News Highlights: Over 100 feared dead in Italy shipwreck, Violence in Lascaanood, UN Human Rights Council kicks off

In this week’s News Highlights: UN Human Rights Council to debate on Ethiopia; Political opposition and journalists in prison in Ethiopia; Conference to establish interim government in Tigray; Accusations of war crimes by Eritrea just before CoH agreement; Humanitarian situation in Ethiopia; Situation in Laascaanood, Somalia; Constitutional amendment for elections approved in Libya, but controversial; 22 Syrian detained refugees on hunger strike in Libyan prison; IOM and UNHCR update reports on situation in Libya; Criticism on Tunisian President after racist remarks; Shipwreck off the shores of Italy kills at least 67 people, 7 more die off Libya; EU trade benefits in exchange of migration returns criticised; African leaders condemn EU for unfair trade; HRW accuses EU of neglecting its rescue duties; EU Member states call for stronger border and return policies; EU sanctions on Russia’s Wagner mercenaries partly over Africa violence; and hundreds of Eritrean refugees testify to torture endured in Libya.

Greater Horn of Africa

Ethiopia: UN Human Rights Council to debate on Ethiopia
The United Nations Human Rights Council which kicked off this week in Geneva will reportedly debate the alleged war crimes in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, according to BBC Africa. Ethiopia is circulating a resolution to end the mandate of the UN investigation inquiry body into atrocities in the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, according to Reuters which cited five diplomats. The attempts of Ethiopia to terminate the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) are unprecedented, states Horn of Africa Director for Human Rights Watch Laetitia Bader. She warns of the danger of failure to hold perpetrators of crimes committed during the war to account for the sake of peace building. 63 Civil society organisations signed a statement calling on permanent members and observers of the UN Human Rights Council to prevent termination of the mandate of the ICHREE. The statement says “Not only does it suggest that states can politically manoeuvre to overturn the decisions of the Human Rights Council to avoid independent scrutiny and accountability, but it could also set a dangerous precedent regarding international scrutiny and impunity for rights abuses elsewhere.” The Global Society of Tigray Scholars & Professionals called on the international community to block Ethiopia’s efforts to terminate the mandate of the ICHREE.

Ethiopia: Political opposition and journalists in prison
Four Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) officials who are in prison have been denied treatment despite being critically ill, stated spokesperson of OLF Lemmi Gemechu to Addis Standard. Furthermore, Ethiopian journalist and dissident Eskinder Nega has reportedly been released from prison after two days of detention in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, says AFP quoting a statement from Nega’s opposition party, the Balderas for Genuine Democracy party. 
The party said Eskinder Nega was arrested on 25 February and then jailed in Bahir Dar city, the capital of the Amhara region. In its statement, the party said “Before his arrest, Eskinder did not have a criminal charge to his name, was not on a wanted list, and was not facing a court summons.” The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) calls for lifting restrictions on social media in place since 10 February, states EHRC chief commissioner Daniel Bekelle on Twitter. The chief commissioner also said, “Restrictions on the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media should be an exception, legitimate, necessary & proportional.”

Tigray: Conference to establish interim government
A conference with attendance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray forces, civic society organisations, and other stakeholders has taken place in Mekelle to establish an interim government. General Tadesse Worede, commander of Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and head of the interim government establishing committee, said the participants of the conference consists of 30% from TPLF, 25% from TDF, 15% from opposition parties, and 30% from civic society organisations. Tadesse Worede said that the outcomes of this conference will be taken by the Tigray peace negotiation team for consultation with the federal government. Hailu Kebebe, Head of the Foreign Affairs of the Salsay Woyane Tigray party, said on Twitter: “Tigrayan opposition political parties boycotted the TPLF organized conference for the establishment of the Interim Administration in Tigray. Our reasons include, that the committee organizing such isn’t legitimate and inclusive; handpicked by the TPLF itself.” 

Eritrea: Accusations of war crimes just before CoH agreement
Eritrean forces reportedly killed over 300 civilians in about 10 villages around Adwa in Tigray only a few days prior to the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) Agreement between Ethiopia and Tigray, reports The Washington Post. The violence described includes gruesome scenes such as parents shot in front of their children. Satellite images have confirmed the evidence from the ground. Ethiopian Human Rights Committee chief, Daniel Bekele, states that many other incidents were reported which would require further investigation under the transitional justice mechanism agreed in the CoH Agreement.

Ethiopia: Humanitarian situation
The Ethiopia Humanitarian Response Plan requires US$3.99 billion for humanitarian support to over 20 million people across the country in 2023 including 4.6 million internally displaced people, says the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The humanitarian response in Ethiopia this year aims at addressing immediate lifesaving needs, providing safe and inclusive access to essential services, and contributing to support and build linkages towards recovery and resilience.

Somalia: Situation in Laascaanood
Continued hostilities in Laascaanood of Somalia reportedly killed 141 and wounded 1000 people, and strikes hit the hospital in the area, destroying its blood bank. “Indiscriminate” fighting in Laascaanood of the Somaliland region of Somalia is affecting medical services in the area, according to Doctors without Borders (MSF). “Projectiles, bullets, and blasts continue to occur at this very moment despite our repeated calls for respect of the medical and humanitarian space of health facilities and for protection of patients and medical workers,” stated MSF country representative for Somalia and Somaliland, Djoen Besselink.
MSF states it is providing medical support to both sides of the conflict. If MSF is forced to withdraw due to security reasons, the hospital in Laascaanood will be without support, since hospitals in the region depend on international humanitarian organisations. An estimated 95.000 new refugees have crossed into the Doolo and Warder zones in Ethiopia from Somalia since the beginning of February 2023, according to the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. 

North Africa

Libya: Constitutional amendment for elections approved, but controversial
Libya’s High Council approved a constitutional amendment to pave the way for elections, but critics state it does not address the underlying disagreements. Earlier, the UN Envoy to Libya criticised the lack of legal basis in Libya for elections. The approved amendment is controversial because it fails to address questions such as timelines or who is eligible. 

Libya: 22 Syrian detained refugees on hunger strike in Libyan prison
22 Syrian refugees, including 3 minors, detained in a Libyan prison for more than five months, have gone on a hunger strike to demand their release, reports The Libya Update. The group has been detained in Western Libya since October as a part of a crackdown on refugees and migrants. The group states it arrived legally in Eastern Libya by air. The conditions of the prison are appalling with the migrants already having suffered from scabies and other skin diseases. 

Libya: IOM and UNHCR update reports on situation in Libya
A report was released to evaluate the situation of migrants and refugees in Ghat, Libya, by the IOM with the help of data from the IOM Libya and the Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism (MRRM). The report used surveys to assess the conditions of migrants in the areas of healthcare, food security,  social interactions, socioeconomic situation, WASH, accommodation, non-food items, migration drivers, remittances and migration routes. 
Another report was released by the UNHCR with updates on Libya. The report states the UNHCR is facing a 73% funding gap for its work in Libya. It also states 3.000 refugees and migrants have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard so far in 2023. 

Tunisia: Criticism on President after racist remarks
The Tunisian President faces criticism after racist remarks about “hordes” of “illegal” migrants from Sub-Sarahan Africa, which he described as a conspiracy to change the government of Tunisia. He then refused to apologise for the remarks, insisting that for migrants that are not legal, “we no more want them”. The remarks led to protests in Tunisia and criticism from the African Union, which stated the “shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans which go against the letter and the spirit of our organization and founding principles.” A student from Cameroon told VoA that African migrants increasingly face slurs, physical attacks and arbitrary arrests in Tunisia. 


Italy: Shipwreck off the shores of Italy kills at least 68 people, 7 more die off Libya
At least 68 people, including 14 children, have died in a shipwreck off the coast of Crotone, Italy, according to several sources. At least 30 people are still missing, states the BBC. The boat left from Turkey and was carrying refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia, among others. Frontex states it warned Italian authorities of the boat and the possibility it might contain many people ahead of the shipwreck. The boat was carrying up to 200 people and had set off from Turkey. Around 80 people were rescued. In another shipwreck off the Libyan city of Benghazi, seven Pakistani persons drowned. Their boat had also set off from Turkey. Reports state that the boat was trying to avoid the shorter trip to Greece and Cyprus due to the pushback on vessels in violation of international law, instead risking the longer journey to Italy.  

EU: Plans to link trade to migration return face pushback
A revised trade scheme of the EU proposes to provide lower trade tariffs for countries that take back migrants in its Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP). Under the plan, the trade preferences can be withdrawn if a country refuses to take back the migrants. A former World Trade Organisation lawyer states the rule would be incompatible with WTO rules as it “does not respond to the development, financial or trade needs of developing countries … but to a political objective of the European Union.” 20 civil society organisations called the proposed measures ‘counterproductive. 

EU-Africa relations: African leaders condemn EU for unfair trade
African leaders have criticised European Union member states for exporting banned pesticides and products to developing countries at the 62nd session of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Parliamentary conference in Brussels. They condemned the EU for the double standards that are set on toxic pesticides that could cause serious health issues. The Deputy speaker of Uganda’s parliament, Thomas Tayebwa, rallied the members of the conference to stop the EU from sending “poisonous products to poor countries in form of donations”. 

EU: HRW accuses EU of neglecting its rescue duties
The European Commission is neglecting search and rescue in the Mediterranean, says Human Rights Watch. People crossing the Mediterranean Sea are not risking their lives for the thrill, emphasises HRW. “The EU has given them no other choices. No meaningful safe and legal pathway is open to them.” Earlier in February, the European Commission gave additional boats to the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent refugees from fleeing to Europe. HRW furthermore states that at least 25,313 refugees have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, and more than 24,600 that have been intercepted were forced to go back to Libya in 2022. 

EU: Member states call for stronger border and return policies
15 European Union states at the borders of Europe called for stronger borders and agreements with third countries to accept (back) migrants, reports Euractiv.The 15 states want more involvement from the countries outside the EU’s external borders, among which Mauritania and Senegal. The states want Frontex to be able to deploy border guards and to carry out border management missions. Some EU countries are still pushing for an increase in funding for the fences at the external borders to curb irregular migration to Europe, which has not yet seen support from the European Commission. Sweden has pushed for new ways to augment voluntary return migration, as this has previously been lacking in Swedish politics, says Maria Malmer Stenegard, the Migration Minister, according to Euractiv. This review of the policy is targeted for people who have not been able to integrate into Swedish society. 

EU: Sanctions on Russia’s Wagner mercenaries
The EU has placed additional sanctions on Russia’s Wagner group because of “human rights abuses” in several African countries and in Ukraine, reports France 24. The sanctions against 11 individuals and 7 entities put them on the list for freezing of assets and travel ban. The Wagner group is active in amongst others in Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Euractiv reports that Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has been visiting many countries in Africa to increase Russia’s influence in the region. 

Netherlands: Hundreds of Eritrean refugees in the Netherlands victims to traffickers
191 Eritrean witnesses have testified in Dutch prosecution about human rights violations in Libya in the context of smuggling networks, extortion and torture, says the Dutch public prosecutor. The witnesses have spoken about the torture for ransom and trafficking networks connecting to Eritrea and Libya and the horrible conditions they were under. The human rights violations vary from violence, such as beatings, to rape, which was sometimes filmed, reported the NOS. The human smuggling network is an exploitation system that has earned millions of euros off refugees trying to escape Eritrea, asking relatives to pay high amounts of money. One of the ringleaders of the operation, Tewelde G. (Walid), is being detained in the Netherlands and will be tried, while another ringleader, Zekarias H., is being detained in Dubai. Both are awaiting prosecution, having been charged with participation in a criminal organisation, human trafficking and aggravated assault.