Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray, the UN aid chief told the Security Council, prompting the US envoy to challenge the body’s silence, asking: “Do African lives not matter as much as those experiencing conflict in other countries?”
UN official Mark Lowcock said the humanitarian crisis in Tigray deteriorated over the past month with challenges to aid access and people dying of hunger. He said the world body had seen no proof that soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea – accused of massacres and killings in Tigray – withdrawn.
“To be clear: the conflict is not over and things are not improving,” Lowcock said.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted the briefing was the fifth private council meeting since fighting between Ethiopia’s federal government troops and Tigray’s former ruling party began in November, according to diplomats familiar with her remarks.
“The Security Council is unified on Syria, Yemen and even on Burma, where we were able to come together to release a statement,” she said, according to the diplomats. “We are asking the council to reconsider a statement on Ethiopia. … Victims need to know the Security Council cares about this conflict.”
The council has so far been unable to agree on a public statement on Tigray, with Western countries pitted against Russia and China, which diplomats say question whether the body – charged with maintaining international peace and security – should be involved in the crisis.
The conflict killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands more from their homes in the mountainous region of about five million. Eritrea has helped Ethiopian troops, although Eritrea repeatedly denied its forces are in Tigray.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged the Eritrean presence and the UN and US demand Eritrean troops withdraw from Tigray.
“Neither the UN nor any of the humanitarian agencies we work with has seen proof of Eritrean withdrawal,” Lowcock said.
Lowcock received a report that 150 people had died from hunger in Tigray and warned “starvation as a weapon of war is a violation.”
Dr Fasika Amdeselassie, the top public health official for the government-appointed interim administration in Tigray, told Reuters at least 829 cases of sexual assault were reported at five hospitals since the conflict began.
“There is no doubt that sexual violence is used in this conflict as a weapon of war,” Lowcock said, adding the majority of rapes were committed by men in uniform, with accusations against all the warring parties.
“Nearly a quarter of reports received by one agency involve gang rape; in some cases, women were repeatedly raped over a period of days. Girls as young as eight are targeted,” Lowcock said.
Ethiopia’s UN ambassador, Taye Atskeselassie Amde, told Reuters government was investigating all rights violations. He accused Lowcock of “behaving not like a humanitarian but a nemesis determined to exact some kind of retribution.”
“Human rights violations are too serious and grave to be subjected to speculation. It is unfortunate the head of OCHA resorted to such an act at the UN Security Council,” he said, adding “there is no gap in humanitarian access.”
Eritrea’s UN mission in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lowcock’s remarks. Last month, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel said sexual violence and rape “are an abomination to Eritrean society” and should be harshly punished.