February 16, 2021

The UN Must Intervene in Tigray


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When a state fails to prevent or alleviate atrocities within its territory, or if the state itself is the primary perpetrator of such acts, the UN must not stand idly by. There are five reasons why immediate action by the Security Council regarding Ethiopia’s northern region is necessary.

FLORENCE – In a recent interview, Rwandan President Paul Kagame argued that US President Joe Biden’s new administration and the United Nations Security Council should take the lead in addressing the violence and deprivation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Kagame described the situation there as worrying, and said the death toll was too high for the conflict to be left only to Ethiopia or the African Union to manage. As the president of a country that is still dealing with the consequences of the 1994 genocide against its Tutsi population, Kagame speaks with considerable authority here, and deserves to be heard.1

There are five reasons why immediate action by the Security Council regarding Tigray is necessary.

First, the likely presence of Eritrean armed forces in Tigray makes the war both a civil and international conflict, and hence within the UN’s remit. Eritrean troops have been implicated in killings and in the forcible return of Eritrean refugees, including through the burning of the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps. Some 15,000-20,000 Eritrean refugees are missing, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Second, the Tigray region is now facing a possible famine, with 2.3 million people in need of emergency aid. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 4.5 million people – 67% of the region’s population – need assistance. Ethiopian federal government forces are said to be obstructing access to aid and clean water. There are also reports of the deliberate destruction of UN food stores and markets.

Third, with up to two million people now internally displaced, Tigray poses a significant burden on the world’s humanitarian resources at a time when the need for them in East Africa has never been higher, owing to COVID-19, locust infestation, and food insecurity. The Ethiopian government’s apparent unwillingness to allow the international community to provide rapid, unconditional, unfettered, and sustained humanitarian access to all parts of Tigray has worsened a dire situation.

Fourth, some UN reports and those of other organizations in Tigray point to possible grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other aspects of international humanitarian law that prohibit starvation of civilians and collective punishment. There are also reports of what may constitute state-led ethnic cleansing and genocide, as well as a “high number of alleged rapes.” Tens of thousands of Tigrayans serving in Ethiopia’s peacekeeping, security, military, police, and intelligence spheres have been dismissed from their jobs and sometimes detained.

Ethiopian forces from peacekeeping missions in Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan seems almost certain to increase instability. In particular, Ethiopian troops’ departure from Somalia, where the AU has conducted its AMISOM peacekeeping mission, could create an opening for the al-Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab to stage a comeback in that country.

When a state fails to prevent or alleviate atrocities within its territory (such as genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes), or if the state itself is the primary perpetrator of such acts, the UN must not stand idly by. After all, only the Security Council can successfully challenge a government’s deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid.

For these reasons, the Security Council must address the situation in Tigray immediately. It should adopt a resolution aimed at alleviating the suffering in the region through determined international action, and at convincing the Ethiopian government to restore peace there.

Concretely, the resolution should establish a monitoring and verification commission with a mandate to negotiate, observe, monitor, verify, and report on conditions in Tigray. The goals should be the immediate and definitive cessation of hostilities; rapid, unconditional, unfettered, and sustained distribution of aid to all parts of Tigray; the complete withdrawal of any and all external armed forces and groups; and a ceasefire agreement that can lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Tigray.

Ethiopia’s government says that it is ready to work with the international community to ease the suffering in Tigray. That promise must now be put to the test.

Mehari Taddele Maru is an adjunct professor at the Migration Policy Center of the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies and Academic Coordinator of the Young African Leaders Program at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance.

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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