The Tigray War and Regional Implications
Foreword by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand
The conflict in Tigray has become one of the most intractable in the world. The unprecedented expulsion from Ethiopia of seven senior UN officials set the seal on a bitter year of fighting that has killed many thousands and left an estimated 5.2 million people in need of food aid.
In the past six months, opportunities for resolution have been lost and attempts by international partners to defuse the crisis have failed. Instead, the fighting has intensified and the humanitarian crisis has deepened. The Ethiopian Government has effectively turned its back on some of its key global partners in the face of their expressions of concern.
It is impossible in a few paragraphs to chart every development of the war and to honour the sufferings of its victims and the dedication of the humanitarians who have tried to mitigate the hardships. I hope, however, in prefacing this report, that the first anniversary of the war in Tigray can be marked by renewed commitment to ending it.
In June this year, Tigrayan forces retook Mekelle. The Ethiopian Government announced a unilateral ceasefire, pledged that the Eritrean military would withdraw from the region and that humanitarian access would be possible, and agreed to an investigation of atrocities and to the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence.
On the military front, though the ceasefire did not materialise. Events since then have been difficult to verify due to the communications shutdown across the region. The initial retaking of Mekelle was followed by a series of military advances by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF), putting it in control of much of the region, with the exception of the far north, controlled by the Eritrean military, and the west, occupied by Amhara militia.
Meanwhile, a resurgence of ethnic violence in Oromia, with an alliance between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and the TDF, complicated the situation for the Ethiopian Government. In early September, there were reports that a coalition of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces had stopped the TDF advance and defeated its troops in Afar, which borders on Tigray. That was in turn followed by reports that the strategic route between the key towns of Gondar and Bahir Dar had been captured by the Tigrayans.
What is clear is that the early warnings of protracted conflict set out in the first edition of this report have been more than justified. There has been no conclusive military victory on either side. Equally clear is the continued involvement of the Eritrean military, in defiance of repeated calls by the international community for it to withdraw. Finally, and most regrettably, there have been reports on all sides of civilian casualties.
From the start of the conflict, there were also warnings of the risk of an acute humanitarian crisis in a region with inherent food insecurity. There is a comprehensive discussion of that in this report. The warnings increased as fighting continued through the harvest period and into the new planting season. The current catastrophic food shortages were wholly predictable and preventable. The 23 September 2021 report from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that seventy per cent of the population of Tigray, some four million people, were experiencing high levels of food insecurity, and that 400,000 were suffering from catastrophic hunger levels. Deaths by starvation of 150 people in Tigray have been reported, including of six children at Mekelle hospital. The spread of the conflict has triggered food insecurity in Afar and Amhara where over 500,000 people have received food aid.
Despite the acute needs, there have been ongoing challenges to the delivery of food aid. In recent weeks there has been a series of reports of attacks on food aid and looting of warehouses and trucks, with accusations against all parties to the conflict. In mid-September came the disclosure that one of the obstacles to distribution of food aid was lack of trucks, with only 38 out of 445 contracted non-World Food Programme (WFP) trucks returning from Tigray since July.
The UN has warned, however, that the real blockage to the distribution of food aid has been the Ethiopian Government’s failure to provide humanitarian access to the region. In late September, the newly-appointed head of OCHA, said that a nearly three-month long “de-facto blockade” of Tigray’s borders had restricted aid deliveries. “This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government,” he said. The blocking of food aid has added credibility to those arguing that famine is being used as a weapon of war, and that the targeting of Tigrayan civilians could be regarded as genocidal.
From the outset the conflict in Tigray was marked by extreme violence. Few could forget the reports of massacres at Mai Kadra, Axum, and Mahbere Dego, or the pictures circulating on social media. Yet those atrocities have been matched in the months since by reports from inside Sudan of bodies of people identified as Tigrayan pulled out of the Setit (Tekeze) river, murdered and mutilated, probably in Humera. There is evidence that all sides to the dispute have questions to answer over the actions taken by their combatants. The recent Human Rights Watch report into attacks on Eritrean refugees from the camps at Hitsats and Shimelba amplifies the points made in this report. At the time of writing, the report of the joint investigation into atrocities by the UN Office for High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council is due for publication, the month after one of the former’s staff members was expelled from Ethiopia.
Yet, while all sides have questions to answer about possible war crimes, the questions about genocide attach only to the activities of the Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces. As well, in July, Reuters reported a wave of arrests in Addis Ababa of ethnic Tigrayans, and the closure of Tigrayan-owned businesses. There has also been a reported increase in the use of hate speech by regime allies, and the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has expressed alarm at this increase in use of dangerous rhetoric by Ethiopia’s political leaders. Notable amongst these was the speech by independent MP and Prime Ministerial adviser Daniel Kibret, who targeted the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) saying that, “They should be erased… from historical records. A person who wants to study them should find nothing about them. Maybe he can find out about them by digging in the ground.”
Humanitarian agencies have found themselves caught in the crossfire between the warring parties and the civilian population. For some the pressures of protecting their staff whilst also pressing for much needed resources became impossible. At the end of July came the expulsion of Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), two highly respected NGOs who had consistently spoken out about the unfolding disaster. Twenty-three humanitarian workers have been killed in the conflict, including eleven from the locally based Relief Society of Tigray. One of the most outspoken statements has come from the new head of OCHA, Martin Griffiths, who at the end of September called Tigray “a stain on our conscience.” Two days later his organisation was singled out in the expulsion of UN officials from Ethiopia. Five OCHA officials, including the head of office, were given 72 hours to leave, along with the head of the UNICEF office and an official from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Since June, more governments have increased their advocacy for an end to the conflict. Initially, many were more muted in their response to a conflict that threatens the stability of a key nation in the Horn of Africa. Most notably, measures have been taken this year by the new United States Administration. After repeated calls from the Administration for action went unheeded, the President issued a sweeping executive order on September 17th. It said that “Widespread violence, atrocities, and serious human rights abuse, including those involving ethnic-based violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, and obstruction of humanitarian operations” were a threat to US national security and foreign policy. It set a framework for a sanctions regime against Ethiopian, Eritrean, Amhara, and TPLF personnel aimed at ending the war. The European Union has also considered sanctions over Tigray, whilst its most vocal members, Germany and Ireland, have been quick to condemn the expulsion of UN officials from Addis. The United Kingdom, for whom Ethiopia is a top aid recipient, has focused on the prevalence of sexual violence in the conflict in Tigray, as covered in this report, and deployed two of its preventing sexual violence team to Ethiopia. The African Union meanwhile has sent former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to mediate.
Now, a year into the conflict, the international community should double down on efforts to find a negotiated settlement which would enable humanitarian relief to reach besieged Tigray and provide for steps towards a sustainable peace.
To this end, the need remains for:
- A ceasefire with agreements on boundaries and access corridors, especially in strongly contested areas of western Tigray with an inclusive national dialogue to find a sustainable settlement.
- Immediate and full humanitarian access to all areas affected by the conflict with safety guarantees for humanitarian workers.
- Eritrean troops to honour the commitments given for them to withdraw.
- Judicial action to follow up whatever outcomes there are from the joint UN and Ethiopian investigation of human rights abuses, and a fully independent investigation of subsequent abuses, including into the use of sexual violence.
This earlier edition of this report set out the story of how the conflict in Tigray had unfolded into one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of our time. Many of its worst fears have been realised. A year on from the start of the conflict, it is time for the international community to act to end the conflict and secure a peaceful and secure future for Tigray’s people.
3 November 2021