It seems like it was a long time ago when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for resolving the border dispute with Eritrea and “forging durable peace in the Horn of Africa.” He accepted the award “on behalf of Africans and citizens of the world for whom the dream of peace has often turned into a nightmare of war.” Fast-forward nearly a year that same president ordered the bombing of his own country. On Nov. 4, he ordered military operations against Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional forces in the Tigray region — home of Tigrayan ethnic group — in response to TPLF attacks on Ethiopian military bases, federal forces and camps in the regional capital of Mekelle and other areas of Tigray. Since the announcement, hundreds of civilians have died and more than 40,000 have become refugees.
The Roots of Conflict Ahmed is not your usual Nobel Prize winner. Even before the conflict, Ethiopians were worried their country was heading in an authoritarian direction. For instance, in July, there were peaceful protests following the murder of Oromo musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa, but Ahmed arrested protesters on terrorism charges and refused to release them when the court said he should. In addition to the arrest of journalists and activists becoming increasingly common, last year, TPLF, the largest party in the ruling coalition that dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades, lost some of its power in the federal government. Furthermore ‘because of the pandemic,’ Ahmed postponed this year’s regional election to next year. In September, TPLF held regional elections and won, but consequently the federal government severed all ties with Tigray and declared the provincial government illegal.
War Crimes In his speech to parliament, Ahmed said: “not a single civilian life had been lost during the march into Tigray.” Though Amnesty International, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and hospitals say otherwise; each life lost was documented in an attack on civilians by the TPLF and other sources, backed by the evidence of a low supply of body bags. In early November, a series of ethnic killings were carried out by a youth group of TPLF, killing at least 600 non-Tigrayans. When Federal forces surrounded Mekelle, a city of 500,000 Nov. 25, they warned the civilians to leave or receive no “mercy.” The total number of wounded and dead civilians is unknown since the international press is not allowed in the region. The police and military removed sim cards to prevent people from phoning for help and the internet is shut down. Approximately 96,000 Eritrean refugees who came to Tigray in search of safety, food supplies are in desperate need. Dec. 2, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the U.N., announced that the U.N. and the Ethiopian government agreed to allow U.N. humanitarian aid for the people in need in Tigray. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) communications team leader based in Nairobi, Saviano Abreu, told reporters that beginning Dec. 2, the U.N. will carry out its first mission for a needs assessment; however, Dec. 8, the Ethiopian National Defense Force fired at U.N. staff visiting a refugee camp. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 requires the protection of civilians during the conflict. It requires parties in conflict to abide by this independent of what the opposing side does. Basic principles of humanitarian law and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require the governments to make sure that the “rights to food, water, health, housing and education are met even during a situation of emergency and armed conflict.” Thus targeting an entire city, carrying out ethnic killings of civilians, shutting down communications, and preventing humanitarian aid are indeed war crimes.
Preventing Slaughter Ahmed declared victory over TPLF Nov. 28. Subsequently, he announced on Twitter that military operations in the Tigray region have ceased; however, with the cease of communication within Tigray, his claims cannot be validated. At 10 p.m. Nov. 28, six explosions in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, were reported by the U.S. Department of State. The cause of the explosions remains unknown. Ahmed announced that the government will provide aid. However, citizens say that aid has not been received. By December 2020, it is estimated that more than 40,000 people have been displaced, of which many were forced to flee into Sudan. To prevent a catastrophe or another Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the U.N. and the African Union should intervene and remind both sides that they will be held accountable for their actions — war crimes. Urgently, doors for humanitarian aid should open, and if countries want to send clear signs, they should impose an arms embargo. If the world does not act now, Ethiopia will go into a deep crisis, and the smells of genocide will become a reality.