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As War in Ethiopia Rages, Reports of Massacres in Tigray Emerge

With communication lines cut and roads blocked, there's still a lot we don't know about this young conflict.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Ethiopians, who fled their homes due to ongoing fighting, are pictured at a refugee camp in the Hamdait border area of Sudan's eastern Kassala state on November 12, 2020.
Ethiopians, who fled their homes due to ongoing fighting, are pictured at a refugee camp in the Hamdait border area of Sudan's eastern Kassala state on November 12, 2020. AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Amnesty International reports a massacre in Tigray, at least 76 people die in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya, and French President Emmanuel Macron wants France involved in Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks.

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Ethiopia War Risks Becoming the World’s Next Refugee Crisis       

Little more than a week has gone by since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a “military confrontation” in the country’s northern Tigray region and the death toll is likely already in the hundreds. All communication lines, including internet, have been cut in the region, making it difficult for foreign observers to understand what is happening on the ground.

Human rights group Amnesty International has made one of the first attempts to shed light on conditions in Tigray when it reported the details of a mass killing on the scale of “scores, and likely hundreds.”

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa confirmed “the massacre of a very large number of civilians, who appear to have been day labourers in no way involved in the ongoing military offensive.” Amnesty has not made a judgement on which group was responsible for the killings, although they cite eyewitness accounts placing the blame on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in Tigray and up until Abiy’s ascent, the dominant party in Ethiopia’s government.

A humanitarian crisis. Faced with such violence, alongside the threat of airstrikes from Ethiopia’s military, a refugee crisis is beginning to take shape. Neighboring Sudan has taken in 11,000 refugees so far, while the United Nations has warned that roadblocks in and out of Tigray mean aid operations are stifled and basic commodities risk running out.

African Balkanization? Writing in 2019, Florian Bieber and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu warned Abiy’s government not to make the same mistakes as those that beset the former Yugoslavia as competing ethnic groups struggled for power, leading to the fragmentation of a federal state. “The Yugoslav scenario is not destined to repeat in Ethiopia,” they wrote, “but it offers a cautionary tale: During moments of political liberalization, ethnonational federal systems are particularly combustible.”

What We’re Following Today 

Disaster in the Mediterranean. At least 74 people died on Thursday in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya while trying to reach Europe, the eighth shipwreck involving migrants in the past six weeks, according to the International Organization for Migration. IOM reports that 796 people have died trying to make the crossing in 2020 alone. “The mounting loss of life in the Mediterranean is a manifestation of the inability of states to take decisive action to redeploy much needed, dedicated search and rescue capacity in the deadliest sea-crossing in the world,” said Federico Soda, IOM’s Libya chief of mission.

France wants a role in Nagorno-Karabakh talks. A Russian delegation will meet with their Turkish counterparts in Ankara today as the two sides discuss the new facts on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh following a Russian-brokered peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia largely seen as a surrender by the Armenian side. Under the terms of the deal, Russian peacekeepers will replace Armenian forces in the region, while Russia and Turkey will run a joint observation center. The meeting comes as French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his interest in joining any future peace talks, while also reiterating his support for embattled Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

ASEAN meets. The 37th annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting begins today. Although host Vietnam has maintained one of the lowest coronavirus caseloads in the world, the event will be taking place online. On Sunday, ASEAN leaders—along with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea—are expected to conclude eight years of negotiations by signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal, which aims to lower tariffs and set common rules on intellectual property and e-commerce among the signatories.

Keep an Eye On

Cummings is going. Dominic Cummings, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most senior advisor, will leave his post by the end of this year, according to a reporting by the BBC. If Cummings does follow through, he would be the second figure from the Vote Leave campaign to leave Johnson’s side after Lee Cain, the Downing Street communications director, resigned earlier this week.

Xi’s economy. Chinese President Xi Jinping personally had a hand in halting the world’s largest initial public offering before it could go to market, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Xi was reportedly displeased with remarks made by Jack Ma, China’s richest man and the majority shareholder in Ant Group, whose IPO on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges was expected to raise $34 billion. Ma had criticized China’s regulatory environment for stifling entrepreneurship when he spoke at a conference in late October.

Measles roaring back. A study from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the incidence of measles worldwide reached a 23-year high in 2019. The number of people dying from the disease was also 50 percent higher than it was just three years before. Just nine countries—Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, North Macedonia, Samoa, Tonga, and Ukraine—represent 73 percent of cases. The study’s authors blame years of poor vaccination regimes.

FP Conference Call—Join Editor in Chief Jonathan Tepperman and guests Edward Luce, U.S. national editor and columnist at the Financial Times, and Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, today, Friday, at 1 p.m. EST for a wide-ranging discussion on the foreign-policy implications of Joe Biden’s victory. Register here.

Odds and Ends

Although he is weeks away from taking office, U.S. favorability around the world is already experiencing a Biden bump. A recent Morning Consult poll found that views of the United States have shifted following the Nov. 3 election. The biggest swings were seen in Germany and France: 32 percent of Germans now see the United States more favorably, an increase of 16 points, while France also saw a 16 point increase, from 25 percent to a 41 percent favorability. However, it’s not all positive: Russia and China now see the United States in a worse light since the election, with U.S. favorability declining 7 points in Russia and by 6 points in China.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn