The world is standing by, allowing a genocide to unfold in Tigray, Ethiopia. After all the promises of “never again”, there’s a deafening silence over the outrages taking place in one of the west’s “go-to” partners in Africa.
At a recent 24-hour global lobby on the crisis, one of the young Tigrayan presenters broke down on air. The cause was social media footage of yet another massacre. Young Tigrayan men, already gunned down by forces from their own country’s government, were being finished off and having their bodies thrown over cliffs by federal soldiers shouting racial abuse.
Even by the brutal standards of the Tigrayan conflict, it was shocking; matched only by footage circulating the same day of a woman having objects removed from her genitals after being gang raped by soldiers.
There were early warnings that this conflict was of a different order. The Ethiopian government cut communications before sending its troops into Tigray last November and blockaded roads, preventing distribution of humanitarian aid. Yet from the start, stories trickled out through the refugee camps in Sudan. They told of massacres, blockages of the movement of food aid and people, and the razing of buildings, villages and two refugee camps, Hitsats and Shimelba. Over 20,000 refugees completely disappeared.
Three months later one of the most egregious of the massacres at the holy city of Axum has been verified in a report published by Amnesty International at the end of February. Yet the diaspora community had word of the massacre soon after it happened. Hundreds were killed, including a Sunday school class of children, and sacred buildings were destroyed. There’s a powerful video circulating on social media in which the stories of victims are re-enacted.
But Axum is one of many. A diaspora website lists 88 massacres, some of them verified, others not yet. Another shows satellite imagery of destroyed buildings, information confirmed in off-the-record briefings with international agencies.
From elsewhere in Ethiopia and beyond come stories of people with Tigrayan heritage being stripped of their jobs, arrested, imprisoned and attacked. British citizens of Tigrayan origin talk of being subjected to ethnic profiling while visiting relatives in Tigray shortly before the war.
The UN definition of genocide is any of the six specified acts including killing, harming or damaging conditions of life, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.
Most of the acts listed are visible on social media. However, whether or not it’s classified as genocide, action by the international community is long overdue to end the conflict and bring to account those who have permitted such gross violation of human rights.
The big question is why it has taken the world so long to act. So far, the Americans, the European Union and Germany have paused aid; the EU has sent a mission to Mekelle, capital of Tigray; and Joe Biden has talked to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta about the need for action. But for the rest, it’s gone no further than behind-the-scenes phone calls.
Perhaps, it’s in part because the prime culprit in the conflict, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner— ironically, for reaching peace with Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea and his partner in crime in Tigray. But we know from Myanmar that Nobel Peace Prizes don’t guarantee good government in the future.
Perhaps, it’s because of the vested interests at stake. Ethiopia is the lynchpin of western policy in the chronically unstable Horn of Africa region, home of the African Union, major recipient of donor aid— in the UK’s case, the second biggest aid recipient. It’s also a major partner for China which has massively increased its investment in the country.
Certainly, it’s because of the sclerotic voting on the UN Security Council. Whilst all the African nations supported action over Tigray, it was blocked by China, Russia and India.
And then there’s the Covid pandemic that is focusing attention on domestic politics; so trying to get politicians to participate in a global lobby to condemn the unfolding carnage was spectacularly difficult. Labour peers were notable in their willingness to speak out, as was Labour backbencher Clive Lewis MP. Apart from that there were two Conservatives in Canada, a Green in Australia, a socialist MEP and a former Eritrean refugee turned Labour MP in New Zealand, Ibrahim Omer.
The silence is deafening. And it provides cover for genocide.
Sally Keeble is former MP for Northampton North and a former international development minister. Since leaving Parliament, she set up a global development agency for the Anglicans worldwide and has most recently been working with Tigrayan diaspora communities over the unfolding genocide in their homeland. She tweets @Sally_Keeble