrea currently has more prisons, military camps, and bars than residential homes, schools, libraries, clinics, hospitals, and grocery stores combined.
In 2016, a United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry found that since 1991 Eritrean officials have committed crimes against humanity of enslavement, imprisonment, exile, conscription, torture, reprisals, persecution, rape and murder.
It is because of this pervasive repression that, every month, thousands of youth, elders, and unaccompanied minors, escape the country, ending up in Libya, Sudan, Europe, North America, and elsewhere, or dying en route in the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea. By 2018, approximately 507,000 people, almost one-tenth of Eritrea’s population had fled. with around 178,000 finding their way to Ethiopia, where the majority were accommodated in four refugee camps in the Tigray region.
Eritrea’s extension of its human rights violations into Tigray is the latest act in the regime’s quest for expansion of power in the Horn of Africa, which is opposed by the majority of the Eritrean population. In the past, it has engaged the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) in disputes with Ethiopia (prior to the 2018 rapprochement between President Afewerki and Prime Minister Abiy, Djibouti, and Yemen, and has sent soldiers to assist rebels in Sudan, Congo, and Somaliland, all on the pretence of national security.
We are dismayed by the horrific violence underway in Tigray that resembles what Eritrean people have experienced during the last 30 years under the totalitarian regime. We are grieved that the commission of international crimes such as extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, imprisonment, attacks on religious sites, and the use of rape and starvation and starvations as weapons of war are largely being attributed to Eritrean troops, who were reportedly persuaded that Tigrayans had planned to destroy Eritrea and kill the president.
The presence of Eritrean soldiers also places Eritrean refugees in grave danger. Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, which were closest to the border were the first targets of the Eritrean military, who shelled them, killed several refugees, arrested and disappeared hundreds of others, robbed them, set fire to the camps, and forcibly returned an unknown number to Eritrea in violation of international humanitarian law. In another violation, refugees who reach the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and other safe places, are returned to the warzone in Tigray, where they may face starvation, death, or forced return. The plight of refugees, including urban refugees who have permission to live in cities, is made even more insecure by the fact that Eritrean military and security personnel are operating across Ethiopia, and there is now evidence Eritrean troops are fighting in the Oromo region.
Thus, Eritrean refugees no longer have a place of refuge They are now all at the mercy of the government they fled, which could strike at any time, assisted by the government that formerly provided them with a sanctuary. Faced with this terrible choice, many refugees are risking their lives by placing them in the hands of people smugglers who may extort them or harm them, in the hope of making it through north African countries that are hostile to sub-Saharan refugees, and eventually crossing the Mediterranean in dangerous, overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.
According to Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, who is also the European Union’s (EU) special envoy to Ethiopia, during a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other officials in February, Ethiopian officials vowed to wipe out Tigrayans “for 100 years.” This clearly articulated genocidal intention means that the war will not end without the strong, swift, and urgent intervention of the international community.
Thus, we strongly urge the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council, the European Union the African Union, and the entire international community to facilitate the following and necessary action:
- Bring the war in the Tigray and Oromia regions of Ethiopia to an immediate end by imposing arms embargos on Eritrea and Ethiopia, creating no-fly zones over the Tigray Oromo regions, and compelling the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces. Not only is the war prolonging the suffering of Tigrayans, Oromos, Eritrean refugees, and underage Eritrean youth; it also provides the fertile environment for crimes to be committed with genocidal intent.
- End forcible returns and provide immediate protection and relocation to safe a third country for all Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia pending final resettlement, especially those in Tigray. Ethiopia must be pressed to fulfil its obligations towards refugees in its territory in accordance with international and regional refugee legislation to which it is a party.
- Ensure unhindered access to the Tigray and Oromo regions for all humanitarian relief agencies without further delay, penalizing any attempts to disrupt, delay or block the distribution of food, water, medical, and other essential supplies.
- Enact the recommendations of the 2016 Report of the UN Commission, particularly the declaration of the human rights situation under Eritrean totalitarian regime as a threat to international peace and security, referring it to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and holding perpetrators of crimes against humanity to account.
- Finally, President Afewerki, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and top military officials, individual persons, businesses, institutions, and representatives of both countries who are implicated directly or indirectly in forcible recruitment of underage soldiers and/or other grave human rights violations against Eritrean and Ethiopian civilians – Tigrayans, Oromos, or Eritrean refugees – must face targeted sanctions, and be brought before an international tribunal.