A day before the second anniversary of Ethiopia’s civil war (which started on Nov. 3, 2020), the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (GoE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA). Despite the agreement, intense fighting and aerial bombardments continue in several parts of Tigray.
Given the fates of previous agreements and unilateral declarations of truce, it remains to be seen if hostilities will indeed cease. In this conflict, the age-old maxim that the first casualty in war is the truth rings true. The unchecked repetition of lies has made it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. But sorting out the truth is still worthwhile, if only to provide a clear reference for all the political and humanitarian diplomats issuing statements of concern and calling for the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopia.
On Oct. 17, 2022, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, referring to the war on Tigray by the combined Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces, said that “the situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control.” Since the start of the deadly war on Tigray, the conflict has claimed more than half a million lives, left over 5.6 million Tigrayans starving, and displaced more than 2 million.
The Path of Civil War
Until the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018, Ethiopia, under an autocratic government led by the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) at its core, was relatively stable. A popular recipient of international investment, it was often ranked as one of the fastest economies in the world. On-budget support soared, and public service systems and structures improved in rural areas and urban centers alike. Health, education, nutrition, and infrastructure improved across the country. For three decades, the international community championed Ethiopia as a bastion of stability in an otherwise unstable region, a pilot African developmental state, and a poster child for development partnerships. Yet this economic growth and stability came with the repression of political rights and accusations of gross corruption.
In a bid to strengthen his hold on the country, Abiy made rooting out Tigrayans from his new Prosperity Party a priority. A new wave of rhetoric that drove anti-Tigrayan sentiment across domestic and international airwaves further centralized power under his command. Seeking an end to the decades-old cold war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and forging a new partnership between himself and international pariah Isaias Afwerki, whose hatred of Tigray is well-established, he dubbed the resultant deal a “peace pact.” In a moment of profound irony, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace with Eritrea. Yet Abiy and Afwerki have been leading the world’s deadliest war on the people of Ethiopia, with mass atrocities against and the genocide of Tigrayans. Meanwhile, in Amhara regional state, the inflammatory rhetoric fed extremist sentiments that the EPRDF constitutional dispensation had denied the Amhara people their rightful place of leadership in the country. The war came as a surprise to the international community, U.N. agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but early warnings of just such a war and the mass atrocities that followed had been evident since protests in 2015.
In January this year, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Early Warning Project ranked Ethiopia seventh in the world for countries at risk of mass killings, with an approximately 1-in-13 chance. In 2020, the USHMM forecast that Abiy’s Ethiopia had the ninth highest risk among 162 countries for mass atrocities, while in 2018 it had ranked 32 – a record increase in four years. In a nutshell, Ethiopia, under Abiy, has become a country at war with itself.
Meeting Warning Signs with Silence
Despite efforts to suppress information, over the past two years there have been near-constant reports of grave human rights abuses amounting to war crimes, including mass killings, rape used as a weapon of war, ethnic cleansing, and genocidal acts. None of this should have come as a surprise. The U.N. International Commission of Human Rights’ Experts on Ethiopia have confirmed the occurrence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and “widespread acts of rape and sexual violence against Tigrayan women and girls… [with] an intent to render the victims infertile,” while “dehumanizing language… suggested an intent to destroy the Tigrayan ethnicity.”
In an environment of near-total isolation from the world, with a complete communication and commerce blackout and a humanitarian blockade that has allowed less than 15 percent of the supplies needed to sustain human life to reach Tigrayans, more than 6 million Tigrayans and human rights and humanitarian advocates have been left wondering what can be done to prevent further bloodshed.
Rather than engage in a public struggle over the truth, as some foreign service experts have recommended, Western governments, U.N. agencies, and NGOs have struggled mightily and chosen the path of least resistance: silence. Initial outrage and condemnation have been replaced with “concern,” while “outrage” at the humanitarian blockade has devolved into “appeals” for all parties to allow aid to reach the population. U.N. and NGO leaders have followed suit and have actively avoided speaking out on issues related to human rights or the blockade, lest they too face an onslaught of misinformation and character attacks, let alone the kind of violence that has led to the killing of 24 aid workers since the conflict began.
It is against this backdrop that the U.S. State Department has publicly shelved a report on whether acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide have been committed against Tigrayans – this despite the United States being forced to suspend duty-free access to Ethiopian exports as a result of gross human rights violations. The U.S. and other Western governments have also spoken in public and private about famine conditions that had set in by May 2021, and which have only continued to worsen. And the U.S. has not applied the sanctions regime it announced in September 2021 to a single Ethiopian.
Supporters of this policy shift point to the five-month ceasefire achieved in April 2022 and the 6,000 trucks that were allowed to enter the battered regional state. Notably absent from their accounts are the re-arming, recruiting, and strategic pre-positioning of military assets for a massive assault on and reinvasion of Tigray, including the positioning of Ethiopian forces under Eritrean command. Also absent are the reports of forced conscription and the sustained blackout of communications, leaving people to wonder if their families are alive, and the fact that the amount of aid let in was less than one-third of what was required at the time, and the fact that life-saving aid had been denied for the previous nine months, which is itself is a war crime.
The Need for a Shift in U.S. Policy
In the face of yet another “never again” scenario quickly approaching the people of Tigray that will leave yet another stain on the world’s conscience, countries should heed Maya Angelou’s words: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Only, in this case, the warning has not just been weaponized and manipulative words but also deeds. All parties to this conflict are to blame, though none more so than the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who continue to flout international law and denounce human rights investigations that are widely considered an underestimation of the crimes committed, past and present. Strangely though, the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray is missing in the just concluded COHA.
If the U.S. is to be seen to be a credible arbiter in Ethiopia, it must first accept that its passive policy of the past year has failed and embrace the approach espoused by one of its own in an article in The Atlantic on Sept. 2, 2022, entitled “Totalitarianism is Still with Us.” In that piece, Steve Walker, the former Chief of Mission in the U..S. Embassy in Asmara, Eritrea, concludes that “The case of Eritrea shows that totalitarian systems are inherently toxic, and that no amount of “engagement” will change them.”
It must fight misinformation with information, every day. It must stand up for universal human rights by publishing its long-completed determination on the Tigrayan genocide and demanding accountability. It must use its considerable financial leverage in Ethiopia to ensure that the implementation of the agreement does not brew new conflict within and outside Tigray. It should also ensure protection of civilians, allow total access to humanitarian aid, withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray, lift the siege on and resume services in Tigray, and hold perpetrators to account and redress to victims. The U.S. and European countries could put a hold on any financial assistance and resource disbursement (with an exception for humanitarian aid and protection of human rights). It should also push for establishment of lifeline humanitarian corridors that are de-militarized routes from all parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Sudan. And it must heavily sanction those who refuse with travel bans, asset freezes, and criminal charges – and press other States to do the same. With literal annihilation facing millions, time is of the essence for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to all of Ethiopia’s people, as this it is the only way to ensure its future.