On 10 December 2019, the same day that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize, the 1991 winner of the prize, Aung San Suu Kyi was in court in the Hague, defending her government against accusations of genocide.

Abiy Ahmed is racing down that same road.

Over the weekend, the spokesman for the Ethiopian army, Colonel Dejene Tsegaye said that the army planned to encircle the Tigrayan capital Mekelle with tanks and begin shelling the city:  

“We want to send a message to the public in Mekelle to save yourselves from any artillery attacks and free yourselves from the junta … After that, there will be no mercy.”

That would be a war crime. Abiy gave a 72-hour ultimatum to the residents of the city.

There is good reason to suppose that the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) may have committed war crimes too. In fact the casus belli for the offensive by the Ethiopian army is an alleged mass killing of Ethiopian army officers on 3-4 November as TPLF units overran army bases. In response, Abiy launched ground and air attacks.

The TPLF’s reported action was also reckless. Its military leaders may have believed too much in the myth of their own invincibility in the face of an all-out attack.

As the war has proceeded, government aircraft have bombed Mekelle town, including the university. The TPLF has fired rockets at cities outside Tigray. Amnesty International has reported large-scale killings of civilians by Tigrayan militia, and refugees entering Sudan speak of killings by Amhara militia. Violations by one side don’t excuse violations by the other. In a war the two sides are bound by the same standards.

Abiy has refused to call it a war and has instead called it a police action with the intent of bringing criminals to justice. That may have served him well in public relations in Ethiopia and have convinced the U.S. Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, but it’s not how the law works.

The Federal Government is at war with the TPLF. Airstrikes, tank battles, artillery barrages against a belligerent that controls territory and exercises command and control over armed forces, constitute a war. And in war, international humanitarian law and international criminal law apply. If the federal forces commit war crimes, the court won’t accept the plea that the other side fired the first shots.

The African Union has appointed envoys to mediate between the warring parties. The world should support them in calling for an immediate ceasefire and referring the case of the Tigray war for an independent international investigation.


Alex de Waal headshot

Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and conflict and peace-building.

Photo: Tigray forces attack Ethiopian airports with missiles. Ennoti, November 14, 2020

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One Response to Stop War Crimes in Ethiopia Today

  1. Million says:

    Professor De Wall, as your former student I’m embarrassed to read your article which is based on hearsays and factual errors – and drawing erroneous conclusions based on these! I believe by now, you might have already realized how deeply flawed your source was and how shallow your analysis and conclusions. Just a couple of points:
    – the quote from the colonel: a deliberately twisted translation taken completely out of context – what has transpired over the last week speaks for itself. But I expected better from you.
    – the 72 hour ultimatum was given to the tplf criminal clique – NOT to the Tigraian people as you have painted it to be. I guess you know the difference – or you’d not have dared write an article.
    – The fact that you are understating the assault on the northern command and the turn of events that followed and an analysis of a chain of events that would have followed were it in the US or the OK (or anywhere in the world) – makes your article look deeply biased. How would a criminal element that has turned down several pleas for negotiation for 2.5 years, has been orchestrating killing of innocents all across the country (Gura Ferda, West Wellega, Benishangul, Shashemene,…) and finally initiated a war by attacking and looting your military base (by their own admission) would be responded to elsewhere in the world???
    – why would the Nobel Peace Prize be used as a pretext to attack a Prime Minister that has gone ALL THE WAY in patience to these crimes for 2.5 years and accuse him of “…descending the same road”. A closer look will tell you that that patience almost cost him his government. I don’t need to teach you that peace does not come with a push and interest of one party alone.
    – all the ensuing developments: several mass graves within the compounds of the Humera airport that tplf controlled for 27years, the several dead bodies (recent and old) found underground the Mekele airport building… (and more may come) speak who the tplf clique really is – for those who want to see it.
    – what is extremely disturbing is the double standard (that I’d have a renowned professor like you challenged) run unabated in all the media! Why wouldn’t the US or UK or France or Germany sit down and negotiate with ISIS, Bokoharam, Al Shebab? Why would you expect any different when it comes to Ethiopia?

    It is, but a matter of time, that you’ll be terribly ashamed of this article.

    Your former student at the Fletcher

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