The international community’s resolve is being tested again not because of a raging pandemic all across the globe but by ghastly acts of violence being committed in a particular region. The region in question is Tigray in Ethiopia. The people in Tigray mostly belong to the Tigrayan ethnicity which is a minority group in the country. Ethiopia has had a history of tensions and conflict between the multiple ethnic groups present there.
The present crisis started with the government of Ethiopia launching a full-fledged offensive in the region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is considered to be an insurgent group by Ethiopia. This offensive includes military operations and other tactics, however, concerns have been raised about the commission of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the region such as blocking of essential supplies and medicines during a pandemic, sexual violence, etc.
The TPLF is a group that had emerged out of Tigray a long time ago and its raison d’être is protecting the interests of the Tigrayan people. The TPLF was also involved in several armed conflicts in the country. It later became a member of the former coalition ruling the country but was ousted in 2018 after a defeat. The TPLF had also expressed its dissatisfaction with the new government, which they criticized for lack of proportional representation. They were hoping for the elections in 2020 to be its chance of returning to power in the country but that did not happen as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refused to conduct elections in the country in 2020 due to the pandemic.
The TPLF seemed to attribute some ulterior motives for delaying the election to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as his term they claim ended in November 2020 and this can be said to be the point of inception of this deadly conflict. The TPLF responded by conducting their own elections and seized power in the region of Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed until this crisis erupted was regarded as an icon for peace in Africa. He also ended the long-drawn conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize the subsequent year. He has been severely criticized for his role in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Tigray.
The situation, however, is not as simplistic as it may seem due to various factors like the geographical location of Tigray, ramifications on the stability in the horn of Africa, the possibility of tripartite conflict between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan and the unavoidable intervention by the international community in this conflict as part of the global responsibility to maintain peace.
The geographical location of Tigray is peculiar in the sense as it sits right in the place which adjoins Ethiopia with Eritrea and Sudan. This peculiarity became the focus point as thousands of people fleeing the violence in Tigray entered Sudan because of its proximity. Another conflict in this region would only do more harm to the already delicate situation involving three countries and millions of lives where peace in the region was achieved after decades of fighting between various stakeholders. Ethiopia and Eritrea have had a history of conflict which only came to an end with a truce in 2018 and now as per reports these two countries are jointly carrying out the attacks in the Tigray region and any setback on this front would unwind all the progress that has been made in achieving peace.
International organizations like the United Nations called for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray, however, the African Union has shown inaction and indifference. The UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect released a statement urging Ethiopian authorities to protect their population from violence in Tigray, emphasizing the threat of atrocity crimes.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine was evolved at the 2005 United Nations World Summit to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The R2P norm embraces three elements: “‘Responsibility to Prevent’ root causes as well as direct causes of such conflict disruptions; ‘Responsibility to React’ or respond to compelling situations of human needs; and ‘Responsibility to rebuild’ the war-torn societies or societies after military intervention involving recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation to prevent any future relapse of the conflict.”
The Tigray crisis has led to 1.7 million people being displaced since fighting began in November 2020. The atrocities committed in the region include attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, widespread and mass extrajudicial executions, rape, forced displacement, arbitrary detentions, etc. These crimes against humanity should be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators should be held accountable. The responsibility lies on the international community to deliver humanitarian aid and rebuild the society, in compliance with international law. The future of peace in the region will depend upon how the international society uses R2P norms to collectively react to the situation and rebuild the society.
Adithya Anil Variath is a lawyer based in Mumbai, India. Deep Dighe is a student of law at the University of Mumbai’s School of Law. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author of the authors.