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Atrocity Alert No. 230: Ethiopia, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

ETHIOPIAN ARMY THREATENS “NO MERCY” IN BATTLE FOR TIGRAY CAPITAL

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, the armed conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region continues into its third week, resulting in over 40,000 people being displaced and hundreds killed. On 22 November Ethiopia’s federal armed forces gave the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) 72 hours to surrender the regional capital of Mekelle before military operations against the city begin. They also declared there would be “no mercy” in the impending assault of the city if its half a million residents did not immediately “free themselves” from the TPLF. The TPLF has refused to surrender and has been accused of using the civilian population as human shields. The Ethiopian army’s deadline is due to expire today, 25 November.

Both the collective punishment of Mekelle’s population and the use of human shields are potential war crimes. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has warned that, “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.” Meanwhile, on 24 November the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, Stéphane Dujarric, said that he, “urges the leaders of Ethiopia to do everything possible to protect civilians, uphold human rights and ensure humanitarian access for the provision of much-needed assistance.”

Despite a communications blackout in the Tigray region, reports continue to emerge of the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans, arbitrary arrests and killings. According to reporting by Foreign Policy, Tigrayans serving in UN and African Union (AU) peacekeeping missions are being removed from their posts and forcibly returned home where they face the threat of arbitrary detention and persecution.

On 24 November the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also released a preliminary report on the massacre of more than 600 civilians in Mai-Kadra on 9 November, stating that the perpetrators had “full intent, a plan and preparation.” A Tigrayan youth group – known as the Samri – reportedly profiled ethnic Amhara residents of the town with the help of the local police and militia prior to the massacre.

Civilians in Mekelle and across Tigray must be protected in keeping with international humanitarian and human rights law. All reported war crimes must be properly investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of their position or affiliation. The international community should fully support the newly-appointed AU envoys to Ethiopia in their efforts to end the Tigray conflict.

PROTESTERS KILLED FOLLOWING ARREST OF UGANDAN OPPOSITION LEADER

At least 45 people have been killed and more than 800 arrested since 18 November when protests erupted in Uganda following the arrest of two candidates for the country’s January 2021 presidential election. Bobi Wine (also known as Robert Kyagulanyi) and Patrick Oboi Amuriat were allegedly arrested for organizing mass rallies that flouted COVID-19 guidelines. In an attempt to quell the resulting protests, Ugandan authorities deployed the military across the capital, Kampala, and surrounding areas. Security forces reportedly used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and live ammunition.

On 20 November UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the security forces “to act in accordance with the rule of law and human rights principles and refrain from using violence.” He also called on the Ugandan authorities “to ensure that all perpetrators of human rights violations are held accountable.”

Bobi Wine is considered the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986 and is seeking a sixth term in office. Wine has been arrested several times since launching his political career in 2017 and has allegedly been severely beaten while detained. Last week’s arrest was his second this month on charges of “negligent conduct likely to spread an infectious disease, obstruction, incitement to violence and unauthorized assemblies.”

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Uganda, the authorities imposed harsh measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, including the closure of public court hearings and strict nighttime curfews. During April Human Rights Watch accused the security forces of using excessive force while enforcing many of these measures, including beating, shooting, and arbitrarily detaining people. The opposition claims the government only imposed the COVID-19 restrictions in order to inhibit political campaigning.

Since the start of the global pandemic in March, it has been clear that while the novel coronavirus cannot cause atrocities, it can be weaponized by repressive authorities to intensify identity-based conflicts, justify discriminatory policies, and enhance the threat facing vulnerable populations. The Ugandan government must uphold the universal rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression and ensure security forces immediately end the use of disproportionate and deadly force against unarmed protesters.

DR CONGO COURT FINDS NOTORIOUS MILITIA LEADER GUILTY OF WAR CRIMES

On Monday, 23 November, a military court in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), sentenced Ntabo Ntaberi “Sheka” to life imprisonment for war crimes perpetrated by the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) militia while under his command in the Walikale, Pinga and Masisi territories of North Kivu between 2010-2014. Sheka was found guilty of the war crimes of mass rape, murder, sexual slavery, child recruitment and pillage. Seraphin “Lionceau” Nzitonda – of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) armed group – was also sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and war crimes. A third militia leader, Jean-Claude Lukambo, was sentenced to 15 years for insurrection and murder.

Under Sheka’s leadership the NDC was responsible for killing 287 people and the rape of at least 387 civilians, including 64 children, during attacks on villages in Walikale between 30 July and 2 August 2010. The DRC government issued a warrant for his arrest during 2011 and he was also placed on a sanctions list by the UN Security Council. Despite these actions, insecurity and impunity in eastern DRC allowed the NDC to continue perpetrating atrocities and Sheka ran as a candidate in the 2011 legislative elections, even appearing at a political rally in Walikale without being arrested. Sheka eventually surrendered to the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) during July 2017.

In recent years the NDC has splintered, but its members continue to threaten populations in North Kivu. During June 2019 the DRC government issued an arrest warrant for the leader of the NDC-Rénové (NDC-R), Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, for crimes against humanity. Insecurity caused by the NDC-R has displaced more than 40,000 people since July this year.

The sentencing of Sheka is an important step towards achieving accountability for atrocities perpetrated by predatory militias in eastern DRC. Leila Zerrougui, Head of MONUSCO, noted that, “this verdict is a source of immense hope for the many victims of the conflicts in the DRC. Their suffering has been heard and recognized. Impunity is not inevitable.” As the DRC government continues to strengthen legal efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, it must improve the protection of victims, end witness intimidation and ensure that all survivors of atrocity crimes are able to seek justice.