Why R2P Matters: The Tigrayan Crisis

Tigrayan demonstrators wearing body bags in protest against alleged genocide in Ethiopia's Tigray region. Image credit: Manka Woldegergish, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The war crimes, including ethnic cleansing and deliberate starvation in Tigray, constitute the grounds for humanitarian intervention and the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle. 

War crimes

The sporadic fighting that continued well after the military assault in November 2020 has transformed into a genocidal campaign against the Tigrayans. A political deadlock between PM Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has disproportionately impacted the civilians. Complicating the matters further has been the intervention of the Eritrean soldiers who consider the TPLF as an existential threat they need to eliminate.

Defenseless civilians, solely due to their Tigrayan identity, have become the targets of deliberate attacks by Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces in an attempt to destroy the regional TPLF’s power. The TPLF used to be Ethiopia’s ruling party before Ahmed came into power. According to a US government report, the Ethiopian army intends to “render Western Tigray ethnically homogenous through the use of force and intimidation.”

Due to the absence of unhindered access to the region, humanitarian agencies have failed to procure accurate information about the casualties. However, the evolving trends indicate that the estimated death toll may be somewhere in the thousands while hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The armed forces have subjected victims across the gender and age demographics to gangrapes, female genital mutilations, executions, and deliberate famine. The exhaustive list encompasses a broader range of war crimes, highlighting the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Tigray.

According to the World Peace Foundation, Eritrea and Ethiopia have also deliberately dismantled Tigray’s economy and food system by burning crops, rural homesteads, and grain stores, which could rapidly lead to mass starvation and famine. Due to starvation in Tigray, the Foundation estimates the death toll is already at a “reasonable guess” of 50 to 100 deaths every day. 

While these are some of the first-round impacts of the conflict, the deliberate attacks staged against healthcare facilities (especially amid the pandemic) aim at rendering the affected individuals virtually incapable of seeking medical aid even as injuries continue to mount. Looting and destruction of hospitals have become a frequent occurrence in this war as less than 20% remain operational. This figure is catastrophic for a region that may, as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffery Feltman claims, make the Syrian war look like “child’s play.”  These necessary healthcare facilities have been converted into temporary military bases for injured soldiers by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

The concerns of pivotal actors like the United Nations (UN) and the United States of America over the Tigrayan crisis have not yet translated into a comprehensive and efficient humanitarian intervention. The conflict only appears to have intensified further. The United States has paused non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia to pressure them to allow more humanitarian access and have the Eritreans withdraw without taking any punitive measures against the regime. The US is, however, providing over $305 million in aid to Tigray alone.

Repercussions for the region

The evolution of warfare is a testament to how intensified armed conflicts never remain confined to a defined territory. Instead, they have repercussions that create a destabilizing effect across the region. Ethiopia is not an exception to this. Currently, over 60,000 individuals are scattered across refugee camps in Sudan, a country that is undergoing political turmoil. Complicating the matters further is the Al-Fashqa border dispute that threatens to unravel the negative peace between the neighbors.

The two neighbors also find themselves interlocked in a trilateral conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) construction with Egypt. Due to a diplomatic impasse and the refusal of the Ethiopian leadership to seek mediation, each move by these actors could cumulatively worsen the Tigrayan crisis, should Sudan or Egypt opt for a military engagement, forcing Ethiopian resources to be redirected to temper the violence. Thus, a power vacuum would emerge within the Ethiopian borders where clashes between different ethnic groups are underway.

The Responsibility to Protect

In 2005 the world came together to endorse the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). At its core, the principle states that each state has the responsibility to protect its populations from, among others, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. When this fails, the international community takes on this responsibility. The United Nations is obligated to use diplomacy and peaceful means to protect civilians from these violations. Crucially, should this fail, the UN Security Council may, in cooperation with regional organizations, take collective action to protect populations from these abuses.

The Ethiopian regime, and its Eritrean ally, have manifestly failed to protect its Tigrayan population from crimes against humanity. The state has been either complicit in these acts or incapable of preventing them. The responsibility for safeguarding Tigrayans, therefore, falls to the international community.

On top of this, in 2018, the UNSC passed Resolution 2417. It explicitly condemns using starvation as a method of warfare and denying humanitarian access to civilians. It states that the Council can adopt “sanction measures” to those “obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.” More recently, in April 2021, the UNSC expressed concerns about human rights abuses in Tigray. Especially regarding the use of violence against women and girls as a weapon of war.

On a regional level, the African Union (AU), whose headquarters are in Ethiopia, explicitly allows for intervention in an African state. According to the AU’s Constitutive Act, the Union has the right to “intervene in a Member State” in circumstances of “war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” The AU has shown interest in the Tigray crisis and its humanitarian fallout but has been reluctant to take any critical measures. The pandemic, an election for the AU commission, and Ethiopian influence make it challenging to implement requisite policy decisions.

The global repercussions require an analysis from a geostrategic perspective. Drastic changes in Ethiopia’s position could affect the strategies of a range of different foreign actors interested in the region, from America to China and beyond. Currently, Djibouti hosts American and Chinese military bases, while Sudan hosts a Russian naval base. The spillover of conflict, migration, and instability created due to the power vacuum and the possible emergence of rogue non-state actors will have catastrophic implications for the presence and security of these foreign forces. Changes in the geostrategic calculations will create a significant rupture in these international stakeholders’ foreign and defense policies, who considerably depend on firm Ethiopian leadership to guarantee the preservation and promotion of their pivotal interests.

Even aside from geopolitics, the economic effects of increased piracy and instability in the region could be severe. The continuance of anti-piracy and counterterrorism operations spearheaded by, for example, the Europeans require an Ethiopia at peace with itself. As the recent accidental blockade of the Suez Canal made clear, disruption to trade in the region might be catastrophic for the world economy.

If Jeffery Feltman’s assessment holds, the Tigrayan refugee crisis will overshadow the influx of migrants that followed the outbreak of the Syrian war. Hyper-nationalism, protectionism, and illiberal democracies will further reverse the liberal democratic gains the European continent has achieved over the past decades.

All in all, Ethiopia fulfills all of the conditions for the application of R2P.  Grave human rights violations, including wartime sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and deliberate famine, have molded the conflict. The state has also displayed an unwillingness to protect its population. Instead, it sanctioned a devastating war against them. Currently, it stands in violation of the core principles of the UN and the AU.

The humanitarian catastrophe appears to be gaining necessary traction that will  introduce considerable geostrategic ramifications for the region and beyond. However, the pleas of humanitarian agencies to bring the conflict to an immediate end may fall short of decisive effort on the part of the relevant stakeholders (mentioned above). As historical precedents dictate, military intervention to halt ethnic cleansing campaigns, such as in the former Yugoslavia, has occurred after prolonged and bloody warfare.

On the other hand, even if the external powers intervene on humanitarian grounds, they must ensure that they do so according to a defined framework with a straightforward but gradual exit strategy. A comprehensive peace agreement must be arrived at that addresses the root causes of the conflict. This is pertinent because a hasty withdrawal will ferment ethnic tensions that will eventually lead to a broader civil war.

A Uniting for Peace Resolution, with clear stipulations as to the goal, means, and desired consequences of the intervention, should be implemented. This is relevant because it avoids a tangible power struggle between the permanent members of the UN Security Council that will further complicate the crisis. Instead, being less concerned about great power politics, the UN General Assembly will be more sympathetic to Ethiopia’s plight. A clearly defined process will mean that the external parties cannot just intervene, only to leave and allow chaos to return (as was the case with Libya). With regional support from the AU, this will therefore be the most pragmatic solution.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

About the authors

Jacques Kuun is a Staff Writer at The International Scholar.

Saman Ayesha Kidwai is the Executive Assistant to the Program Director (Political Violence and Conflict Resolution Program) at The International Scholar.