GENEVA (24 November 2020) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday urged the parties to the conflict in Tigray to give clear and unambiguous orders to their forces to take constant care to spare – and protect – the civilian population from the effect of the hostilities.
“The highly aggressive rhetoric on both sides regarding the fight for Mekelle is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger,” the High Commissioner said. “I fear such rhetoric will lead to further violations of international humanitarian law,” she added, expressing alarm at reports of a heavy build-up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray province following the Government’s issuance of a 72-hour ultimatum.
“Such rhetoric suggests possible breaches of the cardinal principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities that are designed to ensure the civilian population is protected.”
Responding to allegations that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is stationing itself among civilians, Bachelet stated that under international law, parties to a conflict should take all possible measures to protect the civilian population under their control from the effects of attacks, namely by avoiding, to the extent feasible, locating military objectives in densely populated areas.
“However, this does not then give the Ethiopian State carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas. I remind all parties to the conflict that the obligation to respect international law is not conditional on the other party’s behavior. All parties to the conflict are bound to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law as applicable. The protection of civilians is paramount.”
In particular, the High Commissioner recalled that it is prohibited to treat as a single military objective a number of distinct military objectives located in a densely populated area.
Bachelet said she was deeply disturbed at the continuing communication blackout in Tigray province, making it very difficult for civilians to communicate with family members, and for the UN to monitor the human rights and humanitarian situation. Reports continue to emerge of arbitrary arrests and detentions, killings, as well as discrimination and stigmatization of ethnic Tigrays. More than 40,000 people have fled from Tigray province into neighbouring Sudan since 7 November.
“I implore all parties to respond positively to attempts at dialogue, and to ensure unfettered access to humanitarian assistance for those who so desperately need it, and protection and security for aid workers,” the High Commissioner said.