The Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia overshadows a “continuous cycle of violence” against civilians by security forces and armed groups in the Oromia region, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
The New York-based watchdog said it had documented serious abuse in Ethiopia’s most populous region, including west of Oromia, where an “insulting” government campaign against an armed rebel group caught civilians in the crossfire.
This violence continued for years without redress while global attention was centered on Tigray, where major fighting between federal forces and rebels from the region exploded in November 2020.
“Prior to the conflict in northern Ethiopia, there was widespread impunity for continuing violations of law in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, including in areas already suffering from conflict,” HRW said in a statement.
“Many of these abuses continue and require urgent international attention.”
This culture of impunity “only encouraged irresponsible security forces and did nothing to prevent further damage,” it said.
Access is limited to the west of Oromia, where Ethiopia’s armed forces have been countering a rebellion by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) for years.
But summary executions and arbitrary arrests by government forces are still documented there, HRW said, as well as kidnappings and killings of local leaders and government officials by armed groups.
In June, hundreds of people, mostly of the Amhara ethnic group, were killed by gunmen in the western town of Oromia Tole.
Local authorities said the OLA was responsible, but the rebels denied any role and blamed a pro-government militia.
Earlier that month, government forces were accused of summarily executing suspected OLA collaborators in the capital of the neighboring Gambella region following an attack on the city.
The assassination in June 2020 of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer, gave voice to the frustrations that many in the region experienced.
More than 160 people were killed in street demonstrations after his death, while political leaders and opposition activists from Oromo were gathered and detained in a comprehensive government crackdown.
Many were later released, but some remained in custody despite court orders for their release, HRW said.
“Ethiopia’s government and its partners must no longer ignore the growing tragedies affecting families in Oromia. There is a deep need for structural reforms of the abusive security apparatus and for social recovery,” HRW said.
“The government can begin by conducting credible independent investigations into the serious abuse by its own forces and by facilitating armed groups, as required by communities.”