A surge of dehumanizing hate speech in Ethiopia, at a time of relentless siege tactics and territorial conquests by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, is the latest ominous sign of the mounting risk of mass atrocities and even genocide in the embattled Tigray region, analysts and international leaders say.
The grim warnings have been issued this week by a range of expert sources, including the World Health Organization, human-rights groups, United Nations officials, Western politicians and aid agencies, and independent scholars and analysts.
The conflict in northern Ethiopia has become the world’s biggest and deadliest war in recent weeks, with tens of thousands killed since the fighting resumed in late August, analysts say. The war began in November, 2020, when Ethiopia launched a military offensive against the region’s rebellious government.
A combined force of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, captured the Tigrayan city of Shire and two other major towns this week, and is now reportedly on the outskirts of the ancient Tigrayan city of Axum, the site of an earlier massacre during the war.
Thousands of civilians had fled to Shire to escape bloodshed during earlier phases of the war. Many are now reported to be on the run again. Air strikes and artillery barrages killed an unknown number of civilians during the assault on the city.
Sarah Teich, a Toronto-based international human-rights lawyer, told a Canadian parliamentary committee on Friday that there is emerging evidence of genocide in Tigray, which would require Canada to take action under its obligations in international treaties to prevent the crime. She was testifying on behalf of a Canadian Tigrayan organization.
New estimates this week by independent scholars, based at Ghent University in Belgium, suggest that the death toll in Tigray is now between 385,000 and 600,000. This number includes deaths caused by warfare, famine and lack of health care since the outbreak of the conflict.
But this estimate could be just the beginning, analysts say.
“There is a serious risk of accelerating atrocities as the current phase of the conflict unfolds, with Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers targeting Tigray’s civilian population as they recapture locations vacated by Tigray forces,” U.S.-based think tank International Crisis Group said in a report on Friday.
The Ethiopian government’s siege tactics – including a blockade on humanitarian aid, trade, transport, banking, electricity and telecommunications in Tigray – amounts to “the crime of using starvation as a method of warfare,” the ICG said.
The report documented a wave of hate speech by prominent Ethiopians calling for Tigrayans to be “wiped out.” Some have demanded that civilians be killed or rounded up in internment camps. One said the Ethiopian army should not be blamed for killing unarmed Tigrayans “because all the people of Tigray have called for the war.” A mayor of an Ethiopian city said last year that Tigrayans are “not created as humans.”
The UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, has warned of “horrifying levels of hate speech and incitement to violence” in Ethiopia.
In a statement on Wednesday, Ms. Nderitu cited social-media posts that dehumanize Tigrayan people by likening them to a “virus” or a “cancer” that must be “eradicated.” Some have even called for “the killing of every single youth from Tigray,” she said.
The director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned that genocide could be looming in Tigray, the region where he was born.
“There is a narrow window now to prevent genocide,” he told a media briefing on Wednesday.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an urgent end to the fighting and the immediate withdrawal of the Eritrean forces.
“The situation in Ethiopia is spiralling out of control,” he said this week.
“Violence and destruction have reached alarming levels. There is no military solution. Civilians are paying a horrific price. Indiscriminate attacks, including in residential areas, are killing more innocent people every day, damaging critical infrastructure and limiting access to vital services.”
Tigrayan commentators have accused Western governments of showing a double standard by paying little attention to Ethiopia despite its huge death toll and imposing no sanctions on the country’s leaders, while imposing sanctions on thousands of Russians in connection with the war in Ukraine.
After weeks of delays, peace negotiations between the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments are finally scheduled to begin on Monday in South Africa. The talks are so secretive that even the host city has not been disclosed.
The UN Security Council discussed the Ethiopian situation in a meeting on Friday, but the session was held behind closed doors and failed to agree on a statement. Almost all its Tigray-related meetings have been held in private sessions.