Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. - Prime Minister Abiy…
FILE - Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, in the Tigray region, in Ethiopia, Nov. 22, 2020.

NEW YORK / GENEVA - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that humanitarian access in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is his immediate priority.   

“Once again, I wish to insist on: unfettered access of humanitarian assistance, and the swift resumption of the rule of law in a secure environment and in full respect for human rights, paving the way for a true and lasting reconciliation,” Guterres said at a virtual joint press briefing with African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.   

FILE - U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, left, and the African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat attend a news conference at the African Union Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 9, 2018.

In response to reporters’ questions, Guterres said that he had made these points to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and “there was a full acceptance by the prime minister of the need to move into this direction.”  

Fighting erupted November 4 in the disputed northern Tigray Region, between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian forces. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the conflict, which has displaced more than 1 million people, including more than 45,000 refugees who fled to neighboring Sudan.  

Guterres had just met with Mahamat virtually for the fourth United Nations-African Union annual conference. Mahamat said his organization has appointed three envoys to peacefully resolve the crisis.   

“We are in contact with the authorities of the country, who have told the secretary-general that there is a situation of rebellion, which obviously is undermining the constitution of the country, and therefore, it is the duty of the authorities to have the law respected,” he said.  

Mahamat said the African Union is “sensitive” to the humanitarian situation, and its priority is to reach the affected people and to protect civilians, but at the same time there must be respect for constitutional order and law.   

Aid workers have not been able to reach Tigray province for more than a month, and there are reports of shortages of food, fuel and drinking water, as well as cash. Hospitals are also in urgent need of resupplying.   

Gross human rights violations  

Earlier Wednesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told reporters in Geneva that the spiraling conflict is having an “appalling impact on civilians.”   

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 9, 2020.

She said her office has substantiated reports of human rights violations.  

“We have corroborated information of gross human rights violations and abuses – including indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects, looting, abductions and sexual violence against women and girls,” she said. “There are reports of forced recruitment of Tigrayan youth to fight against their own communities.”  

Ethiopians fleeing from the Tigray region walk towards a river to cross from Ethiopia to Sudan, near the Hamdeyat refugee transit camp, which houses refugees fleeing the fighting in the Tigray region, on the border in Sudan, Dec. 1, 2020.

Bachelet said there is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the human rights situation in Tigray, for measures to protect civilians, and accountability for violations.  

Abiy’s government considers the TPLF-led Tigray regional government as illegitimate. The regional government held elections in September in defiance of a federal decision to postpone the polls.  

The Tigray regional government dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for more than 25 years before Abiy took power in 2018.