Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

Flirting with the genocide threshold

Two years of inaction have enabled horrors in Ethiopia

Artillery Row

When does genocide start? Is there a threshold? The question itself takes us into the somewhat ridiculous territory of, Well, yes, that’s bad, if not terrible, but there you go, we can’t do anything as the required level of slaughter has not been achieved yet. 

The international community appears to have made the that’s-bad-but-not-quite-bad-enough-yet assessment throughout Ethiopia’s now two-year-long civil war over the northern region of Tigray. Given the numbers of combatants and civilians estimated to have been killed, some fear that up to 10 per cent of Tigray’s small population — 6 million out of Ethiopia’s 110 million population — may have perished.

“Definition of genocide does not rely on numbers killed, but the intent behind why they were killed,” says Kjetil Tronvoll, an Africa analyst and professor at Oslo New University College. “There are numerous credible reports [of] high-level political and military leaders, as well as rank and file, uttering genocidal intent to rationalize their actions of killing and starving the Tigrayan people.”

He concludes that “the massive atrocities” committed over a two-year period along with speech such as “eradicating Tigray from the annals of history of Ethiopia” amounts to genocide. 

Furthermore, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum recently announced the “heightened risk of genocide” in Ethiopia. 

“The warning from the [museum] needs to be taken very seriously,” says Martin Plaut, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. “They do not use the term ‘genocide’ lightly.” 

Very few others, though, want to say the G-word. Then the international community would have to act. Plus, to take action now would highlight the very fact that so little has been done the past two years, thereby contributing to events reaching this terrible stage. Who would want to shine a light on that?

“The West, with very few exceptions like Ireland, have from the very start adopted a position of ‘plausible deniability,” Tronvoll says. “Many [foreign affairs departments] did not want to get information and develop knowledge on the case, as it would obligate them to take a stand on the issue.”

Tigray has been under a de facto blockade and information blackout

What has also provided “cover” for atrocities in Ethiopia to a degree, is how — unlike, say, the 1994 slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda — they have occurred within a definable war. Fighting broke out in November 2020 after Tigrayan forces launched what they argued was a pre-emptive attack against federal forces amassing near the regional border. This followed months of political infighting about the federal democratic nature of the Ethiopian state giving autonomy to regions, versus more centralised control by the federal government. Most significantly, which has had such terrible consequences during the past two years, those political arguments were underpinned by decades, which inexorably fed off past centuries, of ethnic tensions and bitterness over historical grievances. These include the Ethiopia-Eritrea war of 1998–2000, which was fought along Tigray’s and Ethiopia’s northern border with Eritrea. Hence Eritrea has been supporting Ethiopian federal forces, as itsauthoritarian ruler Isaias Afewerki loathes the Tigrayan hierarchy that headed Ethiopia’s government during the border war. This is his chance for revenge and to vanquish his foes once and for all. Eritrean troops are blamed for many of the most horrific war crimes that have been committed. 

“Here we are again — when ‘never again’ is happening again, this time in the Tigray region of Ethiopia,” a Canadian subcommittee on human rights was recently told by Mukesh Kapila, who during three decades as a humanitarian official witnessed the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur. “I was the first British government official to enter Rwanda in 1994 during the 100 days of killings to witness, at first hand, what a genocide looks like. Sadly, we never prevented any of these genocides although we had ample warning of them and could track their nasty progression in minute detail in real time. So, we could not claim ignorance. The same is happening now in Tigray where others have testified on the depths of brutality and depravity being plumbed.”

The prevaricating by media around whether genocide is or isn’t happening in Tigray is less easy to understand. The likes of the BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times have done a decent job, certainly better than others, of providing coverage about the war. This warrants further credit considering the Ethiopian government has done everything it can to prevent journalists either entering Ethiopia or making it northward to Tigray. Since the war broke out, Tigray has been under a de facto blockade and information blackout. 

That said, the typically restrained and sober headlines that have issued about Ethiopia’s war — which hearken back to those days when media was rightfully cautious of showing bias or exaggerating — are at odds with the mainstream media’s approaches elsewhere. Many media nowadays have no problem with running bold, sensationalist headlines making clearcut pronouncements — which usually claim things are far worse than the reality — when it comes to the likes of LGBTI issues, racism and the environment. 

Then there is the coverage of the war in Ukraine, which has been far more widespread and concerted. This is understandable, to a degree, given its proximity and relevant impact on the likes of energy prices. At the same time, the evocative and emotional headlines and content around Ukraine present a stark contrast to the restrained nature of reporting on Ethiopia. 

According to researchers at Ghent University, the number of Ethiopian civilians who have died because of the conflict could range from a minimum estimate of 385,000 to a maximum of 600,000. It’s estimated an equal number of combatants from the warring sides have been killed during trench warfare, involving wave after wave of troops sent to their deaths. 

The lack of coordinated international response has finally compelled the African Union (AU) and its usually hapless politicians to do something. Last week, in South Africa, the AU oversaw a truce signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan leadership.

An African solution to an African problem is great — but only if it holds

The potential problem, as Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, writes for the BBC, is that the mechanism for monitoring the truce is “an unusual oversight mechanism to say the least”.

A unit of no more than 10 persons will report to an AU panel chaired by Nigeria’s former President Olusegun Obasanjo (Olusegun Obasanjo has garnered both praise for tackling the terrible corruption that stymies Nigeria and criticism for fuelling that corruption during his time in power). Normally high-level peace agreements are “witnessed by international partners”. But the UN and US were only permitted by the AU to act as observers, rather than as joint signatories to the agreement. 

An African solution to an African problem is great — but only if it holds. Given current circumstances that make the truce immense fragile, not to mention how the US and the EU are the biggest financial donors to Ethiopia and to the AU, it seems fair to suggest that more foreign involvement would have been both prudent and warranted. Set against this, though, is the justifiable rebuff: You had your chance for the past two years to set your mark on this — and you didn’t. 

Too true, whilst the evidence suggests many governments simply weren’t bothered by the horrors occurring, or had conflicts of interest. “Other European capitals have found it opportune to hide behind ‘African solutions to African problems’ — since we then do not need to take a stand on the atrocity warfare taking place in Ethiopia,” Tronvoll says.

On top of this, he adds, the UN Security Council has been “paralyzed due to the geopolitical context, where China and Russia, in collusion with African member states, have blocked all attempts to address the situation seriously whilst the “US and other unilaterals have failed in taking a clear stand and publicly addressing the conflict”.

None of this — as with innumerable cases elsewhere — has been helped by the current trend of navel gazing among Western institutions over colonialism and imperialism, attended by shaming and guilt-ridden platitudes. 

“The successful campaign of Ethiopia to rally a sentiment of pan-Africanism against neo-imperial ambitions of Western countries, have also been intimidating towards some capitals,” Tronvoll says. 

The UK, another significant donor to Ethiopia, has similarly failed to take a stand. At least the House of Lords has just released a report about the collection of a 2 per cent Diaspora Tax by Eritrean consular staff in the United Kingdom. It urgently calls for an end to this process due to the likelihood the funds are supporting the Eritrean military fighting alongside Ethiopian federal forces, which is blamed for a significant share of the atrocities. 

Nevertheless, the damage is done, not to mention the terrible message that has been sent out to all the budding and current strongmen around the world. 

“The case of the siege [of] Tigray will sadly go into history [as] how starvation and siege [of] 6 million has successfully been implemented to crush their political resistance without any consequences for the perpetrators,” Tronvoll says.

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