Note: This is English translation of an opinion piece by Kjetil Tronvoll and Alex De Waal originally published on Bistandsaktuelt, 24 February 2021 https://www.bistandsaktuelt.no/arkiv-kommentarer/2021/ny-krig-og-sultdod-i-etiopia-hva-gjor-norge-i-sikkerhetsradet/
OPINION: The world’s newest humanitarian catastrophe is under development in the state of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. Desperate, tragic stories of suffering and starvation, massacres and death are now beginning to seep out from the closed region. At the same time, heartless and cynical politicians are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of their citizens to make political gains — and hide their war crimes.
By Kjetil Tronvoll and Alex de Waal Last updated: 24.02.2021
The war in Tigray has been going on for over 100 days, with enormous devastation and suffering for the civilian population. Ethiopian government forces, in cooperation with the Eritrean army and paramilitary forces from the Amhara region, attacked Tigray on November 4 last year, while Tigrean regional forces carried out a so-called “pre-emptive strike” against Ethiopian military camps in the region.
It took nearly three weeks of intense warfare and aerial bombing before Ethiopian and Eritrean forces took control of the state capital, Mekelle. Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate Abiy Ahmed thus declared “mission accomplished.” He claimed at the same time, paradoxically, that, “not a single civilian life had been lost.”
But the war continues. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces control only parts of the region, city centers and some major roads. Other parts of Tigray are under the control of the Tigrayan Resistance, which is led by the former state government Tigray People’s Liberation Army (TPLF).
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have carried out several massacres. In recent days, video evidence has also begun to emerge. Women and girls are subjected to systematic rape and sexual abuse. Parents are forced to watch soldiers rape their daughters, and girls have been held as prisoners for weeks and mass raped every day. Ethiopia’s minister of women affairs and the government-appointed Human Rights Commission now admit that rape and sexual abuse are carried out in Tigray by military forces.
Several witnesses tell of the revenge killings of dozens of villagers, especially by Eritrean forces after they have suffered losses in skirmishes with the resistance. Many witnesses say that Eritrean soldiers have been ordered to kill all boys over the age of 12, so they cannot later grow up to retaliate in Eritrea.
Widespread food shortages
In addition to the violent atrocities of the war, the Tigray population is also affected by widespread food shortages. Before the outbreak of war, the food situation was already critical, due to devastating locust swarms and droughts. But the war brought more destruction, the burning of crops and looting of food by the military. At the same time, the central government in Addis is imposing strong restrictions on the importation of humanitarian aid. Thus, the food situation is now highly critical for several hundreds of thousands of people, as also the appointed interim government of Tigray (installed by the central government of Addis) also admits. The situation is similar to the politically created hunger disaster of 1984 that killed over a million people and inspired Bob Geldof to establish the legendary Band Aid concerts.
An unsatisfactory humanitarian system
What does Norway and the international community do with this ongoing disaster?
The Ethiopia war and the humanitarian crisis are a good illustration of how inadequate, paralyzed and politicized the international humanitarian system and diplomacy are. First, the war against Tigray was heralded several months, yes over a year, in advance.
The signatories of this article tried to mobilize a broader diplomatic commitment to prevent the war build-up and outbreak, but were rejected and ridiculed as alarmists by various diplomats. This shows in turn how weak agency and capacity the UN and other bi- and multilateral actors have in preventing outbreaks of conflict. Diplomatic mobilization after the outbreak of war is easier, but often also more politicized as the polarized situation slips into a “blame game” about who started the war.
Whatever the cause of the outbreak of war, the humanitarian efforts of a suffering civilian population should not be politicized in the first place. In Tigray today, hunger is used as a weapon, with the federal authorities in Addis restricting humanitarian access to Tigray, both for personnel and food aid.
Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is a major player in the region, recently stated: “During all my years as an aid worker, I have rarely seen a humanitarian response that is so blocked and unable to deliver for so long, to so many, with such great need. As an international community, we are clearly failing to deliver what is needed in relation to the humanitarian imperative we face.”
It is known that famine is man-made and that hunger is a crime. The recognized and advanced food safety and early-warning systems developed in vulnerable areas (a combination of climate, crop, and nutrition analyses) fail when generals and politicians use hunger as a weapon and block humanitarian access. And, to complicate it all, the same men (yes, it’s typical men who are decision makers at war) who create hunger, are the same ones who decide humanitarian access or not and who thus say: shut up or be banned.
Aid workers thus face a hopeless dilemma: Should we speak out openly about the cruel conditions and thus risk our life-saving work? Or should we accept to help the victims under the conditions set by their abusers?
The UN must take the lead
The dilemma of “speaking truth to power” or delivering humanitarian aid should not be the responsibility of the aid workers who work in the front line in the field to solve: here the UN must take the lead. In May 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417 on armed conflict and starvation. This was the result of several years of advocacy by humanitarian actors who want to establish a high-level mechanism to warn against and prevent hunger crimes. The resolution calls for the UN Secretary-General to immediately inform the Security Council when armed conflict threatens “extensive food security.”
Unfortunately, UN Secretary-General Guterres has shown weakness in confronting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia so far in the conflict, and the Security Council has still only held informal meetings on the war in Tigray. The UN leadership and the Security Council have protected themselves with the veil of ignorance, that we “don’t know enough.” The diplomatic principle of “plausible deniability” has prevailed. But, with today’s knowledge, backed by gruesome video evidence of massacres of the civilian population, the “alibi of ignorance” is no longer credible.
Norway must therefore use its place in the Security Council to stand up for fundamental humanitarian and human rights principles in the war in Tigray.
The situation is similar to the politically created hunger disaster of 1984 that killed over a million people and inspired Bob Geldof to establish the legendary Band Aid concerts.