Pandemic of Hunger Symposium: The Ethio-Eritrean Hunger Plan for Tigray and the Failure of Resolution 2417
[Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation. His expertise on famines, both scholarly and in practice, focuses on Sudan and the Horn of Africa.]
(opiniojuris)—Tigray, Ethiopia, is a test case for United Nations Security Council resolution 2417 (2417). The United Nations has failed that test.
Today, between 4.5 million and 5.2 million people of Tigray’s total population of 5.7 million are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. Famine is probably occurring already, and without doubt in the coming months Tigrayans will be starving on a scale rarely witnessed in the modern world. Except that, because the Ethiopian government prefers to keep Tigray in darkness, few outsiders will be there to witness it. We may later get to count the graves of the children who perished.
As soon as armed conflict erupted on 4 November, we were warned of the risk of famine. But in the face of the ruthless determination of the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea to starve the civilian population of Tigray, the United Nations, the African Union and donor governments have done nothing of significance. For the hungry in Tigray, 2417 is an empty promise.
The unpublished results of rapid nutrition assessments in six locations accessible to the regional authorities, with UNICEF’s technical support, show that Global Acute Malnutrition rates among children under five years of age of 23.8-34.3 percent. This takes us into the range where we must speak about phase 5 of the Integrated food security Phase Classification (IPC)—‘famine.’
Most of the Tigray region is not accessible to survey teams, due to government restrictions and fighting. Conditions elsewhere are almost certainly worse. The situation is deteriorating week-by-week as food stocks run out. Longer term prospects are even more dire: the planting season has arrived and most farmers are unable to plough their fields and plant and tend this year’s crops. Recent reports speak of Eritrean soldiers arriving in villages where farmers have been able to prepare their land, destroying the seedlings and telling villagers, you will not plant, you will not harvest, and if you try you will be punished.
Recently, aid was reaching about 1 million of those in need. Even that small fraction is shrinking. This month, the Ethiopian government declared the former governing party of the region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) a ‘terrorist organization.’ Relief workers are now stopped at the first army checkpoint out of each town, and told that they cannot proceed further, because their aid cannot be allowed to help the ‘terrorists’.
It is hard to think of a more systematic use of starvation as a weapon of war since the Nazi Hungerplan of eighty years ago.
Before the outbreak of war on 3/4 November 2020, Tigray was relatively food secure. Once the epicentre of Ethiopia’s infamous famine of 1984/85, thirty years of internal peace and development meant that today’s generation of Tigrayans were, for the first time in history, living without the threat of hunger due to drought or locusts. Agriculture was still a marginal enterprise with low yields on stony soils, but a combination of rehabilitating watersheds and building small dams for irrigated horticulture and orchards, and subsidized fertilizers—enhanced by micro-credit services—enabled modest harvests. Local incomes were supplemented by seasonal labouring opportunities on commercial farms in fertile western Tigray, and employment in new industries such as textiles and marble cutting, artisanal mining of gold and cobalt, and tourism to the region’s historic churches. Further, a ‘productive safety net programme’ designed and funded by the government and international donors kicked in whenever food insecurity threatened.
All that is gone. In the words of Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, former World Peace Foundation senior fellow, speaking over the phone from the war zone, ‘they have destroyed Tigray, literally.’ I have been working on war, mass atrocity and famine in Africa for close to forty years. Never in my professional life have I documented destruction of what is necessary to sustain life in a manner as relentless and systematic as we are seeing in Tigray today.
As detailed in the World Peace Foundation report Starving Tigray, which draws upon scores of open-source reports along with eyewitness testimonies up, the coalition of Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Eritrean Defence Forces and Amhara militia have destroyed, removed or rendered useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. They have burned food stores, looted food, and killed domestic animals from cows to baby chickens. They have slaughtered plough oxen, smashed ploughs, cut down fruit trees. They have ripped up the water pipes and pumps in towns and villages and ripped out domestic plumbing. They have looted and vandalized the great majority of the region’s clinics and hospitals. They have closed banks and frozen the 450,000 accounts in the region’s micro-finance institution, essentially confiscating the savings of the peasantry. They have pillaged and burned factories, ransacked hotels, looted shops and stores, and even broken open the little boxes used by shoeshine boys to steal the brushes and polish. By expropriating and ethnically cleansing the fertile lowlands where sesame is grown for export, they have eliminated Tigrayans’ single largest source of seasonal migrant work, a crucial source of income.
Men and boys are being killed: there are more than 150 documented massacres. In the largest known to date, in the city of Axum, an estimated 750 were killed. These are crimes in their own right. Fear of such violence deters men from travelling to find work, cultivate their farms, or obtain aid for their families.
Evidence for widespread rape and shocking sexual violence—torture, sexual slavery and mutilation—has emerged. Rape is a crime. Rape perpetrated as part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population is a crime against humanity. That threshold is met in Tigray, with participation of uniformed state forces in rape and sexual violence.
Rape in these circumstances is also a starvation crime. A survivor of rape may be unable to care for herself and her children, because of physical injuries, trauma, and life-long stigma. A woman who is gang raped in her own home may never want to return to what was once a place of safety, but is now indelibly associated with pain, terror and attack on her familial and social identity. Fear of rape means that women and girls do not venture out to go to the market, go to fetch water or firewood, go to their farms or gardens, or seek assistance. With many men killed, in hiding, or joining the armed resistance, women are often the sole adult carers for their children—breadwinners in a land with no bread.
Not only has the Ethio-Eritrean coalition massively reduced the food available to Tigrayans, but they have systematically reduced the region to a state of destitution. Should this destruction, dispossession and expulsion be permitted to stand, the future is a geographically truncated Tigray, deprived of every source of income save subsistence farming, utterly dependent on welfare handouts. The scorched earth campaign means that the numbers in need will not reduce even if the conflict ends. Ethiopia and Eritrea have posed a horrible dilemma to the humanitarian community. Should donors pay the bill for the human consequences of this destruction or be complicit in what is emerging as a systematic hunger plan?
The humanitarian effort is reaching fewer people and providing them with less assistance than in any comparable circumstances in the world today. Most of what is given is food. There is some health care, but almost no agricultural aid. Much of that aid is stolen by the coalition forces—some of it wholesale, some of it when soldiers raid a village where there has been a distribution and take it at gunpoint.
The perpetrators of these starvation crimes are the Ethiopian federal forces, the Eritrean army, and Amhara forces. Clues to the Ethiopians’ motives can be deduced from the public rhetoric of political groups now setting the agenda of the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Amhara regional state concur in demonizing the Tigrayans. They claim that during the years in which the TPLF was in power, Tigrayans ‘looted’ the Ethiopian state, taking an unwarranted share of development funds, and are therefore ‘thieves’ and ‘daylight hyenas.’ Confiscating Tigrayan property was a slogan of political parties now supporting the government. In a recent panel on France 24, Neamin Zeleke, Executive Director at Ethiopian Satellite Televison and Radio (ESAT) which has been a fulcrum for inciting hatred against Tigrayans, toned down his rhetoric for an English-speaking audience but his intent to enact ‘revenge’ was clear. The campaign targeting ethnic Tigrayans for removal from employment, residence and rights across Ethiopia has the disturbing signature of eradicating them from the Ethiopian polity altogether.
The Amhara leadership claims that when provincial boundaries were redrawn in 1991-94, at the time of adopting a federal system based on ethnicities, Tigray took over historically Amhara lands, which they should now reclaim. (As with almost all such territorial disputes the history and the basis for the claims are controversial.) The U.S. State Department calls it ‘ethnic cleansing.’ That is the correct term: the boundary is being redrawn by force and Tigrayans are being forcibly removed or eliminated. Ironically, the FEWS NET maps this area as ‘food secure’: its methods are not designed to take account of the removal of the previous inhabitants and their replacement by new settlers.
The Eritrean president has long blamed the TPLF—and by extension all Tigrayans—for his country’s international ostracism and poverty and sought to eliminate it as a threat. Eritrea is a despotism, with no constitution, parliament, independent judiciary or free media. Its main institution is its vast army; its soldiers are forcibly conscripted from high school, brutalized and required serve indefinitely. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, which reported in 2016 found a shocking record of abuse by the state against its own citizens. The Special Rapporteur, Sheila Keetharuth, laments that her recommendations, including that Eritrea be referred to the International Criminal Court, were wholly ignored.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister called the coalition offensives a ‘law enforcement operation.’ His claims that ‘not a single civilian have been killed’ and that Eritrean forces were either not involved or were withdrawing have been shown to be lies. In the early weeks, Ethiopia and Eritrea were given a free pass by the Trump Administration and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres repeated PM Abiy’s false claim about Eritrean forces.
The shut-down of internet and phone communication has been effective in minimizing reporting of atrocities including starvation, thereby allowing official denials to pass without refutation. International humanitarian workers are compelled to remain silent for fear of being expelled; the situation for national staff is worse. After the TPLF was declared a ‘terrorist’ organization, communication with them is prohibited.
Culpability for the outbreak of hostilities in November is shared among the four belligerents: the Ethiopian federal government, the TPLF, Eritrea and the Amhara regional forces.
Culpability for the famine lies entirely with the Ethio-Eritrean coalition. To the extent that there were pre-existing food security difficulties, on account of poverty and a locust plague, those show only that the perpetrators of the starvation crimes were aware of the vulnerability of their intended victims. A prosecutor seeking to investigate the situation in Tigray would have good reason to consider a case for crimes against humanity and genocide against the coalition military and political leaders.
2417 on conflict and hunger was designed to ensure that grave circumstances such as these would not be permitted to develop. Paragraph 12 reads:
‘[Council] Further requests the Secretary-General to report swiftly to the Council when the risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity in armed conflict contexts occurs, and expresses its intention to give its full attention to such information provided by the Secretary-General when those situations are brought to its attention.’
The resolution doesn’t specify what the UNSC should do after giving ‘its full attention’ to the crisis. But it’s clear that it shouldn’t do nothing.
On current performance, Tigray is set to join the catalogue of genocides and crimes against humanity in which the world failed to act on warnings, and responded with hand wringing only after the event. The UNSC discussed the situation in Ethiopia under ‘any other business’ on 24 November and 14 December 2020, and held a closed session on the humanitarian crisis on 3 February 2021. Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs briefed Council, with increasing candour and alarm, over subsequent weeks, with an extremely frank and alarming report on 15 April. No formal session was held and only a pallid press statement was issued on 23 April.
The countries that pushed for action were Ireland and the U.S., supported by other European countries. The immediate reason for deadlock at the UNSC was the threat of a veto by China and/or Russia, on the grounds that the conflict was a domestic matter for Ethiopia and not therefore a legitimate agenda item. This threat was possible because the three African members of the Council (Kenya, Niger and Tunisia) were not ready to support an assertive position pushed by western natitons. The African Union, despite its elaborate norms, principles and institutions designed precisely to prevent and manage a crisis such as this, was silent—rebuffed and intimidated by its host country Ethiopia.
Six months after Ethiopia and Eritrea launched their campaign of starvation and mass atrocity, the UNSC has been a bystander. The UN Secretary General has abdicated his responsibilities. The African Union has failed. On its third anniversary, resolution 2417 provides only the draft for the apology that might one day be forthcoming.