• William Brown

A Window to End the Genocide in Tigray

Cows walk past a tank damaged in fighting between the Ethiopian government and Tigray forces, near the town of Humera, Ethiopia. ©️ Reuters

By William Brown

After nearly two years of war, the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Defense Force (TPLF) is now for the first time showing signs that peace between the warring parties is truly possible.

Tigrayan forces launched a series of highly successful military offensives in the summer of 2021 but were pushed back by a government counteroffensive in the Fall of 2021. Following a lull in fighting, the Ethiopian government declared a humanitarian ceasefire on 24 March 2022. This ceasefire has mostly held, and vital food and medicine have reached millions of vulnerable people in Tigray. At the same time, the government has launched confidence-building prisoner releases; and has indicated its willingness to negotiate a long-term peace deal. While peace is in no way guaranteed, it’s clear that the two sides are more willing to pursue peace now than at any other point in the 20-month conflict following their collective inability to obtain a military victory.

Despite this optimism, human suffering in Tigray is still devasting. As of March 2022, there were still over 1.8 million internally displaced people within Tigray. 80% of the region’s population remains food insecure. Much of the suffering is the result of the Ethiopian government's strategy of intentional displacement and starvation. Maintaining the supply of humanitarian aid is of the utmost importance. While large-scale violence in the region has subsided since the ceasefire, the Ethiopian government's violent assault on Tigray has been genocidal in nature. Ethiopian security forces have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture, mass displacement, and sexual violence. Many of the perpetrators are ethnic Amhara paramilitaries. In turn, the TPLF has engaged in the extrajudicial killing of Amhara civilians. While this level of violence has been limited since the ceasefire, a breakdown in peace talks could lead to its return. The conflict has already started to boil over. Both sides have accused the other of launching attacks in the town of Alamata on August 24th, the largest violation of the ceasefire to date.

The international community must respond to these violations quickly and decisively to prevent a return to full-scale war. All of the relevant international partners (the AU, UN, US, and EU) must coordinate a pressure campaign to prevent either side from escalating the conflict, and to convince them to return to the truce.

There are two preconditions to any sustained negotiations, one from each side. The Ethiopian government insists that the African Union (AU) must serve as the lead mediator, while the TPLF insists that basic services (such as banking, phone communication, and power) be restored to the region. Despite the seemingly basic preconditions, the Ethiopian government has so far refused to restore basic services, and the TPLF have said that they don’t trust the AU and think that Kenya should lead peace talks instead.

Both sides have, at different times, held significant military advantages that they have been unable to leverage into achieving their desired objectives. With a unilaterally imposed peace from either side looking increasingly unlikely, both sides might look for a negotiated end to the conflict. For such a negotiated peace to work, however, it must address a variety of key issues. The Tigrayan people want increased autonomy, and the Tigrayan elite wants some of the power they lost with the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Abiy and the government, in turn, want a more centralized Ethiopia under Amhara control and to ensure their political survival.

However, given the number of crimes against humanity committed by both the government and rebels, the prosecution of war criminals (by either domestic or international courts) must be considered. On one hand, the Ethiopian government's actions in Tigray rise to the level of genocide, with the legal and moral requirement to prosecute its perpetrators. On the other hand, however, it’s highly unlikely that either side's leadership would be willing to commit to peace talks that result in their arrest. Any prospective mediator must be especially aware of the proverbial tightrope they find themselves on and must be (counter-intuitively) willing to let some of the highest-ranking Genocidaires walk to end the genocide. The most violent lower-ranking military leaders, however, can and should be prosecuted as part of the reconciliation process.

Outside of Tigray, however, the situation in Ethiopia has significantly deteriorated over the last year. Violence in the Oromia region has escalated, with a recent massacre claiming the lives of 230 Amhara. The international community should continue to monitor these emerging internal conflicts, and recognize that, while they are linked to the Tigray conflict, involve different actors, and will require different solutions than Tigray.

The international community, especially the US, UN, and EU, must provide support to the struggling peace process. There are three primary steps in which they can help. First, they can provide mediators and other facilities to directly support the process. Second, they can use their links to both combatants to pressure them to accept a negotiated peace. Finally, the international community can commit resources to help support the final signed agreement (such as through the deployment of a peacekeeping mission). Given the immense human suffering so far, and the potential risk for even greater suffering if peace talks break down, the international community must offer its full support and assistance.

Given the recent ceasefire violations, and the unwillingness of both sides to meet the other’s preconditions, the international community must act immediately. The United States and European partners must use their substantial leverage over both sides (development assistance made up over half of Ethiopia’s budget in 2020) to bring them to the negotiating table and cooperate with the AU to improve a meditation system that is currently too personalized and potentially overly-biased under former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. Doing so will help save potentially tens of thousands of lives and show partners in the Global South that the US, EU, and UN, are still able to provide conflict resolution assistance despite their current focus on Ukraine.

Will Brown is an Early Warning Analyst at Genocide Watch

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.

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