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Non-international armed conflict in Ethiopia

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Since November 2020, a non-international armed conflict has been taking place between the Ethiopian armed forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Northern Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian central government has been engaging in a non-international armed conflict against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020. It has been reported that Eritrean troops are also fighting against the non-state forces.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to establish whether the violence in Ethiopia meets the threshold for non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has controlled politics, economy, and the military in Ethiopia. However, at the beginning of 2018 demonstrations erupted in the country against the government, where the population expressed discontent and resentment due to the government’s corruption and repression of political opponents. Consequently, TPLF resigned and Dr Abyi Ahmed became the prime minister, dissolved the coalition in power, and created a new party. As TPLF refused to join the new coalition, its officials moved to the Tigray region. Since then, they have been challenging the prime minister and tensions have escalated.  T. M. Kebebew and J. J. Niyo, ‘Instant Non-international Armed Conflict? Classifying the situation in Northern Ethiopia under IHL’, Armed Groups and International Law, 9 December 2020; G. de Walda, ‘Ethiopia: The relentless protests that forced the Prime Minister to resign’, African Arguments, 15 February 2018.

The situation worsened in March 2020, when the Ethiopian electoral board announced that they could not held elections in August, as originally planned, due to COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the House of Federation, which is Ethiopia’s upper chamber, ‘extended the federal and regional governments’ terms beyond their five-year mandate until a point nine to twelve months after authorities deemed the pandemic sufficiently under control.’ International Crisis Group, Steering Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis Away from Conflict, Briefing no. 162 / Africa, 30 October 2020. However, TPLF claimed that the decision was unconstitutional and held elections on 9 September. The central government declared Tigray’s election null and void and adopted a number of measures against the regional government, notably it provided federal funds directly to the local administrations, hence bypassing Tigray’s central administration. According to Tigray leaders, this decision was ‘tantamount to a declaration of war.’ International Crisis Group, Steering Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis Away from Conflict, Briefing no. 162 / Africa, 30 October 2020.

On 4 November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against TPLF, in response to an attack conducted against a federal army base, although Tigray forces deny their involvement in the military operation. ‘Tigray crisis: Ethiopia orders military response after army base seized’, BBC, 4 November 2020. Since then, fighting has been ongoing in the region between federal and Tigray’s forces. For instance, on 13 November 2020 TPLF launched rocket attacks on two airports in Amhara state and threatened to strike neighbouring Eritrea. ‘Ethiopia: Tigray forces target airports, threaten Eritrea’, Al Jazeera, 14 November 2020. On the other hand, Ethiopian forces have conducted armed attacks against the capital of Tigray. L. Wroughton, ‘600 civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray, Ethiopia’s rights commission says’, The Washington Post, 24 November 2020.

Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of TPFL, accused Eritrea of helping the central government, and claimed that ‘Eritrean soldiers are everywhere.’ The presence of Eritrean troops has been confirmed by aid workers present in the region, notably UN and EU officials. Furthermore, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, affirmed that UNHCR has received ‘an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2020. As a reaction to the Eritrean involvement, TPLF has conducted armed attacks against the neighbouring country. J. Hursh, ‘Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: Escalating Violence and Mass Displacement Threaten Ethiopian and Regional Security’, Just Security, 25 November 2020. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have denied any Ethiopian involvement in the conflict. Accordingly, it is premature to conclude that Eritrea is party to the conflict. ‘'Slaughtered like chickens': Eritrea heavily involved in Tigray conflict, say eyewitnesses’, The Guardian, 21 December 2020.

The fighting has raised humanitarian concerns and civilians have been heavily affected by the conflict. Notably, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that at least 600 civilians have been killed in the town of Mai Kadra on 9 November 2020. L. Wroughton, ‘600 civilians were killed in massacre in Tigray, Ethiopia’s rights commission says’, The Washington Post, 24 November 2020. On 22 December 2020, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic reported that ‘more than 52,000 refugees have fled the Tigray region into eastern Sudan’ in only 6 weeks. ‘UNHCR and partners urgently seek US$156 million to support refugees fleeing Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis’, UNHCR, 22 December 2020. See also S. Getachew, ‘Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict sees hundreds dead, thousands flee to Sudan’, The New Humanitarian, 10 November 2020.


A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded in 1975 in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray, inspired by Marxist-Leninism. In 16 years, the group succeeded in gaining control over the Ethiopian and remained in power for nearly 30 years. J. Burke, ‘Rise and fall of Ethiopia’s TPLF – from rebels to rulers and back’, The Guardian, 25 November 2020. Since 2018, TPLF has trained its own special military forces and it has been reported that in Tigray there is ‘a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined.’ International Crisis Group, Clashes over Ethiopia’s Tigray Region: Getting to a Ceasefire and National Dialogue, 5 November 2020. The organization requirement is further confirmed by the military capabilities of the group, notably by its capacity to carry out military operations outside the region under its control, for instance in the Eritrean capital. ‘Ethiopia Tigray crisis: Rockets hit outskirts of Eritrea capital’, BBC, 25 November 2020.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

  • Ethiopia

Non-state parties

  • Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)
Last updated: Thursday 21st January 2021