The War in Tigray and the Challenges Faced by the United Nations

1. Introduction

The war in Tigray and the consequent humanitarian catastrophe are being closely followed by important global news outlets. According to the United Nations the lives of 4.5 million Tigrayans (Tegaru) are already endangered by this war and the dislocation it has caused. UN representatives, aid agencies and states have repeatedly urged the Government of Ethiopia to restore the supply of electricity and other public services and to establish a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of aid. The response of the Ethiopian Government has not been encouraging. Many fear that a genocide is already underway, probably on an even larger scale than that seen in Rwanda in 1994, since Tigray has been deliberately cut off from the outside world for more than one hundred days. UN offices and officials have highlighted the magnitude of this crisis time and again. Unfortunately, the political response, especially from the Security Council, has so far been disappointing, to say the least. This study shines a light on the nature of this war, how it is now perceived by others and what the challenges facing the United Nations are.

Tigray is one of the eight states of Ethiopia. It is surrounded by Eritrea to the north, Sudan to the west, and the Ethiopian states of Amhara and Afar to the south and east, respectively. Around 97% of Tigrayans are adherents of Coptic Christian Orthodox religion.  Tigrayans are also, more or less, united by a common language (Tigrigna), culture, tradition and psychological make-up, very much like most European nations. Their territory is heavy with history, and considered by the inhabitants as the sacred ground of their ancestors, better known as the Axumites. Prior to the expansion of Islam, the Christian Kingdom of Axum was one of the four great powers of the world. Its army has not only subdued Arabia Felix, across the Red Sea, but would also march all the way north to the borders of Egypt, when necessary. It was this Axumite power, and the common interest to defend Christianity, which made the kings of Axum and the Roman Emperors, such as,  Constantine and Justinian, allies against Persia.

Leaving history behind, from 1991 until the Ethiopian Federal troops occupied the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, at the end of November 2020, this State was ruled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This front had also occupied a dominant position in the Federal Government led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), from 1991 until 2018. Thereafter, Ethiopia was led by a new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali (hereafter referred to as Abiy, Abiy Ahmed or Mr. Ahmed). Mr. Ahmed changed the ruling method used previously by EPRDF by his own political party, known as the Prosperity Party. The TPLF refused to join, leaving Tigray as unrepresented in the current Government.

Abiy Ahmed justified the present ‘military operation’ in Tigray as a response to the TPLF’s attack of November 4 on the Federal Government’s Northern Defense Forces which was stationed on the border of Tigray facing Eritrea. The aim, according to him, was to ensure law and order by bringing those responsible for the attack to justice. He clarified this, on November 12, by stating:

“The Federal Government had every right to deploy Federal Security Forces and use force in order to apprehend those implicated in massive corruption and gross human rights violation”. (1)

Yet, it is well known for all that relations between the Central Government in Addis Ababa and the TPLF Government in Mekelle had been deteriorating throughout 2019, especially after Ahmed postponed the national election by using the present pandemic as a pretext. Those who are familiar with the history of this region also know too well that this conflict has deeper roots linked to the past cycle of wars, dominance, repression, and retribution, the political rivalry between the Amhara and Tigrayan political leaders (and their supporters) as well as that between the TPLF and the Eritrean leader, Isaias Afeworki.

From the beginning, the present military operation was directed at both military and civilian targets by resorting to systematic and deliberate bombardment of churches, hydroelectric dam, factories, plundering and civilian atrocities. Later, the occupying army broadened the kinds of atrocities that were committed by expanding the robbery, rape and looting of homes, shops, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and the distant  monasteries. Even after the Federal Government formally declared that the military operation was over, on 28 November, these atrocities only intensified. They were systematic in that they are widespread, while revealing similar pattern, as if they are well designed. The occupying force is composed of Eritrean soldiers, Amhara militias and members of Federal Army. The latter was expected to protect the civilians from harm. Yet, the Government either does not fully acknowledge that atrocities were and are committed or belittles them when the evidence is widely circulated. Even the presence of Eritrean soldiers is still not officially admitted, although increasing numbers of senior Ethiopian military and administrative officials are now speaking about it and as raising serious problems.

Like many other human rights organizations, the Human Rights Watch has followed what is happening in Tigray very closely, including by registering the crimes that were and are committed, the times and places and who is responsible. Recently, it has released reports which were prepared after conducting interviews and assessing the available satellite imagery, photographs and videos, and reports of forensic experts, journalists and aid workers. These reports list the cities where civilians were killed and injured in violation of the rules governing military operations. One of them mentions the places where the Ethiopian forces have “fired artillery into Tigray’s urban areas in an apparently indiscriminate manner that was bound to cause civilian casualties and property damage”, displacing “thousands of people.” The cities of Mekelle, Humera, Shire and Axum are all said to have been attacked in similar ways. This report states further that “[M]any of the artillery attacks did not appear aimed at specific military targets but struck generalized populated areas.” One of the consequences of these kinds of indiscriminate attack is that well over “200,000 people are internally displaced, while tens of thousands have also fled to neighboring Sudan”. Compounding the problem facing those who remained in their homes is the lack of “adequate access to food, fuel, water, and medicines … [and the] widespread abuses, including apparent extrajudicial killings, pillage, and arbitrary detention by Ethiopian federal forces and special forces and youth militia known as ‘Fano’ from the neighboring Amhara region” as well as by Eritrean forces. (2)

The present humanitarian catastrophe is directly linked to the deliberate destruction of farms and factories, the collapse of markets, the disruption of electricity and water supplies, banking and other services, the absence of employment, or pay for services given and the overall fear and insecurity that prevails. “The situation is extremely grave in Tigray” stated the February 5 update of the United Nations  Secretary General, “and hundreds of thousands of people need life-saving assistance.” (3)

The UN and other international aid agencies have shown both the eagerness and readiness to save life in Tigray by delivering the desperately needed humanitarian assistance if they are allowed to enter Tigray. Unfortunately,  the Government of Mr. Ahmed has not been keen or willing to cooperate for several months. “Three months into the conflict in Tigray in northern Ethiopia the humanitarian response remains severely constrained and inadequate”, explained the above report of the UN Secretary General, “and the main reason for that is simply that we cannot reach the people in deed and also that we have not received the clearances yet to move the necessary staff into Tigray in the first place.”(4)

As expected, in times like these, it is members of vulnerable groups, such as, infants, pregnant women, the elderly, young girls, refugees, those with illness and persons with disability that are seriously affected by the violence and the danger, initially. The report of UNICEF, dated 12 February, titled “Children in Tigray in acute need of protection and assistance”, described the “troubling picture” which was seen early on, revealing “severe and ongoing harm to children”. The UNCEF team, which was allowed to visit Shire and a few other cities, observed bank services that were not operational, “damaged or looted” clinics, halted immunization programs, damaged stock of vaccines due to power cuts, and “severe acute malnutrition – which is potentially life-threatening”. They saw internally displaced people taking shelter in schools that were not equipped with drinking water supplies, showers or properly functioning toilets. They found unaccompanied children, separated from their families, many showing symptoms of deep psychosocial distress. “The very real risk of disease outbreak, coupled with poor access of water, sanitation, hygiene and health services, rising food insecurity and inflation in food prices,” concluded this report, “poses grave threats for malnourished children.”(5)

The on-going gender-based sexual violence is so widespread even senior Ethiopian military officers are now speaking out openly about the seriousness of this problem. In one of the meetings held in the capital, which was aired live on the Ethiopian state channel (EBC) one of the senior officers is seen expressing his anger by asking “Why does a woman get raped in Mekelle city? It wouldn’t be shocking if it happened during the war … But women were raped yesterday and today when the local police and federal police are around”.(6) The answer is obvious. Women and young girls too are the targets of this war, for degradation and all forms of abuses.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Pattern expressed her abhorrence about the kind of sexual violence which Tigrayan girls and women are exposed to. She singled out the “disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence”, the practices of soldiers who demand “to have sex in exchange for basic commodities …{and} sexual violence against women and girls in a number of refugee camps.”. Ms. Pattern, underscored the importance of extending to these victims medical and psychosocial assistance, including “emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)… to ensure that those who have been forced from their homes due to violence are not placed at further risk of sexual violence within the camps” and to help those “sleeping in an open field with no water or food.”(7)

The 96,000 Eritrean refugees that were sheltered in the four UN administered refugee camps prior to this war, i.e., in Mai Aini, Adi Harush, Shimelba and Hitsats, were not just trapped, but were directly targeted for attack by the occupying Eritrean soldiers. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grand described what is now seen in some of these camps as a serious violation of international law. The Commissioner has repeatedly urged the Ethiopian Government to protect these refugees and to enable his office to visit all these four refugee camps so that they may receive humanitarian assistance, but all in vain. In his statement of January 14, the Commissioner reiterated his previous concerns by underscoring that he was “extremely troubled by the humanitarian situation in the Tigray (and) …very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees.” Mr. Grandi was also alarmed by the reports his office was receiving concerning the “ongoing insecurity and allegations of grave and distressing human rights abuses, including killings, targeted abductions and forced return of refugees to Eritrea … satellite imagery showing new fires burning and other fresh signs of destruction at the two camps … [all revealing] major violations of international law.”(8)

Similar concern was echoed by UN Secretary General, who was alarmed by the attacks on the refugee camps. He denounced the forceful abduction the refugees, and the claims that some of them are sent back to Eritrea by the Eritrean soldiers stationed around the refugee camps. The Secretary General also raised concerns by claims that some of refugees that have escaped from the camps “have resorted to eating leaves because there was no other food available.”(9)

It is apparent that the state of emergency which the Ethiopian Federal Government declared when the war broke out has provided as a legal cover to disguise the atrocities that are committed by the soldiers against civilians. This law suspended basic the human rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by international human rights law and the Ethiopian Constitution and permitted the agents of the Government and soldiers to take measures that would not be allowed under normal conditions. Using this cover, these soldiers and militiamen would stop and search any person, anywhere or take that person. They also enter homes they wish to search and do whatever they wanted once inside. The 6 p.m. curfew exposes everyone to these soldiers and militiamen who are free to enter their homes under the pretext of ‘searching for weapons or persons of interest’. Reports after reports now tell similar stories of how these soldiers enter homes to abuse those living inside and to steal anything they find: jewelry, clothes, computers and phones. Any resistance or refusal to comply can lead to execution on the spot.

Robbery is so widespread there are even reports that claim to have seen televisions, cooking stoves and refrigerators being loaded on to cars parked outside homes, and pictures that show tanks and camels carrying all kinds of stolen private properties. When car thefts started to multiply some car owners began to respond by letting down the tires of their cars to make it difficult for the robbers to move them.

Young girls and women are raped, sometimes repeatedly, inside their homes and in the most despicable ways. The interviews which are broadcasted by some foreign media include accounts of husbands being forced to keel and watch as their wives are raped by several soldiers, and of family members being told to rape their family members. One of the girls that was interviewed stated that she was shot several times for refusing to comply with an order to have sex with her grandfather. The latter too was shot to die, but survived later. The fact that these kinds of atrocities are widely committed in different cities suggests that rape is systematically perpetrated to achieve political goals, i.e. to destroy the minds of civilians.

In the latest press release the United States State Department issued made it clear that:

“The United States is gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.  We strongly condemn the killings, forced removals and displacements, sexual assaults, and other extremely serious human rights violations and abuses by several parties that multiple organizations have reported in Tigray.  We are also deeply concerned by the worsening humanitarian crisis.”(10)

After visiting Ethiopia, Finland’s Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto, who was sent by the European Union on a fact-finding mission for EU foreign policy concluded that the situation in Tigray is now “militarily and human rights-wise, humanitarian-wise very out of control”, a situation where “we do not see the end”.(11) This strengthens the fears the European Union had about the dangers posed by this conflict and its concern over “the humanitarian situation, as well as allegations of human rights violations and ethnic targeting.”(12)

2. The Public Outrage Over the War

What is particularly worrisome for those who are following this tragic war closely but from far away is that this is not ‘a policing operation’ which is linked to one unfortunate incident on the Ethio-Eritrean border on November 4 as the Ethiopian Government claimed: i.e., to arrest individuals to ensure law and order for attacking the Ethiopian Defense Forces. There is no doubt that what is going on is a big war, rather than ‘a policing operation’, and one whose targets include civilians. This is why Grahman Romanes, an Australian scholar with a very long record of working for humanitarian agencies called it “nothing short of genocide.”(13)

Similar views were expressed during the debate of the British House of Lords, only three weeks after Abiy Ahmed launched the military operation. Lord Triesman was convinced that what the Tigrayans face is “ethnic purges which may be on the edge of genocide”. Lord Alton of Liverpool, who shared this position, asked what the plans of the British Government was to discharge its “duties under the Genocide Convention to prevent, to protect and to punish” those responsible, in order “to avert yet more death, more carnage, more instability, and more refugees”.(14) Underscoring the urgency of taking measures Lord Viscount Waverly wondered how the political world would respond to what is taking place. “My Lords,” he said, “is the world going to stand by, yet again, knowing that mayhem is seemingly set to unfold, do nothing and having to then deal with the added consequences of regional instability?(15)

Speaking before the European Parliament, Irish representative Mick Wallace called the Ethiopian leader, Abiy Ahmed “a war criminal” who should be charged by the International Criminal Court since his government “has done everything under its power to prevent humanitarian aid reaching the people of Tigray… used hunger as a weapon… deliberately burn[ed] fields of crops in Tigray [and]…caused[ing] suffering and death on its citizens”.(16)

Belgian representative Assita Kanko also asked fellow European Parliamentarians to consider why millions of Tigrayan civilians had been driven from their homes, lost their harvests to arson and are forced to abandon their fields. “It seems that the Ethiopian government is deliberately withholding food in order to starve people”, she concluded “central and eastern Tigray are on the brink of famine … There are continued reports of violations of international humanitarian law, such as the deliberate shelling of civilian targets, extra judicial executions and widespread looting.” She advised the Ethiopian leader to return the Peace Prize which he received from the Norwegian Peace Committee since such a prestigious prize was not meant for a person like him.(17)

Professor Martin Plaut, a South African expert on the Horn of Africa at London University expert on Horn of Africa, had difficulties in understanding the “intolerable suffering that people are required to put up with … the destruction …the looting, the discretion, the removal of religious artifacts”.(18) Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand described what is taking place inside Tigray as “shocking”, where all kinds of human rights abuses are in full display, “including accounts of rape & other forms of torture and inhumane & degrading treatment; arbitrary execution; destruction of health & other facilities.”(19)

The executive director of the World Peace Foundation, Professor Alex de Waal, had no doubt that the people of Tigray is facing now “unspeakable tragedy” with “uncounted numbers of people in Tigray who are in mourning for their loved ones, including many friends and family who perished in war, of hunger and disease or at the hands of cold-hearted killers”, those who do not know what is coming tomorrow. (20) This is also why four former American Ambassadors of the United States to Ethiopia, namely, Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal, David Shinn, Vicki Huddleston and Patricia Haslach, were forced to write an open letter to the Ethiopian leader expressing concern over what is going on Tigray. They wrote:

“We have watched the conflict in Tigray with gave unease as, according to the United Nations, nearly 60,000 refugees have fled to Sudan, 2.2 million people have been displaced, 4.5 million people need emergency assistance, many of whom are without adequate food. We are also worried about the reported presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray, which could jeopardize Ethiopia’s territorial integrity”. (21)

As if anticipating what is coming, Pope Francis of the Vatican too asked the world to pray for Tigray as far back as November 27.(22) On January 26 the Vatican News reiterated the same concern, by appealing “for comfort for the ordinary citizens of Tigray who are paying with their lives, isolated from the world in a situation of anguish, threatened by violence and terror”. The report expresses fears that “lack of communication may be screening ongoing atrocities”. Particularly disturbing to the Vatican are the news which reveal the “possible murder of 750 people in an assault on the Orthodox Church of St Mary of Zion in Aksum last November… a series of killings and attacks on innocent people in many parts of Tigray … shops, schools, churches, convents and homes … looted and destroyed …two million … displaced … some 60,000 fleeing to Sudan …others (are) reportedly seeking refuge in remote areas in the mountains, without water or access to food”.(23)

Church leaders in Africa too have raised their concern by condemning what is taking place in Tigray. As the press release of the South African Anglican Church Archbishop, Thabo Makgoba, on 23 February, 2021, stated:

“The plight of the Tigrayan people in northern Ethiopia tears at my heart. Over and above the coronavirus which threatens us all in Africa, tens of thousands of people in the region have been forced from their homes, millions need humanitarian aid and there are shocking reports of war crimes in the form of attacks against civilians… indiscriminate shelling of urban areas, striking homes, hospitals, schools, and markets…The level of ethnic hatred which has emerged on social media around this conflict is deeply disturbing. … What is happening in Tigray must not be allowed to deteriorate even further…Pray for justice and peace for the people of Tigray”. (24)

Sad as it may sound, it is rare to see street protests against this war inside Ethiopia itself. Even the religious leaders (outside Tigray) have not denounced the war when monasteries, churches and mosques are deliberately attacked and damaged and religious leaders are murdered in large numbers. As if he was concerned about this, Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian Professor and an expert on Ethiopian politics, felt very sad to see tragedies of this magnitude ignored at the time when local solidarity matters most. He wished more and more people have stood up in defense of higher causes of morality:

“To fight for humanity, to stand for humanity and to stand for that whoever is the victim is the victim of all of us; that it should not be segregated into that victim belongs to that group so that I don’t need to care about. Any people killed in Ethiopia today is a loss to all of Ethiopia, and I see that sentiment is not coming to the surface sufficiently enough, and that I think is very sad.” (25)

A handful Ethiopian opposition politicians are now seen expressing concern over this war and showing sympathy for the victims. After all, the victims which are traumatized are citizens who are neither fighters nor armed. Furthermore the  crimes which the militias and soldiers (including foreign ones) that are committed against these innocent civilians are egregious in kind. Mr. Ledetu Ayelew, the leader of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party,  and a few Oromo opposition political leaders are examples of this. There are also a few journalists who are now seen taking risks in uncovering the kinds of horrific crimes that are committed against citizens, e.g., Awlo Media and Ethio Forum, including by identifying the failure of the Government to protect women, children and properties. The Oromo and Eritrean diaspora have been seen in large number denouncing the war from the outset. In particular, the latter continue to show up in large numbers when Tigrayans march in Western streets protesting the war and in denouncing the Eritrean involvement. As more and more people oppose this genocidal war, the domestic public opinion is bound to swing from supporting Abiy Ahmed to calling for an end to this war. Until this happens, Abiy Ahmed will only intensify what he has been during the past months.

3. The Nature of the War and its Outcomes

3.1. The key actors

Prior to the military operation in Tigray there were four political actors that were seen  manoeuvring to shape the political course of the Ethiopian state, broadly speaking, and that of Tigray, in particular. In Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was desperately struggling to consolidate his power by constantly discrediting the TPLF and its supporters. The political leaders in the Amhara state, in Gondar, were preparing their own militia forces to protect the Amhara interests and pressuring Abiy Ahmed to use force against the TPLF as soon as possible. The Eritrean President, in Asmara, was also showing openly his hatred of the TPLF and the eagerness to see its demise. Ever since his enemy was defeated in the 1998 and 2000 border war by the TPLF dominated Ethiopian Government of EPDRF the Eritrean President was working hard to undermine the TPLF including by providing military training to its opponents. The TPLF, which was encircled by these three political actors, was mobilizing to defend itself as well as by rallying the other Ethiopian groups under the banner of protecting the Federalist system and it constitution. Before this latter goal was achieved the adversaries of the TPLF were able to forge their alliance and move faster to destroy the TPLF and the state it was administering.

This, in short, is why we still see the abovementioned four key distinct military forces operating in the theatre of war inside Tigray: namely the Federal Government, the Eritrean army, the militia (and police) force of the Ethiopian state of Amhara and the Tigrayan Defense Force. The former two use their military capacity in full, including with their mechanized forces and air forces. Tigray relies on its militia force. The State of Amhara has intervened with two militia forces, known as the Fano and Fotta Lebash, mainly to secure its territorial claims. The Federal Government also secured additional militia forces from the Ethiopian States of Afar and Oromia by promising them that they too can obtain territorial gains. Besides Eritrea, two other foreign actors are also said to have intervened, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with drones and Somalia which is believed to have sent between 3000 or 4000 soldiers, or perhaps even more. The latter sent this contribution to Eritrea for training for deployment later in the war zones of Tigray.

The Ethiopian Government categorically denies that it has invited external actors for this war. This could be because admitting to the presence of foreign forces would reveal the military weakness of the Federal Army and/or because this violates the constitution of the country as well as international norms. Yet, this foreign involvement is now widely reported in the media. The head of the newly appointed Provisional Administration of Tigray has even confessed that the Federal Army does not have the power to force Eritrean soldiers to leave. Not surprisingly, The United States and other states have informed the Eritrean government to withdraw its forces immediately.

3.2. The war theatre

The zones of operation used by the above forces can be, more or less, identified. Eritrean soldier have occupied the disputed border regions during the country’s 1998 – 2000 war. This is fully recognized by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. However, reports and after reports have indicated that they are stationed in and around the major cities of Tigray, in some of the villages and around the four refugee camps where 96,000 Eritrean refugees were sheltered prior to the war.

The Amhara militia forces have already controlled western and southern Tigray, and are also seen making occasional forays into other areas. The Federal army claims to know clearly what is taking place in the regions which are controlled by the Amhara militias and the Amhara police force. Tigrayan sources claim that the Federal soldiers watches in silence when the Amhara and Eritrean soldiers are engaged in looting. But in any case, they are accused of doing the same. Despite this partition of areas of interest, these forces also band together when they are threatened by the Tigrayan forces.

The forces of Tigray are believed to be all around the countryside, although this is denied by the Ethiopian Government. Although the latter claims its Provisional Administrative Authority in Tigray has full control of all of Tigray, some of the officials in this Administration admit experiencing problems in enforcing  decisions at the local level. In a recording of a phone call which was sent to online platform Ethio-Forum, and aired on February 4, some of the senior officials of this Authority are heard confessing their inability to control even half of Tigray. They have also stated recently that they are unable to trace the whereabout of one million Tigrayans from western Tigray alone, and that they prefer to see the departure of both the Eritrean soldiers and the Amhara militia from Tigray.

3.3. The nature of the war

The Ethiopian Federal Government has consistently denied that there is a war or civil war in Tigray. Instead, it refers to it as a military or ‘policing’ operation, whose aim is to arrest the leaders of the TPLF for the attack on the Northern Defense Forces on November 4. For their part, the leaders of the state of Tigray consider what is taking place as a genocidal war which is aimed at obliterating Tigray and its people. In their view, this war has nothing to do with the incident of November 4. Long before that, the Federal Government and the state of neighboring Amhara were engaged in acts aimed at starving the people of Tigray, including by using road-blocs to prevent goods, supplies and food from reaching Tigray. The Federal Government has even refused to release the budget of Tigray and to assist in combatting Covid-19 (e.g., by providing face masks) and the locust swarms. In defense of the latter claim, reference is made to the discriminatory practices which Abiy Ahmed followed when sending spray planes to combat the locust swarms only to the neighbors of Tigray, and his refusal to enable Tigray get the drones which were sent by Tigrayan diaspora from Israel to this end.

If Abiy Ahmed was right in considering the on-going military operation in Tigray as nothing more than ‘policing’ measures, one wonders how all the forces of the Federal Government, those of Eritrea and the Amhara militias as well as the drones of the United Arab Emirates to rain on Tigray simultaneously without prior adequate preparation and coordination. If this is indeed nothing but ‘policing operation’, what are Eritrean soldiers doing now in the major cities of Tigray after the Federal Government has proclaimed the defeat of the TPLF on November 28? And why is western and southern Tigray incorporated into the Amhara state  now? More importantly, why are the economic enterprises of Tigray, churches, monasteries and farms plundered and destroyed and why is it difficult to end this and the widespread rape? Obviously the views of Abiy Ahmed has distorted the reality since what is now seen in Tigray is not only war but an internationalized one.

The fact remains that even if the Northern Defense Forces were not attacked on November 4 by the TPLF, the preparation for this war inside Tigray could not have been stopped. Long before the military operation it was launched, the Tigrayan and Federal political leaders have denounced each other as illegitimate, especially after the national election was postponed by Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF defied this decision by arranging its own election.  The Eritrean leader too was heard, time and again, on Eritrean TV that his country will not be passive when Abiy Ahmed is challenged by the TPLF.  On November 2 Abiy has called on the Sudanese military head, Lt-General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, to protect the borders in the days ahead. That same day the President of the state of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, has also informed his people of Tigray to expect military attack because the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies were placed on a standby for military operation. This is why, he regarded the November 4 incident as a response to the military activities seen at the time, and as self-defense since the Federal army was already on the move elsewhere.

The character and features of this war are covered in greater details in the reports of human rights organizations, such as, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Some of the major Western medias, such as, The New York Times, CNN and Washington Post too provide coverages of the kinds of serious human rights abuses which are seen in this state. Tigray Media House offers daily update on what is happening. The Governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union also issue statements about the developments in Tigray by relying on credible reports, when they denounce the serious violations of human rights and humanitarian laws.

If what is reported by these and many other sources are true, and most of them come from credible sources and complement one another, what is taking place in Tigray can only be described as a total war. The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea are using their full military force. What is attacked is not confined to military sites, installations and the forces of the TPLF. Monasteries, churches, farms,  industries, universities and hospitals were and are also targeted. The killing of innocent civilians, rape and abuses in streets are all too common. The leaders of three Tigrayan political parties (Baitona, Third Woyane and Tigray Independence) claim that 52,000 civilians have already been killed, 4.8 million livestock were looted or killed and crops are constantly plundered or set ablaze in many parts of Tigray. According to their estimate, the lives of 8.6 million people is now endangered. The United Nations maintains that 4.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The occupying soldiers claim that their fight is against the TPLF (or Woyane). Since 2.7 Tigrayans have voted in support of this Front at the last state election, this raises the number of the enemy to millions. Even TPLF veterans are not exempt, as the arrest of Aboy Sebhat Nega, the 87 year old veteran of the TPLF, who now faces charges before court in Addis Ababa shows. Added to this is the family members of the TPLF supporters who are targeted either out of revenge or in the pretext of obtaining information relating to the whereabout of the enemy or to know what they owned or possessed earlier. When all this is taken into consideration the number of the victimized civilian population balloons to well over 5 million. This speaks a lot about the genocidal features of a brutal war which is aimed at terrorizing and destroying a people, in part or wholly. The crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and aggression which are being reported are the means used to that end.

Even if the international community manages to save 3 million out of the 4.5 million endangered people, the final body-count could be more than double the numbers of lives lost in the genocide in Rwanda. It is important to note that this is still a raging war, and that the Ethiopian government continues to drag its feet in restoring electricity and water supplies or in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance freely where it is needed most. Electricity was restored in few areas only to be disrupted again and again. The limited humanitarian aid that reached Tigray after months of delays is said to have been largely looted by the soldiers or diverted to the Amhara state.

The kinds of atrocities that are reported by the media, human rights organizations, the Tigrayan sources (such as Tigray Media House) and by Eritrean opposition medias (e.g., Assena TV) are horrific. They include accounts of wanton destruction of refugee camps, villages (e.g. the 508 homes in Gijet) and farms and widespread civilian massacre in both the urban and rural places. Examples include the killing of around 1,000 killed in Mai Kadra, more than 300 in Wukro, nearly 800 church followers in Mariam Tsion church, 164 in Maria Denelt church, and 45 in the town of Edi Arbi. According to one interview which Assena TV held with one priest by phone from inside Tigray only recently 162 church followers were executed in the town of Bora, around 100 in the village of Samre mi woyni, 20 kids in Adi Gudem, 10 in Edaga Hamus and 30 Maichew. This priest also mentioned the presence of widespread looting and abuses of the villagers as routine practices.(26) Children, it is said, are killed in large numbers inside their own homes in front of their parents, and in streets, even from moving cars. There are even reports of dead bodies seen without head, bodies being dragged by cars in Western Tigray, family members that are prevented from burying decomposing corpses of family members and soldiers bragging that they do not shoot on kids below 7 years of age as if killing 8 year old kids is okay.

Women and girls are the favorite prey of the soldiers and militiamen everywhere. In particular, the wives, children and relatives of TPLF members are targeted for revenge. Rape-revenge also follows after the occupying soldiers are attacked by the Tigrayan forces in the battle fields. There are also reports which describe how the soldiers use rape as a means of ‘entertaining’ themselves, including taking sex videos. They leave behind traumatized victims, most likely infected with venereal diseases and possibly also with covid-19 virus, and with no possibility of getting medical attention. Even going to a clinic, hospital or pharmacy is risky because it is not uncommon for these victims to be abducted again from streets.

The fact that this gender-based violence is now out of control and perpetrated in horrific ways reveal the presence of sinister and evil mind, which is designed and encouraged from above since the rapists are not punished. The reason for saying this is because, by and large, these atrocities are committed mainly out hatred to demoralize the Tigrayan society at large and women in particular. After all, this is not about ‘love-making’ in any sense but to penalize mothers for having given birth to the enemy (‘Woyane’) and to damage the womb of younger girls who will produce the future enemy. Seen from this perspective, it did not come as a surprise to hear that some of these rapists have left stones, nails and soil inside the womb of their rape victims or have told their victims to be grateful for being ‘Amharized’ through rape, as one CNN reporter was told by one of the victims.

Robbery, by the armed forces and Amhara militias, is very common and committed to demand money, jewelry, mobile phones, computers and other private belongings. This takes place on streets, at homes, in shops or outside banks. According to one Tigrayan girl who managed to leave the country because of her foreign citizenship, her home was visited at four different times by soldiers, who demanded money or other valuables. In short the prevailing political disorder under occupation is best described as barbarism or utmost savagery. Having said this, it is equally important to underscore the point that there should be independent investigation to determine clearly whether all these allegations are true or not, and if they are, to establish who did what, where and when.

3.4. Outcomes and other effects

The State of Tigray is the obvious loser, for now, since it is totally devastated. However, wars have many rounds, and what looks like a loss at one point can end up being an important gain later. A case in point is the sympathy which the victimized civilians are now getting from the outside world, which can be exploited politically. This said, there is no doubt that the occupying army has already destroyed Tigray partially, and that its military strength has been degraded considerably. During the initial phase of the military operation alone, the drones of the UAE were said to have neutralized the tanks, missiles, rocket launchers, heavy artilleries and fuel storages of the Tigrayan Defense forces.

Since the first week of November, the people of Tigray have lived under a reign of terror. Although there is no military conflict in the urban centers, the city-dwellers are constantly abused by the soldiers in streets, public offices and inside their own homes. ‘Normal days’ in Tigray now resemble very much like those long before the Middle Ages: with no electricity, internet or phone services, mothers dying or developing health problems from giving birth at home without professional assistance, sick people suffering due to the absence or shortage of medical facilities, pharmacy products or shortage of food and clean water. This fact and daily news concerning the daily execution, rape, robbery,  destruction of farms and factories and abuses by soldiers and militiamen have contributed to the widespread fear and insecurity. Soldiers and police are seen everywhere, but they are not there to protect civilian life or property or to promote the interests of the state of Tigray. Their responsibility is to promote outside interests at the cost of Tigray and its residents. This is why the economic infrastructure of Tigray was looted or deliberately destroyed and Tigray’s western and southern arm and leg were amputated.

When the invading troops entered the cities and villages of Tigray, hundreds of thousands supporters of the TPLF left their homes, families, neighbors and friends in search of safety in the countryside. There, they had to beg for food and shelter or ended up staying in abandoned structures, churches, monasteries or inside school compounds. The ‘shelters’ which they occupied are ill-equipped to handle proper accommodation, with rooms, kitchens, water, beds, mattresses, blankets, clothing, functioning showers, toilets, etc. Survival under these unhealthy and primitive conditions posed a serious challenge, especially to vulnerable groups, such as, pregnant women and persons with disability or health issues. No one knows, for sure, how many people are seriously ill, injured, killed or are in the process of dying due to hunger, disease, shortages of medicines and other problems.

The economic fabrics of Tigray, which were radiating around the 5,000 or so enterprises (commercial, banking, industrial, agricultural and other business activities), are now shattered. As stated earlier, farms, factories, hospitals, pharmacies and universities are, by and large, destroyed, plundered or taken elsewhere. Schools too are mostly closed and some of them are used as an  accommodation by soldiers to shelter the internally displayed people (IDP). From western Tigray alone more than one million Tigrayans have arrived to the bigger cities, such as, Mekelle and Shire. The challenges facing these IDP is not only about how to make it for the day and beyond but also how to overcome the painful traumatic experience of the past months without any professional help. Dismayed by what is happening and the fear of what tomorrow brings, the Tigrayan youth is now forced to choose between joining the fighters or remaining in the cities where they could be killed or abused any day.

This dire situation has strengthened the drive to struggle for survival and for higher cause. This is why the insurgency is gaining momentum. There is no shortage of recruits. The Tigrayan force appears to have recuperated, and is even said to be in a position to harass the occupying forces by resorting to guerilla fighting. Most of the country-side is already under their control. Since this war is waged in their own homeland, they have the upper hand. They know the terrain and can count on the full support of the local people for information and food. However, it is their adversaries that are better equipped, including with tanks, planes, drones, ambulances and hospitals, and that are in the position of getting replacement for their losses ‘easily’, and that can count on getting external military, economic and logistic support. Because of this and the realization that giving the occupying force more time will lead to more civilian suffering and loss of property, the leaders of this struggle have no choice other than intensifying the struggle.

The Amhara State is a clear winner, so far, since its leaders have achieved their political goals, thanks to the full cooperation of Abiy Ahmed, who has acted very much like their ‘secretary general’ and Isaias Afeworki, who they consider to be one of their valuable ‘loyal and able generals’. Although they were on record in denouncing the ethnic-based federation of Ethiopia, they ended up absorbing western and southern Tigray into their state by using the ethnic factor. This illegal land grab has brought to their state important political and economic benefits. Their vast and rich rural farms, with their crops, cattle, tractors, homes and private cars, as well as the urban businesses, shops and other economically beneficial enterprises have now new Amhara owners and users. The only exception to this property arrangement is what Abiy Ahmed has made by enabling the Federal Government to take control of the enterprises and properties which formerly belonged to the State of Tigray. After these regions were placed under the control of the Amhara state, the official language (for schools, courts, the administration, etc.) was changed from Tigrigna to Amharic. It is even said that the Amhara and Eritrean leaders have come to terms on the demarcation of their new borders. Satisfied by all these gains, the Amhara leaders now claim that order and justice has already restored in the newly acquired regions and that life is back to normal. All that remains, according to them, to sanction legally what is gained by amending the constitution.

The Amhara state has also extended its jurisdiction over the Tigrayan religious entities and properties in the annexed territories. Tigrayans see this as a very sensitive matter for economic, social and historical reasons. Leaving aside what the monasteries and churches in these areas owned, their surrounding environment have always been protected from economic exploitation and from social pressure for centuries. These ‘sacred’ religious places have also served historically as custodians for the ancient Tigrayan treasures, religious writings, big golden, copper or silver crosses, unique gifts from political and religious leaders, etc. Because of this, Tigrayans consider this extension of the Amhara jurisdiction over these establishments as nothing less than the plundering of their religious properties and historical robbery, by transferring the Axumite (Tigrayan) treasures from Tigrayan hand to the Amharas. Some of the religious figures which are interviewed by Tigray Media House called this as a religious war. To strengthen this viewpoint reference is made to the number of churches and monasteries that were also attacked, the spiritual leaders and church followers that were murdered and the expulsion of monks from monasteries without any regard to the difficulties they will face in the cities after residing in monasteries for decades by pursuing a different kind of life and diets.

Placing these religious establishments under the authority of the Amhara spiritual leaders serves as a means of ensuring social control over the Coptic religious followers in Tigray. This is because the decisions which are made by the higher religious authorities in the Amhara State has to be followed at the lower level in the annexed regions of Tigray. For instance, if they classify the TPLF as anti-religion or terrorist organization, joining or supporting this front will have religious consequences, such as the prohibition of providing religious services linked to weddings, baptisms and funerals to the members of the Coptic Church.

Most of all, the Amhara leaders are now seen rejoicing because the TPLF has been ousted from power, because Tigrayans were removed from the government offices and the military, and because Tigray itself is, for all practical purposes, destroyed politically and economically. This leaves the Amhara political leaders to rest in peace, by feeling that the Tigrayan dominance of Ethiopia is now part of the recent history. This is why it is very rare to see or hear of opposition to the war in Tigray inside the Amhara state or sympathy to the sufferings of the Tigrayan civilians affected by this war. After all, the Amhara political elites have always been vocal in denouncing the Tigrayan dominance of the Ethiopian state for nearly three decades. Although this ‘dominance’ actually ended way back in the middle of 2018, the ant-Tigrayan mobilization continues to this day even after their state is destroyed. This shows that the present war itself was/is more about vendetta, and making sure on how to destroy Tigray and how to prevent Tigrayans from rising up in the future, than to remove them from power. This is also why their property continues to be plundered and all kinds of crimes are perpetrated against their women and the youth.

The Eritrean Government has still not admitted that it has intervened in this war. The reason for this could be the realization that it is illegal to invade and occupy the territory of a neighboring state or simply to avoid taking responsibility for the conduct of its soldiers. Since the TPLF launched its missiles around the airport of the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on 14 November one may wonder if the Eritrean attack was motivated by self-defense or retaliation. Yet, this was not officially stated by the Eritrean Government. This could be because the missile attacks took place more than a week after the Eritrean army has already invaded Tigray and was seen in the major cities of Tigray at the time. Furthermore no one would believe this defense when the Eritrean President had made it clear way back on February 8, 2020 and February 17, 2021, in his televised interview on Eritrean Television, that the TPLF is, as far as he was concerned, an enemy that should be confronted. As far back as 1998, the Eritrean President has even sent his army to Tigray for this purpose in the pretext of a border dispute. When he was asked, at the time, when his army will be withdrawn from the occupied border areas, his response was to say to expect this is very much like hoping that the sun will not set. 

In the abovementioned two televised interviews Isaias Afeworki gave two main reasons for why the TPLF is regarded as an enemy. The first was the obstacles which it has created in resolving the 1998 – 2000 border dispute. The second one was the ethnic-based federal formula which it has used to govern Ethiopia for the sake of ensuring its own political dominance by applying the strategy of divide and rule. This policy bothered him because it has spillover effect on Eritrea. The TPLF was also described as a poisonous political organization which was undermining the authority of the new Ethiopian leader. This, he said, leaves him with no other choice other than to defend and strengthen Abiy Ahmed. Failure to do this or to postpone it would enable the TPLF to take power in Ethiopia again.

In effect, Isaias Afeworki is here thinking very much like a concerned Ethiopian nationalist who is both willing and ready to make the required sacrifices to protect the interests of the Government of Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian state. This is why he also said that, as far as he was concerned, it is already “game over” for the TPLF. This was stated more than eight months before Abiy Ahmed launched his military operation.(27) The determination of the Eritrean President to defend Abiy Ahmed did worry not only the TPLF but also the other Ethiopian opposition groups, such as the Oromo groups, who do not like their government. If Isaias is ready to use force against the TPLF, they argued, he will not hesitate from doing the same to crush their struggles, by intervening in the internal affairs of their country. This was one of the reasons why Ledetu Ayelew, the leader of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party, called Isaias Afeworki as the number one enemy of the Ethiopian people.

Although both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments now deny that Eritrean soldiers are participating in the war in Tigray, Western powers and the UN have no doubt about this and have called on the Eritrean Government to withdraw its force from Tigray immediately. The interviews which were conducted by journalists and NGOs with some of the local witnesses also indicate that Eritrean soldiers are not only seen in the cities of Tigray, such as, Adwa, Humera, Adigrat, Axum, Zelambassa and even Mekelle, but that in some of these cities, e.g., in Adwa, they remained there for more than two months, very much like the forces of a legitimate government. The leaders of the Baitona party, one of the Tigrayan political parties, have gone further by stating that the dominance of the Eritrean army is so obvious, even senior Federal military officers are now seen taking orders from Eritrean generals. This suggests that the Eritrean Government is not just exercising power but even exercising sovereignty (temporarily) over Tigray, if the Ethiopian authorities that are subordinated to the Eritrean generals. This dominant role which the Eritrean President plays in shaping the political development of Tigray boosts his political image by giving the impression that he is above Abiy Ahmed when it comes to how the political developments of Tigray are now shaped.

Leaving these obvious facts aside, if Abiy Ahmed has not asked the Eritrean State to intervene militarily and the Eritrean army has occupied Tigray, as Western Powers and the UN now claim, then the norm of non-use of force in international relations (Article 2 Paragraph 4 of the UN Charter) has been violated by the Government of Isaias Afeworki, making Eritrea an aggressor. It follows, from this, that Eritrea is liable to compensate the victims for the damages caused by its army in the illegally occupied territory.

Because the leaders of the Provisional Administration of Tigray and some of the senior military leaders of the Federal army have admitted that Eritrean soldiers are not only inside Tigray but are committing atrocities, the positions of the United States and the UN on this question cannot be challenged. Proceeding from this premise, let us therefore consider what the Eritrean leader has achieved from this war. Bearing in mind what was said by the Eritrean President in his interview of February 8, 2020 and February 17, 2021, there is no doubt that this is a war of vindication for him. For one, the TPLF, his enemy is now removed from power, punished militarily and made economically bankrupt. Its supporters have been dispersed in the countryside because of fears of being arrested or killed. The Tigrayan society too has been collectively punished, and subjected to a reign of terror.

Isaias Afeworki has also achieved his two other political goals. The first one is in assisting and strengthening the Amhara state politically, socially and economically by making sure that it has snatched western and southern Tigray from the State of Tigray. The second one is punishing the 96,000 Eritrean refugees that were sheltered inside the four UN administered refugee camps for having escaped to Tigray illegally. Their camps were, by and large, destroyed or plundered. The destruction in two of these camps was so extensive they are now permanently closed. Some of the refugees that were known for being critical of their government were executed on the spot and while others, numbering in thousands, more were taken back to Eritrea for punishment. The Eritrean refugees who live in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities, numbering well over one hundred thousand, are closely monitored, harassed and some of them are rounded up by the Government of Abiy Ahmed to please Isaias Afeworki.

If the information which is circulating on Ethiopian and Eritrean opposition media circles is to be believed, Isaias Afeworki has also benefited a lot economically. These reports claim that Abiy Ahmed has promised to pay the Eritrean leader US $1 billion, in cash and in kind, for the military cooperation, and assurances not to hinder his soldiers when they plunder Tigray. Above all, Isaias has also been allowed to take the contested border areas along the frontiers of Tigray as he sees fit. Since these promises, if true, were not in written forms, they can easily be contested by the future Ethiopian rulers once Abiy leaves office.

The benefits which the Eritrean President has secured from this war are not necessarily benefits to the Eritrean society or to their country. Eritreans parents are very worried about what will happen to their sons and daughters in Tigray. They know too well that this is not a trip for tourism, for education or for work. It is to kill neighboring human beings for causes which they do not believe in or even know clearly and to be killed or returned back, most probably, injured and traumatized. Since the government has not formally acknowledged that it has militarily intervened, it does not inform the citizens about how many soldiers were killed, injured or captured. The death of the senior military leaders is reported regularly on Eritrean TV since it is important to celebrate their lives when their funeral are arranged. But their death is always attributed to ‘health’ issues.

Eritreans also resent hearing that their soldiers are implicated in the kind of horrific crimes that are committed in Tigray. The fact that the Eritrean refugees inside Tigray have been victimized and that those in the different cities of Ethiopia are harassed and insecure is also a special concern. Since both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments see these Eritrean refugees as security risk, the danger that they will be returned back to Eritrea by force is real and worrisome. Again, the destruction and looting of the Tigrayan monasteries and places of worshiping and the massacre of the religious leaders are also not something to be proud of. Most Eritreans see this if they were done inside Eritrea.

Last, but less important, most Eritreans do not see why a major war like this, which is intended to promote the political, economic and social interests of the Amhara state by sacrificing Eritrean soldiers at the expense of the state of Tigray benefits Eritrea. After all, it was and still is the Tigrayans who have defended the independence of Eritrea, and not the Amhara State and its leaders. In fact, one of the reasons why the latter wanted to punish the TPLF and its supporters was because the role they played in facilitating and recognizing the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. The Amhara leaders still call for the return of Eritrea to Ethiopia and speak of Isaias Afeworki highly as if he has assured them that their wishes will be realized shortly.

It is because of all these that the Eritrean diaspora is seen in large numbers joining hands with Tigrayans when protests are held in the Western cities calling for an end to the on-going political adventure. As they see it, this war is aimed not only at destroying the State of Tigray and Tigrayans, but Eritreans and their state as well. The longer it continues, the more Eritrea will be bleed economically and militarily. By overstretching and exhausting itself the Eritrean defense force has already made Eritrea itself vulnerable for external attack. The political image and prestige of the military has been stained by the kinds of crimes that are committed in Tigray. This alone will discourage the Eritrean youth to serve in the military in the future. Descent citizens prefer to pursue other careers that will not require them to engage in criminal conducts.

It is easy to dismiss the above conclusion by underscoring the point that Eritreans have not been seen expressing opposition to the Eritrean involvement such as in the form of street protests in Eritrea or by using the media. This, however, is because there is neither independent media nor any tolerance for opposing the Eritrean government. Ever since the country became independent, in 1993, this state has been ruled by a despotic and repressive regime which does not even use constitution, parliament, an independent judiciary, budget or even pretend to be accountable. It is not without any reason that this state is called as “The North Korea of Africa”. Those who called for the establishment of democratic form of governance, political parties, free press etc. in the 1990s, as well as those who opposed the 1998 and 2000 border wars are all still in jail, without court decisions. The whereabout of most of these prisoners still remains to be unknown.  A person who kills and opposes the regime get more or less the same kind of punishment, life imprisonment.

When it is obvious that Eritreans are unable to speak out against their government inside their own country, it will be unfair to blame them for not opposing the war in Tigray or the use of Eritrean soldiers in that war. It is common to hear Tigrayans as Eritreans ‘why are your Eritrean soldiers so cruel towards us when we speak the same language, cultures and religion’. To this, Eritreans smile and respond by saying “Sorry to see that you are victimized by our soldiers, but this is what they have been doing against their own people in Eritrea for three decades, and why they are also going after the 96,000 Eritrean refugees in the refugee camps in Tigray. Those who do not comply with the orders that are given to them will be killed. Apparently, we have common enemy, the same cruel regime.”

The Federal Government has benefited from this war in many ways. Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed lacked competence, experience and vision on how to move the country forward, the simplest way of deflecting public attention from the failure of his government was to rely on the ‘Tigrayan dominance’ rhetoric and their ‘bad record’. The statements which he was making before the parliament and that were aired in the tightly controlled media, including by strengthening them with ‘documentary programs’, were mostly used to galvanize public support for this rhetoric and to enlist support for the war. This proved to be an effective strategy. This is why three months after this war was launched, street protests against the war is unheard of.

Abiy Ahmed has clearly benefited personally from this war since it has led to the removal of the TPLF from power and he has established a new Provisional Administration for Tigray which he controls. It is important to recall that in the last state election, which was arranged by the TPLF in defiance of the postponed national election, this Front was able to secure around 97% of the Tigrayan vote. This shows that Abiy would have been unable to get any support inside Tigray if the national election was not postponed in the pretext of Covid-19. Further, since the TPLF and its allies were in power in the central Government of EPDRF for more than a quarter of a century, this Front would have posed a serious challenge to Abiy in the nation-wide election as well. In light of this removing the TPLF by force clearly enabled Abiy to promote his own interest.

Whether Abiy Ahmed would last long as a Prime Minister is another question since the war in Tigray has discredited him globally. His description of this war as  a ‘military operation’ which was launched to ensure law and order is no longer taken seriously by most Ethiopians. If that was done for the sake of ‘law and order’ most Ethiopians will now wonder why those that are committing serious atrocities against the civilians inside Tigray or who are destroying religious sites, factories and hospitals are not made to account? The Ethiopian public knows too well that Tigray, which was the most stable and peaceful state in the country prior to this war, is now lawless and totally destabilized. More and more human rights activists, who see this war as genocidal, are now openly calling for Abiy Ahmed to step down and to account for the international crimes which he is responsible for. The day a special UN tribunal or the International Criminal Court issues warrant against him, Ethiopians will betray him and they may not vote for him in the upcoming national election in June. When that happens, all the political gains which Abiy personally secured by launching this war would be washed away.

Abiy has officially claimed, on November 28, that the Federal Government has defeated the TPLF and is in full control of the territory of Tigray. He has stated that his government is closely monitoring the activities of the Amhara militias in western and southern Tigray. If this is true, then the regime is fully responsible for what the Amhara militias and police forces have done or are doing there. The Ethiopian constitution makes the government responsible to protect life and property, to punish criminal conducts and to provide justice to the victims. If this government is serious about ensuring respect for law and order and there are courts to apply laws, the victimized Tigrayans should be compensated for their losses and sufferings. This is also required by international human rights instruments which the Ethiopian state has ratified, such as the covenant on civil and political rights (Article 2{3}), the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women (Article 2{c}} and the convention against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 12 & 13). The fact that the government is taking ‘military or policing operations’ does not entitle militias to murder and dislocate civilians or loot and destroy their properties. Nor does this operation relieve the government itself from discharging its responsibilities to combat such kinds of activities. Even if the military operation was to be formally acknowledged as war, which is not, the rules of international humanitarian law prohibit the killing of civilians, ethnic cleansing and vandalism.

The same can be said regarding the responsibility of the Federal Government in relation to the wrongful conduct of the Eritrean soldiers. The presence of these foreign soldiers is not acknowledged probably to escape from the kinds of crimes which they are committing. However, reports after reports claim that the Federal and Eritrean soldiers are seen operating side by side. Senior Ethiopian authorities are heard blaming Eritrean soldiers for looting of property and widespread executions. The Federal Government should have prevented all these acts or end these acts when it this is known. By not doing this the Federal Government acted as an accomplice. The international law rules relating the “Responsibility of States for internationally wrongful acts”, as recognized in article 16 of UN General Assembly resolution 56/83 of January 28, 2002 maintains that:

“A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) That State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) The act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State.”

This does not relieve these soldiers from accountability for their own roles. This principle also applies to the members of the Amhara militia, Federal army or the Tigrayan force. Leaving these questions relating to legal responsibility aside, there is no doubt that the Ethiopian nation as such is a loser in this war, since it has been damaged militarily, economically, socially and politically. The day Abiy Ahmed justified the military offensive, on November 4, by claiming that the TPLF has attacked the Northern Defense Forces he acknowledged that this attack enabled the TPLF to control more than half of the Ethiopian military hardware. The day he announced the defeat of the TPLF, on November 28, he stated that the Federal Forces have destroyed 99% of the military targets of the TPLF. If both these claims are true, the Ethiopian military must now be very weak. This is even without considering the military damages sustained after December on both sides. It is no wonder the Sudanese army was able to take more than 40 kilometers of the rich agricultural border land facing the Amhara state which was in dispute between the two countries for decades. This is also why the Ethiopian Government is still seeking  diplomatic solution to the dispute with Sudan when its sovereignty is challenged militarily. Apparently, the country is too weak militarily to face the Sudanese army since its army finds itself in quagmire in Tigray.

The above military and political weaknesses of the Ethiopian regime and the cruel and immoral policy that is pursued in Tigray, including by allowing neighboring Eritrea to terrorize its own citizens has now damaged the country diplomatically. Sudan is more or less at war with Ethiopia. Relation with Kenya is the lowest it has even been. Lately, the African Union has also been moving its meetings from its headquarter, in Addis Ababa, to other African cities often in the pretext of Covid-19.

Inside Ethiopia too, social relation continues to be poisoned with hate speech and ethnic mobilization growing. The repression and atrocities which are committed against innocent civilians in Tigray themselves reveal moral decadence, with rape, vandalism, destruction and arbitrary killings inside Tigray which are condemned internationally are tolerated or ignored by Abiy Ahmed and the constitutional protection becoming meaningless. When respect for the rule of law is sacrificed in Tigray and the regime shows no interest to protect the innocent civilians from armed soldiers, the other citizens loss confidence on their government and start to devise their own way protecting their safety and interest in case the political chaos spreads to their regions, and that leads to suspicion, tension, rivalry and insecurity.

The war in Tigray is also unsustainable economically since it depletes the badly needed resources and finances which could have been used for progress and development. Foreign investment and tourism have decreased considerably, the military expenditures and cost of living have increased, the government is getting less and less revenues from taxes now that the economic fabrics of Tigray are destroyed and the government is facing shortage of foreign currency. To make things worse, the European Union and the United States are contemplating to impose sanctions because of the policies used in Tigray and the World Bank and the IMF are not eager to extend loans. Even before this war, the country ranked 173rd out of 189 States under the human development Index used by the United Nations Development Programme.

4. The United Nations

According to the preambles of the Charter of the United Nations, this organization was established, in 1945, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person …[and] to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.” Its purposes, as stipulated in Article 1 Paragraph 3 of this Charter include, achieving “international co-operation in solving international problems of …humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.  Paragraph 2 of this Article underscores further that the U.N. is committed to the development of “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.

The war in Tigray provides a classical example of the type of situation which the UN was meant to address. Successive generations of Tigrayans have been exposed to the scourge of war, the last one being the genocidal war which the Ethiopian Socialist Government of  Mengistu Haile Mariam (the Derg) pursued in the 1970s and 1980s. This regime was  known for carrying out mass murder and endless abuses on human dignity and worth throughout its rule. However, the atrocities which are now committed by the current regime of Ethiopia are much more serious and systematic and are carried out in persistent ways. As mentioned earlier widespread mass executions, attacks on civilian properties, including on sacred places, violence against women, children, refugees and exposing civilians to inhuman and degrading treatment are all carried out in consistent ways everywhere. The Derg was evil and ruthless but it did not engage in practices requiring human corpse to be eaten by hyenas , women to be raped by their families or placing foreign objects, such as nails and sones to be placed on the womb of women as they are seen now. Hunger was also used as a weapon in Tigray, but not by disrupting electricity and water supplies for several months and by destroying and plundering hospitals and clinics.

That Abiy Ahmed would most resort to the military means of responding to the defiance of the Tigrayan administration to proceed with its own state election when the national election was postponed was expected, but not by inviting foreign states and to destroy the state of Tigray. The election which was arranged in Tigray was not without constitutional justifications since this law guarantees the people of Tigray the right to self-determination (Article 39) and views them as sovereign (Paragraph 1 of Article 8). This being the case, it is difficult to see the current war as a retaliatory measure for holding an ‘illegal’ state election in Tigray. If that was the case how did western and southern Tigray end up under the control of the Amhara state and what are Eritrean soldiers doing in large parts of Tigray including in most of the bigger cities?

The official description of what is going on inside Tigray as a policing or military ‘operation’ which was prompted by the November 4 attack on the Northern Defense Forces by the TPLF distorts the reality. What is seen is a total war which was well designed and coordinated, including by soliciting the participation of foreign political forces, Eritreans, Somali and the UAE. The timing that was used to launch this military operation was carefully chosen to fit the U.S. presidential election, when the global media turns attention to the coverage of the U.S. Presidential election. To make sure that this global media will not notice what is done in Tigray, the latter too was cut off from the external world, for several months, by disrupting electricity, phone and the internet. As if this is not bad enough, foreign journalists were forbidden from entering this state humanitarian agencies too were prevented from delivering food and medicine. The Ethiopian Government has also refused to accept the establishment of an independent investigating body to examine if serious international crimes were committed. All these reveals that the Government was trying to cover the suspicion which outside observers had about the genocidal war which was in progress and serious international crimes that were committed to achieve this goal.

Genocide, war crimes, crime against humanity and aggression are all punishable crimes under the statute of the International Criminal Court. Genocide is defined in Article 6 of this statute as acts that are committed with “an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, such as, by killing or inflicting deliberately “on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Examples of the crimes against humanity which are mentioned in this statute include, the “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”, murder, rape and enforced disappearance of persons. Added to this is “the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population” (art. 7). War crimes, according to this instrument include, intentional killing, the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property “attacks against civilian objects” bombarding towns, villages, dwellings, the “deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory”, deliberate “attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art … historic monuments, hospitals” rape, …and any other form of sexual violence”. (art. 8). The forcible transfer of population from their territories (ethnic cleansing) falls under the categories of both crime against humanity (art. 7(1)) and war crime [art. 8(2)(a)(viii)]. Aggression is defined in article 9 of this Statute and includes:

“(a) The invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation, however temporary …

(b) Bombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State

(e) The use of armed forces of one State which are within the territory of another State with the agreement of the receiving State, in contravention of the conditions provided …

(f) The action of a State in allowing its territory, which it has placed at the disposal of another State, to be used by that other State for perpetrating an act of aggression against a third State.”

Judging from the reports that are now circulating, most of the abovementioned crimes were committed and continue to be committed in this war as explained in section 3.3 as well as in the present section. The widespread execution of civilians, the destruction of their crops, shops and health centers, the use of hunger as weapon, the manner in which rape was used to demoralize the community and the forcible transfer of Tigrayans from western and southern Tigray all reveal the presence of ‘an intent’ destroy this people as understood in the genocide convention.

Seen from this angle, it did not come as a surprise that the leaders of the U.S., U.K., and E.U., as well as the UN and many human rights organizations have all denounced the killings of civilians, the plundering and destructions of civilian properties since they are all prohibited crimes by international humanitarian rules. This is also why they have repeatedly appealed to the Ethiopian leader to put an end to this war, and asked for the “immediate” withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers from Tigray. The latter demand also suggests an acknowledgement of the presence of an illegal intervention and an aggression since the Ethiopian Government has not even formally asked for Eritrean support. 

The magnitude and consequences of this war are still not widely appreciated by the political world because of the blackout of the past three months or so. In their open letter to Abiy Ahmed, four former American Ambassadors to Ethiopia have expressed concern over the fact that “2.2 million people have been displaced, and 4.5 million people need emergency assistance, many of whom are without adequate food.” (28) This is a staggering figure, considering that the population of Tigray is around 8 million. It means that the majority of the Tigrayan population is already exposed to hunger in less than four months. It is true that food supplies in Tigray were already at risk before the start of the war, as a result of locust plague. But it is the war itself and the deliberate policy of Abiy Ahmed to starve the people of Tigray which has compounded the humanitarian problem. The fact that weaponizing hunger is formally condemned by the international community, as a crime, means nothing to the Ethiopian regime since it views international law as toothless.

The reasons for claiming that hunger is weaponized in this case are many. The first is the refusal of the regime of Abiy Ahmed to open its borders to enable international humanitarian organizations to deliver emergency food aid. If this was not because of the wish to see Tigrayans starve to death what other reasons can there? Yes, the regime made reference to ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ as a pretext, but this makes no sense. How can providing access to aid agencies to feed starving people threaten sovereignty? It is allowing foreign soldiers, such as those from Eritrea and Somalia, or the drone attacks of the UAE, which threatens sovereignty and violates the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state. Even an elementary student would see this point. The foreign forces that are inside Tigray are not seen promoting the security of the people or their property or ensuring law and order, unless ‘law and order’ is understood as one which gives these soldiers the ‘right to rape and plunder and terrorise civilians’. The Federal Constitution prohibits such acts.

Second, the regime of Abiy Ahmed must know that hunger follows when electricity, water and bank services are disrupted for months, when farms and their crops are destroyed and markets collapse, when shops, hospitals are looted, and people are not paid for more than three months. This is precisely what is now happening inside Tigray. Despite this there is hardly anything that the Government of Abiy Ahmed had done to meet the challenges, which are caused by its soldiers other than blaming the TPLF for everything. If the TPLF was defeated at the end of November, as Abiy Ahmed officially told his Parliament on November 30, how can the TPLF be blamed for all the problems in its absence? The fact remains that even the Federal Government is said to be unable to control what the Eritrean soldiers, the Amhara militias and its own soldiers are doing now.

The third reason for claiming that the regime is weaponizing hunger is the selection of November 4 as the date for launching the military operation. Most Tigrayans rely on teff, a fine grain, for their daily food. The harvest of wheat, barley and teff usually “start in the last week of October, while the harvest of sorghum, finger millet and maize (the latter being of minor significance) is expected to take place from November through January.” (29) It is legitimate to ask whether it was sheer coincidence that military operations were launched at the start of the teff harvest, or whether this decision was taken intentionally, in order to disrupt the harvest. The destruction of farms and crops and disruption of the market did create serious problems for the population in the months following this military offensive.

If the military offensive was delayed by one or two months the farmers of Tigray would have been able to harvest their crops and earn an income by selling their produce. Traders would have earned money in the process. The consumers too would have stored the food to tide them over during the war. By launching the war just prior to harvest, the Government of Abiy Ahmed intentionally wrecked the flows of food and income, exposing the population to hunger.

The fourth reason is the government’s own reluctance to come to the rescue of the farmers of Tigray when they were devastated by swarms of locusts in the weeks prior to the war. This is in stark contrast to the prompt assistance provided to those affected farmers in neighboring states. Even the drones that were donated by the Tigrayan diaspora from Israel to combat the locust invasion, and the helicopter which one person donated for this purpose were confiscated on security grounds. The fact that the National Bank of the country has frozen all the bank accounts inside Tigray too shows the presence of an intention to prevent people from using their savings in the banks when these banks open (i.e., before they were closed). Taking all this evidence together, there are compelling reasons for maintaining that the Government of Abiy Ahmed did weaponize hunger in the present war in Tigray.(30)

When around 8 million people are facing problems of the kind described above and their government is not willing or unable to protect them, the UN should have stepped in and protected them. The Secretary General of this organization was expected to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”, as expected by Article 99 (emphasis added). Operative Paragraph 11 of Security Council resolution 2417 even required the Secretary General explicitly “to provide information on the humanitarian situation and response” so that the Council will be able to take measures including by considering “sanction measures” against “individuals or entities obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance, or access to, or distribution of, humanitarian assistance” (Operative Paragraph 9). Yet, two months after Secretary General Antonio Guterres proceeded by cooperating with the Ethiopian Government the latter is still seen dragging his feet. 

Antonio Guterres was getting information about the dangerous humanitarian crisis from the different humanitarian organizations and UN offices were expressing concern about this problem. He knew too well that this looming humanitarian crisis is directly linked to the disruption of normal life, especially due to power shortage and the difficulties of accessing clean water, banking, marketing and medical services. Yet, even when it was obvious that Ethiopian government was hindering humanitarian agencies from delivering assistance and that it was weaponizing hunger, the Secretary General chose to continue with the strategy of appealing to Abiy Ahmed to cooperate rather than pressuring him. He justified this approach by underscoring the point that it was much better “to establish with the Ethiopian Government a functional relationship.”(31)

Secretary General Antonio Guterres was also asked about the Eritrean involvement in this civil war, since the presence of external military involvement clearly threatens international peace and security. Yet, here too Guterres bushed off this claim. “We have no proof of the presence of Eritrean troops inside Ethiopia”, he said and underscored the point that he was assured by the Ethiopian Prime Minister that this not the case.(32) If Abiy has assured the Secretary General that Eritrean troops were not invited, and there are, on the other side, serious allegations and concerns accusing the Eritrean Government for being involved militarily, the Secretary General should have raised this matter before the Security Council, or investigated this matter. Claims which concern the presence of external aggression and which threaten state sovereignty and territorial integrity should not be seen lightly. 

This is not to discredit the UN Secretary General without credible reasons but to face the truth. The UN should be appreciated for the roles it has played in the past but should also be criticized when mistakes are seen. This organization has developed human rights instruments and the mechanisms to be used for monitoring on how states are complying with the instruments they have ratified. Examples of the latter includes the use of country rapporteurs, thematic rapporteurs, working groups (such as those who examine situations revealing massive and systematic violations of human rights) and the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council. Another important milestone in this respect was the decision in 2005 to adopt the doctrine known as “International Responsibility to Protect.”  As summed up by the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect::

“The responsibility to protect embodies a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution. It seeks to narrow the gap between Member States’ pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the reality faced by populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”(33)

Likewise, the adoption of resolution 2417 by Security Council was another significant achievement made by the UN made when it comes to devising when civilians should be protected in times of armed conflicts. This resolution condemns “the unlawful denial of such access and depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival — including willfully impeding relief supply and access for responses to conflict.”  According to operative paragraph 4 of this resolution, the parties to armed conflicts are required to respect the obligations recognized under international humanitarian law and “to cooperate fully with the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and United Nations agencies in providing such access”. If they fail to do so, the matter should be brought to the attention of the Security Council since this amounts to “a threat to international peace and security” deserving the adoption of “appropriate steps”. Here too they UN has not taken a firm stand in protecting the people of Tigray when the Government of Abiy Ahmed has shown its defiance, for several months, to the calls by the different UN agencies, such as OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP to provide unfettered humanitarian corridor.

In short, although the UN has made considerable progress in developing human rights instruments and the mechanisms that should be used to apply them when it comes to responding to the challenges posed by the war in Tigray, what was done in practice was not praiseworthy, at least this far, other than the courageous steps that were taken by some of the responsible leaders of offices such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, OCHA and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Nor was the doctrine of responsibility to protect (R2P) invoked by the Security Council to save the eight million endangered Tigrayans when they were abandoned by their own country and peoples. The Ethiopian Government is unable and unwilling to protect them.

Which way the UN will proceed in the days and months is hard to tell. Hopefully, the Security Council will call for a cease-fire, send peacekeeping force to ensure this as well as to protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance, establish an independent commission to investigate the international crimes that were committed and to make sure that those that have committed them will be accountable for their did. There are promising signs that this tract will be followed. The Biden Administration appears to be unwilling to accept the military gains made through ethnic cleansing. This is implicit from its Press Release which has called for:

“The immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential first steps.  They should be accompanied by unilateral declarations of cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict and a commitment to permit unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray. The United States is committed to working with the international community to achieve these goals.” (34)

Above all, the UN is expected to find lasting solution to the conflict itself. The challenges is by no means easy. This organization should not proceed by disregarding its values and purposes which are mentioned in its Charter – i.e., democracy, human rights, law and order, and the principle of self-determination. These values are affirmed in the Ethiopian Constitution. Because the present humanitarian crisis is man-made, it will be difficult to provide humanitarian assistance without arranging cease-fire. That will, in turn, requires sending a UN peacekeeping force to monitor the cease-fire and protect the delivery of the humanitarian assistance. The cease-fire should be linked to the immediate withdrawal the occupying forces. Otherwise, these forces will take the humanitarian assistance leaving the victims starved. This makes the withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers and the Amhara militias a pre-requisite for extending humanitarian assistance. The failure to expel these forces will also amount to endorsing the ethnic cleansing in western and southern Tigray and the Eritrean aggression.

Requiring the withdrawal of the Amhara forces from Tigray will be met by opposition on the grounds of meddling in internal affairs. According to the Amhara officials, western and southern Tigray were incorporated into Tigray by the TPLF arbitrarily in 1991. Prior to that, they argue, these regions belonged to the Amhara. One way of resolving this controversy would be to allow the inhabitants to have a say in choosing between the states of Amhara or Tigray. However, even this too can be criticized for being illegitimate since this matter was settled formally when the Federal Constitution was approved in 1994. Even the Derg administration was considering the people of these regions as Tigrayans.

If the UN requires the withdrawal of the Federal forces, and the current Provisional Administration and their replacement by the previous TPLF administration, militia and police force this will be opposed by the regime of Abiy Ahmed as meddling in internal matters. On the other hand, if it fails to do this, this will signal that it is proceeding by disregarding democracy and the Ethiopian Federal Constitution. This is because the current Provisional Administrative Authority in Tigray was not elected by the people of Tigray. Nor is Abiy Ahmed himself, for that matter. The TPLF Government, which was elected by Tigrayans was removed militarily. Since the Federal Constitution protects the sovereignty of the people of Tigray, and the right to self-government, the UN cannot tell this people to accept the current Provisional Administration or to choose another government when they have already chosen one.

There will be states that will defend the positions of the Government of Abiy Ahmed, by invoking for respect for state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs. After all, States, especially the major powers, have important economic, political and other interests in Ethiopia. Yet, to say that Abiy Ahmed Ali should be left alone to complete his genocidal policies would be morally and politically damaging to those who support this. Legally too it is difficult to defend the ‘internal affairs’ clause in this case when serious international crimes including genocide and ethnic cleansing are pursued. As stated above, the Ethiopian Constitution, in Paragraph 1 of Article 8 makes  “the peoples of Ethiopia” sovereign  and guarantees them theunconditional right to self- determination, including the right to secession” [Article 39 (1)]. If the rules governing sovereignty and territorial integrity are to be invoked they actually strengthen the case of Tigray.

The pattern of human rights abuses that were/are committed inside Tigray, the violations of international humanitarian rules and the weaponization of hunger have clearly created a situation which the UN cannot ignore. This organization has a long record of confronting these kinds of situations by disregarding the clause on ‘internal matters’, e.g. when it relies on its 1503 procedure or on Security Council resolution 2417 of 2018. The situation inside Tigray also reveals an internationalized conflict since neighboring Eritrea is involved. This fact the reliance on ethnic cleansing have brought about a political question, namely how to resolve “the question of Tigray”.

Sovereignty clearly shields states from ‘external intervention’, but only for those who respect the norms of international law. According to Paragraph seven of Principle Five of the UN Declaration on Friendly Relations (General Assembly resolution 2625 (XXV) of 1970) this implies being “possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction”. The people of Tigray are not represented in the Ethiopian Government. As Mick Wallace stated, only from the military 17,000 Tigrayans have been removed in the past few months.(35) The number of Tigrayans that were removed from the Federal and local administration is much higher than that. The TPLF administration itself has been replaced by one which is controlled from Addis Ababa. Nor are Tigrayans represented in the Ethiopian Parliament. Again, the electoral board has made it clear that the national election which will be held this summer will not be held in Tigray. This means that Tigray will be excluded from parliamentary representation for another five years.

Thus, the day the people of Tigray decides to establish separate state, it will be difficult for the Government of Abiy Ahmed to challenge the legitimacy of this demand. The right of this people to secede from the Ethiopian state is clearly recognized in Article 39 of the Constitution. True, international law protects the ‘sovereignty’, ‘national unity’ and ‘territorial integrity’ of independent states. But the people of Tigray, which is ‘sovereign’ according to the Federal constitution has been excluded from power (sovereignty). Nor is it viewed by the regime as an integral part of the Ethiopian nation as its exclusion from power reveals and the regime is seen using hunger as a weapon and refusing to extend protection when the residents are exposed to serious international crimes. The rule on ‘territorial integrity’ cannot be invoked while at the same time placing the territory under the control of foreign state (Eritrea) for purposes of terrorizing the inhabitants. Abiy Ahmed Ali cannot have it both ways: i.e., to benefit from the principle of state sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity, while at the same time destroying the state and people of Tigray.  He should choose between loosing this state or behaving with international norms. The latter do not recognize the rights of states to commit genocide.

If Tigray was inside Europe, NATO would have resolved this question as it did in Kosovo, i.e., by protecting the people and facilitating its independence by involving the UN. Again, if neighboring Sudan was as powerful as India, and eager in protecting the people of Tigray, it would have intervened militarily to facilitate its independence just as India did for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, Tigray is lonely and surrounded by neighbors that are determined to crush it militarily even if this takes years and the total destruction of its people. The longer this war continues, the more atrocities will be committed and the louder the voice calling independence will be . There is a lot of talk already about the determination to create separate independent state. Some are even seen debating what its appropriate name should be, i.e. whether it will be Tigray, one of its old names Axum or Habesha or simply Northern Ethiopia or Ag’azi.

The more the UN avoids to face the political crisis in Tigray, the more its credibility will come to be questioned. This is not simply because this organization is required to address serious problems like those seen in Tigray by its own Charter, but also because the 1948  convention against genocide too requires it to “prevent” and “punish” the kinds of serious crimes that have been committed in Tigray daily during the past few months. The day the UN takes up this case seriously, it will be difficult to imagine how the political leaders that are responsible for all the war crimes, the crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and the aggression that are seen in Tigray will escape from facing an international tribunal.

Leaving this aside, the other thorny problem which the UN will have to resolve will be how to ensure lasting peace in Tigray after arranging cease fire. One way of doing this would be to encourage the parties to the conflict to resolve their differences by stimulating negotiated settlement. The approach which the UN Security Council used to resolve the North-South conflict in neighboring Sudan, based on the 2005 Nairobi Comprehensive Peace Agreement, could serve as a model for going forward. There, the principle of self-determination was deemed to be necessary for ending the war and for strengthening peace, although the Sudanese constitution did not guarantee the right to self-determination. Any attempt to resolve the question of Tigray outside this framework would be unjust and a violation of Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution which guarantees this right. Such a move will also disregard the purpose of UN Charter on the “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” (Paragraph 2 of Article 1, emphasis added). Further, imposing a political formula which the people of Tigray has not asked for will be impractical and violate Paragraph 7 of Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits this organization from intervening “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction.” This is why the reliance on the Ethiopian Constitution and the UN Charter principle on self-determination would be the only legitimate way of resolving the question of Tigray.

*About the author and this work

Eyassu Gayim, Juris Doctor, Docent in international law.

Between 2012 and 2019 this author was teaching at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden (as an Associate Professor). Prior to that he worked for different universities in Finland, Sweden and in Southern California. Currently, he is affiliated with the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and San Diego State University (SDSU).

The reader of this paper might get the impression that this work was probably written by a person from Tigray or commissioned by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Neither is the case. The author was born in Addis Ababa and lived there until 1977. Since then, he was in the Horn of Africa only once, and for about one month in the middle of the 1990s. He has never had any affiliation whatsoever with the TPLF, and never lived in Tigray or even saw that state, regrettably, other than the bus routes between the Ethiopian and Eritrean capitals. What motivated this paper is simply the calls of humanity, the refusal to look the other way around when horrendous crimes like the ones seen today in Tigray are committed against millions of human beings in the pretext of ensuring ‘law and order’.


1. AFP News Agency, November 12, 2020 in Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed justifies Tigray military operation | AFP – YouTube

2. Human Rights Watch, 11 February 2021,  See further Tigray Media House February 27, 2021,; Asena TV February 25, 2021,; Ethio Forum Febuary 5, 2021,; Awlo Media, February 19,; and Andafta Media. Feb 2, 2021,   See further note 26.

3. United Nations TV, Tigray Update, February 5, 2021, GENEVA / TIGRAY UPDATE | United Nations UN Audiovisual Library (

4. Ibid.

5. UNICEF, “Children in Tigray in acute need of protection and assistance” 12 February, 2021 in

6. Ethiopian Forces Admitting Rape in the Tigray Capital, Mekelle, 9 January, Ethiopian Forces Admitting Rape in the Tigray Capital, Mekele. – YouTube

7. United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, in United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten, urges all parties to prohibit the use of sexual violence and cease hostilities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia – ; and also Michael Georgy, Reuters, “’Choose – I kill you or rape you’: abuse accusations surge in Ethiopia’s war.

8. Statement attributed to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi on the situation of Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopian’s Tigray Region, 14 January 2021, in UNHCR – Statement attributable to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

9. United Nations TV, Tigray Update, February 5, 2021, GENEVA / TIGRAY UPDATE | United Nations UN Audiovisual Library (

10. Press release, Department of State, February 27, 2021,

11. “EU envoy warns Ethiopia Tigray crisis ‘out of control’, com with AFP, February 23, 2021,

12. Ethiopia: Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union,

13. Memorial service 01-23-2021,

14. Lords raise concerns over conflict in Tigray | House of Lords | 24 November 2020 – Bing video

15. Ibid.

16. Mick Wallace on Twitter: “#Ethiopian Government is accused of War Crimes in #Tigray, using Hunger as a weapon, + continues to blatantly lie about involvement of #Eritrean troops in Tigray cannot be trusted to deliver relief to Tigray…” / Twitter

17.  Assita Kanko MEP on Twitter: “Live #EPlenary speaking about Ethiopian conflict. We strongly condemn the violence in the Tigray region. We support international calls for swift and unconditional access to the whole region for humanitarian aid, independent human rights monitors, and the media. Urgent.” / Twitter

18. Memorial service 01-23-2021,


20. Memorial service 01-23-2021,

21. “Open Letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from retired U.S. Ambassadors to Ethiopia, January 21, 2021”, Staff Reporter, The Reporter, 26 January 2021,

22. Pope Francis asks for prayer for Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region”. Pope Francis asks for prayer for Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region (

23. Staff reporter, “Aid to the Church in Need”: possible atrocities in Tigray – Vatican News, The Vatican News, January 26, 2021.

24. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba: Archbishop Thabo Makgoba pleads for the people of Tigray, Ethiopia (

25. Memorial. See also note 20 supra.

26. Asena Television ATV 25 February 2021, For more detail surrounding these atrocities consult, Ethio Forum 25 February,; Ethio Forum and February 5 in; and Awlo Media, 19 February 2021, in

27. See the interview given by Eritrean Television to President Isaias Afeworki on February 8, 2020 ( and February 17, 2021 (; See further, Alex Dewaal, “Who Will Call Out Eritrea’s War Crimes in Tigray?”, World Peace Foundation, December 23, 2020, in Who Will Call Out Eritrea’s War Crimes in Tigray? – Reinventing PeaceReinventing Peace (; the interview given to Dr. Aregawi Berhe, Andafta Media. Feb 2, 2021,; the interview with the leaders of the Tigrayan Biatona party, in Awlo Media, February 19, 2020

28. “Open Letter to Prime Minister… note 21 supra.

29. Joachim D. Ahrens and Yves Guinand, “Agroproduction in Tigray and Wollo”, African Studies Center of the University of Pennsylvania, September, 1998, available in

30. “Famine crimes Ethiopia’s government appears to be wielding hunger as a weapon”, Economist January 23, 2021 in

31. “Ethiopia: Immediate Priority is the well-being of the people of Tigray” Press Conference, 10 December 2020, reproduced in,

32. Ibid.

33. Accessible on the website:

34. US Department of State, Press Statement, note 10 supra.

35. Mick Wallace on Twitter, see note 16.

About Eyassu Gayim

Associate Professor, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg (Sweden). The author holds the degrees of Juris Doctor from Uppsala University (Sweden), Juris Licentiate from the University of Oslo (Norway), Bachelor of Law from Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and the diploma of International and Comparative Law of Human Rights from the Strasbourg Institute of Human Rights (France). Prior to joining the School of Global Studies in 2012 he was an Adjunct Faculty at San Diego State University (California). Before that he was senior researcher and lecturer at Helsinki University and the University of Lapland in Finland.