09 Oct The Nexus Between Starvation Crimes and Sexual Violence: Indicia of On-going Extermination in Tigray, Ethiopia
[Alexandra Lily Kather, co-founder of the emergent justice collective, advises accountability actors on the strategic investigation and prosecution of intersectional dimensions of core international crimes and works to strengthen decolonial feminist, intersectional as well as transformative approaches in international justice.]
[Yousuf Syed Khan is a Senior Lawyer with Global Rights Compliance, where he focusses on accountability for starvation as a method of warfare in Ukraine.]
The deadline to table a resolution before the Human Rights Council that would have renewed the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) lapsed on Wednesday, 4 October. Earlier this week, one commentator had warned of the historically dangerous precedent that the Human Rights Council would be setting for Ethiopia, its own credibility and integrity, as well as for United Nations (UN) investigative mechanisms generally in case the ICHREE mandate were not renewed. Yet the European Union, as the pen holder for its establishment in 2021, declined to propose a text favouring extension.
In its second report to the Human Rights Council presented last month, ICHREE found “grave and systematic violations of international law and crimes,” including mass killings, rape, sexualized enslavement, starvation, forced displacement, and arbitrary detention. On 3 October, it published a follow-up paper highlighting the acute risk of future atrocity crimes in Ethiopia, noting that “the conflict in Tigray has not ended, with Eritrean troops and Amhara militias engaging in ongoing violations.” The same day, and for the first time since the outbreak of conflict in November 2020, the European Union committed to reinvesting in Ethiopia: it did so by launching the Multiannual Indicative Programme (MIP) for the period 2024-2027, unfreezing €650 million to advance “Ethiopia’s development in a transformative, inclusive and forward-looking manner” and “to gradually normalize relations.” This, despite ICHREE reporting that armed conflict and violence in Ethiopia was now at “a national scale.”
Notably, ICHREE also found that the acts being committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and allied regional special forces constituted a “widespread and systematic attack directed against the civilian population.” Regarding Tigray, it reported having verified 49 earlier incidents of mass killings, as well as on-going starvation and food insecurity, and on-going multiple perpetrator rape and sexualized enslavement of the most brutal kind, combined with the age-specific, gendered, as well as transgenerational impact of the crimes.
This contribution considers the manner in which the on-going and mutually reinforcing commission of starvation and sexual crimes in Tigray may qualify as indicia of intentionally inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population, amounting to the crime against humanity of extermination. With the lapse of ICHREE’s mandate and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights poised to become the interim custodian of the information and evidence ICHREE collected, consolidated, analysed, and preserved, Member States seeking to pursue accountability for atrocity crimes perpetrated in Ethiopia may consider the conspicuous nexus between starvation crimes and sexual violence in Tigray as part of their overall investigative and prosecutorial strategies.
In November 2022, the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), effectively reducing much of the large-scale armed violence that had engulfed the country for two years. In the period since the CoHA, however, several credible organisations recently determined that crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated in Tigray region (see here, here, and here), including rape and sexualized slavery. Perpetrators include both Ethiopian and Eritrean State forces. Moreover, despite reports by almost all international observers together with ICHREE, Ethiopia denies the continued presence of Eritrean forces on its soil, including in Tigray.
Under the Rome Statute, along with the elements common to crimes against humanity, the actus reus of the crime of extermination consists of either “a mass killing of members of a civilian population” or conduct constituting a part thereof, or “the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia, the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.” Mass killings may be perpetrated directly or through indirect methods. With respect to starvation, beyond constituting a war crime, the explicit mention of the deprivation of access to food and medicine renders it such that the intentional starvation of civilians can constitute the crime against humanity of extermination ipso facto, when other requisite elements are present. Similarly, rape may constitute indica of prohibited conditions of life in its own regard, as well as in combination with other acts, such as starvation and the deprivation of medical services or care.
While not addressed by the above organisations who found on-going crimes against humanity, the nexus between on-going starvation crimes and sexual violence in Tigray presents indicia of extermination: in the Ethiopia context, the on-going levels of both starvation and rape as described below, especially when viewed in the aggregate and coupled with the lack of access to minimum medical services, may give rise to an indirect method of killing with a death toll that continues to rise.
Over the past seven years, particularly since the siege and recapture of eastern Aleppo City in Syria in 2016, the use of starvation as a method of warfare has been a hallmarked feature of contemporary armed conflicts. Beyond the intentional deprivation of food and water, the broader ambit of “starvation crimes” includes attacks against objects indispensable to the survival (OIS) of the civilian population, including medical facilities, as well as the arbitrary denial of humanitarian aid. Starvation crimes also tend to manifest through incidents of looting or pillage such as of crops or livestock, and have often been characterised by concomitant persecution, collective punishment, and/or forced displacement. In its first report to the Human Rights Council, ICHREE found that the Ethiopian federal Government and allied regional state governments denied and obstructed humanitarian access to Tigray for the purpose of depriving the Tigrayan population of objects indispensable to its survival, including food and health care, amounting to starvation as a method of warfare.
Since the signing of the CoHA last November, the levels of hunger in Tigray region remain outright alarming. According to the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray, some 1,400 hunger-related deaths were recorded in the region between April and August 2023 alone, indicating that hunger-related deaths are averaging 350 individuals every month. These deaths can be attributed to the systematic diversion of humanitarian aid, which was first reported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in early May this year. Yet again, the State entities allegedly responsible for the current denial of aid include both the federal and regional governments.
Upon first blush, massive aid diversion could be chalked up to financial motives (e.g., corruption and for-profit resale). The presumption that members of the same population group who were victims of starvation as a method of warfare since the onset of the armed conflict in November 2020, are somehow now being starved by the same perpetrators simply for financial motive, demands interrogation. In addition to the acts of food deprivation, over one million Tigrayans remain displaced, unable to access fields during the planting and recent harvest seasons. Moreover, repairing the damage wrought upon the agricultural sector during the conflict in Tigray has not been prioritised by the State. Given these additional factors, senior Ethiopian leadership knew or should have known that thousands of Tigrayans would not survive the summer months without sustained and unhindered access to humanitarian aid. Moreover, both the US Government and the UN have reportedly sought to have the Ethiopian government relinquish its control of the food aid delivery system as a prerequisite for reengaging.
Rape and Sexualized Enslavement
Critically, ICHREE’s last report had noted “a nexus between crimes of starvation and sexual violence.” ICHREE’s post-CoHA findings of crimes against humanity in Tigray through, inter alia, rape and sexualized enslavement of women and children saw them targeted on intersecting grounds of ethnicity, gender, and age. This is consistent with documentation by Amnesty International (here) and analysis of medical records by Physicians for Human Rights and the Organization for Justice and Accountability in the Horn of Africa (OJAH) (here).
Other key post-CoHA findings related to the extraordinary brutality of consecutive multiple perpetrator oral, anal, and vaginal rape involving groups of men and the use of weapons. Women reported the forceful insertion of objects post-rape which only left their bodies with time or medical intervention, which due to the deliberate dismantling of health systems in Tigray by Ethiopian forces and their allies, was not available. Often, such incidents occurred after women and children in their care were abducted and traded in situations of enslavement, during which adult women were subjected to rape, torture, and forced labour predominantly at military camps run by Eritrean forces, their own homes, or armed forces’ accommodations for multiple months on end.
ICHREE’s latest report also speaks of over 10,000 incidents of rape of women and children in Tigray between November 2020 and June 2023. According to PHR and OJAH, “The scale and nature of these violations has not materially changed since the peace agreement was signed, except for the notable fact that 95 percent of conflict-related sexual violence experienced by children and adolescents under 18 years old occurred following the signing of the CoHA.” As noted by Amnesty International, one medical centre in Eastern Tigray Zone received 76 new cases of conflict-related sexual violence in just one week in June 2023.
Grave multiple perpetrator sexual assault in Tigray has been accompanied by aggressive ethicised and sexual verbal assault, threatening the forced transmission of HIV, unwanted pregnancies, and the destruction of the reproductive capacities of women, which in certain cases materialised. ICHREE’s findings align with PHR and OJAH as well as Amnesty International in that access to emergency medical care post-assault was not available to survivors, including in the critical 72-hour window. Moreover, physical and psychological consequences of rape and sexual violence in Tigray are both extremely serious as well as short- and long-term in nature, with gender and age-specific manifestations requiring specialised medical and psychological care, which is absent across the Tigray region. Given repeated reports of women and girls raped in close proximity to their underage family members, predominantly children and siblings, the intergenerational trauma of such violence is currently as difficult to estimate as the actual numbers of incidents, which are likely significantly higher than 10,000.
Understanding the on-going harms through an intersectional analysis reveals that the possible on-going extermination of civilian populations in Tigray may be gendered and age specific. As such, children are affected in distinct ways, with men predominantly killed through direct methods such as incidents of mass killings, as noted by ICHREE. Women, on the other hand, are killed by indirect methods, including starvation, rape, the physical, psychological as well as socio-economic impacts thereof, and owing to the destruction of medical infrastructure. The deaths of children have been caused through similar means as well as by the death of one or both parents or caretakers who may have been killed through direct or indirect means prior.
Based on a comparative examination of contexts in which both starvation and sexual violence were prevalent, it has been concluded that starvation and sexual violence “are mutually reinforcing atrocity crimes” with widespread conditions of deprivation and starvation increasing risks of sexual violence. Concurrently, sexual violence and in some cases even the threat of sexual violence, may increase the risk of starvation, in ways that differ by gender, age, and context. While other Human Rights Council mandated mechanisms have addressed starvation as a method of warfare, most notably the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which also found that starvation had a gendered impact in South Sudan, ICHREE was the first body to note the nexus between these two crimes.
UN mandated investigative mechanisms, and particularly those with mandates such as that of ICHREE’s which include language on the preservation of evidence, serve as a credible and complementary response to international criminal processes and can lay the necessary groundwork for future accountability. With the untimely lapse of ICHREE’s mandate, Member States investigating and seeking to pursue accountability for the myriad atrocities perpetrated in Ethiopia may have a wealth of information to solicit and draw upon concerning the nexus between starvation crimes and sexual violence perpetrated in Tigray both before and after the CoHA. Any investigation of the crime against humanity of extermination should be considered no later than from the very beginning of any structural or person-specific investigation.