Chicago, Illinois — Ethiopia’s current civil war, focused in the Tigray region, is difficult, though not impossible, to summarize. In short, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is battling the Ethiopian government, which they accuse of conducting a genocidal operation against Tigrayans in concert with Eritrea. Even Abune Matthias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has called the operation a genocide. Though members of the TPLF held positions within the Ethiopian government for years, when president Abiy Ahmed came to power, he removed many Tigrayans from positions within the government and army.
War Crimes in Tigray
Many accuse the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies of committing war crimes in the Tigray region, including using starvation and rape as weapons of war. Masses of women are reporting to hospitals after being gang-raped. One recent video even showed a doctor removing pieces of plastic and nails from a woman’s vagina after soldiers violently raped and tortured her. The Telegraph reports the story of Melat, violently raped next to the corpse of her brother, whom Ethiopian Federal Soldiers shot when he attempted to defend her from them.
An AP investigation found that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers working together against Tigray are blocking and sometimes stealing food aid, preventing it from reaching the starving in the Tigray region. The United Nations has termed 4.5 million of the 5.7 million people in the Tigray region “in need.”
Starvation as a War Crime
In October 2020, just prior to this crisis, the Tigray region underwent an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis. The analysis classified the region as “stressed,” though Western Tigray was considered secure enough not to need analysis.
Starvation as a war crime is defined as “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions.” In armed conflicts, actors target those things “indispensable to survival” via destruction, looting, separating people from what they need (such as removing them from farmland and agricultural needs) and by targeting their activities (for example, preventing people from accessing veterinary care for farm animals.) In Tigray, these things have been targeted in the following ways:
- The conflict has prevented Tigrayans from accessing labor migration
- Soldiers have killed livestock, looted and destroyed factories and infrastructure (food, health, water and sanitation infrastructure)
- The conflict has prevented humanitarian access to the region and prevented migration out of Tigray
- The conflict has prevented Tigrayans from collecting natural resources like food and firewood
- Soldiers have vandalized and destroyed refugee camps and refugee-serving sites
The difficulty of humanitarian response is multiplied in this conflict due to refugee camps and services being targeted. Additionally, censorship makes coordinating responses nearly impossible. Eritrea had an extremely comprehensive lockdown. Because of digital surveillance and a lack of media freedom, Eritreans depend on in-person communication. With COVID-19 lockdowns, this communication was impossible. Press freedoms have also come under fire in Ethiopia: Ethiopian forces have detained, deported, attacked and killed several journalists attempting to report on Tigray, though in February they did allow access to the region again, claiming access was originally denied due to security concerns.
In spite of agreements with Ethiopia, aid workers helping Tigray have found themselves severely restricted and have even been killed.
Ending the Crisis
Most essential to ending the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is ending the conflict there. Ethiopia has invited Eritrean troops to fight against the Tigrayans, creating a crisis that is no longer contained within Ethiopia and that necessitates an international response. Though some in the international community have called for a ceasefire, Prime Minister Ahmed has rejected those calls.
Next, Ethiopia and the international community will need to mount an unobstructed humanitarian response to the crisis. Obstructing humanitarian assistance is considered a starvation crime. Ethiopia has, in the past, provided for its own people in times of famine. For example, in 2015, it initiated a large-scale assistance program within a month of the discovery of severe crop failures. When the Ethiopian government wants to, it can help its people. However, it has decided not to help the people in the Tigray region. The United Nations Security Council, urged forward by Ireland, issued “a clear public call for unfettered humanitarian access and a scaled-up humanitarian response in Tigray,” the first step in mounting international pressure against these crimes in Tigray. Priorities for humanitarian aid include healthcare, food assistance, mobility, financial services and farming assistance.
A Region in the Public Eye
Additionally, the region will need to have freedom of communication. The press will need unfettered access to the region without fear of reprisal for any negative portrayals of the government in the media. The people of Tigray must have access to information in order for them to access humanitarian aid. Further, Ethiopia’s concealment of the disaster prevents humanitarian aid organizations from knowing how to provide aid, what type of aid to provide and the challenges they may face in that region.
Ethiopia has become increasingly fractured under Abiy’s rule and the Tigray crisis is only a symptom of that fracturing. There needs to be a dialogue among Ethiopia’s regions and ethnic communities, along with the assurance that Ethiopia’s elections are free and fair.
– Hilary Brown