Politicians among signatories of two open letters urging investigation into reports of sexual violence in Ethiopian conflict
The former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, and Zimbabwean author and 2020 Booker prize nominee Tsitsi Dangarembga are among the signatories of two separate letters demanding international action after shocking reports of sexual violence in Tigray.
In one, more than 50 women of African descent call for an immediate ceasefire and express horror at reports that African women and girls are “once again the victims” of violence and rape in war.
Another letter signed by Clark, as well as former UK development secretary Hilary Benn, Green party MP Caroline Lucas and more than 60 campaigners, calls on the UN security council to set up a tribunal to investigate allegations of sexual violence in Ethiopia’s northern region “as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act of genocide”.
“Failure by the international community to act would undo the progress made so far in eliminating sexual violence in conflict,” reads the open letter, whose signatories include more than 30 organisations from Tigray and the diaspora. “It would give a green light to regimes that deploy this barbaric weapon of war. And it would be a betrayal of the women of Tigray, whose courage we salute.”
War broke out in Tigray on 4 November last year when Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel peace prize laureate, sent in troops to oust the regional government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Harrowing reports of sexual violence have emerged from large numbers of women and girls, in what are being seen as targeted attacks by Ethiopian soldiers and their Eritrean allies.
“Language used by the assailants makes clear that these are not random attacks. They are targeted at the women because of their ethnicity, because they are Tigrayan, with the aim of rendering them infertile. The attacks are integral to the conflict,” reads one of the two letters published to mark the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on Saturday.
“But so far, those responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian laws and resolutions outlawing the use of sexual violence in conflict have not been brought to account. There’s been no justice for the women of Tigray,” they write.
The letter signed by Dangarembga also bears the names of anti-female genital mutilation campaigner Nimco Ali, Chineke! Orchestra founder Chi-chi Nwanoku and more than 30 other women of African descent. It calls for a ceasefire and increased humanitarian assistance in Tigray and an independent justice mechanism.
“We are dismayed that African women and girls are once again the victims of conflict-related sexual violence, which in this instance is being permitted, and committed, by government forces charged, ostensibly, with enforcing the law,” reads the letter.
“The fact such gross human violations are under way in the nation where the African Union is based, and amid profound silence from African leaders, impugns the aspiration for ‘African solutions to African problems’.”
This weekend, activists are launching a social media campaign using the hashtags #endsexualviolenceintigray #endrapeinwar and #believeblackwomen, and hosting an online conference on wartime sexual violence around the world.
“We named the conference ‘solutions for women by women’. I believe that we need to work on this ourselves. I am tired of waiting for somebody from higher up to start taking this issue seriously,” said Danait Tafere, a conflict analyst, who lived in Tigray before the Covid pandemic.
She blamed a lack of action on racism. “There’s not much happening [to address] sexual violence, and the reason people are not acting quickly is because this is about black women. Black women are not protected.”
Last week, the UN said 350,000 people were now suffering famine conditions in Tigray.