In a joint press briefing with Kenya’s President William Ruto held in Nairobi today, Isayas sidestepped several key questions from journalists about his role in the war on Tigray, the number of his troops killed in the war and about the withdrawal of his troops from Tigray as part of the implementation of the Pretoria peace agreement. Instead of addressing these questions directly, Isayas chose to argue that he did not like to interfere in the affairs of Ethiopia and that the allegation that his troops committed crimes in Tigray was a “fantasy”. He told the journalists that all claims about his troops were “fabricated lies”.
On crimes committed by his army in Tigray
Contrary to overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Isaias Afwerki said that reports of Eritrean troops having committed human rights violations during the bloody two-year conflict in the Tigray region were “a fantasy” and “misinformation”. In reality, the crimes of Eritrean troops in Tigray since the start of the war in November 2020 are difficult to deny.
Some of the most outrageous crimes have been credibly documented by independent media and human rights organizations including the Ethiopia regime affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. In the historic city of Axum, for example, investigation reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch revealed that Eritrean troops went door-to-door on a killing spree that lasted for two days killing hundreds of young, often men, residents of the city. This was partly confirmed by an investigation report of Ethiopia’s own Human Rights Commission. On November 30, 2020, Eritrean troops massacred more than 70 unsuspecting churchgoers in the ancient monastery of Maryam Degelat in Eastern Tigray. This was similarly confirmed by a joint report by the UN Human Rights Commission and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission published in November 2021. Eritrean troops were also involved in the industrial scale campaign of weaponized rape and sexual violence on Tigrayan women and girls. Women and girls were subjected to gangrapes, sexual enslavement and graphic abuses using foreign objects in their genitals. Moreover, Eritrean have been credibly accused of systematic looting and destruction of civilian properties and infrastructures across the region.
These are just a few examples, but the crimes committed in Tigray are beyond anyone could imagine. The killings and other gross violations of human rights continue even after the signing of the Pretoria Peace agreement. Within two months after the signing of the Pretoria peace agreement, the Emergency Coordination Centre in Tigray, a committee of Tigray’s regional authorities, UN, and NGOs reported that Tigray civil society organizations had documented that Eritrean troops and armed Amhara militia that jointly occupied large parts of Tigray killed 3,708 civilians.
People on the ground that we managed to talk over the phone recently tell us of summary killings, kidnapping and forced disappearances and other abuses of civilians as well as looting and destruction of civilian infrastructures in areas that Eritrean troops occupied.
His statement should be understood as a call to forget what happened in Tigray during the last two years for what he called is a greater good–peace in Ethiopia and the rest of the region. He is telling the journalists that asking questions about accountability and justice now is “not good for peace”. This position is likely shared by his Ethiopian counterpart whose government is actively trying to block independent investigation into crimes committed in Tigray and the rest of the country.
On withdrawal of his troops following the peace agreement
Asked if his troops will fully withdraw from Tigray to make way for the implementation of the peace agreements signed in Pretoria and Nairobi, he said:
“On withdrawal or no withdrawal, this is nonsense, don’t provoke us to come to a misunderstanding. Let’s assume the peace process in Ethiopia is going on without any obstacle.”
“Why are you bothered about Eritrean troops who are there or not there, to come out or not come out? Let’s assume that the peace process in Ethiopia is going without any obstacles”
One of the reasons many people find the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray problematic and why the journalists keep asking this question, apart from the fact that they are an occupying force and they have no right to do so, is because his troops are accused of fresh violence and abuses against Tigrayan civilians under their control even weeks after the signing of the “peace deal”.
Their presence is also in contradiction to what has been agreed in Pretoria and Nairobi; that all “non-ENDF” (in reference to Eritrean and ethnic Amhara forces) combatants should leave Tigray’s constitutionally established borders as part of the implementation of the peace process. The Ethiopian government has been clearly deceptive about the presence of Eritrean troops since the beginning of the war. For the first few months, Ethiopian officials continued to deny that the Eritreans were in Tigray. When reports of their presence and crimes that they have committed in the region became undeniable, the Ethiopian government tried to justify their invasion. Abiy Ahmed Ali once said that Eritrea entered Tigray because Ethiopia was not in a position to defend its borders because of the alleged attack by the TPLF on the Ethiopian army. In other cases, the Ethiopian government openly expressed its gratitude to the Eritrean forces for helping Ethiopia “maintain its unity and territorial integrity”. No clear statement has been given about the withdrawal of the Eritrean army from Tigray following the signing of the peace agreement. However,the statement by Isayas today that his troops are in Tigray up on the invitation of the Ethiopian regime and that it is up to Ethiopia to decide about their withdrawal seems to confirm that Ethiopia wants Eritrean troops to stay in Tigray. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the terms of the peace agreement.
What does this mean for justice and accountability for crimes in Tigray, and the peace process?
The statement by Isayas today should not be taken lightly. On the one hand, implicit in the evading and sidestepping were deeper desires on his part to simply close the Tigray war chapter and to move on like nothing bad happened. With that he wants questions of justice for victims and survivors of the genocidal campaign dropped in the name of giving peace a chance. Isayas implied that asking for accountability for the human rights abuses, which he called were “fabricated lies,” is to try to “derail” the peace process.
On the other hand, it was also clear from his speech that Isayas wants to remain in control of what goes on in Tigray, including by keeping his troops occupying large parts of the region. He indicated that his troops will be in Tigray so long as the Ethiopian regime wants and allows them to stay. Given the crisis in the rest of the country, the Abiy Ahmed Ali regime is likely to want Eritrea to remain in control of Tigray and this is terrible news for Tigray’s civilian population. This is likely to derail the peace process. No people could accept occupation at this time in history, not least occupation by an army that has committed crimes that could clearly amount to genocide and crimes against humanity.
Link to press briefing: