Amidst ongoing political and humanitarian crises in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the United States has imposed new sanctions this Monday on the chief of staff of defense forces of the Eritrean military, Filipos Woldeyohannes. The U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement explaining that Woldeyohannes was being sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a treaty intended to hold accountable those who commit severe violations of internationally recognized human rights. Woldeyohannes leads a military guilty of ethnic cleansing, widespread sexual assault, and forced starvation, among other severe human rights violations on Tigrayan civilians. The Treasury Department statement also calls for the immediate, full removal of Eritrean forces from the Tigray region.
The ongoing armed conflict between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (E.N.D.F.) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.) began on November 4th, when Ethiopian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy Ahmed ordered the E.N.D.F. to militarily engage with the T.P.L.F. following a T.P.L.F. attack on Ethiopian military bases. Since then, all actors, particularly the E.N.D.F. and Eritrean Defense Forces (E.D.F.) have committed numerous war crimes and human rights violations.
Relations between Tigrayan and Ethiopian forces have been notoriously hostile, stemming back decades to the dissolvement of the communist state. Upon the 1991 collapse of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the one-party communist state led by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the T.P.L.F. formed coalitions with other local militia groups and assumed control over much of the newly established Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Despite accounting for a mere six percent of the total Ethiopian population, Tigrayans dominated the Ethiopian political scene for nearly 30 years. This political and military stronghold eventually evolved to include economic dominance, as members of the T.P.L.F.’s elite exercised “complete control of the country’s economy and natural resources.” Resentment and ethnic tensions grew amidst religious suppression and poor human rights conditions. These hostilities, heightened by ideological differences and COVID-19-related stressors, ultimately boiled over and erupted in violence.
As in many countries, COVID-19 persuaded Ethiopian officials in 2020 to postpone their elections until the following year. This triggered outrage within the T.P.L.F., which cited the postponement as Prime Minister Abiy’s attempt to hold on to power. As such, the T.P.L.F. decided to proceed with holding local elections in the Tigray region, despite national elections being otherwise postponed. This, followed by the aforementioned attack on E.N.D.F.-controlled military bases in Tigray’s capital of Mekele, served as the catalyst for Abiy’s decision to order a military offensive. Rebels justified the attack as “preemptive self-defense,” while the federal parliament proposed designating the T.P.L.F. as a “terrorist organization.” T.P.L.F. soldiers who carried out the attack were accused of wearing Eritrean army uniforms to “implicate the Eritrean government in false claims of aggression against the people of Tigray.” Later, Eritrean forces allied themselves with the Abiy state, participating in the military crackdown.
The military’s initial aims – to stifle rebellion and quash opposition through total suppression, weakening Tigrayan forces through whatever means possible – have evolved into an all-out genocide. Means of communication were some of the first to be disrupted; internet, cell service, and electricity were promptly shut down in several parts of Tigray after the attacks on the Mekele military bases. Due to the media crackdown, reports on Ethiopia’s situation were slow to emerge to the international community. The number of civilian casualties remains disputed, although some studies indicate that there have been at least 10,000 deaths. Harrowing stories of massacres, widespread sexual assault, and ethnic cleansing began to emerge, but verifying witness testimonials had been largely obstructed due to a restriction on journalist movements within the country. Several media outlets and Ethiopian activist groups have since confirmed that the situation on the ground is dire. Reports detail men and boys being torn from their families and murdered; rape being utilized as a weapon of war; a strategy of ethnic cleansing and forced starvation; and the intentional destruction/obstruction of infrastructure connecting the Tigray region to other parts of the country, effectively blocking routes for escape as well as restricting entry of trucks carrying much needed international aid, among other horrific human rights violations. A report issued by the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that more than 46,000 people have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan and another 1.7 million people have been internally displaced since early November.
Immediate, multi-pronged conflict resolution efforts are absolutely imperative to end the onslaught of armed violence and ease the ongoing humanitarian crises.
One seemingly simple solution would be seceding Tigray from Ethiopia altogether. However, experts warn that the move could have disastrous consequences. It’s likely that the Tigrayan secession could trigger a domino effect, in which Tigray could act as a precursor for other regions embroiled in Ethiopia’s notoriously tense ethnic relations to secede along ethnic lines, potentially collapsing Ethiopia altogether. This would likely amount to more fighting via territorial skirmishes and disputes over acquisition of resources, providing opportunity for new and worsening humanitarian crises.
It’s evident that militarization has wreaked havoc on civilian communities, and international military intervention is likely to exacerbate the conflict rather than act as a solution. For this reason, the international community should refrain from direct armed intervention. Instead, we should consider non-violent measures of allyship; strong condemnations of military violence, advocation for the pullback of Eritrean forces, and the continued provision of international aid will ultimately be more effective than military force. The effectiveness of imposing sanctions remains to be seen. Prior to the most recent sanctions on Woldeyohannes, the U.S. deployed sanctions on the Ethiopian government as well as implementing cuts to Ethiopian security and economic aid. These diplomatic acts of penalization function as important and symbolic steps in declaring solidarity with Tigrayan civilians affected by the military crackdown. However, we should continue to closely monitor the negative effects sanctions may have on an already precarious international aid situation.
The only truly feasible avenue through which a solution may be reached is an immediate ceasefire and commencement of peace talks. Continuing this armed conflict will be catastrophic for civilians, and the mistreatment of Tigrayan civilians will only antagonize the very rebel forces the Eritrean and Ethiopian militaries aim to eradicate. People, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or any other factor of identification, are entitled to security and basic human rights. Any violation of those rights, regardless of extenuating circumstances, is unacceptable.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres outlined a multi-pronged approach to address both the causes and effects of the ongoing conflict, including an “immediate end to hostilities, guaranteed, unrestricted humanitarian access,” and the “re-establishment of public services in all affected areas” to allow for “the start of an Ethiopian-led political dialogue to find a solution for the crisis.” It would be advisable to create a forum through which representatives of ethnic groups throughout the country are able to communicate grievances and ideas for reform in a non-violent setting. Initiating this dialogue is the first step towards reaching understanding, and eventually, compromise.
It is imperative that stakeholders recognize that, despite decades of distrust and legitimate criticisms of T.P.L.F. leadership, civilians are not the ones at fault. There is no justification for the war crimes perpetrated throughout this conflict. Participating in genocide campaigns will not remedy past injustices, and an ideological war in which neither side is willing to concede can reach no positive conclusion.
Finally, special attention must be paid to the horrific trend of utilizing women’s and girls’ bodies as weapons of war. This trend makes the existence of gendered suffering in conflict obvious. To address the catastrophically widespread sexual assault and gender-based violence, it is absolutely necessary to identify and acknowledge the inherently feminist concerns in this humanitarian crisis. Applying a gendered lens to our understanding of the consequences of conflict and finding ways to mitigate them is essential in order to address the unique predicament of people who present female in a war zone.
As Secretary General Guterres said, “Now is the time to put an end to the suffering. It is time for all parties to recognize that there is no military solution, and it is vital to preserve the unity and stability of Ethiopia which is critical to the region and beyond.”
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