The Extreme Need of a Solid International Response Towards Tigray

Marco Zarzana is a second year International Relations student from Italy. His main interests in the field of IR include Diplomacy, Grand Strategy and the gap between the academic world of IR and the practical functioning of international affairs. Coming from a background in Classics, Marco’s extracurricular interests include Greek Philosophy and Literature and the ancient Western world in general.

The international community should carry out an investigation into Tigray targeted at all the parties involved in the conflict.

Widespread atrocities, mass killings, rapes, ethnic based targeted attacks and large-scale lootings – these are only some of the grotesque human rights violations that are still taking place in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. The Tigray war started on 4th November 2020, with an offensive launched by the Ethiopian government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLS) after the TPLS attacked  federal military facilities in Tigray. According to the TPLS,  Eritrean troops have been involved in the conflict. However, this war must be viewed through the broader context of the Ethiopian parliament’s decision in November  to dissolve the government of the Tigray region. Specifically, this decision came as the TPLS decided to hold elections despite the national prohibition to do so because of the pandemic.

Due to an ongoing communication blackout in Tigray and Ethiopian government’s blocking of  access to journalists and humanitarian aid workers, information about the conflict and its atrocities has been quite limited for some time now.

The only certainty in a war of which the international community still lacks a comprehensive picture is the urgent need for the United Nations to open a careful investigation into Tigray. The international community should therefore agree on the adoption of multilateral sanctions to put pressure on all the parties involved in Ethiopian conflict and massacre in order to make them cease the atrocities.

The indiscriminate massacre of civilians in the Ethiopian holy city of Axum- the most brutal point of the conflict,  proves the urgency of a rigid international response . The Associated Press and Amnesty International have provided detailed accounts of what has been defined as arguably Tigray’s “deadliest massacre”. On 28th November, after the fighting started on a mountain east of the Axum Tsion St. Mary Church, Eritrean forces started killing civilians on the street who were attempting to flee in panic.  The killings continued until the evening. Some witnesses have reported Eritrean soldiers shooting at unarmed men who posed no threat to them. A resident who was hiding  at home and witnessing the killings affirmed: “I was at home. I saw around my home what was happening when some soldiers targeted people with sniper rifles, killing people. I … saw the people being shot on the ground when they were running. Approximately 10 people or more. All of them young men … Everyone was scared and ran away.”

Despite the Ethiopian government’s denial of Eritrean involvement, civilians in Axum were able to identify them by their uniforms and vehicles and the languages they spoke. Ethiopia and Eritrea have a long history of war, that only ended when the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, secured a peace deal with the Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afwerki. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea. The Eritrean involvement in the conflict and the massacre is considered a form of revenge against the TPLS, which had ruled in Ethiopia for long before Abiy and has been considered Eritrea’s enemy for decades.

The extreme rawness of the Axum massacre is best represented by the huge number of dead bodies on the street narrated by several Ethiopians interviewed by Amnesty International. A young resident affirmed: “I saw a lot of people dead on the street. Even my uncle’s family. Six of his family members were killed. So many people were killed.” It has also been reported that Eritrean soldiers shot at anyone who was trying to move the bodies and forbade all civilians to bury the dead.

Due to its extreme gravity and rawness, the Axum massacre should be the starting point of a UN-led investigation supported by the international community. An Amnesty Report on the massacre has concluded that “the indiscriminate shelling of Axum by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops may amount to war crimes, and that the mass execution of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity.” The allegation of war crimes has also been confirmed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. However, such an investigation should not be solely targeted towards the Ethiopian government and Eritrea. Instead, it should encompass the war and the current situation in Tigray as a whole. While the Guardian has claimed that both sides of the conflict seem to have committed atrocities during the war,  the extent of the  atrocities committed on either side remains far from clear. An investigation into the whole conflict is therefore needed to determine the scale of crimes committed by  all actors.

In order to prevent further proliferation of  atrocities, substantial measures are needed. Concerns expressed from several governments about Tigray are not enough to tackle the continuous  human rights violations and atrocities in Tigray. So far, the European Union’s decision to suspend budget support for Ethiopia (88 million euros) until the Ethiopian government grants access to humanitarian agencies seems to be the only concrete measure adopted by an international institution. As Brown and Devermont  have argued in a Foreign Policy article, “While the United States and EU have urged Eritrea to withdraw its troops, the international community has failed to speak in one voice.” If this failure persists, the ongoing war in Tigray may lead to a much larger amount of mass killings of civilians, atrocities and human rights violations.

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