The Threat of Humanitarian Crisis Grows as Ethiopia Ramps Up Tigray War

Western diplomatic failure looms large in the world’s forgotten catastrophe.

By , a Brussels-based writer, researcher, and analyst.
People walk in the streets in Kombolcha, Ethiopia, on Dec. 11, 2021.
People walk in the streets in Kombolcha, Ethiopia, on Dec. 11, 2021.
People walk in the streets in Kombolcha, Ethiopia, on Dec. 11, 2021. AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images

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The Ethiopian government has launched a new wave of fighting against rebels in the northern Tigray region, triggering fears among international observers that ethnic cleansing and a new round of mass human rights abuses could be underway.

On Monday, the government in Addis Ababa said in a statement that it intended to take control of “all airports, other federal facilities, and installations in the [Tigray] region” and blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for being “solely responsible for the current situation.” The government described the escalation of violence as “defensive measures to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.”

“The situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control. The social fabric is being ripped apart & civilians are paying a horrific price,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted on Monday.

The Ethiopian government has launched a new wave of fighting against rebels in the northern Tigray region, triggering fears among international observers that ethnic cleansing and a new round of mass human rights abuses could be underway.

On Monday, the government in Addis Ababa said in a statement that it intended to take control of “all airports, other federal facilities, and installations in the [Tigray] region” and blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for being “solely responsible for the current situation.” The government described the escalation of violence as “defensive measures to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.”

“The situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control. The social fabric is being ripped apart & civilians are paying a horrific price,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted on Monday.

On Tuesday, the Ethiopian government announced that it had taken control of the Tigrayan towns of “Shire, Alamata, and Korem without fighting in urban areas”—although this could indicate that battle-hardened Tigray rebels have temporarily retreated and plan to regroup and launch a counteroffensive in the coming days or weeks.

“The danger is if Tigray’s sizable forces mount resistance across Tigray, which is likely, the Ethiopian and Eritrean troops will target civilians to try and break the spirit of resistance. It’s a terrifying situation,” said William Davison, the senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

Tigray is the one of the world’s worst ongoing conflicts, largely ignored as international attention is fixed on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The severe humanitarian crisis, unfolding since November 2020, has left more than 5 million people facing starvation, according to the World Food Program. The region has been effectively cut off from the rest of the world due to a siege-like blockade preventing basic goods and services such as food, banking, telecommunications, and medicine from reaching civilians, while independent reporting is all but impossible.

The conflict burst out of tensions that go back decades in Ethiopia’s complex governance model. Before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, the TPLF had ruthlessly ruled Ethiopia by sacrificing political and civil rights for relative stability and economic growth. But Abiy’s rise challenged the TPLF’s dominance and unleashed an implosion that culminated in the war in Tigray in November 2020. Abiy, initially hailed as a reformer and peace builder, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, has since been accused of brutally enforcing pan-Ethiopian nationalism that has led to the flaring up of ethnic tensions in a country of 120 million people from more than 90 ethnic groups.

Since the start of the war in Tigray, diplomats, NGOs, and academics have worried about the possible fragmentation of Ethiopia, a development that would not only lead to mass violence within the country but would also destabilize its neighborhood, where it has historically played a key stabilizing role. Yet diplomatic overtures so far have been ineffectual—and appear to be getting even worse.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, currently embroiled in a scandal for referring to the rest of the world as a “jungle,” has been an outspoken critic of the war, repeatedly denouncing the Ethiopian government. But this megaphone diplomacy from Brussels has irked EU officials on the ground, with many claiming it has derailed their efforts in Addis Ababa as perceived bias for the TPLF.

Merkeb Negash Yimesel, a Tigray government representative based in Brussels, described the renewed campaign as “genocide,” as government forces are violently evicting civilians and forcing them to shelter in camps for internally displaced people, or IDPs.

“Ethiopia and Eritrea didn’t really mince words as far as their genocidal intent to exterminate Tigrayans,” he said. “The goal of this latest offensive is to fundamentally degrade Tigray’s social base, that is the people. That’s where the plan of manufacturing as many as 3 million IDPs in Tigray comes in.”

Mehari Taddele Maru, an Ethiopian from Tigray now based at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene, comparing the situation in Tigray with the 1994 Rwanda genocide against Tutsis.

“The plan is for accelerated depopulation. It is part of the extermination of the Tigrayan ethnicity, crime against humanity, war crimes,” he said. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also Tigrayan, has also raised concerns of a looming genocide.

“The world is not paying enough attention. There is a very narrow window now to prevent genocide in Tigray,” he told reporters at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday.

These claims were put to Billene Seyoum Woldeyes, Abiy’s press secretary, who did not immediately respond to messages.

One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ethiopia and Eritrea could be planning to create “concentration camps” to isolate the local population from supporting the TPLF. “The consequence is to move Tigrayan civilians from their homes into IDP camps at the expense of the West. The political calculation is the Tigrayans will become politically irrelevant for years to come,” he said.

The bigger fear is the West could become complicit in this strategy of forced relocation by funding the IDP camps via U.N., U.S., or EU aid agencies, while hostile soldiers effectively control a vital region that straddles trade corridors connecting Ethiopia to Djibouti and Sudan.

Another European diplomat, who agreed this potential encampment tactic may be unfolding, said the situation in Tigray is now “terrible.”

“It’s a total failure of U.S. and European Union diplomacy,” he said.

Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, has also decried U.S., U.N., EU, and Africa Union diplomatic efforts as “betraying Tigray.”

Yimesel, the Tigrayan representative in Brussels, said the international community does not want to acknowledge what is happening, in order to skirt the responsibility of protecting millions of people facing a dire humanitarian crisis.

“At this point, I am not even sure it is a [Western diplomatic] failure at all or a tacit greenlight to do this,” he said.

Ilya Gridneff is a Brussels-based writer, researcher, and analyst who has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa covering security and migration topics. Twitter: @IlyaGridneff

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