Johannesburg — The United Nations released a report on Wednesday warning that atrocities committed by both sides in the may amount to crimes against humanity, as the spreading conflict sparked a warning for U.S. citizens to prepare to leave the country. Fighting has raged in the northern Tigray region for a year now, with reports of massacres, gang-rapes and ethnic cleansing, and the war has worryingly crept closer to the capital in recent days.
"We have reasonable grounds to believe that during this period, all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity," said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday, highlighting the report by the UNHCR. She called the war "reckless," and urged an immediate end to the fighting.
The report draws on 269 interviews, many containing graphic details of rapes and mutilations by Eritrean soldiers on military bases. Eritrea has sent troops across the border to help Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed try to quash Tigrayan rebels.
The U.N. human rights chief was speaking after her office published the report, which it compiled in cooperation with the state-appointed Ethiopian human rights commission. She said most violations in the period covered by the report were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but that since then, they had seen an increase in offenses by Tigrayan forces, as well as continuing abuses by the Ethiopians and Eritreans.
"Eritrean forces were the main (party) responsible for violations of human rights," Bachelet said.
It wasn't clear whether the report's findings could form the basis for legal action against any of the parties to the conflict - Ethiopia and Eritrea are not members of the International Criminal Court, so it has no jurisdiction.
Bachelet said the Ethiopian government had assured the U.N. that it was already carrying out investigations and prosecutions over alleged abuses committed by government forces, but she added there was a troubling lack of transparency.
The conflict has created a deepening. The U.N. has estimated that some 400,000 people are at risk of starvation, and 4.5 million people are in dire need of aid. Some of the most desperate people are in areas that remain inaccessible due to the fighting.
The Ethiopian government has banned many aid organizations from operating in the country, and it has not permitted journalists to travel to Tigray to gain first-hand knowledge of the conditions on the ground.
The U.N. report came out as rebel Tigrayan fighters have made significant advances. They captured two cities close to the capital of Addis Ababa over the weekend, fueling fear that they could march on the capital in a bid to topple Abiy's government.
Abiy declared a state of emergency this week, telling Ethiopians it was their duty to defend the capital from the rebels – with their lives if necessary.
U.S. officials have said that Washington opposes any attempt by the Tigrayan forces to push toward Addis Ababa, but given the rebels recent battlefield successes, the American embassy in the capital urged U.S. nationals in the country on Wednesday to "consider making preparations to leave the country."
U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman called the spread of the conflict "unacceptable," and said the situation was "even more alarming than it was a few months ago." He warned of "disastrous consequences" for the Ethiopia's stability — and its ties with the U.S. — if the fighting isn't reined in.
The U.S. government is considering suspending Ethiopia's duty-free market status, citing human rights abuses and the growing famine. Suspension of these benefits would threaten Ethiopia's aspirations to become a manufacturing hub, and they would be a huge blow after some hard-won economic gains for Abiy's government.
A lot of blame has been laid at the feet of the prime minister, for inciting decades-old ethnic divisions. If his government falls, he'll leave behind an economy in ruin, and a shattered country.
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