Table of contents
- 1. Ceasefire agreement between Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces skip to link
- 2. Background to the conflict skip to link
- 3. Impacts of the war skip to link
- 4. Read more skip to link
On 15 November 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:
Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the 2 November ceasefire agreement between the government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan forces, (2) how ceasefire terms will be monitored and verified, and (3) how likely it is that foreign forces will now leave Tigray Province in Ethiopia.
1. Ceasefire agreement between Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces
The Ethiopian government and regional forces from Tigray (one of the nine regional states in Ethiopia) signed an agreement on a permanent cessation of hostilities on 2 November 2022, following peace talks mediated by the African Union (AU). Tigrayan fighters and the Ethiopian federal government have been in conflict since November 2020, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and the internal displacement of millions of Ethiopians.
According to Reuters, key features of the ceasefire agreement include:
Ceasefire and restoration of constitutional order
- Both sides agree to end all forms of hostilities, including acts of violence, sabotage, air strikes, and “hostile propaganda, rhetoric and hate speech”.
- They agree they will not collude with any external force hostile to either party.
- Federal authority will be restored in Tigray.
- The government will ensure that Tigray is represented in federal institutions, including Parliament.
- Both parties recognise that Ethiopia only has one defence force.
- The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that dominates Tigray, agrees to fully disarm, including light weapons, within 30 days.
- TPLF fighters will enter a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme.
- Ethiopia’s military will return to the Tigray regional capital, Mekelle.
Recognition and new elections
- The agreement is between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF, and it makes no reference to an elected ‘government of Tigray’. This was one of the bones of contention in the conflict, as the government did not recognise the last regional vote held in Tigray, which the TPLF won, as legal.
- A new interim administration will be appointed to govern Tigray until elections are held at an unspecified date.
- The federal government pledges to lift the TPLF’s ‘terrorist’ designation and begin a political dialogue with the group to resolve their differences.
Aid and human rights
- Both sides will protect civilians and uphold international humanitarian laws to which Ethiopia is a party […]
- The government will work with humanitarian agencies to ensure aid begins quickly flowing back into Tigray […]
- The government will facilitate the return of those displaced by the war where the security situation allows, and it will coordinate the restoration of essential services in Tigray.
- The agreement provides for a new ‘transitional justice policy’ aimed at ascertaining the truth, accountability, redress for victims, reconciliation and healing.
- A committee chaired by the AU will be formed to monitor and verify implementation of the agreement.
- The committee will include representatives from the government, the TPLF and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in East Africa.
Troops from neighbouring Eritrea have also taken part in the conflict, on the side of the Ethiopian army. Eritrea did not participate in the AU-mediated talks and Eritrea is not mentioned in the agreement.
Commenting on the ceasefire, the minister of state for development in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Andrew Mitchell, said:
We welcome the peace agreement and cessation of hostilities announced on 2 November between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and their commitment to scale-up the delivery of life-saving aid to Tigray. As the new agreement includes restoration of services and unhindered access to humanitarian supplies, it is imperative that access is facilitated without delay so medical and other supplies can reach the people of Tigray. The UK is committed to working with the government of Ethiopia and authorities in Tigray to expand aid deliveries to areas affected by the conflict and to promote long-term peace and security.
He estimated that 13 million people require humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict, and as many as 5.4 million people required aid in Tigray.
Mr Mitchell also called for the Eritrean government to support the agreement by withdrawing its troops from Ethiopia.
Human Rights Watch has called for backers of the ceasefire agreement to “prioritise protecting civilians, press for robust monitoring, and ensure that the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan authorities fully carry out their rights commitments”. The organisation said it would be “critical” for the AU and others monitoring the agreement to ensure the Ethiopian authorities did not obstruct humanitarian assistance in Tigray. The Ethiopian authorities have denied doing this during the conflict, but a report by an International Commission of Human Rights Experts established by the UN Human Rights Council found in September 2022:
[There were] reasonable grounds to believe that the federal government and allied regional state governments have implemented a wide range of measures designed to systematically deprive the population of Tigray of material and services indispensable for its survival, including healthcare, shelter, water, sanitation, education and food.
2. Background to the conflict
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is situated in eastern Africa and is composed of nine national regional states (Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), Gambella and Harari) and two administrative councils (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). The country has a population of approximately 110 million people.
As outlined by the World Food Programme (WFP), in recent years Ethiopia has seen economic growth averaging 10% per annum (2007–2017) and a reduction of extreme poverty and hunger rates by half (from 61% to 31%). However, Ethiopia is currently experiencing prolonged drought, and in August 2022 the WFP estimated that 7.4 million people required food assistance.
Ethiopia’s current prime minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. He came to power following anti-government protests against the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF had been in power for three decades and the coalition was previously dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Originally from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, he was initially elected in 2010 as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), part of the EPRDF.
From 2014, increasingly repressive government measures had led to widespread protests against the ruling coalition. The domestic protests, which continued for about three years until early 2018, had a substantial impact on the country. In February 2018, then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, citing the need for a new leader to take forward reforms and find solutions to issues facing the country.
In March 2018, when he was elected as leader of the EPRDF, Abiy Ahmed promised political reform and a transition to democratic rule. His early years in power saw the release of thousands of political prisoners and the removal of some opposition parties from lists of terrorist groups. In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts on attaining peace and international cooperation, particularly for his work to end his country’s long-running border dispute with neighbouring Eritrea.
According to Europa World, the borders of Eritrea were first defined in 1889, although by 1962 Eritrea’s status had been effectively transformed into that of an Ethiopian province. An armed struggle between the Ethiopian government and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was followed by a full-scale war after 1977. In 1993, following EPLF victories, national independence was endorsed through a UN-supervised referendum.
In the past, Eritrean relations with Ethiopia, with which it shares approximately 1000km of border, have been troubled. Numerous disputes, originating largely in disagreements about the location of the border, have taken place since Eritrea gained independence in 1993.
Relations between Eritrea and the TPLF-dominated EPRDF coalition in Ethiopia remained strained until the installation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. In June 2018, Prime Minister Ahmed offered to implement previous UN peace agreements about the location of the border without preconditions. The change of approach in the countries’ relations led to a peace agreement being signed in July 2018.
2.3 Origins of the Tigrayan conflict
Relations between the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF had soured since the rise to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. The new prime minister came from the OPDO wing of the EPRDF and distanced himself from some of the coalition’s previous actions. The TPLF complained of what it described as targeting of TPLF leaders for past human rights violations. It also opposed the peace settlement with Eritrea in 2018, viewing it as a major threat. The regional state of Tigray is bordered by Eritrea to the north, and the rivalry between the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (now the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice and Eritrea’s sole legal political party) goes back several decades.
The TPLF also saw its power in government diminish with the dissolution of the EPRDF coalition to form the Prosperity Party in December 2019. The TPLF opted not to join the new party, and in contrast to the previous influence that the TPLF had enjoyed in the EPRDF, the party was outside national government for the first time in many years. The TPLF was critical of the federal government’s decision not to go ahead with elections planned for August 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tensions increased further when the TPLF ran elections in September 2020, in defiance of the federal government’s decision.
On 4 November 2020, the Ethiopian prime minister declared a state of emergency in the Tigray region, following an attack by Tigrayan forces on a federal military base in the region.
The Tigray government asserted that its forces were acting in self-defence against a planned federal assault, although Ethiopian federal forces have described it as an unprovoked attack. In addition, the Ethiopian federal authorities have since accused the TPLF of orchestrating ethnic violence across Ethiopia to make it ungovernable. In May 2021, the Ethiopian government designated the party as a terrorist group.
2.4 Involvement of Eritrea
Reports that Eritrea was involved in the war started circulating early in the conflict. On 29 November 2020, the Times reported claims by the TPLF that Eritrea was “wading into the conflict by deploying troops against them”. It noted however:
Communications to Tigray have been cut off by the government, which has made it impossible to verify claims of atrocities perpetrated by both sides. The Ethiopian human rights commission has accused militia linked to the TPLF of massacring hundreds of labourers from the neighbouring Amhara region. Amhara and Tigray have been embroiled in territorial disputes for decades.
In February 2021, Amnesty International published a report highlighting the involvement of Eritrean troops operating in late November 2020 in the Ethiopian city of Axum, Tigray. It identified a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations, including the killing of hundreds of civilians, in which it said the Eritrean troops had been involved.
The report ‘Human rights and democracy: 2020’, published in July 2021 by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, highlighted “persistent and credible reports” that from November 2020 Eritrean troops had been involved in the fighting in the Tigray region of neighbouring Ethiopia. It also noted the allegations of possible violations of international law, including international human rights law, which had accompanied these reports.
In March 2021, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed confirmed the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict, having previously denied their role over a number of months. He claimed that Eritrean troops had crossed the border because they were concerned they would be attacked by TPLF forces. However, he argued that the Eritreans had promised to leave when Ethiopia’s military was able to control the border.
Professor Richard Reid, from the University of Oxford, has described Eritrea’s potential involvement as a “risky strategy”, which might be seen as an opportunity for Eritrea’s interests by creating “a weakened and disunited Ethiopia” and lead to a stronger role for Eritrea. However, he argued the strategy could lead to Eritrea being more isolated and “a coalescence of Ethiopian antagonists and domestic opposition that presents an existential threat to the Eritrean government itself”.
Eritrean involvement has led to pressure from several international organisations. In March 2021, Reuters reported that Mark Lowcock, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, had called for Eritrean forces to leave Ethiopia. Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, he reportedly stated that “they must not be enabled or permitted to continue their campaign of destruction before they do so”. UN Secretary General António Guterres also called on Eritrean troops to leave Tigray.
In a letter dated 16 April 2021 addressed to the UN Security Council, the Eritrean permanent representative to the UN stated that:
[…] as the looming grave threat has been largely thwarted, Eritrea and Ethiopia have agreed—at the highest levels—to embark on the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and the simultaneous redeployment of Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary.
However, this withdrawal did not appear to occur and in June 2021 the Ethiopian envoy to the United Nations was reported as saying that Eritrean troops would “definitely leave soon”. In July 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution calling for an immediate end to all violations in the Tigray region and for Eritrean troops to quickly withdraw in a verifiable manner.
3. Impacts of the war
The nearly two years of conflict have had a severe impact on people living in the region. Estimates by Professor Jan Nyssen at Ghent University suggest that, as at August 2022, as many as 600,000 people have died in the conflict: between 31,300 and 89,300 civilians have been killed or massacred; between 228,000 and 356,100 people have died due to famine; and between 124,000 and 155,000 have died from lack of medical attention. The Washington Post called the conflict “the world’s deadliest war”, commenting that the civilians in northern Ethiopia faced “mass starvation and ethnocide”.
In November 2021, Director General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, himself from Tigray, stated that the region was under a “systematic blockade”, warning “people are dying because of lack of supplies”. In early 2022, he referred to the situation as “an insult to our humanity” and “hell”.
The conflict exacerbated issues caused by serious drought in the country. The World Food Programme stated:
Conflict in Northern Ethiopia has almost exhausted the coping mechanisms of millions and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. More than 13 million people require humanitarian food assistance mainly in conflict affected zones of Afar, Amhara and Tigray regions.
In August 2021, the Ethiopian government temporarily suspended the work of two international aid agencies, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), claiming they had spread misinformation. In January 2022, numerous aid agencies suspended aid to Tigray following air strikes which hit a camp for displaced people in the region.
In April 2022, a joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that since November 2020 in western Tigray:
[…] civilian authorities, and Amhara regional security forces, with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces, committed numerous grave abuses as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the Tigrayan civilian population that amount to crimes against humanity as well as war crimes. These crimes include murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deportation or forcible transfer, rape, sexual slavery and other sexual violence, persecution, unlawful imprisonment, possible extermination, and other inhumane acts.
These findings were echoed in September 2022, when the Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, established by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2021, published its report highlighting the situation in Tigray. It concluded:
[…] there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations, such as extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual violence, and starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare have been committed in Ethiopia since 3 November 2020. The Commission finds reasonable grounds to believe that, in several instances, these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The report included:
- Details of sexual and gender-based violence, in particular rape, which had been perpetrated on a “staggering scale” since the beginning of the conflict in November 2020.
- Research into the denial and obstruction, by the federal government and its allies, of humanitarian access to Tigray. The report said these actions had denied 6 million people access to basic services, including internet, telecommunications and banking for over a year. In addition, restriction of humanitarian access had left 90% of the Tigray population in dire need of assistance.
- Information concerning the indiscriminate killing of civilians, by both Tigrayan and federal forces.
- Several incidents and themes that the commission said should receive further investigation, including: large scale killings in Tigray; large scale killings in Oromia; the situation in Afar; arbitrary detention; the situation of Eritrean refugees; and airstrikes.
- A series of urgent recommendations to address the conflict.
4. Read more
- Human Rights Watch, ‘Ethiopia: Truce needs robust rights monitoring’, 4 November 2022
- Reuters, ‘Key events in the Ethiopian conflict’, 2 November 2022
- World Food Programme, ‘WFP Ethiopia: Country brief’, August 2022
- Richard Reid, ‘Eritrea is involved in Tigray to boost its stature. Why the strategy could backfire’, The Conversation, 30 January 2022
- House of Commons Library, ‘Humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia’, 17 January 2022
- Congressional Research Service, ‘Ethiopia’s transition and the Tigray conflict’, 9 September 2021
Cover image by James Wiseman on Unsplash.