How can the world address human rights violations amid the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia?

Tigray, a region in the north of Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, has been experiencing a state of emergency since November 2020. In this state, Tigray has been flooded with Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces facing off against the region’s armed forces.  

Tensions arose in the region in September 2020 after a major political party in Tigray’s politics, the Tigray People Liberation front (TPLF), held parliamentary elections in the region, despite the government postponing all elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This came after the TPLF, along with other parties running against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, argued that the elections were postponed three times without a set date in 2021. 

Parties contesting this move alleged that the delay was implemented in an effort to continue Ahmed’s rule, extending the current parliamentary term by nine months. In response, Ethiopian lawmakers cut funds to Tigray’s regional government and cracked down on any further actions that could have been to undercut Ahmed’s authority. 

Confrontation between Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF began in November 2020 when Tigray’s forces fired against the national military to take control over an armed forces command center in Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded by implementing a “law-and-order operation,” targeting alleged domestic terrorists in Tigray. Ahmed accused the TPLF of attacking a military base to steal artillery and weaponry. He responded by deploying the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, along with deploying aerial bombardments targeting Tigray’s regional paramilitary police and military loyal to the TPLF

Despite resistance by TPLF, Ethiopia’s national government has taken control of the capital, initially the TPLF’s headquarters, alongside major cities in Tigray with the help from its new ally, Eritrea, whose government formed a peace deal with the Ethiopian government in 2018 after decades of conflict. Eritrea and Ethiopia’s relationship has marginally improved since Ahmed won the nobel peace prize in 2019. Eritrea joined the fighting alongside the Ethiopian national defense force against TPLF with the UN and many other eyewitnesses reporting that invading Eritrean soldiers have kidnapped and massacred civilians in the region. ِِ

But the turmoil in Tigray has given way to more than just political disruption; the region now faces a mounting humanitarian crisis. Living conditions in the Tigray region are considered dire, as civilians are faced with food shortages, lack of access to water and insufficient healthcare access amid the COVID-19 crisis. While Tigray has historically faced drought induced famines, 

The UN called the current situation in Ethiopia “extremely alarming” and estimates that at least 4.5 million people in Tigray are in need of food assistance. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a global hunger monitor, has labeled famine conditions in Tigray to be under “emergency” status, one status less than declaring a famine with already increasing death rates. The World peace foundation has regarded the famine crisis in tigray to be a war crime by depriving civilians from food through denying access to crops, farm animals, water and medical facilities. 

To make things worse, the Ethiopian government has placed restrictions that prevent humanitarian aid access to those in need in Tigray due to ongoing military action. Of such restrictions has been the near non-existent access to cellular connection and the internet due to a “informational blackout” caused by a government shutdown of services from November until late March. While connection has been partially restored, communication is still intermittent, preventing the humanitarian and international communities from fully comprehending the ground situation in Tigray. This has also prevented Journalists and those who want to hold atrocities accountable, from “documenting what’s happening on the ground”. This hasn’t been the first time the Ethiopian government had switched off communications when confrontations erupted but rather a repetition of 2019 in the region of Amhara and of July 2020 in the region of oromo .  

While TPLF still controls the majority of the countryside in Tigray, Ahmed has called on unification through centralization. According to The New York Times, this process involves “increasing the federal government’s power and minimizing the autonomy of regional governments.” This call for centralization is  unpopular among TPLF leaders who were once the country’s dominant political party before Ahmed’s 2018 election. However, even during the height of TPLF’s power in the national government, the party only comprised 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Unification through centralization is also unpopular among other ethnic groups because it diminishes their decision-making power in favor of the majority. 

Looting and sexual violence are just a few of the accusations against Ethipia’s National Defense Forces (ENDF). Amnesty International has reported horrendous instances of mass executions of “men and teenage boys” by Eritrean forces. In January 2021, the U.S. Department of State  called for an independent investigation into the conflict following reports of human right abuses, including attacks on refugee camps and mass killings. The State Department also called on Eritrea to completely withdraw its forces from Tigray after revealing evidence of their presence in Tigray. Meanwhile, the European Union has noted that the atrocities caused by “perpetrators need to be swiftly brought to justice” and the EU envoy to Ethiopia has said “that the government is in complete denial over its atrocities in Tigray.” The EU envoy to Ethiopia has also suspended budget support for the country due to the Tigray conflict, calling for an immediate end to hostilities taking place.  

In search of solutions to the conflict, the TPLF put forth eight conditions for peace with the Ethiopian government in February. One condition called for an international mediator in peace talks, while another called on the Ethiopian government to provide greater access to humanitarian aid. Both conditions seem unrealistic to Ahmed as the second condition has not occured due to government restrictions that have prevented access to humanitarian support. Ahmed has also resisted the first condition by refusing an international mediation to end the conflict, saying Ethiopia would not accept foreign involvement in its affairs. The TPLF have also agreed with the United States in asking for a complete withdrawal of Eritrean forces. While Ahmd and Eritrea have both first denied such denied any of their involvement in bolstering the fight against TPLF, but Ahmed has only just announced on March 23 the complete withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers, telling Parliament that “Eritrea had said its soldiers were acting to secure the border” and not within the city. While Ahmed acknowledges the mass atrocities through a tweet mentioning that “atrocities have been committed in Tigray region” he has also added that the “Eritrean people and government did a lasting favour to our soldiers,” during the conflict. 

Prospects of a ceasefire and domestic dialogue by both parties seems grim. The bloodshed that ultimately burdens the lives of civilians needs to, however, be addressed immediately. A peacekeeping mission by the UN should be the proposed solution.

The UN’s mission since 1945 has been to “maintain international peace and security” and in this case, the international organization must act now. The UN should establish a civilian component to the proposed peace enforcement mission, as it did in the UN Mission to Liberia. This component involves deploying non-government experts, loaned or hired, to train future military on authority and accountability to ensure that the government doesn’t overextend its power by using the military for political interests — as Ahmed is doing against the TPLF in Tigray. An international mediation should also take place that would ensure a more equitable power sharing of the government among ethnic political representing groups and prevent a repetition of overextending power.

For a UN-mandated peace enforcement mission to succeed, there first needs to be a mutual consensus from the UN, including members of the security council, on condemning Ahmed’s atrocities. While a UN general statement may catch the attention of Ethiopia government, direct condemnation by members of the security council could worry Ahmed in fear of potential repercussions. Moving forward, U.S. and EU officials need to cooperate on actions that call for an immediate ceasefire to the conflict. The carrot and stick method of rewarding and punishing to induce behavior should be applied targeting military and political officials for being alleged perpetrators of atrocities in Tigray.  

This, however, has yet to occur, as the Security Council did not reach unanimous approval for a statement to call an end to the violence Tigray region after objections from India, Russia and especially China. East African leaders have also legitimized Ahmed’s actions rather than condemn, with the chair of the African Union commission mentioning that Ahmed is taking “bold steps to preserve unity and stability” despite the displacement of more than 60,000 residents of Tigray. The State Department also announced $52 million in humanitarian assistance to the conflict, acknowledging “public commitments and progress made by the Government of Ethiopia on increasing humanitarian access” which ironically is currently the most challenging issue for the humanitarian community for Tigray. 

With the international community not sufficiently condemning Ahmed and supporting the TPLF along the marginalized Tigray community, an international mediation by the United States is necessary to allow for domestic dialogue to occur. The UN would not be successful at mediating the conflict between TPLF and Ahmed as it has not even received international backing by the P5 member states on Ahmed’s conducted atrocities. The United States on the other hand, has marginally more influence over Ethiopia through trade relations and being the largest financial donor to Ethiopia’s economy. The carrot and stick method would also be applied more effectively by the United States than the UN for the executive authority Biden holds, alongside the impact of U.S. foreign policy legislation that would immediately affect Ethiopia for better or worse. 

While Ahmed will likely refuse to concede to the TPLF, his reputation is in serious jeopardy. Increasing attention from the international community and increased acknowledgement of the growing humanitarian crises — one that is likely worse than reported — is creating mounting concerns for Ethiopia’s national government. Whether it’s ready to face international mediation or sanctions has yet to be seen.

Regardless, the UN and other international actors ought to act to stop the humanitarian crisis and end the suffering faced by civilians in Tigray.

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