Tomorrow (8 November), the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on Ethiopia under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa”.* A high-level UN representative and an AU representative are expected to brief. The meeting was requested by Council president Mexico, Ireland and the “A3 plus one” (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). At the time of writing, Council members were discussing a draft press statement on Ethiopia.**
Today’s meeting takes place against the backdrop of an escalation of the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which erupted one year ago, on 4 November 2020. Following a relative respite in the fighting in September, the conflict entered a new escalatory phase in October. Federal forces have conducted a campaign of aerial bombardments, mainly focusing on the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle, while also targeting other areas in the region. During that month, fighting intensified in multiple locations, most notably in Amhara, where, on 30 and 31 October, Tigrayan forces declared that they had taken control of the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha, marking a significant shift on the battlefield. Dessie–one of the largest cities in the Amhara region—is located approximately 400 km from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Pobee is expected to update Council members about the most recent developments in the conflict. Following indications that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) might begin to advance south towards the capital, the federal government declared a nationwide state of emergency on 2 November. Ethiopian authorities also urged civilians in Addis Ababa to register their arms and prepare to defend their neighbourhoods. After the state of emergency was declared, news agencies reported that the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)—an armed group which seeks self-determination for the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and is designated as a terrorist organisation by the Ethiopian government—had started to march towards Addis Ababa. (The OLA is also fighting the federal government and formed an alliance with the TPLF in August.) Some foreign embassies in Addis have urged their nationals to exercise caution or avoid travelling to Ethiopia.
On 3 November, a TPLF spokesperson announced that the TPLF and the OLA had reached the town of Kemise—the capital of the Oromia Special Zone in the Amhara region—which is located 325 km from Addis Ababa. At the time of writing, this has not been independently confirmed. The spokesperson added that “joint operations” of the two forces “will continue in the days and weeks ahead”. Today (5 November), media sources reported the formation of the “United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces”— a nine-group anti-government alliance which includes the TPLF and the OLA, expanding their existing agreements and entailing political, military, and diplomatic cooperation.
At today’s meeting, Pobee may provide an update on the UN’s efforts in response to the worsening situation in Ethiopia and reiterate the Secretary-General’s call for a cessation of hostilities, unrestricted humanitarian access, and inclusive national dialogue. On 3 November, Secretary-General António Guterres held a telephone conversation with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and reportedly offered his good offices to help foster conditions for dialogue. Council members may be interested in hearing if the Secretary-General’s offer has been accepted.
The rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in northern Ethiopia is another likely focus of today’s meeting. Members may be interested in learning more about a planned visit to Ethiopia by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, which is expected to start today (5 November). They may also wish to inquire about the delivery of humanitarian aid into northern Ethiopia. Humanitarians have faced challenges in providing aid to conflict-affected areas. On 22 October, the UN Humanitarian Air Service suspended all flights to Mekelle until further notice following an incident in which a UN humanitarian flight was forced mid-air to return to Addis Ababa because of airstrikes targeting Mekelle.
Following the declaration of the state of emergency and reports of the Tigrayan advance, several international interlocutors—including the AU, the EU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—called for an immediate stop to the hostilities. On 3 November, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a statement expressing concern about the deterioration of the crisis and calling on the parties “to cease fire immediately and to turn to dialogue”. At today’s meeting, Council members are likely to echo these calls and to express support for the AU mediation efforts led by AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo.
While the US is pursuing diplomatic efforts in Ethiopia, with Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman currently in Addis to encourage talks, Washington has also stressed its readiness to pursue sanctions and to revoke Ethiopia’s trade benefits. China and Russia have opposed the use of sanctions as counterproductive and may reiterate this view today.
At today’s meeting, some Council members may express concern regarding reports of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Ethiopia and call for accountability. On 3 November, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a joint report containing the findings of an investigation it had conducted with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the national human rights institution of Ethiopia. (The joint investigation was welcomed by Security Council members in a 22 April press statement). The report—which covers the period from 3 November 2020 to 28 June—says that all parties to the conflict have perpetrated human rights, humanitarian and refugee law violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Violations detailed in the report include unlawful killings, sexual and gender-based violence, torture, forced displacement and violations against refugees. The OHCHR also issued a 3 November update on violations documented after the report’s cut-off date. These include allegations of indiscriminate airstrikes carried out by federal government forces in and around Mekelle and reports of killings of hundreds of civilians by the Tigrayan Special Forces in Amhara and Afar.
At a 3 November press conference following the publication of the report, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that most of the violations documented during the reporting period were apparently committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces. She added that the period after the report’s cut-off date has witnessed increased allegations of human rights abuses by Tigrayan forces and continued reports of violations by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Bachelet argued that an independent international investigative mechanism should be considered if an accountability process addressing the full range of violations is not put in place.
Some Tigrayan groups and a TPLF spokesperson have questioned the EHRC’s autonomy and argued that its involvement in the joint investigation undermines the integrity of the report. When asked about this criticism during the 3 November press conference, Bachelet stood by the report’s impartiality. While acknowledging access challenges and calling for additional investigations, she said that the report had been elaborated following a methodology and training provided by OHCHR and that external experts (on forensics and on gender-based violence, among others) participated in the investigation so that the report could provide a full picture of the situation.
It seems that Ireland had initially proposed a draft presidential statement on the situation in Ethiopia, which was circulated to Council members on 28 October. It appears that while Council members were generally supportive of the proposed Council product, some members asked for the presidential statement to be downgraded to a press statement, and one member apparently opposed having a product altogether. Following developments in Ethiopia, including in Dessie and Kombolcha, it seems that some members expressed the view that the draft text had been outpaced by the events on the ground. Ireland and the “A3 plus one” worked together on a revised draft text which was circulated to Council members as a press statement on 3 November. At the time of writing, Council members were still negotiating this draft text.
*Post-script (5 November, 4:30 pm): This meeting was originally set to take place as an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on 5 November at 3pm. It was first postponed to 4 pm that day, and subsequently delayed again to an undetermined time in the coming days.
**Post-script (5 November, 6:25 pm): On 5 November, the members of the Security Council issued a press statement on Ethiopia. The silence procedure on the draft statement (initially set for 5 pm on 4 November) was extended several times until 3.30pm on 5 November. Russia broke silence once during the afternoon of 5 November. The statement expresses deep concern “about the expansion and intensification of military clashes in northern Ethiopia” and at the impact of the conflict on the humanitarian situation in the country. The statement calls for refraining from using “inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness”. In the statement, Security Council members also welcomed the efforts of the Secretary-General and expressed support for the AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo.
While the agreed version of the statement calls for an end to hostilities, an earlier draft had called for this “immediately” and “without preconditions”—language which was removed from the final version. References to “all parties” were also removed. The statement further calls for the negotiation of a ceasefire, and for the “creation of conditions for the start of an inclusive Ethiopian national dialogue”.
***Post-script (7 November, 12:00 pm): The meeting was scheduled for Monday (8 November).