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Tigray dispatch: “How do you expect to stop war crimes with a request?”

From Tigray, where the government is trying to choke us to starvation, the international system’s dysfunction is clear.

A survivor of gender-based violence from the war in Mekelle, Tigray, Ethiopia. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Mulugeta Ayene

A survivor of gender-based violence from the war in Mekelle, Tigray, Ethiopia. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Mulugeta Ayene

I was lucky to get a data connection in Mekelle today, which enabled me to learn about reactions to political developments in Ethiopia. Getting a connection has become a rare luxury for almost ten months now, as Addis Ababa has cut Tigray out of all available infrastructure – from telecoms, to the electric grid, roads, and banking services – as it has used isolation as a weapon of its war.

Reading recent news coverage about Ethiopia left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the extent and accuracy of the coverage of the war amazed me. I salute the dedicated journalists and humanitarian workers who have risked their lives to cover the sufferings of Tigrayans. Some have paid with their lives, while so many others have suffered harassment and physical abuse while doing their jobs. I also thought of the sons, daughters, and friends of Tigray scattered throughout the world who have toiled to correct the narrative of the war. The solidarity you feel from being understood generates a sense of hope and adds fuel to the adrenalin of resistance. I would like them to know their efforts are well known to the suffering population of Tigray and well registered in its history of resistance.

On the other hand, I was disappointed to read about the insufficient actions of the international system. It seems there is consensus among international media and rights groups that the conflict in Tigray is not “a law enforcement operation”, as the government initially labelled it, but a fully-fledged war. The Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, along with regional militias and special police forces, are known to have committed war crimes including the use of food and sexual violence as weapons of war. Intelligence reports produced by Western capitals have talked of ethnic cleansing and pointed to statements by government officials to suggest underlying genocidal intent. And yet, the actions of the international system add up to little.

Western governments, the UN, international rights groups, and various think tanks have been calling on the Ethiopian government to look for a peaceful resolution to the war and have repeatedly demanded that Eritrea pull its forces out of Tigray. Many have also called for the withdrawal of Amhara militias and said that any claims over land should be pursued through legal means. These may be the correct demands to make, but they have little impact on the ground. How can you expect humanitarian corridors to be opened, war crimes to stop, and accountability for atrocities simply by issuing a request? Didn’t you establish that that government has genocidal intentions and has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity? Are they going to agree to polite requests as though they were guests at a dinner party?

Dysfunctionality of the international system

One can clearly see the deep dysfunctionality of the international system. From my reading, I can see that it is concerned with Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and is inclined to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as they claim not to see a viable alternative. The desire to maintain the status quo may be understandable, but how can you support the very entity that is ravaging the status quo instead of working towards an alternative solution?

Abiy has used every means to strangle the people of Tigray. He has denied the population humanitarian assistance, access to their bank deposits which they need to maintain their livelihoods, and means of communication to the outside world. What could this be if not a crime against humanity? Yet none of the international organisations, including the UN, has called them such and demanded the regime acknowledge these simple realities and repudiate them. Instead, it is welcome news when the government lets a few truckloads of aid pass through its blockade, the ensuing public congratulations letting Abiy off the hook for his ongoing siege.

In 2005, the responsibility to protect (R2P) was introduced as a principle of multilateralism at the UN. This principle recognised that states are obliged to protect their own people, and that if one was unwilling or unable to do so, this responsibility shifted to the international community. To their credit, some, such as the US and European Union, have attempted to weaken perpetrators of violence by suspending direct budgetary support to the Ethiopian government. The US has also said it will impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible and recently placed financial sanctions on the chief-of-staff of the Eritrean Defence Force.

These are encouraging but fall far short of the Tigrayan people’s expectations. Whatever impacts these measures might have had, the Ethiopian regime continues to choke the whole population of Tigray with the clear intention of pushing it to starvation and collapse. Access to humanitarian aid is still almost zero as the supply lines continue to be closed. Relief agencies have run out of supplies. All essential services are shut down, complicating the already precarious conditions in Tigray.

The Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) have continued their military operations to clear the genocidal forces out of Tigray and expand operations to central and eastern Ethiopia, particularly to the Amhara and the Afar regions, with the primary objective of opening a humanitarian corridor and forcing the government to negotiate. Eight meetings of the UN Security Council have failed to reach agreement on a common position, let alone a decision capable of arresting the violence. History is registering how countries and multilateral institutions are responding to the crisis. Tigrayans will remember some members of the UN Security Council for standing on their side. They will remember others, particularly the three African countries, for their reluctance to play their part in enabling the international system to deliver serious actions according to the principle of R2P.

African voices

I was lucky to read the recent open letter, signed by over 50 prominent Africa intellectuals and published on African Arguments, calling for urgent action in Ethiopia. I was pleasantly surprised by it as African intellectuals speaking with a collective voice has rarely been observed since the elimination of apartheid in South Africa. Yet while I fully understand the difficulty of reaching agreement and the need to find the lowest common denominator, particularly when the group gets larger, I thought the signatories could have done better.

I sympathise with their dismay over the failure to resolve the conflict peacefully, and I share their pain at the African Union’s lack of effective engagement. I agree that its member states must not allow the Ethiopian government to dictate the terms of its engagement in seeking a resolution to the conflict.

However, I differ on some important observations. The TDF is not “expanding” the conflict to the rest of Ethiopia. From the beginning, this was a conflict involving all of Ethiopia, though the fighting was concentrated in Tigray. The African intellectuals’ call rightly indicates the reasons for the TDF to move beyond Tigray. There are wars in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Kimant and other parts of the country. Various regional states have been under states of emergency administered by “command posts”. The war in Tigray only came to be a major war because of its magnitude and genocidal intentions. But the fact that the TDF and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) agreed to coordinate operations doesn’t pose a new concern. Rather it is a new manifestation of an existing concern given the intransigency of the regime for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

I also wish the call for the Ethiopian government and the government of Tigray was separated into separate demands, rather than calling on both parties to respond positively to calls for political dialogue, including with groups in the Amhara and Oromia regions. As far as I know, the government of Tigray has not only responded to repeated calls for talks but has made its own official calls for a peaceful resolution several times. It has already acted on the open letter’s demand. By contrast, Abiy has not responded to any of the calls. When the TDF expanded its operations to the Amhara and the Afar regions, Abiy repeatedly made public statements reasoning that the incursions were made to force him to talk. He reaffirmed that he will never talk to an entity he calls “terrorist” but will instead destroy it so he can reassert his rule in Tigray.

Nevertheless, the African intellectuals’ collective action is encouraging. And it is reasonable to hope the engagement will grow in quality and intensity. I am hoping the authors and signatories – and many others – remain seized by developments in Ethiopia and encourage the parties of the conflict to move to a peaceful resolution.

By mulugeta Gebrehiwot

This article is published in collaboration with Debating Ideas, a section of African Arguments that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond.

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