Time for Action on Ethiopia
December 15, 2021
The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia has been characterized by misinformation campaigns, broken promises, the deliberate denial of relief assistance, and widespread human rights abuses. More than one year on and with millions displaced and on the edge of starvation, none of the parties have shown an interest in seeking peaceful solutions. The conflict is quickly descending into civil war, with the potential to shape humanitarian, development, security, diplomatic, and economic engagement in Ethiopia for a generation. Without meaningful intervention now, every possible solution to the crisis presents a worst-case scenario for a country of more than 110 million people, the Horn of Africa, and U.S. and Western interests.
The humanitarian situation in Tigray is catastrophic and will get worse as conflict and violence intensify. A humanitarian blockade continues to prevent more than 90 percent of critical assistance from reaching Tigray and conflict-affected areas of Amhara. Ongoing armed violence by all parties to the conflict is driving millions from their homes. Civilian property and infrastructure has been stolen or destroyed, with attacks on civilian infrastructure continuing. Humanitarian assistance is denied, looted, and used as a weapon by all parties, though principally by the government. Communications networks have been cut, fuel deliveries have been stopped, and cash is inaccessible, adding insult to significant injury. To appreciate the scale of suffering in Tigray, experts from Ghent University project “a minimum of 425 hunger deaths per day, and a ‘conservative maximum’ of 1,201 per day.”
Initial deliveries of humanitarian assistance to more than 3.7 million Amharans and Afaris have begun, but they remain insufficient. These affected populations will quickly reach food “crisis” alongside the 5.2 million Tigrayans who have gone months without sustained assistance. Such assistance is not possible without lifting the blockade and allowing unfettered access.
On top of the violence, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) is warning of severe drought conditions in southern and eastern Ethiopia, which will generate needs far exceeding available donor funding and the logistical response capacities of humanitarian organizations. This may contribute to additional ethnic tensions as competition for limited resources compounds the current crisis.
Human Rights Violations Continue
Reports of violations of human rights and humanitarian law continue to document the atrocities of the conflict to date. Even these existing reports do not fully capture the scope and scale of the human rights violations, with additional allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass rape, and mass killings needing investigation. At the onset of the crisis, a government-directed blackout of the northern regional state of Tigray slowed, but did not prevent, international outcry. Ethnically charged mass arrests in Addis, Oromia, and in western Tigray sparked outrage and concern from U.S. special envoys—but to little effect. To that end, the International Atrocity Prevention Working Group, to which the United States is a founding member, should pool resources and publicize genocide determinations. Not to do so would be to offer tacit report for genocide.
A precedent-setting joint investigation into alleged crimes by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was widely panned as neither impartial nor independent. The joint investigation reached a fraction of cases reported to them, prompting calls for the UN Human Rights Council to establish an international investigative mechanism and an independent investigation into alleged atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict. As professor Jan Nyssen of Ghent University noted: “We have mapped allegations of 260 massacres committed during the Tigray War. The team behind this survey has only visited five or six of those locations.”
The Ethiopian government continues to bristle at Western criticism, based on an assumption of moral equivalence with previous Ethiopian governments that does not exist. The previous government failed in many respects, including infringements on humanitarian principles and development models, violations of human rights and media liberty, unfair democratic elections, and corruption. However, the international community, while providing substantial development assistance and economic support, regularly challenged and pressured Ethiopia to take corrective actions on those fundamental issues. In fact, many in power today were active participants in the past. One example is Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Makonnen, who served alongside Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the highest levels of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front ( EPRDF) for decades, drove foreign policy decisions then, and now is leading the Prosperity Party.
The difference today is the sheer scale and ferocity of violence directed at civilians by all parties to the conflict, including the government of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian National Defense Force. Given the scale of atrocities and humanitarian need, the United States should reject attempts at a false equivalence. Rather, the United States and partner states, the UN system, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the media should respond in a manner consistent with international laws and demand accountability for the ongoing violence. No amount of misinformation campaigns can whitewash the ongoing emergency, and attempts to conflate past challenges with the present violence should be rejected.
The Path Forward
Diplomatic hand-wringing and feet-dragging has failed to deliver meaningful results. The United States should corral G7 partners to demonstrate the necessary resolve to confront the crisis and compel all parties to the table. There is no real concern for Western words, and thus no reason to change plans. Immediate steps should include issuing sanctions on individuals and countries directing the war efforts, including countries providing material or operational support, and completing or publishing genocide determinations.
The United States and G7 countries should also consider withdrawing or pausing non-humanitarian financial support to the country until the conflict parties enter negotiations, the humanitarian blockade is lifted, and humanitarian access is ensured. As evidenced by the steady flow of expensive weapons systems into the country, the government of Ethiopia is spending resources and procuring arms rather than providing essential domestic services. In this context, donors are right to be wary of continuing to provide development and economic support funding.
Lastly, the absence of leadership from the UN system continues to prevent meaningful diplomatic action. The United States should publicly urge the UN secretary-general and Security Council to genuinely engage on the crisis, including by presenting proposals for weapons bans and sanctions. The United Nations is central to ensuring a shared understanding of the conflict, its drivers, and solutions. This will be difficult, with China and Russia uniting in opposition to international involvement. Yet given the existing international dimensions—with the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya enmeshed in the conflict—leaving it to the African Union to handle the crisis alone is irresponsible.
David Del Conte is a senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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