U.N. Fears Ethiopia Purging Ethnic Tigrayan Officers From Its Peacekeeping Missions
An internal United Nations document shows concern those troops could face torture or execution.
BY COLUM LYNCH, ROBBIE GRAMER | NOVEMBER 23, 2020
The Ethiopian government has been rounding up ethnic Tigrayan security forces deployed in United Nations and African peacekeeping missions abroad and forcing them onto flights to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where it is feared they may face torture or even execution, according to an internal U.N. account.
The moves come as Ethiopia is preparing a military offensive against the capital of the country’s Tigray region, Mekelle. Conflict erupted earlier this month between federal and Tigrayan forces in the ethnically divided nation, which for decades was under de facto rule by the minority Tigrayans. The alarm inside the U.N. suggests that Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, may be expanding the country’s weekslong conflict beyond the country’s borders. It has alarmed human rights advocates and U.N. officials, who fear that the U.N. blue helmets may be persecuted upon their arrival back in Ethiopia.
The targeting of Tigrayan military officers in foreign peacekeeping and military operations comes amid rising fears that an Ethiopian government offensive against Tigrayan rebels inside Ethiopia could devolve into ethnic cleansing, with atrocities reported on both sides. The human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently issued a report detailing “the massacre of a very large number of civilians” in northern Ethiopia earlier this month, allegedly by groups loyal to the Tigrayan forces, in a grim harbinger of violence to come. Meanwhile, refugees fleeing the violence said they were targeted because they were Tigrayan.
In South Sudan earlier this month, Ethiopian soldiers disarmed a senior ethnic Ethiopian Tigrayan officer, escorted him to the capital of Juba, and forced him onto a Nov. 11 Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa, according to the internal account, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy.
Ten days later, the Ethiopian contingent at the U.N. base in Juba reportedly detained three other Tigrayan officers. The officers, according to the internal account, “were coerced to take the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Juba to Addis Ababa. As of now their whereabouts are unknown.”
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS, “has become aware that three soldiers were repatriated back to their country on Saturday without the Mission’s knowledge,” a senior U.N. official at the mission said. “Our Human Rights Division is working to follow up on their situation.”
“If there are any incidents where personnel are discriminated against or have their rights violated because of their ethnicity or they have concerns about their situation, this may involve a human rights violation under international law,” the official added. “As a result, the UNMISS Human Rights Division is currently liaising with the Ethiopian peacekeeping command in South Sudan and has requested access to any contingent personnel who might, for any reason, be compelled to return home and be in need of protection.”
The crackdown has spread to other African countries where Ethiopian peacekeepers and troops are deployed, including in Abyei, a disputed territory claimed by Sudan and South Sudan, and Somalia, where thousands of Ethiopian troops have been helping the government fight Islamist al-Shabab militants. As many as 40 Tigrayan officers and soldiers serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia have also been recalled to Ethiopia, according to one diplomatic source.
At Ethiopia’s U.N. mission in New York, the senior military attaché who oversaw peacekeeping issues, a Tigrayan, was fired after just months on the job, precipitating the purge of other Tigrayan officers from peacekeeping missions abroad, diplomatic sources said.
Ethiopia has seen deepening conflict between the country’s Tigray minority—which accounts for just over 6 percent of the population but played a dominant role in Ethiopia’s political life for decades, and whose status was reinforced under Meles Zenawi, an ethnic Tigrayan who served as prime minister and president of Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in August 2012—and the country’s largest ethnic groups including the Amhara and Oromo, who account for more than 60 percent of the county’s population.