Addis Abeba – In Ethiopia, the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) commonly known as drones for combat purposes dates back to the outbreak of the Tigray war in November 2020. During the two-year war, the death of thousands of civilians had been attributed to aerial drone strikes by government forces.
The most deadly drone strike that hit a school compound which was hosting thousands of displaced Tigrayans in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray region on 07 January 2022, had killed more than 55 civilians sheltered in the camp. It’s one of the most disturbing examples of the increasing use of drone strikes by the army against humans.
Since the Tigray war, which later engulfed the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, ended through a cessation of hostilities agreement in 2022, several reports indicated the continuation by government forces of deploying drones in battlefields in Oromia and Amhara regions, often inflicting heavy casualties on civilians.
During a recent interview with the state broadcaster, chief of the general staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), Field Marshal Birhanu Jula, justified the use of drones in the fight against local insurgent groups. “When we find the extremist fighters gathered at one place, of course, we will strike them with our drones,” he said, emphasizing that the army acquired drones to use them.
The field marshal, however, disputed the drone strikes targeting civilians. “We ensure restraint to avoid civilian casualties,” he said, stating that there were instances where the army identified targets but decided not to fire to avoid civilian deaths. Yet, facts on the ground diverge from this remark.
Just two weeks ago, an aerial drone assault on a Full Gospel Church located in Baro village of Kombolcha district, in Horro Guduru zone of the Oromia regional state claimed eight lives and left three severely injured. Addis Standard reported that members of the Church, including church ministers, were gathering scattered corn on the church grounds on Monday morning, 25 December 2023, when the strike was carried out.
Earlier, in October, Addis Standard reported another aerial drone attack that killed 12 civilians. The strikes took place on 07 and 08 October 2023, during the time of the annual Irreechaa festivities in the districts of Hababo Guduru and Kombolcha of the same zone. In 2022, Addis Standard reported multiple drone strikes including in Chobi and Meta Wolkitte districts of the West Shoa zone which killed nearly 100 people.
In Amhara region, where the army is battling the non-state local militia called ‘Fano’, recurring drone strikes have caused tragic loss of civilian lives and the destruction of vital infrastructures. One incident in early December 2023, where an ambulance transporting crucial medical supplies was targeted by a drone decimated five individuals. The heavy explosion resulting from the attack on the outskirts of the town of Wegel Tena in Delanta district of the South Wollo zone left the vehicle reduced to scattered debris.
In November 2023, two separate drone strikes documented by the UN, one on a bus station and the other targeting a primary school, left at least 20 civilians dead. According to the UN, the Fano militiamen were reportedly carrying out attacks on ENDF camp near the bus station in Waber town, whereas parts of the school premises in Wadera town were occupied by the Fano before the airstrike.
Another aerial drone assault in August 2023, in Finote Selam town of East Gojjam Zone left at least 30 people dead and more than 55 others injured. The town’s main hospital reported that all the victims were male, with most in their 20s, with the exception of one 15-year-old boy. Reports put the death toll as high as 70 citing deaths that had not been reported to the hospital.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, in a report released in October 2023, documented several incidents in which drone strikes targeted civilians, including eight civilians killed in Debre Markos city on 19 October.
It is evident that government drone strikes are having a devastating impact on the civilian population both in the embattled Oromia and Amhara regions, in violation of international laws that commits governments to the protection of civilians during times of war. What is more concerning is the government’s indifference to the victims of these drone strikes whose lives were cut short in vain, without justice.
The deployment of drones on human targets, even if the targets are enemy combatants, is universally considered as the most dangerous exercise of military operations due to the potential for errors, lack of accountability, and the absence of due process, leading to the undermining of the principles of justice and fairness in combat. The world is full of well documented use of drone strikes misidentifying targets, leading to the death of countless innocent civilians in both combat and civilian zones.
Thus, it is imperative that government forces employ maximum restraint upon deploying drones on human targets, investigate incidents where excessive use led to civilian deaths, and ensure justice by compensating victims’ families and holding involved drone operators accountable. AS