On 17 May 2021, the Coalition for Genocide Response joined Lord Alton of Liverpool and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea and organised an important webinar about the use of rape and sexual violence in Tigray. Watch it here.

May 18, 2021 | Uncategorized

On 17 May 2021, the Coalition for Genocide Response joined Lord Alton of Liverpool and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea and organised an important webinar about the use of rape and sexual violence in Tigray.

“Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane [a derogatory term used to refer to the TPLF]. A Tigrayan womb should never give birth” a Tigrayan woman was told after she was gang-raped and mutilated.

Hers is just one of many similar reports emerging daily from Tigray.

This suggests that rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women are a commonly used weapon of the war – and might even be reaching the threshold for being a genocidal act.

During this webinar, the panellists discussed the situation of Tigrayan women, considered the nature of the atrocities and the needed responses.

Speakers included:

Lord Alton of Liverpool, Crossbench Peer at the UK House of Lords
Professor Mukesh Kapila CBE, Professor Emeritus, Global Health & Humanitarian Affairs, University of Manchester
Lucy Kassa, freelance journalist
Sally Keeble, former Labour MP, Minister
His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London.

Remarks by David Alton, co chair of the APPG on Eritrea and Patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response

I want to thank Dr.Ochab, the Coalition for Genocide Response and the APPG on Eritrea, for hosting today’s Webinar. It’s a privilege to speak alongside some of our distinguished contributors but no pleasure to have to return to issues which were raised in an earlier Webinar on March 16th and which I have been raising in parliamentary questions and letters to the Government since before Ethiopian troops began their assault on Tigray last November, paving the way for incursions by Eritrean militias – with devastating and catastrophic consequences.   

Not only have premeditated war crimes had predicted, appalling outcomes for the people of the region; it has been an unmitigated failure for the international community – with the UN Security Council exposed yet again as utterly compromised by authoritarian regimes ruthlessly vetoing any attempts to prevent, protect, or punish – doing so to ingratiate themselves with the perpetrators – while simultaneously the feeble rhetoric of impotent liberal democracies has thus far been exposed as worthless. 

Reports over the last few  days demonstrate the scale and intensity of this man-made horror story.  

We will hear later from Professor Mukesh Kapila, who was reported on Saturday as saying that Genocide is being committed in Tigray. Eighteen years ago, he and I both warned of an unfolding genocide in Darfur. Alex du Waal, one of the foremost international experts of the Horn of Africa says of Tigray “It’s certainly a lot worse than Darfur.”

Last week it was reported that the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Mathias, an ethnic Tigrayan, had been placed in detention – with fears for his safety -after saying the atrocities constitute a genocide: “They want to destroy the people of Tigray…I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray…. It is not the fault of the Tigray people. The whole world should know it. Many barbarisms have been conducted [all over Ethiopia], what is happening in Tigray is of the highest brutality and cruelty.” This came at the same time as a report of the killing of almost eighty Orthodox priests. We will hear today from Archbishop Angaelos.

On May 14th the Africa Minister, James Duddridge, told me that Ethiopia must “allow for urgent and unimpeded access to human rights investigators. These matters must be brought before competent national and international courts” 

But he knows that there is no domestic or international mechanism that will enable that to happen. It’s just posturing,  striking a meaningless pose.  

And telling me that he had held a conversation with the Ethiopian Ambassador on February24th – repeat, February 24th, nearly three months ago – while appalling reports emerge from Tigray of atrocity crimes, hardly suggests any sense of urgency. 

With Dr.Ochab the Coalition for Genocide Response is keeping a carefully document account of correspondence and questions documenting the failure of the UK and other States to respond and to honour their legal obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide. 

As for the African Union -with its headquarters in Addis Ababa – and with the Chairman of its African Union Commission saying in December that Ethiopia had taken “legitimate”military action in Tigray – it has hardly distinguished itself either.

While the international community has either aided and abetted these atrocities or dithered and delayed, we have seen shocking reports of massacres, hundreds of killings and mass graves, ethnic cleaning, targeted murders, starvation being used as a weapon of war, and a systematic campaign of rape – with one report in The Guardian last week describing the rape of a little girl aged eight and with bodies being eaten by hyenas.

It is to highlight the specific assault on girls and women which prompted me, after seeing a report on Al Jazeera,  to suggest that this further webinar be held. 

In that report it was said that, chillingly, a Tigrayan woman was told “Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane (a derogatory term). A Tigrayan womb should never give birth”.

Tragically, this is not an isolated case.

Rape and sexual violence against women is being relentlessly used as a weapon of war against the women and girls of Tigray – and as we discuss such crimes, we need to consider what it means in terms of our duties. 

In terms of genocidal methods, rape and sexual violence would fall within Article II (b) (of the Convention on the Crime of Genocide):  Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; and (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. 

Of course, the occurrence of such atrocities does not necessarily make them genocide. 

In order to classify as genocide, the atrocities have to be shown to have been committed against a protected group and with the specific intent to destroy the groups in whole or in part. 

Tigrayans are an ethnic minority and as such, a protected group under the Genocide Convention. 

The question, then, is whether we can identify the specific intent to destroy the group in whole or in part. 

Such specific intent can be direct or inferred from the atrocities. 

As the courageous Lucy Kassa – who has herself been subject to threats and intimidation – reported in the remark I have referred to, Akbaret, a woman she interviewed, told her, 

‘I begged them to stop. I asked them, crying, why they were doing that to me. What wrong have I done to you?’

It was then that those infamous and incriminating words were used. 

I repeat them: Akberet was told  ‘You did nothing bad to us. Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane [derogative term used to refer to the TPLF]. A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.’ 

Such  statements make clear the specific intent to destroy a group of people. Of course, more evidence may well be needed – which is why the perpetrators have prohibited access and are doing their best to destroy evidence and eliminate potential witnesses. 

But even with what we know already, the specific intent can be inferred from the atrocities themselves, atrocities that we have seen and heard of over these recent months. 

Apart from targeting of people because of their ethnicity, there is also evidence that the atrocities are being targeted at religious groups. 

In January 2021, it was reported that Tigray’s  Church of Our Lady, Mary of Zion, in Axum, was the scene of a massacre of 750 people. 

A week ago, Lucy Kassa reported that over the last five months, according to a letter addressed to the Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, at least 78 priests were killed in one zone of Tigray. 

Having myself visited Darfur and the genocide sites in Rwanda – along with first hand visits to affected groups in northern Iraq and Burma, and after taking witness accounts from genocide affected minorities such as Yazdis and Uyghurs, I know well enough that States and the international community will not respond to the atrocities unless we call for action again and again and again – which is why we must increase the volume of our voices – and here I pay tribute to Sally Keble, and who we will hear from, for what she has been doing to keep focus on Tigray.

Let me conclude. 

This morning, I posted an account by  Professor Jan Nyssen of Ghent University. 

In it he reports from Mekelle that “numerous women have been raped. The victims hide themselves and do not speak, but nurses cannot hold their tears, and the whole town knows the top-three of rapists: 1. (and by far) Eritrean soldiers, 2. Ethiopian soldiers, 3. Civilian perpetrators.” 

On Saturday Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, said “There is evidence of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Western Tigray. If carried out with the intent of eliminating Tigrayans, it may be classified as genocide, Taken all together, the serious crimes being committed against Tigrayans, including massacres of civilians of all ages, may meet the definition of genocide.”  I agree.

In the face of these reports and these statements I appeal to Dominic Raab to urgently table a UK Resolution to the Security Council – regardless of threats by China or Russia to veto it – to expose those who are attempting to conceal the scale and gravity of the carnage underway and to ensure that a judicial mechanism is created – independent of the UN if necessary – so that one day, as in Bosnia and Darfur, however long it takes, those responsible are brought to justice. 

We owe it to all the people of Tigray, and especially to the women and girls who have been so egregiously violated, to ensure that atrocity is not the last word and impunity not the order of the day.    

(Lord Alton is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groupon Eritrea and a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence)

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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