While the World Focuses on Ukraine, a Genocide in Ethiopia?
More than 5.2 million people in Tigray are in need of emergency assistance since the conflict began 15 months ago
Fanuel Gebremeskel is a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. He is a former Assistant Lecturer at Mekelle University School of Law in Mek’ele, Ethiopia, and also previously worked in a civil society organization as a consultant. His policy interests include social justice, justice policy, human rights, and humanitarianism.
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(Tigray protesters gather outside of the United Nations in New York. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America)
SEVERAL ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS including the prime minister himself have publicly used dehumanizing words against ethnic Tigrayans. Words like “cancers”, “traitors”, “daytime hyenas” are often used by Ethiopian officials while referring to ethnic Tigrayans. Just this past December, the Federal Government Communications Service shocked many when they accused “the People of Tigray” of committing “act of betrayal” against the Ethiopian military.
In November 2020, Nobel Peace Prize winner Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military operation into Tigray, northernmost region of Ethiopia, claiming the Tigrayan leaders had attacked the Ethiopian National Defense Forces northern command base. What initially began as “law enforcement operations” turned into an all-out civil war that has caused untold civilian suffering. Several credible reports have documented the massive human rights abuses committed by the military in Tigray which, in my view, constitute genocide.
Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) provides the two constitutive elements for the crime of genocide. The first element is the mental element of the perpetrators “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The second component of the crime is the overt or material aspect of the crime, “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group".
Usually, identifying the mental element, or intent, of any crime is where the difficulty lies. Tigray is an exception in this regard; there exists ample evidence that the ongoing collective suffering of Tigrayans by Ethiopian military and allied Eritrean Defense Forces and Amhara militia emanates from a genocidal intent against Tigrayans. Pikka Haavisto, Finnish foreign minister and European Union envoy to Ethiopia, publicly testified to the malice of the Ethiopian leadership when on June 15, 2021, Haavisto reported the Ethiopian leadership had said they were “going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years”.
“When I met the Ethiopian leadership in February, they really used this kind of language, that they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years and so forth,” said Haavisto in his statement to the Parliament of the European Union. It was not clear from his remarks which Ethiopian officials made these comments; however, it is clear he allegedly heard these expressions from more than one government official.
Despite the communications blackout in Tigray, independent actors like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have attested to the heinous crimes perpetrated by the Ethiopian military and its allies. Widespread rape, gang rape, summary executions, torture and forced disappearances have been vastly reported. As per Amnesty International’s report, Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of innocent civilians in the historic city of Axum over the span of two days in November 2020. Soldiers targeted unarmed civilians, “opening fire in the streets and conducting house to house raids in a massacre that may amount to a crime against humanity”, says Amnesty in its report.
A CNN investigation was able to verify the name of fifty people killed in a village called Dengelat by Eritrean troops over the span of three days. CNN says the total number of people killed could be double that. Thousands of civilians are allegedly killed in other massacres including Mahbere-Deigo, Debre-Abay, Tembien, Togoga, and Irob by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia. As communication lines remain cut off, well-founded fears exist that what has been documented so far is just the tip of the iceberg.
To date, Tigray remains blocked from basic social services like banking, electricity, internet, telecommunications, fuel, and all forms of transportation from and to the region. Access to humanitarian aid has been severely limited ever since the conflict began fifteen months ago. In the words of Dr. Tedros, chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), “Tigray remains in a de facto humanitarian blockade”. Malnourished children dying in the hands of their mothers, diabetic patients dying in the hands of their doctors is the new normal in Tigray.
Relentless drone strikes kill scores of civilians every day. Within the first two weeks of 2022 alone, at least 108 civilians were killed in drone strikes across several parts of Tigray including in IDP camps and mills. From legal point of view, the material element to establish the crime of genocide exists.
Most international actors remain hesitant to call a spade a spade, despite the overwhelming evidence of genocide in Tigray. For the first time on March 10, 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken characterized what is happening in Western Tigray as ethnic cleansing. Similarly, a confidential US government document reported on by the New York Times labels the acts of Amhara militia in western Tigray “ethnic cleansing.”
The genocide in Tigray seems to have slipped through the cracks of the multilateral governance system. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has discussed the matter multiple times; however, it has failed to act. To stop the daily death of hundreds of innocent people for bombs and man-made famine, the UNSC must act immediately to impose a no-fly zone and open a humanitarian corridor to Tigray.
The Bell is edited by Jaclyn Victor, Jason Kreutz, Shweta Menon and Phaedra de Saint-Rome of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.