The U.S. State Department has expressed grave concern and announced that they are looking into reports concerning the war crimes and human rights abuses occurring in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. For context, Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populated country, has been rife with tribal conflicts over land and resources for some time now. The Tigray region, located in Northern Ethiopia and bordered by Eritrea, is no exception to this, as it has been a hotspot of conflict since Ethiopia went to war with Eritrea in 1998; a shaky resolution to this war was only reached in 2018. Tensions escalated in November of last year, when members of the Tigrayan defense launched a preemptive self-defense attack against members of the Ethiopian military. Since then, conflict has persisted with grave humanitarian consequences.
A crisis such as this often creates many other crises. The conflict has resulted in thousands of refugees fleeing to Sudan and the displacement of many others. This in turn leads to a higher risk of starvation and famine in areas that cannot handle the sudden influx of people, to say nothing of the many abuses known to happen in humanitarian camps where oversight and security is often lacking.
Yet many feel the need to flee as civilians have been some of the main targets in this conflict. Researchers at the University of Ghent found that Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have retaliated against Tigrayan citizens anytime either party loses a battle. A USAID report has claimed that rape is being used a weapon of war with a UN deputy aid coordinator, Wafaa Said, stating, “Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence.” Eritrean forces have been found to loot and pillage, destroying crops and hospitals in their wake. Ethiopian forces have been accused of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans, with there being credibly sourced reports of multiple massacres occurring.
It is the evidence of these extrajudicial killings that finally prompted the U.S. to get involved. A spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, Ned Price, commented, “We strongly condemn the killings, the forced removals, the sexual assaults, the other human rights abuses that multiple organizations have reported.” However, the U.S. declined to give an opinion on which party they believed was responsible for said atrocities. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia acknowledged the reports of widespread death and human rights abuses but attributed most of it to exaggeration and propaganda efforts. He also declared that a withdrawal of the Eritrean troops has begun. The U.S. has commented that this is an important step in moving towards peace and security in the region, though the details surrounding this withdrawal have gone unverified.
As more and more verified reports emerge from the region, more countries and organizations with considerable sway are speaking up. Both the United Nations and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (the latter being the NGO working with the Ethiopian government) have announced that they will be launching an investigation into the matter. Moreover, the foreign ministers from the G7 group of nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.) released a joint statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops. Additionally, the UN Security Council and the U.S. State Department have recently announced they are looking into the reports. But is this enough to prompt change in the correct direction?
Many of these countries are influential and large providers of aid to Ethiopia. Moreover, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy is conscious of optics especially as he has recently been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his resolution at the border; a resolution that now appears to be disintegrating. So while it might stand to reason that so many influential countries voicing their displeasure might lead to a wake-up call and urge Ethiopian leadership to try and attempt to deal with things on their own, it has only resulted in the blame-game or dismissive acknowledgements of what is happening. There is also no way to ensure that Ethiopian leadership would give people in the Tigray region a say in their own future.
When tragic situations such as these arise, it is a reminder that there is an infrastructure set up that is supposed to be able to help provide stability and guidance, and so perhaps what is needed is greater involvement of the African Union. The problem between Tigray, Ethiopia, and Eritrea stopped being confined to those three actors the moment people began fleeing for refuge across multiple borders. The conflict and its subsequent problems concern the continent, and the African Union may be able to provide a neutral forum for mediation and the drafting of a new peace proposal. Moreover, UN peacekeepers may be necessary on the ground in the meanwhile, to ensure an actual ceasefire is enforced, civilians are protected and helped, and aid is reaching vulnerable populations. Until these things are prioritized, the situation will likely show no signs of deescalating.
It is time for the institutions that have existed for decades to be utilized as intended, and for the laws, conventions and aid resources dedicated to resolving human rights abuses and humanitarian crises to be better deployed. This call to action would never entertain the idea that violence is the answer, but better impressions of Western intolerance for this behaviour must be given to Ethiopia than the passive remarks from foreign countries that they are merely ‘looking into things.’ Such statements mean nothing to the thousands of citizens waking up each day not knowing whether they will live or die and are a poor reflection of the diplomatic capability many of these countries and institutions possess in the 21st century.