Ethiopia: Sweeping emergency powers and alarming rise in online hate speech as Tigray conflict escalates

Ethiopia is teetering on the brink of a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe, Amnesty International warned today, amid worrying developments linked to the escalating Tigray conflict.

On 4 November the Ethiopian government granted itself sweeping new emergency powers which arbitrarily restrict human rights and threaten the independence of the judiciary.

Meanwhile there has been an alarming rise in social media posts advocating ethnic violence, and government officials have implored civilians to take up arms against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which have recently joined forces against the central government.

“The dire humanitarian and human rights crisis which began one year ago in Tigray has been spilling into other areas of the country. To stop the situation spiraling out of control, the Ethiopian authorities must urgently take serious action to ensure human rights and international humanitarian law are respected,” said Deprose Muchena, Regional Director for East and Southern Africa at Amnesty International.

State of Emergency

Ethiopia’s federal parliament adopted a state of emergency on 4 November, exactly a year after armed conflict with the TPLF began.

The emergency proclamation is overly broad, since it extends to the entire country and restricts human rights that cannot be limited or suspended under any circumstances according to international law.

For example, it allows authorities to arrest anyone without a warrant if there is “reasonable suspicion” of cooperation with “terrorist groups”, and to detain them without judicial review for as long as the proclamation is in place, currently for six months.

This could have a particularly worrying impact on human rights defenders and journalists. The emergency proclamation allows for NGO and media outlet licenses to be suspended or cancelled if they are suspected of providing direct or indirect material or moral support to “terrorist organizations” – terms which are ill-defined and open to broad interpretation.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International documented mass round-ups and arbitrary detentions of Tigrayans, including journalists and a human rights activist, whom the government claimed had ties to the TPLF, which is designated as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian federal government.

The emergency proclamation also allows for the prohibition of any form of expression opposed to “the operation of the Emergency Operation and the purpose of the Proclamation” and poses challenges to the independence of the judiciary.

“The sweeping nature of this state of emergency is a blueprint for escalating human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, particularly of human rights defenders, journalists, minorities and government critics. And it puts detainees at heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” said Deprose Muchena.

Civilians asked to take up arms

In another worrying development, government officials in several Ethiopian regions have recently implored civilians to take up arms to repel the ongoing TPLF offensive.

In the capital Addis Ababa, government officials have asked civilians to organize to safeguard their surroundings, and to register arms or hand them to neighbours if they are unable to use them themselves. Similar calls to arms have been echoed by the Amhara, Oromia and Somali regional governments.

This call to arms puts people’s rights and even lives at risk by encouraging the establishment of untrained and unaccountable militias. Such groups already have committed war crimes in this conflict, including unlawful killings, rape and other sexual violence targeting people on the basis of their ethnicity.

Rise in online hate speech

On 3 November, Facebook removed a post by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, stating it had violated the platform’s policies against inciting violence.

However, Amnesty International has noted a significant rise in other recent social media posts inciting violence and using ethnic slurs against Tigrayans, some of which have gone unchecked. According to analysis from a local human rights organization, influential people such as journalists and political figures were among those sharing the posts, and social media platforms were slow to remove them.

“Ethiopian authorities have an obligation to prohibit advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination or violence. The authorities must urgently denounce any statements, online or otherwise, which advocate violence against a specific ethnic group. Given the rising political and ethnic tension in Ethiopia, social media companies also have a responsibility to rapidly scale up their content moderation efforts, and ensure that the algorithms behind their platforms are not fueling advocacy of violence,” said Deprose Muchena.

Civilians at risk amid escalation

Amnesty International reiterated its call on all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians. Leaders on all sides must also renounce incitement to violence against individuals based on their ethnicity.

Since the conflict in Tigray began in November 2020, the organization has documented war crimes by Ethiopia National Defence Forces, Eritrean forces, and Amhara forces, and has been documenting an increasing number of allegations of war crimes by the TPLF. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has repeatedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, mainly attacks targeting ethnic Amhara minorities in Western Oromia.

Violations by the warring parties have included massacres, extrajudicial killings of captives and sexual violence targeting women and girls. Barriers to access for humanitarian organizations to areas affected by the conflict and attacks targeting aid workers and facilities have greatly worsened the dire humanitarian situation resulting from the conflict.

“African leaders and other international actors with influence must make clear to all the parties in Ethiopia that they must step back from the brink, protect civilians, end incitement, allow unhindered humanitarian access and monitoring, and respect human rights,” said Deprose Muchena.

“The parties must understand that those responsible for war crimes and other violations will be held accountable.”