News Highlights: UN Libya fact-finding mission urges action, Regional summit in Somalia, Italy accused of complicity in abuses

In this week’s News Highlights: Regional summit in Somalia discusses fight against al-Shabaab; Orthodox church in Ethiopia accuses Abiy of ‘meddling’; 3,000 Somali soldiers sent to Eritrea for training; ICRC shows widespread destruction of health facilities in Tigray; Oromia region ‘now the most unstable’; Eritrean troops reportedly block UN in Tigray; Over 400 Christians now imprisoned in Eritrea; Libya fact-finding mission urges Libya to cooperate; Italy accused of complicity in abuses in Libya; CoE criticises Italian decree on rescues; Arrests in Italy on charges of torture in Libya; Critics warn EU not to rush normalising relations with Ethiopia; and EU Commission presents four-step plan on stopping irregular migration.

Greater Horn of Africa

Horn of Africa: Summit discusses fight against al-Shabaab
Somalia hosted a Summit on 1 February with leaders from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti present to discuss the fight against al-Shabaab. Kenyan President William Ruto, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attended, alongside Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Defence ministers of the four countries met on 31 January to prepare. Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed also met with Ethiopian peacekeepers in Mogadishu who are part of the AU mission in Somalia to fight against al-Shabaab, according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The leaders  issued a statement after the Summit calling for defeating al-Shabaab militarily, financially, and ideologically. The countries “agreed to jointly plan and organize a robust campaign at the frontline states level, of search and destroy Al-Shabaab on multiple frontlines aiming at the key strategic Al-Shabaab strongholds across south and central Somalia”. The Summit statement also called for the complete lifting of arms embargo on Somalia by the end of 2023.  Eritrea was not part of the Summit, although Somalia announced earlier this week it has sent 3,000 new Somali soldiers there for training. 

Ethiopia: Orthodox church accuses Prime Minister of meddling in church affairs
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addressed the conflict in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on 31 January in a meeting with cabinet ministers. He called for parties on both sides to engage in dialogue. Abiy also stated that the government sent a delegation to both parties. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church stated that “[t]he government should not interfere in the religious and canonical affairs of the church.” The three breakaway archbishops and the 25 episcopates who also name themselves as “Holy Synod of Oromia and nations and nationalities” of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), issued a statement denouncing their excommunication by the Holy Synod, says Addis Standard.They reportedly asserted that they acted based on the rules and regulations of the EOTC. The government of the Ethiopian regional state of Oromia is providing “full support”  to the breakaway bishops, reports The website speculates that the positive reception of the breakaway bishops in Oromia is due to this support. Pictures were being circulated in social media showing the preparations of followers in different locations in western Oromia to welcome the appointed episcopate with banners and rallies.

Somalia/Eritrea: 3,000 new Somali soldiers sent to Eritrea for training
Somalia has sent 3,000 soldiers each to Eritrea and Uganda to be trained, national security advisor Hussein Sheikh-Ali told Voice of America (VoA). 6,000 more will be sent to Ethiopia and Egypt. The soldiers trained abroad are meant to take over from the troops of the African Transitional Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), which is pulling out in December 2024, according to the current planning. The Somali national security advisor called the plan to send more soldiers to Eritrea “transparent.” 5,000 soldiers which were sent in secret to Eritrea in 2019 have only recently started to return, and a considerable part of the soldiers has not yet returned at all, according to reports.

Tigray: Widespread destruction of health facilities in Tigray
Footage from Tigray shows the extent to which the war has destroyed health care infrastructure and disrupted public health services in most areas of the regions, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It is calling for urgent humanitarian support. The Ethiopian Red Cross Society had over 250 ambulances operating in Tigray before the conflict started, many of which were reportedly “looted, vandalised and destroyed”, adds ICRC. Only 82 ambulances remain, many of which are not operational. Three months after the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) Agreement, aid has not been distributed to IDPs in some accessible areas of the region, like Wukro city, according to the Irob Anina Civil Society (IACS). The UN also announced that it cannot reach some areas. Around 50 Civil Society Organizations, out of a registered 82, resumed their operations with minimal capacity in Tigray, reports The Reporter.

Tigray/Eritrea: Eritrean troops still in Tigray, reportedly block UN fact-finding mission 
Eritrean troops remain in Tigray, despite assertions they have withdrawn. Reuters quoted US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, as saying “With respect to Eritreans we understand they have moved back to the border and they have been asked to leave.” A UNOCHA team on a fact-finding mission in Tigray was detained by Eritrean troops in Irob on 1 February, says Tigray Today. They were reportedly detained as they were taking a detour to avoid Eritrean troops, but were found and detained for several hours, before being sent back. Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) army leader, major general Teshome Gemechu, said earlier that “there are no troops in Tigray which are not of FDRE”. Tigray spokesperson Getachew Reda called Teshome’s statement misleading, saying “there are thousands of Eritrean & Amhara forces in Tigray.” He stated that verifying withdrawal is the task of the AU Monitoring, Verification and Compliance Mission’s (AU MVCM), but “if the [AU MVCM] team’s itinerary is any guide, there is little to suggest that this is going to happen soon”. A Tigray source said that Amhara troops are also still present in the whole western zone of Tigray and other areas.

Oromia/Amhara: Fighting threatens Ethiopian integrity
The under-reported conflict between government, regional troops and militia in Oromia and Amhara is underreported, but the Oromia region is “now Ethiopia’s most unstable”, reports DW. The Chinese embassy reported that one Chinese citizen was killed in Oromia in the context of the decreasing security. UN reports “significant displacement” in the zones of North Shewa, South Wello and West Gojam, in Amhara.

Eritrea: New Christians arrested brings total to over 400
415 Christians are imprisoned in Eritrea. Recently, 44 more Christians – 39 women and 5 men – had been arrested in Eritrea according to Dr Berhane Asmelash from Release International. A former prisoner who was recently released after 16 years in prison described inhumane conditions and torture during her imprisonment. The objective was that she would renounce her faith, which she did not do. She was released as part of a recent amnesty of 200 people imprisoned on the basis of their faith.

North Africa

Libya: UN fact-finding mission urges authorities to share information on mass graves
The UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya ended its mission in Libya on 29 January, after hearing testimonies on human rights abuses in Libya, including torture, human trafficking and the existence of mass burial sites. Chair of the Mission Mohammad Auajjar states that Libyan authorities have not been sharing information. In addition, local authorities in Sabha did not allow the UN representatives to visit in order to meet victims. The mission was also not allowed to visit prisons and detention centres, and did not meet with the Attorney General in Libya responsible for investigating the human rights abuses. The Mission calls on the authorities to take decisive action to ensure justice for the victims. 


Italy/EU: Allegations of complicity in crimes against humanity
Italy and the European Union have been warned that they may be ‘complicit’ in crimes against humanity and war crimes due to the automatic renewal of the agreement with Libya to “combat illegal immigration”, states Human Rights Watch. The efforts that have been made to stop the irregular crossing of borders from Libya has reportedly meant “facilitating” the abuse of 108,000 migrants who have been returned to Libya (since 2017), announced HRW. Furthermore, HRW reported that Italy is increasing their funding to force more migrants and refugees back to Libya. Italy’s Prime Minister recently travelled to Libya to discuss energy and migration, and cooperation agreements on the latter were signed. The abuse the migrants are facing, according to a report by the United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, has involved “murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape and other inhumane acts” which were associated to their “arbitrary detention”. The International Criminal Court has announced that this “may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes”. 

Italy: New decree hampering NGO rescues criticised by the Council of Europe
The NGO members of Council of Europe (CoE) urged Italy to overturn the decree which regulates NGO rescues of refugees and migrants at sea, stating the decree goes against international law. The letter sent by the CoE says that the decree could prevent search and rescue missions. A key point of contention is that the decree forces rescue ships to return to port immediately after a rescue, “forcing them [the ships] to ignore other distress calls in the area if they already have rescued persons on board, even when they still have capacity to carry out another rescue”. In addition, CoE criticises the assignments of ports for disembarkation that are far away, forcing rescued persons to stay on board for longer. 

Italy: Five arrested accused of torture; one arrested after migrants are found at sea; 
Three Bangladeshi and two Sudanese men were arrested in Italy on allegations of torture of migrants in Libya. Other refugees and migrants in Italy accused the five of torturing and extorting money from them before their departure to Italy. In another case, a Libyan man was arrested in Sardinia on charges of aiding ‘illegal migration’. Frontex alleges that the man would have hidden three Moroccan men in the ship he worked on without the Captain’s knowledge. The man lowered the three into the sea close to the shore, but the three panicked in the water, after which they were noticed by the crew.  

EU: Critics warn against rushed normalisation of EU relations with Ethiopia
The Clingendael Institute issued an alert warning the EU to avoid hasty re-engagement with Ethiopia. “While the cessation of hostilities is a welcome development, the EU and its member states should be careful not to blindly reward a deal that was born out of the starvation of an entire region,” it states. It states that re-engagement should be “guided by the prerequisites for lasting peace in Ethiopia, rather than by geopolitical competition.” Clingendael urges the EU to condemn human rights violations and push for investigation; condition the engagement on actual implementation of the CoH Agreement; and involve alternative stakeholders. Europe is under pressure to normalise relations with Ethiopia as Chinese and Russian influence increases, states Horn expert and journalist Martin Plaut. Plaut states that Germany and France have been pushing the European External Action Service to create a roadmap for normalisation which should not be held up by accountability for abuses. Alex de Waal warns that Ethiopia is in a “pattern of survival politics” as the result of a policy vacuum. He states that the US and other donors that are “bailing out” Ethiopia should ensure that justice is pursued and that this is not left up to PM Abiy or the TPLF.  

EU: Commission presents ´four-point plan’ to prevent irregular migration
The European Commission has announced a four-point plan to combat the increasing pressure of irregular migration at Europe’s external borders. The four points are (1) to reinforce the Bulgarian-Turkish border, (2) to increase repatriations, (3) to prevent the movement of asylum seekers intra-EU and (4) to support partner states. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen emphasised that EU member states should strengthen solidarity. In a meeting with Von der Leyen and the Swedish Presidency, Members of the European Parliament also urged the EU to come up with a sustainable plan on migration.