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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 , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Heavily armed Ethiopian soldiers deployed in Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission patrol in Beledweyne, Somalia, on December 14, 2019. (Photo by Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images)
Heavily armed Ethiopian soldiers deployed in Somalia as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission patrol in Beledweyne, Somalia, on December 14, 2019. (Photo by Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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.

During Meles’s tenure, Tigrayans were given key posts in the government and the military, and they continue to hold key leadership positions in overseas peacekeeping missions, raising questions about the ability of Ethiopian contingents to function following a purge. But the Tigrayans’ privileged position has been threatened since the election of Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, in 2018.

The latest crisis follows a recent dispute between the federal government and the Tigrayan regional government over the decision to postpone national and regional elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Tigray’s local leaders went ahead with an election, which resulted in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) winning all the seats. The federal parliament declared the vote null, and federal troops are seeking to impose military control over the Tigray region.

The conflict in Ethiopia has killed hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of people and sparked a new refugee crisis in what is historically one of the most politically unstable regions of the world. Some 30,000 refugees have fled from Ethiopia into neighboring Sudan in recent weeks, fueling concerns that the new refugee influx could destabilize Sudan’s fragile transitional government.

Senior U.S. officials have called for an end to hostilities and independent investigations into the reports of civilian massacres.

“The ethnic dimension is one that everybody is very concerned about,” said Tibor Nagy, the top State Department diplomat on Africa, in a briefing with reporters on Nov. 19.

Nagy also condemned the TPLF’s reported missile attacks on neighboring Eritrea earlier this month, calling it an attempt to “internationalize the conflict” that “make[s] the situation more dangerous.”

The conflict has also taken on an economic lens. “This war is ultimately a battle for control of Ethiopia’s economy, its natural resources, and the billions of dollars the country receives annually from international donors and lenders,” Kassahun Melesse, an assistant professor of applied economics at Oregon State University, wrote recently in Foreign Policy. “Access to those riches is a function of who heads the federal government—which the TPLF controlled for nearly three decades before Abiy came to power in April 2018, following widespread protests against the TPLF-led government.”

“In other words, this is not a conflict over who gets to rule Tigray, a small region whose population accounts for a mere 6 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people,” Melesse wrote. “It is a fight over who gets to dominate the commanding heights of the country’s economy, a prize that Tigray’s regional leaders once held and are determined to recapture at any cost.”

That struggle is playing out in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Ethiopia is one of the two largest contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions, with more than 6,700 uniformed personnel, most serving in Darfur, Abyei, and South Sudan. Tigrayans have played a key role in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia recalled more than 3,000 troops from Somalia to reinforce its military operations against the Tigrayans. The government disarmed between 200 and 300 Tigrayan soldiers who were posted in Somalia, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

“The peacekeepers are not being disarmed due to ethnicity but due to infiltration of TPLF elements in various entities which is part of an ongoing investigation,” an Ethiopian government task force told Reuters, which previously reported on the Tigrayan soldiers in Somalia being disarmed.

“All officers and soldiers from Tigray were arrested and detained upon arrival in Addis,” according to the U.N. account reviewed by Foreign Policy. “There are reports that some have been subjected to torture and extra-judicial killing.”

Privately, U.S. officials fear that the massive withdrawal of troops will leave Somalia, already one of the world’s most fragile states, in a precarious position and vulnerable to new offensives from terrorist groups such as al-Shabab.

In Abyei, the U.N.’s Tigrayan deputy force commander, Brig. Gen. Negassi Tikue Lewte, disappeared from the U.N.’s radar after traveling to Addis Ababa earlier this month. The brigadier general—who is serving under a U.N. contract—made a request for leave on Nov. 15. Shortly after, Ethiopia sent the U.N. a diplomatic note informing it to find another officer to fill the position.

“He was apparently recalled to Ethiopia and since then his whereabouts seem unknown,” according to the internal U.N. account.

The purge has raised complicated legal and political challenges for the U.N., which traditionally defers to foreign military contingents to manage troop rotations and handle disciplinary issues. The Ethiopian government has privately insisted that the repatriated Tigrayan troops and officers are simply on leave. But at least one of the officers, the deputy force commander in Abyei, is serving under a U.N. contract, imposing a greater responsibility on the U.N. to ensure his protection.

The U.N.’s peacekeeping department’s spokesperson, Nick Birnback, confirmed that the organization is “aware of the issue; we are very concerned and we are taking this matter extremely seriously.”

“At the moment, we are ascertaining all the relevant facts and we are or will be in touch with all relevant peace operations and governments in this regard,” Birnback added. “All troop-contributing countries have obligations under applicable international law, in accordance with relevant norms, standards and instruments.”

The Ethiopian missions in the United States did not respond to requests for comment. But human rights advocates have voiced concern about the reports.

“If reports of discriminatory Ethiopian repatriation of ethnic Tigrayan peacekeepers are true, they are deeply disturbing, given credible reports of profiling and arbitrary arrest of ethnic Tigrayans in Ethiopia,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.

“If the reports are confirmed, the U.N. should also consider suspending Ethiopian participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations,” Charbonneau added. “The U.N. needs to send a clear message to all governments that it will not ignore abuses against peacekeepers serving under the U.N. flag.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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