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International Organizations are Failing Ethiopia
As civil war rages, the time for decisive action is now.
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By Carine Kaneza Nantulya and Louis Charbonneau
The stakes for Ethiopia’s people couldn’t be higher. For over a year, Ethiopia has been the site of a devastating civil war in the country’s northern Tigray region. The conflict pits the Ethiopian military and its allied forces against fighters affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who, until recently, had dominated the country’s politics as part of a ruling coalition. After years of anti-government protests came to a head in 2018, Ethiopia’s then prime minister stepped down in an effort to stem the unrest, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to gain power. Tensions between the federal government and now-sidelined Tigray regional authorities increased rapidly, and war broke out in November 2020.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Ethiopian military and their allied forces, including Eritrean federal forces and Amhara regional forces and militias, have committed laws-of-war violations and human rights abuses in Tigray. These include large-scale massacres, widespread sexual violence, forced displacement of civilians, pillage, and destruction of refugee camps. Armed forces on all sides have been accused of deliberately obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance, leaving millions of Tigrayans at risk of famine and disease. During the first two weeks of January, at least 108 civilians in Tigray were killed in government airstrikes.
Tigrayan fighters, too, have been responsible for abuses. Human Rights Watch has documented Tigrayan militia abuses against Eritrean refugees. As the fighting spread to neighboring regions in July, Tigrayan fighters carried out summary killings, sexual violence, including gang rape, looting, and destruction of civilian infrastructure. The conflict’s expansion has left millions of civilians in need of humanitarian assistance, and tens of thousands displaced from their homes, pushing an already overstretched humanitarian response further toward the brink of catastrophe.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in the northeastern Afar as fighting in the region continues. In early November, Amhara forces rounded up and killed or forcibly expelled many Tigrayans in Western Tigray. While many have since been released, many others, including hundreds who fled to Saudi Arabia and were then deported, remain arbitrarily detained in detention sites throughout the country.
In December 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva established a fact-finding body tasked with investigating allegations of human rights abuses and international crimes in Ethiopia. The move was an important milestone in Ethiopia’s devastating conflict and no small feat for the states that pushed for its establishment.
Yet, while reports of atrocities piled up, other key international bodies stuck to the sidelines and failed to take decisive action. It took more than a year for the African Union’s Peace and Security Council to hold a formal meeting on the Tigray crisis. While the United Nations Security Council has discussed the crisis about a dozen times—mostly behind closed doors—it has not added Ethiopia to its formal agenda.
This lack of meaningful attention from key international bodies has made it easier for warring parties to carry out abuses against civilians with impunity. As a result, only a woefully insufficient trickle of aid has reached civilians since last June. On January 26, the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to fly their first delivery of medical supplies into Tigray in months. But the next day, the UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, told members of the UN Security Council that no aid convoys had reached the Tigray region in over six weeks. Just one truck entered on February 1. The World Health Organization was able to airlift medical supplies to Tigray on February 11, but could not obtain fuel to deliver the assistance.
Both the African Union and the UN Security Council need to make Ethiopia a top priority. Apart from the occasional media statement, they’ve pursued a path of all-too-quiet diplomacy. This approach has led to a sense of normalcy and signaled to the Ethiopian authorities that the international community is not committed to firmly putting a halt to the atrocities. The fact that the African Union recently held its 35th Heads of State and Governments Summit in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, reinforced this perception.
While Ireland, an elected Security Council member, has energetically pushed for sustained engagement on Ethiopia, the key to change in the UN rests with Kenya, Ghana, and Gabon. These countries are currently serving as Africa’s representatives on the Security Council, often referred to in diplomatic circles as the “A3.” They do much more than represent their individual countries. They are called to represent the views and aspirations of people on the continent, and the policy of the African Union. Together, they could potentially unlock the doors to a more active approach to preventing further atrocities in Ethiopia. While Russia and China are often blamed for preventing Security Council action, council members typically look to the A3 for clear signals on responding to African crises.
They have already begun to have a positive influence: In November, the A3 (which then comprised Kenya, Tunisia, and Niger) joined forces with Ireland to end the Security Council’s silence by pushing it to issue its first press statement on Ethiopia in over six months. Among other things, the statement called for “respect of international humanitarian law” and “safe and unhindered humanitarian access.” By acting together these three governments demonstrated that they could break the seemingly unbreakable impasse at the UN in New York.
But much more is needed. The A3’s next step should be to demand adding Ethiopia to the Security Council’s formal agenda. In May, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights established a commission of inquiry into serious human rights abuses in the Tigray region. The Security Council should begin requesting regular briefings from this commission as soon as possible, as well as from UN humanitarian, human rights, and political affairs officials.
At the same time, the A3 and other Security Council members should warn the Ethiopian government that they are considering individual UN sanctions and a global arms embargo to deter further abuses. Any sanctions should be targeted and spare the broader population.
For these actions to bear fruit, Western governments must work alongside their African counterparts to bolster AU mediation efforts, including through the judicious use of pressure. Given the nature and scale of the atrocities in Ethiopia, the AU mediation team should include human rights and gender experts. They must take all the necessary steps to ensure that accountability and transitional justice issues are not swept aside in any mediation process.
The inaction of both the AU and UN Security Council has made it easier for the warring parties to continue their abusive behavior, with no pressure to comply with their international obligations. They should abandon a strategy that has failed both institutions, and countless victims. Bold action is urgently needed in both Addis and New York. Anything less would be a betrayal of the principles that our international organizations were founded on.
Carine Kaneza Nantulya is Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Louis Charbonneau is the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch.