By Cassandra Lee
As I write it is the eve of the Tigray Crisis which started on 04 November 2020. Personally, I remember the day the news broke out like it was yesterday. I had been driving to Church for some reflective space and I was called by a friend, “the war has started, the power is out, the northern command has been ambushed and they have been bombing from the Eritrean side of the border.” I reached my destination and tried to call those in Tigray, to no avail. The night before I argued with a person I loved most in Tigray, my frustrations had reached boiling point as I was increasingly worried about the situation and the lack of locust relief given to my friend and the other farmers by the Ethiopian government. Although the world bank had approved $63 million in funding, the people of Tigray had received none of it due to funding cuts of 285 million birr imposed by the central Prosperity Party in Addis Abeba, as a standoff grew between them and the TPLF due to the nature of the regional elections and the term expiration of Abiy Ahmed on 05 October 2020. I was frustrated as every day I was hearing firsthand that the locusts were destroying crops and Tigray media sources were showing the human effort made to try and just protect the bare minimum of the next year’s harvest. Swarms were forming all over Tigray and the people’s lives in 2021 were already going to be hard enough.
Nevertheless, I had hope that the international community would be able to assist and fill in the food gaps during the war as Ethiopia was a signatory to the Geneva conventions and hoped this would be enough for the protection of the civilian population. It is a fact hard for many to understand, but Ethiopia is not a signatory of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which would hold the government responsible should the war eventuate into the perilous situation that aid is used as a weapon. However, the Ethiopian Penal code does have provisions for punishment alongside that of the Rome statute for such crimes. Which one would think is enough deterrent for crimes against humanity to be committed on sovereign soil. Additionally, Ethiopia held a long-standing reputation within the international community that they were working with the UN to meet their development goals, and this I had hoped would be another reason for the Government to strive and still reach the UN’s sustainable development goal, number 2, Zero Hunger, despite the war and the political differences.
I have introduced this piece with a personal story, as what is more personal than food? And the lack of it? It is a basic human need, right and an evolutionary indicator of how a society is managing its own affairs. In 2005 Friends of the Earth CEO, Duncan McClaren is quoted saying “Famine is not caused by a shortage of food; it’s caused by a shortage of justice.” Although this quote is centred around climate change, the truth of it to many in Ethiopia still rings out loudly as it is a reminder stored deep in their memory, that famine is a weapon that has been used against the population many times over the centuries. The harsh reminder of the past is that famine in Tigray has been caused by both Haile Selassie and the Derg Regime in the 21st century. Many of the survivors are now facing the third bout of famine in their lifetime. Many people in the international community will remember the grief-stricken faces of starving potbellied children, poured over out television screens in the late 1980s. It was and is still a lack of justice that caused these many people to die.
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s 2005 Penal Code has outlawed many of the crimes that are occurring in Tigray in 2020-2021, one of these includes the Creation of Distress or Famine, by “Whoever intentionally, directly or indirectly, creates within the country a grave state of misery, want or famine, epidemic or epizootic disease or distress, especially by improperly hiding or hoarding, destroying or preventing the transport or distribution of grain, foodstuffs or provisions, or remedies or products necessary to the life or health of man or domestic animals” as well as many sections relating to the interference with humanitarian organisations. However, despite the fear of legal repercussions that is instilled in the psyche of a mentally healthy law-abiding citizen and claims that Abiy Ahmed has a PhD from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University, he has forsworn the penal code many times over the last 12 months leading to the potentiality of another man-made, government-supported famine in Tigray.
By February 2021 reports and satellite imagery showed that crops have been burnt in the war. So those that had only meagre rations left after the locust invasion, were facing further challenges leading to an imminent starvation situation. In a personal testimony from a friend in the Raya region of Tigray, farmers who did not support the Prosperity Party regime would wake up and their harvests would have been destroyed.
With natural food sources being distributed, the reliance on humanitarian aid was large. Local group, Tinsae Tigray was set up in Addis Abeba to try and fill the gap, but when the chairperson, Genet Berhanu tried to reach the people she was arrested and finally released and able to deliver what she had been able to collect in the way of food, medication, blankets, and other items.
In May 2021 CNN reported that the UN confirmed that the military forces are impeding humanitarian access to parts of Tigray. Despite the penal codes very clear directions against treason and collaboration with an enemy, the report found that the Eritrean Army was working with the Ethiopian National Defence Force to prevent aid from entering the region and the act was labelled “aid is being used as a weapon of war.” To quantify this claim of legal breaching from an international standpoint, The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes Extermination as a crime against humanity and this includes the deprivation of access to food. A further article on the International Committee of the Red Cross website looks specifically at how the denial of humanitarian assistance can be seen as a crime under international law. It highlights that many of the aims of blocking assistance in a crisis may be used as a siege to end the hostilities. However, it was assumed, that the Government felt their impunity against international law would withhold the judgement that their motives were only tactical.
In May during the time of the CNN investigation, it would be possible for the international community to assume that the blockade was a tactic being used to cease the hostilities from the federal government. As awful as it is to think, the aim of the seizure to end hostilities could have been seen as a plausible excuse for the Ethiopian National Defence Force. Yet one begs to ask, what if any justification is there for the use of the international partner, the Eritrean Army to be present in an internal matter? If the aim was not to ensure that the ignition of extermination was truly lit and the long-time rival of the once proud nation of Ethiopia, Eritrea was able to have its vengeance, then the courts of Ethiopia in the future should be easily given clear evidence as to why those involved in preaching many of the penal codes many directions was justifiable.
In June 2021, the Tigray Defence force completed one of the most heroic acts of a modern army, they had regained much of their sovereign territory, expelled much of the invading forces and the elected government of the people of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was re-instated in the capital of Mekelle. On the exit of the Ethiopia National Defence Force, they destroyed UNICEF’s office in Mekelle, further adding to the suspicion that the aim of the aid blockade was not to end hostilities with the Tigrayan people but was to cause havoc and starve the people of Tigray by alienating those working to help them. Prior to the office defacing, UNICEF had already warned that over 33,000 children were severely malnourished and faced imminent risk of death. Then the UN announced that 400,000 had crossed the threshold into famine and 1.8million are at the brink of famine. By August the TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda made it clear that the aid was not reaching Tigray despite the Prime Minister claims of a unilateral ceasefire, to help the people of Tigray. He mentioned that entraining to Afar and Amhara region would be required should the deliveries keep being held up. Despite these calls, the aid was still being prevented from entering and then not reaching the people inside Tigray. By October Alex De Waal, a renowned researcher in the horn of Africa phrased the ending of an article with “The question is no longer whether there is famine in Tigray, but how many people will starve to death before it is stopped.”
Additionally, the blatant disrespect for the local and international law has not even protected the aid workers. It is recorded that so far 23 aid workers have been killed in the crisis. The UN supported a joint investigation into war crimes in Tigray, released today and it is now proven that the denial of access to humanitarian relief has been investigated and documented. However, the same Joint investigation completely failed to establish the pattern of deliberate starvation as a weapon of war, the trend is that aid has been blocked, the central government of Ethiopia previously not assisting in locust prevention, the lack of incentive for aid workers to enter Tigray due to fear of death and instead called for more investigation.
I think to myself when the Responsibility to Protect principle was set up by the United Nations, who did they have in mind if it was not designed to ensure such a situation like the 1980’s famine of Tigray cannot happen again. Why is it there in the first place? The evidence is overwhelming, that the prevention of aid access and deliberate destroying of crops and livestock is happening and Tigrayan families are starving to death. If the roads are not clear if the central government is not helping, why is it that the aid cannot be airdropped in more sufficient supply and more frequently than twice so far? And the conclusion I always come to is that the political elite of Ethiopia, do not want the Tigrayan people to survive this assault on their basic human rights. And if the threat to the UN humanitarian air flight in late October does not highlight this to the world. Then what choice does the Tigray Defence force have than to make the safe entry passage on their own grounds and ensure that those acting with impunity are finally brought to justice? As I think it is obvious, the lack of fear for justice is the cause of blockades.