Eritrea’s letter to UN is ‘open admission of aggression’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray war

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This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight. 

The letter begins with a complaint: “I have the honour to strongly register my government’s dismay by the unwarranted statements made” by the US Ambassador to the UN and the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

She is protesting against the briefings given to the UNSC on the role of the Eritrean army in the invasion of Tigray and the atrocities it committed against civilians.

However, the letter’s stratagem does more harm than good by implicating the Eritrean government in the aggression of a sovereign nation and war crimes.

Violating sovereignty

The letter does not seem to be written by a regime that understands or seriously takes its duties (and rights) under international law towards another state.

The tensions between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government of Ethiopia is an internal Ethiopian matter. Strictly speaking, the letter itself is an illegal interference into the affairs of Ethiopia.

Therefore, through its letter, Eritrea confirmed that it had violated Ethiopia’s sovereignty when it deployed its army and security personnel in Tigray.

One may argue that Eritrea is doing all these at the will of the Ethiopian regime and, therefore, not breaching Ethiopia’s sovereignty. But then again, we have not yet heard any formal (or informal) invitation of Eritrea by the Ethiopian government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Moreover, Eritrea is not entitled under international law to intervene in a civil war situation even if it was invited. The concept of sovereignty extends beyond a government in office. It embraces the people, the territory, and the territorial and political integrity of a country. Nor do Abiy Ahmed’s prime ministerial powers give him the authority to bargain Ethiopia’s sovereignty.

Self-defence pretext

The letter tries to justify Eritrea’s invasion as a “legitimate measure” of self-defence against the “regional threat,” namely the TPLF. It blames the “TPLF clique” for “attacking” the Ethiopian army stationed in Tigray with the aim of “confiscating” the army’s weaponry and subsequently invade Eritrea.

It refers to the “decision” of TPLF’s Central Committee to invade Eritrea without providing any evidence to that effect. Even if Eritrea’s allegations of TPLF’s plan is true, current international law rejects pre-emptive attacks in the name of self-defence unless the action meets strict requirements. These requirements are spelt out under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and general international law.

They are:

  1. Proof of a prior armed attack;
  2. Reporting of such an attack to the UNSC;
  3. The necessity of responding to the attack;
  4. The proportionality of the response.

First, the Eritrean regime might argue that rockets fired by the Tigrayan forces attacked it first and that it acted in self-defence. But, the rocket attacks on Asmara happened more than a week after Eritrea launched a full-scale military operation in Tigray.

Furthermore, the letter is silent on the plan by the Eritrean troops, Ethiopian federal army, and Amhara regional forces to attack the regional government of Tigray. The preparations started well before 3 November and had been ongoing for more than two years.

The letter does not offer any insight regarding the military deployment of the Eritrean and Ethiopian army contingents around the borders of Tigray before the beginning of the war. The letter does not explain how swiftly these contingents coordinated their attacks against the Tigrayan forces as soon as the conflict had begun.

The conduct of the Eritrean regime is naked aggression against Ethiopia. History is repeating itself as Eritrea’s army did commit the same act of aggression in 1998, as confirmed by the Hague Claims Commission in 2005, which ruled that it violated the UN charter by “resorting to armed force” to attack Ethiopia in May 1998.

Second, there is no trace of reporting by the Eritrean government to the UNSC on the “attack by TPLF.” Unless authorised by the UNSC, any use of force against a sovereign state’s territorial integrity and political independence amounts to a violation of the United Nations Charter.

Suppose Eritrea’s military action has been instigated by the right of self-defence. What, then, stopped the Eritrean government from reporting its actions to the Security Council before or when launching its military operation in Tigray?

President Isaias Afwerki’s invasion of Tigray, therefore, does not have any legal justification. This is why he opted for denying his troops’ involvement until very recently.

Third, the government of Isaias had not exhausted all avenues of peaceful resolution of the tension between itself and the TPLF. The use of force was not a necessity or last resort as strictly required under international law.

Fourth, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, wanton destruction of property, looting, vandalism, and hindrance of aid delivery violate the proportionality requirement in the event of acting in self-defence.

Evasion of war crimes

The letter denies the use of sexual violence and hunger as weapons of war. It states that the “alleged” sexual violence and associated crimes committed by the Eritrean troops “is not just outrageous, but also a vicious attack on the culture and history of our people.”

True, the people of Eritrea cannot collectively be blamed for the crimes that are being committed by the troops. But, human rights groups, the international media, and international organisations have documented many cases of gang rapes, assaults, and inhumane treatment of women in the hands of the Eritrean army. The abuses reached a level of sexual slavery. A woman had been raped for several days by 23 Eritrean soldiers, and objects were put into her body, which is an extreme act of sadism.

Systemic and widespread rape is used as a weapon of war by the Eritrean army. Over 800 women have been identified as victims of rape in few clinics of Adigrat and Mekelle alone. Even Abiy Ahmed admitted atrocities had been committed in Tigray by his and Eritrean troops.

The Axum, Mariam Dengelat, Wukro, Adigrat, Tembien, Selekleka, Hawzen, Hadush Adi, and Adi Irob massacres of innocent civilians have been widely documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and, to some extent, by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Hence, describing these mass crimes as “outrageous” via a high-ranking female official is an insult to families who have lost their loved ones, those who sustained severe physical and phycological traumas, and the international organisations, advocacy groups, and the media.

The Eritrean letter also refers to humanitarian assistance as an urgent task of the international community. It blames the TPLF for “waging” this war at the time of critical harvest season.

It is audacious to claim that the Eritrean regime cares for Tigrayan farmers more than the TPLF does, which, by the way, was voted in office by the same farmers two months before the war began.

It is also disingenuous as the Eritrean army, along with federal and Amhara forces, deliberately used starvation as a weapon of war. They are destroying and looting food, agricultural equipment, water, and medical facilities. They are banning farmers from ploughing their lands for the forthcoming harvest season while hindering aid from getting to those in desperate need.

These crimes are well documented by the Tigray Interim Administration, which Abiy’s government designated after he had declared “victory” back in late November.

Bluff and subterfuge

The letter says that the TPLF’s threat “has been largely thwarted.” Therefore, Ethiopia and Eritrea agreed on the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, replacing them with “Ethiopian contingents along the international boundary.” This “agreement,” however, cannot be celebrated and taken in good faith.

First, the Eritrean regime has not yet admitted that its army is fighting inside Tigray. It is making a vague promise and telling a half-truth.

Second, despite the Eritrean and the Ethiopian regimes’ promise of the troops’ withdrawal, there is no proof of their exit. As the US Ambassador to the UN told the Security Council on 15 April, the Eritrean forces are wearing Ethiopian army uniforms, an indication that they wish to stay in Tigray indefinitely.

Third, sources on the ground are saying more Eritrean troops are stationed in Tigray as well as in other parts of Ethiopia. Senator Chris Coons said he is disappointed by the behaviour of Abiy, who failed to get the Eritreans out of Tigray. The ousted president of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, said he does not believe that the Eritrean army will exit from Tigray without coercion.

In conclusion, Eritrea’s letter to the UN is an open admission of aggression against the territorial integrity of its neighbour and a futile attempt to cover up war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The way forward

The international community is duty-bound to take appropriate actions and coerce the Eritrean regime (along with the Ethiopian federal government and Amhara regional leaders) to:

  1. Immediately halt the massacres, sexual violence, continued looting, and destruction of property.
  2. Allow unfettered access to aid and relief efforts to avert the looming manmade hunger.
  3. Withdraw troops from Tigray through adequate supervision and monitoring without giving room for sabotage, manipulation, and delay tactics.
  4. Cooperate with independent and international investigators to expose the gross human rights violations committed in the last six months.
  5. Return all private and public properties looted from Tigray, including industrial equipment, vehicles, machinery, livestock, etc.
  6. Halt the hostile attitude towards international organizations and other relief workers.
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