The unfolding crisis in northern Ethiopia bears all the hallmarks of a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe. Since November, more than 6 million people have been trapped between the guns of Ethiopia’s military forces, marauding Eritrean troops, Amharan militia, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The vast majority are now in urgent need of assistance. Yet the Ethiopian government continues to present a narrative that all is well in the north while effectively blocking relief aid. The Biden administration will need to move quickly to avoid further devastation in Tigray.
Much of Tigray remains under an information blackout. But not total. MSF has exposed the situation in Adigrat, a city in eastern Tigray. Witnesses speak of mass atrocities, of wanton extra-judicial killings, and gender violence. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces stand accused of targeting refugees and of deliberately razing their camps to the ground. The United States has demanded that Eritrea withdraw its troops from the region, but to little effect.
The humanitarian toll is already staggering. Two-plus million people have been internally displaced. Over four and a half million desperately need aid. A leaked government document quoted a regional government official acknowledging that people were starving. Medical doctors were said to be pleading for supplies, and body bags. Other reports highlight the fears of an exploding number of COVID-19 cases. In private, a senior United Nations official warned, “It is so bad, I can’t believe what I’ve seen. And there is no capacity, there are no supplies, and even if we had both of those there is no access.”
One hesitates to surmise what is happening across vast swathes of the region where journalists and aid workers cannot go. Ethiopia has a troubled history of blockading relief assistance to civilian populations in the midst of conflict. In decades past, the central government in Addis Ababa destroyed humanitarian stockpiles or otherwise prevented aid from reaching the people of Tigray as part of its counterinsurgency strategy against the TPLF. In the end, it was the people living there that starved – not the insurgents. History is once again at risk of repeating itself.
So far, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the conflict with Eritrea, has been largely impervious to outside pressure, as has Debretsion Gebremichael and the TPLF rebels he leads. The African Union sought to curb the slide to war in November, then largely disengaged. The Trump administration weighed in late in the game and in muted tones. European leaders have denounced atrocities in Tigray and have suspended $100 million in budget support for Ethiopia. But these efforts have yet to be sequenced into a coordinated diplomatic strategy to pressure Abiy to do the right thing.
All this must change – and quickly. The good news is that the Biden administration has already been more engaged and outspoken than its predecessor. The United States must now move swiftly and in concert with its partners and allies to prevent Ethiopia from fully collapsing and the country falling into the abyss. Key members of the Biden’s Cabinet have important roles to play.
First, incoming U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, can call on the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide the U.N. Security Council with frank and comprehensive briefings on the humanitarian and human rights situation in areas under the control of the Ethiopian army and forces allied with it, as well as areas under the control of the TPLF. The briefings must then be followed by concrete action. To date, the U.N. Security Council has taken up the situation in Tigray three times, but its members have failed to issue even so much as a statement.
Second, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield can also push the U.N. Emergency Directors to meet and declare Tigray an “L3 Emergency” – the highest level of urgency that allows the U.N. humanitarian agencies to quickly mobilize staff and resources. This move should also trigger a special urgent donor appeal for the crisis in Tigray outside of the annual country Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), which do not include those who have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan. To be effective, this appeal will require early and urgent funding to make a difference.
Third, it’s time to send in the humanitarians. In recent years, the government, donors, U.N., and NGOs in Ethiopia used development frameworks and systems to respond to short-term needs caused from drought, flood, and the like. It would be easy to fall back on that model for this crisis, but that would be a mistake. Aid agencies need to flip the emergency switch and bring in dedicated humanitarian teams with the requisite skillsets and capacities. To this end, incoming USAID Administrator Samantha Power should send a DART team – America’s premier crisis response tool – to address the situation in Tigray. The scale, urgency, and complexity of the crisis certainly justify – if not require – the deployment of a DART.
Fourth, the White House must continue to press Eritrea to pull its forces back across the border. It also needs to push for the Ethiopian government to set the conditions in which relief groups can save lives. This means unfettered and blanket access to all affected communities. Ethiopia should issue 6-month visas for relief groups and expedite customs clearances for humanitarian supplies. In addition, humanitarians must be allowed to communicate in the information blackhole Tigray has become. The Ethiopian government must allow aid agencies to deploy telecommunications, including cell towers, sat phones, and HF/VHF radio.
Fifth, Secretary of State Antony Blinken must urgently appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa to help oversee a regional diplomatic strategy. Blinken has already told senators that he would consider such a move. A special envoy could also help coordinate efforts of the African Union, the European Union, and Ethiopia’s bilateral benefactors to bring concerted pressure to bear on Abiy and all parties to the conflict to make progress on the humanitarian situation and invest in a national political dialogue in advance of elections now scheduled for June of this year.
There is still time to pull back from the brink, but not much. Without an immediate infusion of assistance, to all areas of Tigray, a humanitarian crisis will become a humanitarian catastrophe the likes of which Ethiopia has not seen in a generation.