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Atrocity Alert No. 259: Ethiopia, Myanmar (Burma) and Burkina Faso

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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.

UNILATERAL CEASEFIRE IN WAR-TORN TIGRAY, BUT ZERO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ATROCITIES

After almost eight months of armed conflict and atrocities in the northern Tigray region, the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire on 28 June and plans to allow wider delivery of humanitarian aid. The announcement was made after a week-long intensification of fighting and major territorial gains by the opposition Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). On Monday, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) hastily retreated from the regional capital of Mekelle, as TDF forces marched into the city. Eritrean forces, who are allied with the ENDF and have also been occupying parts of Tigray, also appear to be retreating and have left the towns of Shire, Aksum and Adwa.

Despite the Ethiopian government claiming for several months that armed combat in Tigray was over, there has been a rise in clashes as well as a growing number of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law. On 22 June at least 64 people were killed when a government airstrike hit a bustling market in Togoga. Health officials claim soldiers repeatedly blocked medical personnel from reaching the location of the airstrike. A doctor, who was traveling in a Red Cross ambulance, reported that the vehicle was shot at by the ENDF who then briefly detained the ambulance because “whoever goes, they are helping the troops of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.” The Ethiopian government’s military spokesperson denied that any civilians were harmed in the airstrike.

The recent escalation of fighting has also impeded the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid to 5.2 million people – 91 percent of Tigray’s population – many of whom are at severe risk of famine. Aid workers have also continued to face harassment, intimidation and detention while attempting to carry out their duties. On 24 June three Médecins Sans Frontières staff were murdered during an attack on their vehicle. The Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Henrietta Fore, also reported that ENDF soldiers entered a UNICEF office and dismantled the VSAT communications equipment, violating IHL.

Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and medical personnel constitute war crimes under international law.

The Global Centre’s Communications and Digital Media Officer, Sarah Hunter, said, “while this ceasefire will hopefully provide desperately needed relief for civilians in Tigray, it in no way resolves the conflict. The African Union and UN Security Council have largely ignored the enormity of the crisis in Tigray. They must utilize this opportunity to push for a negotiated political solution and enable an international, independent investigation of all potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since last November.”

MYANMAR JUNTA STRENGTHENS MILITARY TIES WITH RUSSIA

On 22 June Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, raided a “People’s Defense Force” (PDF) base in Mandalay – the country’s second largest city – firing rocket-propelled grenades in a civilian area and exchanging gunfire with PDF fighters. This marked the first time that significant armed clashes have occurred in a major urban area between the Tatmadaw and civilian resistance forces that have been formed in response to the military coup on 1 February. Casualties were reported on both sides.

Meanwhile, the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw and leader of Myanmar’s military junta, Min Aung Hlaing, attended an international conference last week in Moscow, Russia, where he reiterated the unsubstantiated claim that the previous civilian government rigged the November 2020 election. General Min Aung Hlaing rejected international criticism of the coup, stating that, “some countries are constantly trying to influence other political systems and ideologies … they also want to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states on the pretext of democracy and human rights.” The trip included a meeting with Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, who emphasized the growing military cooperation between Myanmar and Russia.

At least 884 people have been killed by Myanmar’s security forces since the coup and more than 5,210 people remain detained according to the Association for Political Prisoners. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has also reported that an estimated 230,000 people have been displaced this year inside the country and require humanitarian assistance.

In response to the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights situation inside the country, on 18 June the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that “calls upon all Member States to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.” The resolution also called on the military to “fully cooperate with and immediately facilitate a visit by the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Myanmar” and for “the immediate release of all those detained arbitrarily.”

In response to the vote in the UN General Assembly, Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director at the Global Centre, said that, “General Min Aung Hlaing has repeatedly perpetrated atrocities against the people of Myanmar, including a genocide against the Rohingya, and he orchestrated the 1 February coup. The junta he leads should not be legitimized or recognized by any country. The UN Security Council has received a clear mandate from the General Assembly and it should urgently impose an arms embargo. Not one more bullet or bayonet should be sold to the Tatmadaw.”

MASSACRE IN BURKINA FASO CARRIED OUT BY CHILD SOLDIERS

Earlier this month, on 5 June, an armed group perpetrated the deadliest attack in Burkina Faso in years, when more than 130 people, including children, were killed in Solhan village. The Solhan massacre also forced 7,000 families to flee the area. According to the Burkinabé government spokesman, Ousseni Tamboura, the attack was primarily carried out by child soldiers who were between the ages of 12 and 14 and who belonged to an armed group affiliated with the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin, JNIM).

On 24 June the UN Children’s Fund Representative in Burkina Faso, Sandra Lattouf, stated that “we strongly condemn the recruitment of children and adolescents by non-state armed groups. This is a grave violation of their fundamental rights. We recall that civilian populations should never be victims or targets of attacks. Families and children should be protected everywhere and at all times.”

The recruitment and use of children is one of the UN’s six “grave violations” against children and, according to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, enlisting, conscripting and using children under the age of 15 in an armed conflict constitutes a war crime.

The UN Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, released on 21 June, included information on Burkina Faso for the first time, documenting a rising number of violations against children. During 2020 the UN verified 171 grave violations against 83 children – including killing and maiming – with most violations occurring in the East, Central North and Sahel regions. An estimated ten percent of the country’s schools are also now closed, depriving more than 300,000 children of education. The risk of human trafficking and recruitment into armed groups, as well as sexual and gender-based violence, is particularly acute when children are deprived of access to education.

On 29 June the Burkina Faso government announced that two suspected members of JNIM have been detained over the Solhan massacre.

It is crucial that the authorities in Burkina Faso relentlessly pursue legal accountability for all those who perpetrate abuses against children, provide reparations and support to victims, and increase meaningful protection for those most at risk. The Burkinabé government should also implement its protocol on the release and handover of children associated with armed groups.