Ethiopia’s tragic toll of military drones
The use of military drones in Ethiopia’s internal conflicts raises critical questions about the protection of civilian lives and the government’s accountability for its actions. The implications of drone warfare extend far beyond the battlefield, impacting the lives and well-being of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
On October 16, 2023, drone strikes in the town of Met’teh Bila, Berehet woreda, in the north Shewa zone, resulted in the deaths of several individuals, including a 19-month-old infant. Tragically, another airstrike three days later, in Debremarkos city, Amhara region, claimed the lives of at least eight civilians.
These distressing human rights violations were brought to light in a report issued by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on October 30, 2023. The report focuses on the protracted conflict between the federal government and the informal armed forces of Fano, which has been ongoing since July. Military clashes, according to the report, have occurred in various zones of the Amhara region.
Over the past three years, reports of drone attacks by the federal government have been consistently emerging. The use of drones by the federal government is a relatively new phenomenon that gained prominence following the outbreak of the conflict in northern Ethiopia in November 2020.
Despite the conclusion of the Tigray conflict through the Pretoria agreement, drone attacks have persisted, primarily in Oromia and Amhara.
According to reports from human rights bodies and health centers, at least 26 people were killed in a drone attack in the center of Finote Selam town in the Amhara region back in August. Numerous reports by human rights bodies, including the EHRC, have highlighted the widespread use of military drones during the two-year war in Tigray, the protracted conflict in Oromia spanning over four years, and the ongoing conflict in the Amhara region since July 2023.
The recent reports of drone airstrikes emerging from the Amhara region only scratch the surface when compared to the accounts of similar attacks in the Oromia regional state, as the conflict between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) continues.
As evidence mounts, UNOCHA’s report from December 2022 sheds light on the ENDF’s activities in Tigray, Afar, Oromia, and Amhara. Among the 93 air-delivered munitions that took place between November 2020 and the end of October 2022, at least 15 of them were drone strikes. Shockingly, nearly 19 of these airstrikes resulted in civilian casualties.
The use of armed drones in the Ethiopian conflict was first reported in November 2021 after China, Iran, and Turkey reportedly supplied Ethiopia with this new technology, according to the UNOCHA report. “It is possible that the drones were delivered at a reduced cost or very cheaply to demonstrate their capabilities,” it states.
Disturbingly, reports continue to emerge regarding the government’s use of drone attacks in civilian areas, including bustling marketplaces, and innocent civilians who have no involvement in the conflict are being directly impacted by these strikes, Yared Hailemariam, the executive director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center (Defend Defenders), said.
He expressed his concerns, stating, “In any war, individuals unrelated to the conflict must be protected as per international law. However, Ethiopia is violating all the international conventions and protocols it has ratified. The government is committing violations amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Despite Ethiopia’s ratification of the Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention, and other international protocols and legislations that prioritize the protection of civilians during times of war, the government’s actions contradict its commitments. These agreements explicitly prohibit attacks on civilian residences, schools, hospitals, marketplaces, heritage sites, religious areas, and any other civilian spaces.
“Drones are primarily designed for use against terrorist targets or cross-border armed groups. However, the Ethiopian government is employing military drones in all internal conflicts within the country. It is noteworthy that Ethiopia is likely the only country extensively using military drones against its own citizens. Not only are these drones and their weaponry highly expensive, but they also have a significant impact on civilian life. So, the Ethiopian government bears responsibility,” affirms Yared.
The impact of military drones on the two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia has been acknowledged by experts and officials from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF). They assert that drones have significantly altered the course of the conflict.
However, Ameha Mekonnen, executive director of Lawyers for Human Rights, raises concerns about the widespread fear and terror inflicted upon civilians across different regions due to the use of military drones.
“Civilians in conflict-affected areas of Ethiopia now live in fear due to the indiscriminate nature of drone attacks on civilian areas. The government’s use of drones is perceived as a symbol of its cruelty. Such attacks in civilian areas demonstrate a gross negligence of civilians,” states Ameha. “The government’s impunity in this matter paves the way for further crimes against the people, demoralizing them. These actions constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, yet nobody is holding the government accountable.”
Some military officials, in conversations with The Reporter, argue that “the government is facing an existential threat from armed groups and is utilizing all available resources.”
Tariku Bekele, a former military leader, explains, “During times of existential threats, governments often do not bother to abide by principles of warfare. They do not hesitate to employ weapons of mass destruction. Even if they are aware of potential war crime charges, they will do whatever it takes to retain power.”
Tariku further notes that while drones may not be classified as mass destruction weapons, their precision targeting capabilities make them highly lethal. He notes that international laws governing warfare were established before the advent of military drones, and they do not specifically address the use of drones.
While collateral damage to civilians during wartime is inevitable to some extent, Tariku says measures can be taken to minimize such harm.
Experts estimate that each weapon dropped by drones costs a minimum of USD 6,000. Ethiopia has procured various types of military drones from China, Turkey, and Iran, which are operated by the Ethiopian Air Force. Efforts are also underway to localize drone technology within the country.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) recently addressed the Parliament, asserting that drone attacks are carried out from a situation room. “Every drone attack is approved by military officials, based on requests from operational leaders. They are approved and signed only when the target is clearly identified. We take responsibility for each drone attack,” stated Abiy.
However, these justifications provided by the Prime Minister are contradicted by human rights reports and eyewitness testimonies, which highlight the adverse impact of drone attacks on civilians. Ameha and Yared emphasize the importance of holding the government accountable for the damages inflicted upon civilian lives, properties, and infrastructure.
However, these justifications made by the Prime Minister contradict human rights reports and eyewitness testimonies, which highlight the detrimental impact of drone attacks on civilians.
Ameha and Yared stress the importance of holding the government accountable for the damages inflicted on civilian lives, properties, and infrastructure.
“The government must be held accountable for the arbitrary use of military drones against civilians. These actions constitute war crimes and are in direct violation of the human rights treaties that Ethiopia has ratified,” Ameha emphasized.
Both Ameha and Yared believe that the upcoming transitional justice process holds the key to addressing such abuses against the public. “So far, the preparations for transitional justice have been good. The major issue lies in the drafting of policies and their implementation,” said Ameha.
Tariku, on the other hand, sees the resolution of the internal conflict as the only viable solution.
“It is fellow citizens of the same country who are fighting each other. It is the country as a whole that is losing, not just the government. A peaceful resolution is not optional but a necessity for all ongoing conflicts between the federal government and armed forces in regional states,” Tariku explained.