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Atrocity Alert No. 271: Ethiopia, Burundi and Philippines

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

RISING HATE SPEECH, STARVATION AND THE AID BLOCKADE OF TIGRAY

Last week at an event in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, Daniel Kibret, an influential political adviser to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, gave an inflammatory speech targeting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former ruling party of the Tigray region. Kibret said that, “they should be erased… from historical records. A person who wants to study them should find nothing about them. Maybe he can find out about them by digging in the ground.” According to the UN Secretary-General, since armed conflict started in Tigray last November, an alarming rise in inflammatory rhetoric and ethnic profiling has been “tearing apart the social fabric of the country.”

During July the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide expressed alarm at the increase in dangerous rhetoric used by Ethiopia’s political leaders. In response to the most recent incident, Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, told Agence France-Presse that, “given the surge in deadly ethnic violence in Ethiopia it is hard to take at face value the claim that [Kibret] was only talking about the TPLF rather than Tigrayans in general. The references to people as weeds that need to be removed, or as monsters that must be erased, is classic hate speech. And calling for the total extermination of any political party and its supporters is tantamount to incitement to commit war crimes and other atrocities.”

Meanwhile, during her update to the UN Human Rights Council on 20 September, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that grave abuses of human rights continue in the Tigray region, stressing that “there has been one constant: multiple and severe reports of alleged gross violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all parties.” High Commissioner Bachelet noted that a joint investigation between her office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has documented widespread human rights abuses, including gang rape, sexualized torture and ethnically-targeted sexual violence.

The violence in Tigray has also created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Despite the imminent risk of famine in northern Ethiopia, Tigray has endured what the UN has called a “de facto aid blockade” for months, with only sporadic deliveries of food being allowed by the federal government, and ongoing attacks on aid convoys and humanitarian workers by various parties to the conflict. On 20 September the Associated Press reported that one aid agency was now documenting deaths from starvation in at least 20 districts of Tigray. The expansion of the conflict into the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions has also led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing a military offensive by Tigrayan forces.

In response to the deteriorating situation in Tigray, on 17 September United States President Joe Biden signed an executive order that allows the government to impose economic sanctions and travel bans on those obstructing humanitarian aid and committing grave abuses against civilians. All UN member states should follow suit and pressure all parties to the conflict to allow the unfettered delivery of lifesaving aid. The UN Security Council and African Union should pursue a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Ethiopia.

UN COMMISSION OF INQUIRY WARNS OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY IN BURUNDI

On 16 September the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi released its final report, arguing that despite new leadership following the May 2020 elections, crimes against humanity continued to be committed. Doudou Diène, Chair of the CoI, warned that, “since President Ndayishimiye’s inauguration 15 months ago, not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated.”

Burundi has endured a protracted human rights crisis since late President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third presidential term in 2015, resulting in a failed military coup, widespread protests and a campaign of violent intimidation of government opponents. For more than five years, Burundian state agents, together with the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league, committed widespread human rights violations and abuses, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.

Despite President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s new administration making some positive symbolic gestures regarding human rights, the CoI concluded that the risk factors for further atrocities remain. Specifically, the National Intelligence Service, police and Imbonerakure continue to arbitrarily arrest, disappear, torture and kill perceived political opponents, as well as individuals accused of collaborating with armed opposition groups. Following a pattern set by President Nkurunziza, impunity is widespread and the government refuses to cooperate with the CoI and other UN human rights mechanisms.

The CoI remains the only independent international body mandated to investigate and identify alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Burundi. Its latest findings demonstrate that continued scrutiny remains essential. Elisabeth Pramendorfer, Senior Human Rights Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, stressed that, “the HRC should renew the mandate of the CoI in full during its current session. This would signal to perpetrators and victims alike that the international community will continue to pursue accountability for past atrocities in Burundi and will take practical steps to prevent their recurrence.”

ICC TO INVESTIGATE DEADLY ‘WAR ON DRUGS’ IN THE PHILIPPINES

On 15 September the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a formal investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity committed between 1 November 2011 and 16 March 2019 in the Philippines. The Court will investigate the thousands of extrajudicial killings since President Rodrigo Duterte took office during June 2016 and declared a “war on drugs.” Noting that the killings were “a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population” carried out as a matter of state policy, the ICC determined that the so-called war on drugs “could not be seen as a legitimate law enforcement operation.”

The ICC investigation also focuses on acts carried out when President Duterte was mayor of the city of Davao. From 1988-2016 an armed vigilante group, named the Davao Death Squad, reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, including homeless children and drug users. ICC prosecutors have alleged that once Duterte became president, authorities utilized the Davao Death Squad’s tactics nationwide.

According to an assessment by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the “war on drugs” has led to at least 8,660 people being killed in police operations or by unidentified vigilantes carrying out executions of alleged drug offenders. Thousands of additional deaths remain under investigation by local authorities. While the majority of deaths took place between 2016-2018, police and armed vigilantes continue to perpetrate extrajudicial killings. In June 2020 OHCHR also found evidence of at least 248 targeted killings of journalists and human rights defenders.

Rejecting international accountability, the Philippines officially withdrew from the ICC in 2019. Nevertheless, Sarah Hunter, Communications and Digital Media Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the ICC’s investigation is essential to achieving justice for thousands of people in the Philippines who have been killed during Duterte’s ‘war on drugs.’ The Court should be commended for taking this step to help ensure victims see the justice they deserve.”