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Clock ticking to avert ‘genocide’ in Tigray: WHO chief

The World Health Organization chief said Wednesday time was running out to avoid "genocide" in Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray, as Human Rights Watch called for sanctions against Addis Ababa to avert civilian deaths.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus PHOTO: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The World Health Organization chief said Wednesday that time was running out to avoid “genocide” in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray, as Human Rights Watch called for sanctions against Addis Ababa to avert civilian deaths.

“The world is not paying enough attention,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from WHO headquarters in Geneva. “There is a very narrow window now to prevent genocide in Tigray.”

With the conflict nearing its second anniversary, Addis Ababa on Tuesday said it had captured three towns in Tigray, including Shire, which had a pre-war population of 100,000.

The conflict began on November 4, 2020, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray after accusing the region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking federal army camps.

His campaign has received the support of Eritrea, with which Ethiopia was at odds until a rapprochement that earned Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

A truce between pro-government forces and rebels this year lasted five months before it collapsed in August.

International concern is now swelling for those caught in the crossfire. The UN this week warned the situation was spiralling out of control and inflicting an “utterly staggering” toll on civilians.

– Sanctions call –
Tedros, who himself is from the northern region and has repeatedly condemned the situation there, said he was “running out of diplomatic language for the deliberate targeting” of civilians in Tigray.

“The social fabric is being ripped apart and civilians are paying a horrific price,” he said.

“Hostilities in Tigray must end now, including the immediate withdrawal and disengagement of Eritrean armed forces from Ethiopia.”

“Indiscriminate attacks or attacks that deliberately target civilians or civilian objects amount to war crimes,” he said.

Separately, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the United States, European Union and UN to apply “targeted sanctions and an arms embargo” against Ethiopia to help protect civilian lives.

“The suffering of civilians in Ethiopia should no longer be tolerated in the name of political expediency,” HRW’s director for the Horn of Africa, Laetitia Bader, said.

“The attacks have resulted in untold civilian casualties, including aid workers delivering food, property destruction, and large-scale displacement,” she said.

Over two years, many civilians have been killed, an estimated two million people driven from their homes while millions more are in need of aid, according to UN figures.

The advance of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces through Tigray in late 2020 and early 2021 was followed by mass murder, rape and other crimes documented by UN investigators and rights groups.

– ‘Weapons of war’ –
Tedros said the six million people of Tigray had been “kept under siege for almost two years”.

“Banking, food, electricity and healthcare are being used as weapons of war,” he said.

“Even people who have money are starving because they can’t access their bank for two years,” he said. “Children are dying every day from malnutrition.”

Tedros acknowledged that he was personally affected by the situation in Tigray.

“Most of my relatives are in the most affected areas,” he said, but insisted that “my job is to draw the world’s attention to crises that threaten the health of people wherever they are.”