How the International Community is Failing to Stop a Genocidal War in Tigray, Ethiopia
During social injustices, catastrophic wars, and genocides, there have been two dominant recurring elements that enable the perpetrators and oppressors. They are the politics of silence and the blatant disregard for the human cost of conflict and war.
In the mid 1990s, two devastating atrocities occurred that shook the international community to its core. In 1994, there was the Rwandan genocide. After just one hundred days, Hutu extremists had slaughtered 800,000 Tutsi. Cowell, Alan. “Rwanda Marks 25 Years Since the Genocide. The Country Is Still Grappling With Its Legacy.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2019. … Continue reading In 1995, during the Bosnian war, the Srebrenica genocide took place in which over 8,000 Bosniak muslim men and boys were killed over a three month period.“Scenes from Hell: 1995 Srebrenica Genocide in Photos.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, July 10, 2020.
https://apnews.com/article/ec01765d17e8c27ead9c3f3ea6e6ca36. In both cases, the international community and the United Nations were mere bystanders to the horrifying ethnically driven massacres that occurred.
Following the atrocities of Rwanda and Bosnia, which the international community failed to prevent, United Nations member states committed to the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. The year 2020 marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the principle, though it is failing at the very thing it promised to accomplish:
Currently, there is undeniable evidence of horrendous crimes against humanity, war crimes, and active genocide and ethnic cleansing in Tigray, a region in northern Ethiopia.
The genocidal war started on November 4, 2020, disguised as a law-and-order enforcement operation against the elected leaders of Tigray – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The war has been perpetuated and supported by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, as both have troops engaged in active combat within the region. Eritrea’s military involvement in the war is a clear form of invasion and unlawful occupation. The rate and scale of these crimes, if left further unchecked, are feared to equate to the magnitude of harm caused to civilians during the Rwanda genocide and Srebrenica massacare.
Here is why. (Trigger Warning: Graphic descriptions of torture, rape, murder, massacres and mass graves.)
In 1998, when visiting Kigali, Rwanda, President Clinton spoke to Rwandan officials and survivors and said: “It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, September 8, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/.
As the role of the United States or the international community in the Rwandan genocide is questionable in several respects, it is important to highlight the latter part of that statement: “ […] who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” This lack of appreciation of unimaginable terror is being repeated today, as the situation in Tigray only worsens.
Since the genocidal war began in Tigray, over 70,000 civilians have died as the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) continues to deny the severity of the ongoing massacres. Over 150 massacres have occurred all over Tigray. One of the most horrific massacres that was able to be investigated is the massacre in Axum, Tigray, in which over 800 children, women and men were killed by the Eritrean Defense Forces over a 10-day period. The final number of civilians killed in Axum is still unknown, but feared to reach well over a thousand. There have also been incriminating videos leaked, including one showing members of the ENDF shooting civilians point blank and throwing them off a cliff while physically and mentally torturing them. These gruesome attacks on civilians are not only signs of violence toward a specific region and its people, but also hold elements of a genocidal crime under the UN Genocide Convention Article.
The weakening of Tigray started after the Prosperity Political Party (current party leading Ethiopia under the undemocratic and unconstitutional rule of PM Abiy Ahmed) took power in 2018 by dissolving the constitutionally sanctioned Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government. At the time, there were civilian reports of the Amhara regional government or rebel groups of that region closing its borders to halt and weaken the economic activity of Tigray. It was forced to find other routes which were longer and more expensive to import food and basic goods. The Ethiopian government remained inactive in mitigating the worsening economic situation of Tigray. In addition, PM Abiy Ahmed suspended the region’s yearly budget shortly after Tigray held their regional elections per their constitutional right and despite Abiy’s decision to postpone the national and regional elections. Results of the election saw the TPLF win all seats of the regional constituencies.Al Jazeera. “Governing Party in Ethiopia’s Tigray Sweeps Regional Polls.” Elections News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 11, 2020. … Continue reading PM Abiy Ahmed would later dismiss the results calling the election illegal, seeming to forget he was not democratically elected to power and currently is running an illegitimate government.
Therefore, the already existing economic hardships complemented by present strategic bombings and lootings of hospitals, schools and churches have caused massive shortages of food, healthcare services, medicine and safe spaces for civilians. Women are being raped as a method of “cleansing their bloodline.”Feleke, Bethlehem, Eliza Mackintosh, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Katie Polglase, Nima Elbagir, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Alex Platt. “’Practically Genocide’: Doctors Say Rape Used as Tool of … Continue reading Beyond the region of Tigray, in every city in Ethiopia, Tigrayans are specifically targeted and face imprisonment and forceful displacement. In addition, weaponized starvation has been a main tool for the Ethiopian government in its war on Tigray.Osman, Jamal. “Ethiopia: Hunger ‘Used as a Weapon of War’ in Tigray Conflict.” Channel 4 News, April 6, 2021. … Continue reading The region is strategically and deliberately being starved. This has been carried out in various ways such as Eritrean and Ethiopian forces stealing grains, killing cattle and livestock, destroying farms and threatening farmers choosing to farm their land.
All of these deliberate acts to suffocate and exterminate Tigrayan people fall under the following crimes detailed in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: crimes against humanity (Article 7), war crimes (Article 8) and ethnic cleansing which can fall within the jurisdiction of the Genocide Convention.
With every passing day, time is running out. Urgent action is needed to address the deadly humanitarian disaster storm building and the continued loss of human life.
Channel 4 presented “Tigray: The Horrors of the Hidden War” offering testimonies from witnesses and survivors of massacares and sexual violence. At the very least, one can try and understand the dire need for urgency. Ethiopian and Eritrean military forces are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The use of weaponized hunger and weaponized rape is rampant in this region. Farms have been destroyed and farmers have been massacred or instructed not to farm their land. Women’s bodies are being used as a battlefield to further dehumanize and traumatize the Tigrayan people locally and globally. The depth and speed of the unimaginable terror that has engulfed Tigray is occurring whether or not we are paying close attention to it.
We Must Act Before It Is Too Late
For the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide (2014), various world leaders came out and showed their deep remorse and reiterated their commitment to what has become the universal slogan associated with genocides since the Holocaust: “Never Again.” Yet, here we are. Again.
Responsibility to Protect is a fragile promise without concrete strategies that can be implemented to help the most vulnerable- innocent civilians- during conflict and war. The doctrine fails if it cannot recognize evidence for the elements of crime it is meant to police in order to prevent massive atrocious crimes.
The international community and the UN Human Rights Council must do better and take all the urgent steps needed to relieve the people of Tigray from this unimaginable terror before Tigray’s economy, social fabric, and collective psyche is beyond repair.
We have to keep in mind that the Holocaust did not happen overnight. It was portrayed as a necessary defensive measure first. Similarly, PM Abiy Ahmed, on Novemever 4, 2020, claimed; what has now become a full blown genocide, was a “law-and-order operation.” The PM has changed the narrative since, but it was not until the surfacing of incriminating evidence, including leaked videos showing the massacre of Tigrayan civilians, the testimony of rape survivors, and evidence of Eritrean military presence.
During the Rwandan genocide, Hutu extremists called for the total erasure of every Tutsi and Tutsi empathizer on public radio. The statement was filled with hate speech and the false equivalence of the Tutsi government to the Tutsi people. They were seen as a monolith, thus the people were as guilty as the government for any crimes. The Tutsis were dehumanized being compared to cockroaches and other animals. Similarly, Tigrayans have been stripped of their humanity and reduced to being called daytime hyenas and termites. It is this type of dehumanization that leads to greater chaos giving corrupt and unelected officials the power to destroy and traumatize entire generations to come.
Remembrance of what we neglected to pay attention to in other genocidal cases can perhaps help us solve the conundrum of achieving peaceful conflict resolution now. It has been over five months since the start of these atrocities, the conflict, and the war. In today’s globalized world, we should have stopped this by now. This should have never happened. Again.
Tigray then and now
Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian (1937-2003) was an Ethiopian-Armenian acclaimed modern artist. In 1975, he painted Inferno at Axum to depict the ravages of conflict with shades of red to evoke the emotions of anger and danger.Giorgis, Elizabeth W. Modernist Art in Ethiopia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019. He created several works like this out of his depression that was brought on by the gruesome rule of the socialist military junta known as Derg. During this period, Mengistu Haile Mariam, former non-elected President of Ethiopia (1974-1991), was merciless to anyone and any group that opposed his repressive “socialist” system; his government was responsible for killing over 250,000 people. “Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/1999/11/24/ethiopian-dictator-mengistu-haile-mariam. He used intimidation, weaponized starvation, denial of humanitarian aid in the midst of a famine he ignored, mass incarceration, murders and public execution as a way to stay in power. It is estimated that 1 million people died of starvation, and the area affected the most was Tigray.Reid, Kathryn. “1980s Ethiopia Famine: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help.” World Vision, June 5, 2020. https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/1980s-ethiopia-famine-facts.
The current Ethiopian government is using similar tactics of weaponized starvation, denial of the severity of atrocities and healthcare emergencies. Most importantly, the government is refusing to provide a substantial humanitarian corridor to address the health crises, exacerbated by the pandemic. Forty-six years later, Axum, the cradle of civilization, is again, in the middle of another literal and figurative inferno. Tigray is desperately hanging on by a thread despite the unimaginable terror, bloodbath, repression and misery. These are violent attempts to erase the history and existence of an ancient civilization.
So, I ask, the global Black Community, the African Union, the United States, and the UN Security Council and the rest of the international community—what are you waiting for? What happened to the Responsibility to Protect? Why are you silently watching as clear and undeniable evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes is right in front of you?
We should all be enraged. We should all be furious that we have to campaign for innocent civilians losing their life and livelihoods just because they are a minority and of a particular ethnic group. We have the responsibility to make sure we pressure the representatives of our communities to act on this. What happened in Rwanda and Bosnia was an international embarrassment and failure. We need to remember the international community turned a blind eye and was indifferent then, but we must vow not to let what is happening in Tigray become the Rwandan genocide of our generation.
Tigray cannot wait. Tigray does not need your past due vigils and apologies of collective inaction in the future. Immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of foreign military are vital in order to address the overwhelming humanitarian crisis.
Tigray needs an immediate humanitarian aid corridor, adequate care and documentation of the refugees in Sudan, and direct action against all those that are involved in these atrocious crimes described. By staying silent, complacent and indifferent, we are only empowering the perpetrators of these heinous crimes and simply allowing the history of collective inaction to repeat.
Tigray shall and will prevail. In the future, will you be rejoicing having helped stop a horrendous genocide or apologizing, again, for your inaction?
We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; We are each other's magnitude and bond. Gwendolyn Brooks
Gual Inda Aba Ts’ahma – Omna Tigray Contributor, April 2021
|Cowell, Alan. “Rwanda Marks 25 Years Since the Genocide. The Country Is Still Grappling With Its Legacy.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2019.
|“Scenes from Hell: 1995 Srebrenica Genocide in Photos.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, July 10, 2020.
|“United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/15th-anniversary.shtml.
|Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, September 8, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/.
|Al Jazeera. “Governing Party in Ethiopia’s Tigray Sweeps Regional Polls.” Elections News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 11, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/11/governing-party-in-ethiopias-tigray-sweeps-regional-polls.
|Feleke, Bethlehem, Eliza Mackintosh, Gianluca Mezzofiore, Katie Polglase, Nima Elbagir, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Alex Platt. “’Practically Genocide’: Doctors Say Rape Used as Tool of War in Ethiopia.” CNN. Cable News Network, March 22, 2021.
|Osman, Jamal. “Ethiopia: Hunger ‘Used as a Weapon of War’ in Tigray Conflict.” Channel 4 News, April 6, 2021.
|Giorgis, Elizabeth W. Modernist Art in Ethiopia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019.
|“Ethiopian Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.” Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/1999/11/24/ethiopian-dictator-mengistu-haile-mariam.
|Reid, Kathryn. “1980s Ethiopia Famine: Facts, FAQs, and How to Help.” World Vision, June 5, 2020. https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/1980s-ethiopia-famine-facts.