With the situation in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region at a dangerous turning point, the international community has yet to take decisive action. Diplomatic, humanitarian, and human rights groups have increasingly spoken out, urging the Ethiopian government to allow relief workers to deliver adequate levels of emergency aid to the beleaguered population. Unfortunately, they have had little success.
More than 6 million people remain trapped in the fighting between Ethiopia’s military (ENDF), allied militia, and the Eritrean army (EDF) on one side, and the reconstituted rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on the other. An estimated 2.2 million people have been displaced by the conflict, of which some 61,000 have fled to Sudan, many with only the clothes on their backs. Among these refugees are many who have been separated from their families for months, including unaccompanied minors.
Although communications are largely cut off in Tigray, the information that is coming out of the region is nothing short of horrific. Reports from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and others point to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law, such as the starvation of civilians and collective punishment. There are also reports of civilian massacres and what may constitute state-led ethnic cleansing, as well as allegations of mass rape being used as a weapon of war.
The international community must take urgent action to halt this downward spiral. Doing so will require a concerted international effort to pressure the government of Ethiopia to swiftly address allegations of atrocities in an open and transparent manner and to immediately remove its stranglehold on humanitarian access. Further, to end active hostilities and find a path towards peace, Eritrean forces and allied militia must withdraw from Tigray immediately.
The conflict in Tigray is the culmination of longstanding tensions among Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups. Disruptions to the complex balance of power between them has often sparked social unrest across Ethiopia’s nine administrative regions. Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy took office on the heels of a major drought in 2015-2016, following years of tight control by the TPLF. He sought to implement a highly contentious plan to dismantle the ethnic federalism governance model the TPLF had used to rule the country. To do so, Abiy established the multi-ethnic Prosperity Party (PP) in December 2019, which ended the TPLF’s grip on political and economic power.
In September 2020, the TPLF went ahead with local elections despite a nationwide postponement that Abiy’s government put in place due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The TPLF attacked the ENDF’s northern command and armory facilities in multiple cities in Tigray. Abiy responded by sending troops to the region and even allowed Eritrean forces and militia from the neighboring Amhara region to join the conflict. The decision to allow these external forces to intervene turned what the African Union had dubbed a legitimate action into what some fear could become a pogrom unlike anything Ethiopia has seen in decades. The involvement of these groups has escalated the conflict, as Eritrean troops and Amharan militia have long-held grudges against the TPLF.
Despite Ethiopia’s claims that military activity has ended, fighting in Tigray continues. Eritrean troops remain heavily involved and ethnic tensions in Tigray and throughout Ethiopia are rising. According to its leaders, the TPLF is prepared for a long, drawn out, asymmetrical war. There are reports the rebel group may attempt to retake Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray region. Abiy, for his part, enjoys considerable support amongst many Ethiopians, who view the TPLF as having robbed the country during its nearly three decades in power.
Handwringing from the International Community
Notably, a well-coordinated and robust response from the international community has yet to fully materialize. Foreign powers and international organizations have been unable to negotiate humanitarian access to Tigray, lower the level of violence, and chart a path towards a peaceful settlement. In fact, states like China and Russia may be prolonging the conflict by helping to fend off UN, AU, and European calls for Ethiopia to end the violence and improve aid access. The UN Security Council has discussed the crisis in Tigray at least three times, but has yet to hold a formal and open briefing on the situation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has issued five statements of concern regarding the crisis, while UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock has twice briefed the Security Council. Nevertheless, Security Council action remains elusive.
For his part, Prime Minister Abiy has successfully deflected criticism by the international community. The Ethiopian government has reached a series of agreements with the UN on international access to Tigray, including an announcement on February 24, 2021 that additional access for journalists, humanitarian groups and human rights monitors was now granted. However, they remain largely unfulfilled. The government has also used bureaucratic obstacles to cut humanitarian assistance and access to a trickle. In addition, it continues to silence or denounce media reports about the crisis, lest new, damning information damage its domestic support.
The African Union briefly engaged last year. However, Prime Minister Abiy reportedly rebuffed African entreaties to avoid the slide to war and negotiate with the TPLF, purporting that the AU was treating the TPLF like a state rather than a rebel group. Since then, AU diplomats have remained largely on the sidelines of the crisis. The European Union (EU) announced it would withdraw $107 million of budget support for Ethiopia until humanitarian access was restored to Tigray, but acted independently of other key donors, thereby limiting its impact. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab issued a statement following his visit to Ethiopia in November 2020, which got little traction.
The United States—then under the Trump administration—also weighed in in November 2020 with little consequence. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a statement that garnered little attention or further engagement amid the furor of the U.S. presidential elections. The new Biden administration is well-positioned to do more to pressure for humanitarian access and negotiations and has shown interest in doing so, including through Secretary Blinken’s recent conversation with Abiy. However, it has yet to take bold action.
Regional Dimensions of the Crisis
The crisis in Tigray poses genuine risks to an already troubled Horn of Africa. Somalia remains unstable as prospects for elections are uncertain and violence is increasing. Protracted crisis in Ethiopia could further threaten an already dire situation there. Similarly, Sudan—already host to about 1 million refugees—is trying to cope with a large arrivals of refugees from Tigray as well as hyperinflation and its own political turmoil. While Sudan continues to allow refugees to cross into its remote eastern areas, protection and assistance needs remain high. UNHCR and other aid groups are responding and have established several camps in the area to provide relief, but aid agencies will need additional support as displacement is likely to be protracted. Moreover, skirmishes on the Ethiopia-Sudan border have also broken out on several occasions, exacerbating long-standing tensions over land.
Meanwhile, the UN has already expressed concern over the Abiy administration’s decision to withdraw Tigrayan officers and diplomats from UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Somalia, and to redeploy thousands of Ethiopian troops from Somalia to help fight in Tigray. These actions raise questions about Ethiopia’s future role in leading regional efforts to achieve peace in South Sudan and Somalia. Eritrea also risks enmeshing itself in yet another drawn-out conflict after formally ending its war with Ethiopia in 2018.
The Humanitarian Situation
Lack of Aid Access
Aid actors have had very limited access to Tigray since November 2020. Prime Minister Abiy stated in February 2021 that “ending the suffering in Tigray” was his “highest priority,” and that he was “calling for the United Nations and international relief agencies to work” with Ethiopia. However, the reality has been quite different. As Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the non-governmental Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), put it, “I have rarely seen a humanitarian response so impeded and unable to deliver.”
The lack of access in the face of such need is unacceptable. Relief and advocacy agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam, NRC, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Amnesty International, and others report massive humanitarian need including food, nutrition, water, shelter, protection, and healthcare. While the international community stands ready to help, the government of Ethiopia has impeded the response. To date, Abiy’s administration has not delivered on its promises to facilitate aid delivery. In addition, it has created systems that all but ensure glacial progress for the international response, and mobilized propaganda campaigns to deflect criticism and bolster his support.
To be effective, humanitarian aid workers need to see movement in a range of areas. This includes bureaucratic access in the form of entry/exit visas for NGO workers granting at least 6-month stays; customs clearances for operations, including delivery of medicines, food and non-food items; the licensing and use of telecommunications (including cell towers, radios, Vsats, satellite phones, HF/VHF radio communications); and physical access across Tigray.
There should be a joint United Nations Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS)-NGO security coordination forum that assists in managing civil-military coordination with all groups party to the conflict. The fact that the ENDF does not control all of Tigray further complicates the prospects for adequate aid provision. Access to some areas will therefore require negotiations with other non-governmental actors, including the TPLF, Amharan militias, and Eritrean troops.
In a positive step, the UN and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Peace agreed to establish aid access via a humanitarian corridor in December 2020. However, access failed to improve. Ethiopia continued to leave humanitarian supply and personnel clearances unanswered for weeks as the people in Tigray grew increasingly desperate. More recently, Ethiopia said it would allow the World Food Program (WFP) to deliver food to some 1 million people, including in hard-to-reach rural areas. This access is meant to fall under the existing UN agreement, which has been largely unfulfilled. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also received assurances from the government that it would protect displaced people, and Ethiopia’s Ministry of Peace approved supply convoys and a group of 25 UN staff to visit Mekelle. Finally, on February 24, 2021, Ethiopia announced further access for humanitarians, journalists and human rights monitors. However, it remains to be seen whether Ethiopia will this time follow through on providing access as agreed.
Food Aid and Malnutrition
With every passing day, hunger is setting in as nearly every aspect of daily life in Tigray has shut down. This includes crop harvests, markets, banking services, health clinics, and schools. Food shortages are increasingly widespread and, without assistance, the people of the region could soon be on the brink of starvation. In his visit to Tigray, High Commissioner Grandi heard stories of refugees resorting to eating leaves to survive. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict also commented on women in Tigray being forced to trade sex for food out of desperation.
Food was already in short supply as a result of locust invasions that have decimated crops in parts of Tigray and other regions since early 2020. Now, the shortages are compounded as farmers are unable to harvest crops due to fighting and displacement. Moreover, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDMRC) released an early warning that Ethiopia’s short rainy season will likely see below normal rainfall, potentially leaving pasture and drinking water levels unreplenished amidst already worrisome water shortages in the area.
The government of Ethiopia said in February 2021 that it had provided food and other forms of assistance to 1.8 million people in need in Tigray since the start of the crisis. Yet much remains unknown, including to whom, where, and for how long it has provided this assistance. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Famine Early Warning System has now categorized Tigray as a Phase 4 Emergency—one step below famine—and a recently leaked government document cites an Ethiopian official speaking of widespread starvation there. The WFP estimates that some 4 million people will need urgent food assistance in 2021.
Displacement: Eritrean Refugees under Threat and Widespread Internal Displacement
Even before the current crisis, Ethiopia had a large population of internally displaced people (IDPs)—some 1.8 million as of September 2020—who had been displaced for years. Displacement from Tigray will greatly increase that number. Indeed, the vast majority of the 2.2 million people forced to flee by the current conflict remain within Ethiopia, having moved to other parts of Tigray, border areas, or other regions within Ethiopia. Humanitarian aid workers often find it more difficult to reach and provide assistance to IDPs than other displaced groups.
In addition, some 100,000 Eritrean refugees who have lived in UNHCR-run camps in Tigray for many years are particularly vulnerable to the attacks of Eritrean troops operating in the region. They are regarded as “traitors” by the hardline government of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and some have reportedly been abducted by the Eritrean army and taken back across the border. When two of the northernmost camps—Hitsats and Shimelba—were caught up in active hostilities, camp residents were left without food, water, medical supplies or other basic necessities for months. Other Eritrean refugees have experienced brutal attacks and violence.
In February 2021, UNHCR alerted the world that as many as 20,000 refugees were missing after two refugee camps in Tigray were destroyed. Two days later, the Ethiopian government announced its intention to close the camps and relocate remaining refugees to new camps or integrate them into Tigrayan host communities. During his visit to southern Tigray, High Commissioner Grandi heard horror stories of what survivors experienced at the hands of Eritrean troops. In turn, Grandi urged Ethiopia to ensure free and unimpeded access to the region for humanitarian workers, noting that neither the UN nor its implementing partners had been able to visit the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps the government said it would close.
A range of other displacement concerns will continue to grow in the coming months, regardless of how the conflict evolves. Among refugees who have crossed into Sudan, aid groups will need to try to reunite separated families, prioritizing children who have been separated during flight. Reports of Ethiopian troops blocking people from fleeing into Sudan run contrary to international law and Ethiopia’s domestic and international human rights obligations.
The immediate humanitarian response will also need to incorporate planning for the longer term, including by involving development actors and local government officials. IDPs and refugees who have fled Tigray need access to both urgent humanitarian assistance and sustained social services, psychosocial care, and livelihoods opportunities. Their economic integration into other parts of Ethiopia or neighboring states will be critical to their survival and wellbeing. Humanitarian, development and government actors will also need to plan for the possibility that some will seek to return to Tigray when the fighting calms.
Human Rights Violations, Atrocities and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Despite limited access to information in Tigray, reports have emerged of human rights violations and atrocities occurring there. MSF staff described the lack of medical care available in eastern and central Tigray. Refugees and asylum seekers have provided accounts of mass atrocities, extra-judicial killings, ethnic cleansing, forced conscription, and other abuses committed by all parties to the fighting. In February 2021, the UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide issued a statement voicing concerns over reports of hate speech and stigmatization, including ethnic profiling, as well as allegations of other serious abuses.
The UN has also sounded the alarm over horrifying reports of sexual and gender-based violence, and of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being kidnapped, killed, attacked, and prevented from fleeing. The statement by Pamila Patten, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, highlights a range of concerns about sexual violence in Tigray, particularly the high number of rapes in Mekelle. She writes,
“There are also disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence. Some women have also reportedly been forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities, while medical centers have indicated an increase in the demand for emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which is often an indicator of sexual violence in conflict. In addition, there are increasing reports of sexual violence against women and girls in a number of refugee camps.”
Regardless of who commits the crime—Ethiopian troops, Eritrean troops, the TPLF, or other militia officers—Ethiopia is ultimately responsible for the protection of Ethiopian civilians. TPLF leadership should also be held responsible for crimes committed under its command, and all perpetrators of human rights law should be brought to justice.
To the Government of Ethiopia:
Ensure immediate and unfettered humanitarian access: It is the responsibility of the government of Ethiopia to ensure its citizens are shielded from violence and provided life-saving assistance. To do so, it is essential that the government honor its promises for humanitarian access in Tigray made in statements and in negotiations with the UN in December 2020 and in on February 24, 2021. Put simply, it must ensure immediate and unfettered access to all affected communities for UN and NGO staff, with expedited and extended visas and blanket access for assigned personnel. This must happen immediately in order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. This should also include expedited customs clearances for the transport of emergency food, medicines and supplies.
Call on Eritrea to remove its troops from Tigray: All efforts must be made to bring the conflict to a quick and peaceful end and to prioritize the protection of civilians. To that end, the government of Ethiopia should formally demand that Eritrea remove its forces from Tigrayan territory immediately. Their presence is a threat to Tigray’s peace and security, as they have continually been involved in targeting, abducting, and killing Eritrean refugees and others in Tigray.
Facilitate the independent investigation of reported cases of atrocities and human rights abuse: The government of Ethiopia should allow an independent investigation into allegations of human rights abuses, facilitating full access to all of Tigray.
To the Biden Administration
Appoint a Special Envoy to oversee diplomatic efforts on the Tigray crisis. This would help galvanize attention on the humanitarian situation, coordinate efforts with other actors like the African Union and European Union, and help convince China, Russia, and others that it is in collective interest to see a speedy end to the conflict. The United States must also continue to step up its donor funding – and ensure others follow suit.
Deploy a DART team to Ethiopia. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) should deploy a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to Ethiopia to respond the humanitarian emergency in Tigray. The DART is the best U.S. government tool for dealing with complex crises and demonstrates U.S. commitment to the country and the crisis.
Push the UN Security Council to engage. U.S. Mission to the United Nations should request formal and open briefings on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Tigray. The briefings must then be followed by concrete action. To date, the UN Security Council has taken up the situation in Tigray only under “any other business.” Council members have failed to issue even so much as a formal statement.
To the United Nations:
Sustain high-level visits to the country. Visits by dignitaries, such as those of UN High Commissioner Grandi or WFP Executive Director Beasley, have yielded some limited results, including recent agreements by Ethiopia for access. These high-level visits will maintain attention on the situation and increase pressure on the Ethiopian government to follow through on its commitments.
Form a civil-military coordination task force to inform and track UN and NGO access across the whole region. This should include an acceptance of regular communication with TPLF forces and others party to the conflict to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers. This will be essential for a wide-scale aid effort to access hard-to-reach rural areas, and to open up communication across the region.
Declare an L-3 Emergency. This status, which is activated by the UN in the most complex and challenging emergency situations, will give the UN the ability to move staff and resources quickly. L-3 responses provide the fastest path for administrative, financial, and logistical mobilization within the UN, and to ramp up leadership, staffing, and funding. The scale, complexity, and urgency of the crisis in Tigray—displacement at 2.2 million, the vast majority of the population unreached by aid, many on the brink of starvation, and widespread human rights violations—match the required criteria needed for this declaration.
Issue an urgent humanitarian donor appeal for Tigray. In addition to the annual Humanitarian Response Plan for the country, the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) should issue an emergency appeal, which includes refugees and asylum seeker assistance in Sudan. This will be essential for bringing in early funding that can bolster the immediate response capacity.
To the International and Donor Community:
Launch a coordinated diplomatic effort to engage the government of Ethiopia to achieve meaningful humanitarian access. Ethiopia receives on average more than $3.5 billion per year in Official Development Assistance. That is over half of its national budget, giving international community considerable leverage. International donors should engage in frank talks with their Ethiopian counterparts and make clear that efforts to delay international access will only worsen the crisis and further harm Ethiopia’s reputation.
To the African Union:
Promote the use of good offices to improve access and open communication between the government of Ethiopia and TPLF. Ethiopia has played an important role in the history of the African Union (AU) and pushed the AU onto the international stage in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and farther afield. To prevent a further deterioration of the situation in the organization’s host country, the AU should step up to help negotiate humanitarian access to areas under the control of all parties to the conflict. This would be an important first step towards deeper conflict mediation. The AU could also play a role in the deployment of monitors, including human rights, the protection of civilians, and access for which the AU has departments based in Addis Ababa. It could also use its longstanding relationship with the parties and with neighboring states to help bring an end to Eritrea’s military presence in Tigray and push for a ceasefire. Leading African states, such as Rwanda and South Africa, should also be encouraged to formally table the Tigray crisis at the AU, and increase engagement from capitals to see Ethiopia meet its international obligations.
Sarah Miller is a senior fellow at Refugees International.
David del Conte is an independent consultant with over two decades of humanitarian experience with the United Nations and NGOs. He served as OCHA’s Deputy Country Director for Ethiopia from 2012-2016, including the 2015-2016 drought.
Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.
Cover Photo: A man stands in front of his destroyed house in the village of Bisober in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, on December 9, 2020. Photo by Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images.