Nairobi — Civilians Bear Brunt of Global Inaction on Wartime Atrocities, Humanitarian Crises
Horn of Africa governments grappled with rampant wartime atrocities and humanitarian crises throughout 2023 with meager international assistance, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2024. Unaddressed historical grievances and impunity for serious crimes continued to spur widespread violations against civilians in the region.
The conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia have had a staggering impact on civilians, resulting in massive loss of life, destruction of property and large-scale displacements. Instead of treating these crises as priorities, influential governments and United Nations and regional bodies have repeatedly pursued short-term gains at the expense of rights-driven solutions.
“Sudan and Ethiopia provide chilling examples of government forces and armed groups flouting international law with few consequences for their actions,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Greater global and regional action is needed to protect civilians and end the cycles of abuses and impunity that put civilians at risk.”
In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.
In Sudan, since April the armed conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, an independent armed force, has had disastrous consequences for civilians.
The warring parties have repeatedly used heavy weapons in densely populated areas and destroyed critical infrastructure including medical facilities. Thousands of civilians have been killed and injured, while millions have fled their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Some of the worst abuses have taken place in West Darfur, where the Rapid Support Forces and allied militias have deliberately targeted non-Arab civilians, engaging in mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson across towns.
After parties to the conflict in northern Ethiopia signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in November 2022, the limited international efforts to promote meaningful accountability, and an end to abuses quickly dissipated. Ethiopia’s partners, including the United States and the European Union and its member states, began normalizing relations with the federal government despite crimes against humanity and other grave abuses, notably in Amhara and Tigray, and elsewhere.
Conflicts and climate-related events have displaced millions across the region. The Sudan conflict has forced more than 1.2 million people to flee to neighboring countries. Among them were refugees living in Sudan, which already hosts to over 2 million South Sudanese refugees, and hundreds of thousands of Eritreans, Ethiopians, and others. Despite pervasive needs, appeals for aid in the region remain grossly underfunded.
Across the region, warring parties’ deliberate actions have exacerbated humanitarian crises. In Ethiopia, Eritrean forces blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching communities in parts of Tigray under their control, while heavy fighting, frequent telecommunication disruptions, and attacks on aid workers constrained relief operations in Amhara.
In Sudan and Ethiopia, humanitarian operations have been seriously hindered by attacks on aid workers, widespread looting of assistance, and obstructive bureaucratic requirements including bans on supplies. Since April, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Sudan’s conflict have arrived in South Sudan, including South Sudanese returnees as well as refugees. This has exacerbated the country’s already severe humanitarian crisis, fueled by conflict, chronic and cyclical food insecurity, and extreme weather patterns, as well as reduced humanitarian funding.
The UN Security Council’s response to widespread civilian harm and major displacement in Ethiopia and Sudan has been minimal. Its three African members did not promote robust and meaningful deliberations on protecting civilians in either country.
More positively, the UN Human Rights Council voted to establish an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate abuses in Sudan. Still, the Security Council and concerned governments, as well as regional actors, notably the African Union and its human rights body, should prioritize accountability in any political settlement of the conflict.
By contrast, efforts to promote accountability in Ethiopia suffered major reversals. The EU, key to earlier UN Human Rights Council resolutions on Ethiopia, in September discontinued UN scrutiny over the human rights situation, despite a highly critical report by the Human Rights Council-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). Member states failed to press for the commission’s renewal, while the African Union’s rights mechanism let its own independent inquiry cease altogether. Governments relented to the Ethiopian government’s resistance to continued international scrutiny to support its efforts to establish a domestic transitional justice process. Victims of serious abuses expressed deep mistrust in Ethiopia’s institutions, which have failed to provide accountability for abuses by Ethiopian and other, notably Eritrean forces.
“Throughout the Horn of Africa, victims of serious abuses and their families along with activists have repeatedly demanded civilian protection, redress for violations, and accountability for those responsible, including people in positions of power,” Segun said. “International and regional organizations and influential governments have deeply disappointed those in need with their lackluster approach to ongoing human rights and humanitarian crises.”