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Tigray faces human rights abuses and famine amid a pandemic

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist who is working with the ONE Campaign’s COVID-19 Aftershocks project.

While Ethiopia is struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, another life-threatening crisis is going largely unnoticed. Famine looms for millions of Ethiopians in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, where an alliance of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF), Amhara militia, and the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) has gone to war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an armed rebel group that ruled Ethiopia. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said the attacks on the TPLF were provoked, accusing the TPLF of killing soldiers in federal army camps in November.

“Starving Tigray,” a report by the World Peace Foundation, estimates that 5 million people in Tigray – more than 80% of the region’s population – need urgent humanitarian assistance as a result of the attacks. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, predicts that “in the coming months Tigrayans will be starving on a scale rarely witnessed in the modern world.” He adds: “It is hard to think of a more systemic use of starvation as a weapon of war since the Nazi Hungerplan of eighty years ago.”

UN humanitarian aid chief Mark Lowcock echoed de Waal’s words, telling a closed UN Security Council meeting in June that Eritrean soldiers were deliberately starving Tigrayans and that “rape is being used to systematically terrorise and brutalise women and girls.” The Ethiopian military has also been accused of burning crops, killing domestic animals, and looting in Tigray in a bid to starve the local population. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes; some 60,000 are estimated to have fled to neighbouring Sudan.

An Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis conducted in Tigray and the neighbouring areas of Amhara and Afara concluded that 5.5 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity, with over 350,000 people in the area are facing catastrophic food insecurity.

The three Cs

“The three Cs – conflict, coronavirus and climate change – have pushed millions of Ethiopians in Tigray to the brink,” said Gezahegn Kebede Gebrehana, Oxfam’s country director in Ethiopia. “Even before the conflict, people had lost up to half of their crops due to climate-fueled plagues of locusts and they were struggling due to the devastating health impacts of coronavirus. The conflict erupted in the middle of the harvest season, halting attempts to gather the remains of already depleted crops.”

A huge number of people in Tigray’s remote and mountainous rural areas are currently without any healthcare. The Belgium-based Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA), which is publishing regular reports on the situation in Tigray, quoted Médecins Sans Frontières Emergency Coordinator Tommaso Santo: “When we arrived in Tigray in late 2020, we found that the health system had almost completely collapsed.” Lack of access to health facilities also means people in the region are not being vaccinated for COVID-19, which could spell disaster in the coming weeks.

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed Ethiopia’s leadership in 2018, he promised radical reforms that would transform the country from a securitised state to one that is open to divergent views. In his first 100 days in office, he granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners and discontinued media censorship. He also extended a hand of friendship to the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, ending a two-decade stalemate. This rapprochement earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, when he was lauded for “his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with Eritrea.”

But three years into his premiership, Abiy has reintroduced draconian measures to curb dissent, including clamping down on the media and imprisoning his opponents. His government has also declared the TPLF a “terrorist organisation.” Ethiopia held parliamentary elections this week that are expected to forecast whether Abiy’s coalition Prosperity Party is still popular enough to win national elections. Critics says that these elections were not fair because four of the country’s 10 regions, including Tigray, did not vote due to logistical reasons or because they were experiencing conflict.

The need for a global response

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Ethiopia, described the situation in Tigray as “very horrific,” saying, “Rape is rampant. I don’t think there was that scale anywhere else in the world actually.”

US President Joe Biden weighed in on the conflict, describing it as “human rights abuses.” His administration paused some security and economic assistance to Ethiopia and imposed visa restrictions on some Ethiopian officials. The European Union also warned that those obstructing humanitarian aid to Tigray could be placed on the EU’s sanctions list.

Perhaps in response to international pressure, the African Union Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is investigating violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws in the Tigray region. This move differs starkly from the AU’s approach just six months ago: In December, AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told a meeting of regional leaders that the Ethiopian government had taken “legitimate” military action in Tigray to preserve the country’s unity and stability. The Ethiopian government has consistently denied that there is hunger in Tigray and has also denounced the AU’s investigation, saying it lacks legal basis and undermines the African Union’s cooperative spirit.

The United States, EU, and AU must take urgent action – but it may be too late to save the millions of Tigrayans who are currently facing mass starvation, human rights violations, and displacement. More international pressure, including from the UN Security Council, must be placed on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to stop the conflict immediately and to allow humanitarian aid workers access to the region.

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For more on the health, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 in Africa, check out ONE’s Africa COVID-19 Tracker. It pulls together the latest real-time data from global institutions, governments, and universities about the impacts of the pandemic for the continent and for every African country. For more insights and analysis, sign up for our Aftershocks newsletter and follow us @ONEAftershocks.

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