The civil war in Ethiopia: death, displacement and a humanitarian crisis

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On December 09 2020, the Ethiopian government has admitted that it has fired at and arrested UN staff who were visiting refugee camps in Tigrai. Early this month, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for USD147 million in international support to help refugees from Tigrai, northern Ethiopia. He also called, as did other world leaders, for a mediation process to end a war that has caused widespread human displacement. The Ethiopian government continues to obstruct access to humanitarian aid. Endangering the conditions of life for refugees and other civilians by deliberately blocking access to food and medicine may amount to a crime against humanity as laid out under the Rome Statute.

Humanitarian crisis

Ethiopia is at war with itself in various regions of the country, with the most intense fighting in Tigrai regional state (to the northwest) and Oromia (southwest). The central government’s attack on Tigrai has already displaced millions, among them 47 000 refugees now seeking protection in Hamdayet (Kassala) and Lugdi (Gedaref), Sudan. Forty-three per cent of Tigraian refugees are female, and more than 45 per cent are under 17 years old. Their numbers are expected to reach 200 000 within weeks. The risk of trafficking and offers of help for secondary migration to Libya and Europe has been reported. With the addition of another million new internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the war zone, the total in Ethiopia will exceed three million. This massive level of displacement represents a significant humanitarian burden at a time when, according to the UN’s Mark Lowcock, ‘global humanitarian needs have never been higher’. Furthermore, the harrowing accounts of refugee witnesses of the atrocities that they escaped in Ethiopia indicate potential war crimes, a crime against humanity, and genocide.

Eritrean refugees in peril

At the moment the war is being fought mainly on Ethiopian soil, but it is beyond doubt that its horrors will extend more in-depth into the Horn of Africa region. Not all refugees and IDPs are from Tigrai state. Before the war, Tigrai, as the most peaceful region of Ethiopia, hosted 96 000 refugees from Eritrea. Most refugees are young Eritreans fleeing both forceful universal conscription for mandatory military, national service, and massive violations of human rights. The presence of Eritrean forces in Tigrai makes the safety of these people now more precarious than ever. Refugees and IDPs have had no electricity, telephone, banking or internet services since the federal authorities shut off Tigrai, a blanket blackout that so far has lasted a month. The UNHCR has repeatedly warned that refugees will run out of food supplies in a few days.

If evidence is produced that Ethiopia has allowed or condoned the abduction and forcible return of refugees to Eritrea, it would also be in violation of the nonrefoulment (‘no forced return’) principle, which is the bedrock of the international asylum system. Also, it would constitute a violation of customary laws, itself a crime against humanity. 

Peacekeepers and the principle of nonrefoulement

The war against Tigrai and the reported persecution of people of Tigraian origin also pose complicated legal questions regarding the protection of Tigraian peacekeepers deployed to other African countries such as Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. A recent report in Foreign Policy indicates that the Ethiopian war has affected peacekeepers of Tigraian origin serving in UN and AU peacekeeping missions, who are being purged, arrested and transported to Ethiopia. The UN fears that its repatriated peacekeepers may face torture and execution.

Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) are generally responsible for their peacekeepers’ conduct and discipline, but this does not permit the UN or the AU to abrogate their responsibility for the treatment of peacekeepers operating under their auspices.  While UN and AU civilian staff are governed by UN and AU Staff Regulations and Rules, military personnel are also subject to the laws of the relevant TCC. The Memorandum of Understanding between the UN and TCCs provides for disciplinary action in respect of all members of TCC contingents. Special Representatives and Missions are also responsible for the maintenance of discipline and good order.[1] In this regard, the commander of a national contingent must inform the mission Force Commander of any disciplinary action. Furthermore, should allegations be made of severe violations of human rights, the UN and the TCC may conduct a joint investigation.

The conduct of peacekeeping missions and the treatment of peacekeepers nonetheless must comply with international conventions, including universally recognised standards of human rights, the principles and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention Against Torture, the 1949 Geneva Convention, and their respective additional Protocols. The AU and UN, as well as the host country to the peacekeeping mission, are responsible for the application of these international instruments and the fundamental human rights enshrined in them.  Peacekeepers are first and foremost human beings, and they are entitled to fundamental human rights protection under all the relevant instruments. Hence the UN, the AU and the host nations alike have to ensure that these human rights are respected. Permitting the detention and forcible return of peacekeepers of Tigraian origin to a place where they may face arbitrary violations of their human rights, including torture and even execution, may place the UN and AU in violation of the nonrefoulement principle, a jus cogens norm of international law that both institutions have attempted to impose on their member states.

The UN and AU are yet to make public information on the whereabouts of recalled personnel. It is imperative that these bodies comply with UN standards and with international law, that they thoroughly investigate any breaches, and that they hold perpetrators accountable if violations are proved to have occurred.

Root causes

Before the war, Tigrai had been the most peaceful of Ethiopia’s regional states since the disturbances around the accession of the present prime minister two and half years ago, that led to massive international displacement and assassinations of several officials and high-profile public figures. At the root of Ethiopia’s human displacement, as in many countries’, lie conflicts related to the governance of a diversity of ethnic and other markers. From 2018 to 2019 a total of about 100 000 Ethiopians sought asylum abroad. This adds to some 791 000 refugees and asylum-seekers already in other countries by 2016. In 2018 about 22 900 persons had sought asylum abroad, with Kenya, Djibouti and Egypt favoured destinations. Political protests in many regions of Ethiopia in 2020 led to deaths, injuries, displacements and the destruction of private and business property. The situation has since deteriorated, with deaths and displacements rising sharply, accompanied by widespread army deployment. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre rated Ethiopia as the world’s third-highest country for displacement in 2018 and among the ten countries most affected by humanitarian crises in 2019. The International Crisis Group cites Ethiopia as third among its ten ‘conflicts to watch’ in 2020. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ‘Ethiopia hosts at least 2.8 million [IDPs] of which 82 per cent are conflict-induced … and the remaining 18 per cent are climate-induced…’. Such levels point up serious lawlessness and state failure, indicative of a state incapable of protecting its citizens or controlling illegal armed elements.

Extreme poverty also plays a part in the present crisis. As one of the world’s poorest countries, Ethiopia scores 136 out of 166 in the Sustainable Development (SDG) Index and 173 out of 189 in the Human Development Index. It’s per capita income is well below the sub-Saharan Africa average. In the period 2000-2014, GDP grew from USD8 billion to USD62 billion, and per capita GDP rose 6.9 per cent to USD619. Exports also increased.

Nevertheless, none of this development provided enough jobs to reduce emigration, although the national poverty ratio fell from 45.5 per cent in 1995 to 29 per cent in 2015.  A large pastoralist community dependent on livestock and seasonal farming straddle the Horn border regions, seasonally inhabiting peripheries with little state presence and exposed to the violent clan and ethnic conflict; hence subject to frequent displacement by conflict and drought. Development-induced displacement (i.e. forcible resettlement programmes[2]) may also result from the government’s lack of planning and information and the absence of compensation programmes for affected populations.

State failure

However, protracted displacement remains the leading cause of displacement.  While the proximate cause of external and external displacement is a civil war, at the centre lies widespread opposition to the incumbent government (and to the federal authorities’ attempts to overcome a constitutional crisis using military means) from regions such as Oromia and Tigrai.

As such, displacement, both internal and external in this context serves as a robust indicator of potential state failure. Conflict induced displacement most often results from legitimacy disputes and states’ inability to govern an entire population or territory effectively. This failure by a state to exercise effective administrative control over its territory due to political opposition and military confrontation that we witnessed in Tigrai and parts of Oromia of Ethiopia constitutes “a serious threat to legitimate order to restore peace and stability of the Member States”.[3]  The recent civil war, atrocities and displacements reveal the weak foundation the Ethiopian nation-state building rests on. In Ethiopia, where others challenge the mandate of those in power, the government has neither the capability nor the desire to ensure the provision of humanitarian aid on timely.  In this regard, Guy Goodwin-Gil states that:

From an international law perspective, the primary responsibility for the protection of and assistance to internally displaced persons rests with the territorial State, in virtue of its sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention. In practice, internal displacement often occurs as a result of civil conflict, in situations where the authority of the central government is itself in dispute, and its capacity or willingness to provide protection and assistance are equally in doubt.[4]

Given governments often sees IDPs and refugees as an extension of its rivals in war, “government possesses no interest in protecting them.”[5] For this reason, the IDP and refugees’ populations are highly vulnerable to direct and indirect forms of crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In this regard, Francis Deng asserts that “[s]hould [the states] fail to discharge their responsibility for lack of capacity or will, the international community has the right and the responsibility to intervene.”[6]  The international community need to act and intervene in a timely basis.

1. Article 47-51, United Nations. (2011, August 08). The Status of Forces Agreement Between the United Nations and the Government of the Republic of South Sudan, Concerning the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
2. Action Aid ‘Internal displacement: International guidelines on resettlement and rehabilitation’ (2006) Law Review.
3. Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law Pp. 264-267.
4. Goodwin-Gill, The Refugee in International Law, Pp. 264-265.
5. Ali Gouda Pp 4-5.
6. Deng, Pp. 93-95.


Mehari Taddele Maru, Part-time Professor at the Migration Policy Centre (MPC)


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.