Tigray One Year On: An Anniversary of Famine and Conflict
Felicity Mulford and Catriona Murdoch
Since the beginning of Abiy Ahmeds’ ‘law enforcement operation’ in Tigray last November, the international community warned of the risk of famine. One year on, the predictions are a startling reality. Tigray is experiencing a human-made famine.
When information has trickled out from behind the communication blackout, it has rarely been good news. Towns have been pillaged, civilians massacred, and busy markets bombed. Shops and businesses have been looted and destroyed. Crops have been burned, seeds stolen, farmers threatened, and livestock slaughtered. Women and girls have been subjected to pervasive sexual and gender-based violence. Derogatory and dehumanizing language has also been a concerning hallmark of this conflict, with genocidal language allegedly used by senior public figures against the Tigrayan people. This non-exhaustive list of atrocities has devastated a previously food secure region.
Starvation crimes have continued unabated since our last update. Humanitarian access has been restricted, access routes destroyed, and aid obstructed. Humanitarian workers have been harassed and assaulted, with at least 24 murdered. The report of the joint investigation between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released on the 3rd of November 2021 made findings relating to starvation, supporting the analysis of GRC. These findings include:
- The Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) looted public and private property, including objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population in Southern Tigray, including Keih Emba, Samre, Adi Gibai, Adi Awsa, Bora, and Wukro in Eastern Tigray.
- The systematic looting by the EDF was accompanied by large scale appropriation of crops and livestock.
- Between 6-9 November 2020, Tigray forces attacked farms belonging to non-Tigrayans in nearby areas to Maikadra. The attackers burnt the harvest of 5,000 quintals of sesame.
- Serious access restrictions, including multiple checkpoints by the EDF and Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), impeded or delayed delivery of humanitarian assistance to parts of Tigray and Amhara region impacting food security.
Since late June, Tigray has been back under the control of the Tigrayan Defense Forces (TDF, formerly TPLF). Celebrations were short-lived, as the Government of Ethiopia then imposed a ‘de-facto blockade’. Access by both land and air is controlled by the Ethiopian Government and tightly restricted. The constraints on access and information leaving Tigray have provided a smokescreen for the Government, concealing starvation crimes.
Mass starvation in Tigray
The UN has repeated the IPCs prediction that 400,000 people would be suffering from ‘catastrophic’ levels of hunger (IPC Level 5) by September if conditions didn’t improve. Violence has continued and since April, only 29% of the minimum calorific needs of the Tigrayan population has entered Tigray.
According to USAID, the reality is worse than the predictions. Almost 1 million people are facing famine conditions (IPC Level 5) and 5 million are suffering from ‘emergency’ levels of food security (IPC Level 4). USAID’s findings are corroborated by reports within the region, which paint a solemn picture of life in Tigray. A group from Mekelle University recently warned the UN Security Council that the situation was a “man-made form of famine that belittles the 1984 famine in its severity”. Using available data a group of researchers from the University of Ghent estimated that between 425 and 1201 people could be dying per day from starvation, or starvation related deaths. Starvation deaths were also reported by the Associated Press on 17 September in 20 districts.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Severe Acute Malnutrition in children is above the emergency threshold, while two-thirds of pregnant and lactating women examined were malnourished. For those that survive, this raises long-term concerns with intergenerational effects. Malnutrition at this level could cause physical and mental stunting in children and increase risks for mothers during childbirth.
The upcoming harvest may do little to improve food security within Tigray. Only 25-50% of land in surveyed areas has been planted. To ensure they had something to harvest, farmers planted crops with short cycles, but lower yields. The discovery of desert locusts in at least 14 woredas within Tigray threatens the harvest further.
Humanitarian access issues
Food, fuel, medicines, non-food items and cash are desperately needed within the region. As OCHA indicate through their access maps, Tigray is encircled.
While both parties to the conflict blame each other for the delays, UN officials have identified Government of Ethiopia’s policies – including strict checkpoints and bureaucratic impediments – as holding up aid delivery. A claim continuously rejected by the federal government.
100 trucks of food, non-food items and fuel are needed per day to prevent monumental loss of life from hunger. However, between July and 18 October, only 15% of the humanitarian aid required within Tigray was allowed through. Since 18 October no humanitarian aid convoys have entered the region. The UN humanitarian flights have also faced significant delays, strict checks and have a limited capacity onboard. Additionally, in October the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flights were prevented from landing due to Government airstrikes on Mekelle. Since 22nd October, no UNHAS flights have entered the region, despite agreements with the Ethiopian Government that they would be bi-weekly.
Many of the trucks transporting aid into Tigray have not returned. The Government of Ethiopia claims that the TDF have requisitioned the trucks and are using them to transport fighters; however, UN officials on the ground have cited lack of fuel and harassment of drivers as factors preventing their return. Truck drivers have been harassed, assaulted, and held hostage. Since late June, no fuel has entered the region. By mid-October three of seven UN food partners had ceased all food distribution outside of Mekelle due to lack of fuel. The strict checks and shortage of trucks is limiting the amount of aid which can enter the region. The blockade on fuel is preventing the aid that has reached Tigray from being distributed.
Since the de-facto blockade began, Tigrayan forces have advanced into neighbouring Afar and Amhara regional states, in what they say is a bid “to break the siege”. This offensive has displaced over 840,000 people and left a further 1.8 million people food insecure. The needs on the ground are increasing each day.
Fears of genocidal intent
The war on the ground is coupled with a war over narratives. As well as designating the TDF a ‘terrorist’ group, a statement by Abiy Ahmed on 18th July has also sparked concerns that this conflict may include genocidal acts. Abiy called for all able-bodied men across Ethiopia to come together to fight the ‘cancer’, exorcise the ‘demon’ and uproot the ‘weeds’. His close aide Daniel Kibret used similarly dangerous rhetoric in a public address, outlining that the TDF “should be erased and disappeared from historical records”. He continued to say that those who wish to study the TDF should only find evidence of them by “digging the ground.” Commentators have drawn parallels with rhetoric used during the lead up to the Rwandan Genocide. For more information, read here.
Similar calls have been made by Amhara officials, reinforcing the view across the government that Tigrayans are the “enemy” of Ethiopia. The President of Amhara, told Amharans to leave their work and education and head to the frontlines, where they should be “determined to destroy the TPLF” and “eliminate the terrorist TPLF”.
A Statement, released on 30 July 2021 by the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu, on the continued deterioration of the situation in Ethiopia also expressed concern. The Special Adviser outlined her distress over the use of “inflammatory statements” and “pejorative and dehumanising language” by political leaders and armed groups.
The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide outlined her concern over the use of “inflammatory statements” and “pejorative and dehumanising language” by political leaders and armed groups.
The international response
Despite international condemnation and attempts to bring the Ethiopian Federal Government and the TDF to the negotiating table – including through the threat and preparation of sanctions by the US and EU – reports are mounting of recent airstrikes, new arms deals and a surge in recruitment.
The Government of Ethiopia received fierce criticism from the international community following the banning of Médecins Sans Frontiers and the Norwegian Refugee Council in August for ‘spreading misinformation’, and the unprecedented expulsion of 7 high-level UN officials, for ‘meddling in the internal affairs of the country’. Many believe these expulsions were to conceal the ongoing human rights violations.
UNSC Resolution 2417
The conflict is the first major test for the UN Security Council Resolution 2417 (UNSC 2417) on Conflict and Hunger. One year into this conflict and the resolution has not been implemented effectively. The Security Council has met 8 times to discuss the situation, only twice publicly. There has been no decisive action at the UNSC, and only one non-binding Presidential Statement has been issued. OCHA has also provided at least one confidential white paper to the UNSC in May, linking the situation to UNSC 2417.
The Security Council remains divided. Some states – including the USA, UK and Ireland – have sought to link the discussions with UNSC 2417, and referenced the resolution within their remarks. Russia, China and the A3 plus one (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) sought to keep discussions to a minimum. While the former has argued that the conflict is a domestic matter and sovereignty must be upheld, the latter have outlined that there must be African solutions to African problems.
The Joint OHCHR and ECHR Investigation
The aforementioned OHCHR-ECHR joint investigative team (JIT) has concluded its field research and released its report. However, it has faced challenges and criticisms. The ECHR has been accused of lacking the institutional capacity, skills or impartiality needed for an independent investigation. Additionally, one OHCHR staff member was among those expelled by the Ethiopian Government at the end of September.
The JIT investigators were unable to reach many of the sites of the most violent massacres, including Axum. The reasons behind these access restrictions were not clearly explained within the report or publicly, with criticism levied against the Ethiopian Government for trying to curate the investigation and limit its scope. Additionally, despite reports of the systematic and widespread use of starvation crimes within the conflict, there was no mention in its mandate that starvation crimes would be investigated. Notwithstanding that, there is (as discussed above) reference to these violations within the report, albeit cursorily. For a thorough investigation into the violations in Tigray, starvation must be investigated.
Despite reports of the systematic and widespread use of starvation crimes within the conflict, there was no mention in the JIT’s mandate that starvation crimes would be investigated.
The African Union (AU) Commission of Inquiry (COI)
Little information has circulated about the progress of the AU’s COI. Despite the Government of Ethiopia’s original rejection of the AU’s independent investigation, the COI’s Commissioner Maya Sahil-Fadel outlined the need for it to remain independent. GRC has provided support to the AU to encourage their investigation to look into starvation crimes.
To date, the US has only placed sanctions on one Eritrean military leader, General Filipos Woldeyohannes (Filipos), under their Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in August. However, on 17 September President Biden signed an Executive Order allowing the US Government to sanction those preventing the delivery of aid, in a bid to get the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table. While no names have been officially added yet, the US Government has indicated that it is monitoring the situation closely.
While the TDF spokesperson Getachew Reda supported Biden’s attempts to start a negotiation process, President Abiy Ahmed responded through an open-letter published on Twitter. He compared the Tigray conflict to the US’ War on Terror and criticised the international community for misrepresenting the situation on the ground.
The US Government has said that sanctions could be avoided if parties to the conflict took clear and concrete steps towards a ceasefire and ensuring the delivery of aid. The White House indicated that this could include: “accepting African Union-led mediation efforts, designating a negotiations team, agreeing to negotiations without preconditions, and accepting an invitation to initial talks.” Steps towards ensuring humanitarian access could involve: “authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations; reducing delays for humanitarian convoys; and restoring basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, and financial services.”
President Biden’s threat has been bolstered by similar cautions from the European Union. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for a resolution in early October which would request sanctions to be placed on those prolonging the conflict and contributing to humanitarian suffering if conditions had not improved by the end of the month. That time is now up. We must wait and see what action the European Commission takes moving forward.
Additional investigations and enquiries
A universal jurisdiction claim has been opened with the Belgium Prosecutors Office on behalf of bereaved families. Several victims have submitted testimonies; however, no further information seems to exist publicly about this.
In response to the increasing reports of rhetoric which could amount to ‘incitement to genocide’, the US House of Representatives recently passed a bill requiring the State Department to determine whether the current conflict represents a genocide. The US State Department acknowledged this bill, while outlining that they were already conducting investigations and monitoring the situation closely.
Whilst there have been several investigations instigated at the international level, there remains two critical gaps in information documentation:
First, there has yet to be a comprehensive mapping of the relevant governmental and military actors involved in the conflict. There is a dearth of information which even begins to outline these actors’ roles and responsibilities for decisions or actions taken which have indirectly or directly contributed to violations of international law. This gap was also mentioned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights during the press conference for the launch for the JIT report, noting that the investigation was a human rights one, not a criminal investigation, and as such did not make findings regarding the criminal responsibility of specific individuals, calling for further investigation into events and the pattern of (criminal) conduct. Perpetrator mapping will enable an understanding of the conflict levers and further influence behavioural change. It will also ensure that repressive measures and redress can be sustainably and credibly furthered.
Second, there is a lack of credible documentation of humanitarian access violations. There needs to be a comprehensive investigation into the individuals, ministries, and military units responsible for obstructing, withholding, looting and destroying humanitarian aid and linkages drawn to show that this is directly contributing to the famine and severe food insecurity crisis in Ethiopia. This gap was also highlighted by the JIT report (p. 5).
Global Rights Compliance calls for continued monitoring and reporting on the situation and broadly supports the recommendations in the OHCHR and EHRC report on options for accountability. GRC recommends the following actions:
- Parties to the conflict must negotiate a ceasefire and ensure the de-escalation of both hostilities and rhetoric. Violations of human rights and attacks on objects indispensable for survival must end. Parties to the conflict must ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and enable the delivery of aid.
- In particular, the Government of Ethiopia must end the blockade on the region so essential services can resume. This includes allowing humanitarian aid (including food and medicines) into the region, re-opening banks, resuming the Productive Safety Net Payments (PSNP), providing electricity and re-establishing communications infrastructure. All measures which may exacerbate the man-made famine and humanitarian crisis must cease, especially attacks on indispensable objects.
- The United Nations Security Council must use the tools at its disposal, to implement UNSC 2417 and other relevant UNSC Resolutions. This includes appointing a Special Envoy on UNSC 2417 who could monitor and inform the UNSC on conflict-induced food insecurity during armed conflict.
- The international community must support impartial and independent investigations. For example, through cases which draw upon universal jurisdiction, support for the AU’s COI, and the OHCHR-ECHR investigation. Starvation crimes must be considered within the investigations if they are to provide a thorough assessment of war crimes in Tigray. GRC fully supports the establishment of an independent investigative mechanism to collect evidence on the most serious violations committed during the conflict, including starvation violations, and prepare files for criminal prosecution, as per the call put out by the OHCHR and EHRC.
- At the State level, action can also be taken. States can provide support for investigations and support civil society groups which monitor human rights. To ensure the criminalisation of starvation as a method of warfare, States can ratify the Rome Statute amendment, which makes it a crime within non-international armed conflicts.
7 million people are already facing conflict-induced food insecurity across Tigray, Afar and Amhara. There must be a concerted effort to bring the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table and bring this conflict to an end.