The United Nations is urging a "zero tolerance" policy for crimes of sexual violence in Ethiopia's troubled Tigray region.
According to a statement from Pramila Patten, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, there has been a high number of reported rapes in the capital, Mekelle, as well as reports that some women are being forced by "military elements" to have sex in exchange for basic commodities.
"It remains critical that humanitarian actors and independent human rights monitors be granted immediate, unconditional and sustained access to the entirety of the Tigray region, including IDP [internally displaced people] and refugee camps where new arrivals have allegedly reported cases of sexual violence," Patten said in a statement.
Recent news reports say the Ethiopian government has not responded to the allegations of rapes in Mekelle.
According to the U.N., 59,000 Ethiopians have fled to Sudan, while some 5,000 Eritrean refugees are living in "dire" conditions in the area of Shire. The U.N. says 25 of the refugees are women and girls of reproductive age.
"I call on all parties involved in the hostilities in the Tigray region to commit to a zero-tolerance policy for crimes of sexual violence, in line with their respective obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law," Patten said.
"I call on the government of Ethiopia to further exercise its due diligence obligations to protect all civilians from sexual and other violence, regardless of their ethnic origin and those displaced by conflict, and to promptly allow for an independent inquiry into all allegations of sexual and other forms of violence, to establish the facts and hold perpetrators accountable, provide redress to victims, and prevent further grave violations."
On November 4, the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched what it called a "law enforcement operation" against "rogue" leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the region's ruling party, after TPLF fighters attacked a federal military base. TPLF leaders called the federal government's response a war against the people of Tigray.
The conflict erupted weeks after Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government. Despite the government saying that fighting in Tigray is over, many refugees say it is not safe enough to return home.