This article is apart of a continuing series regarding interviews, research, and analysis highlighting the Humanitarian-related events in the war-torn nation Ethiopia and the surrounding region.
Over the last four years, Tigray has faced one of the worst humanitarian crises of the decade. It has received comparatively little news coverage, and sparse support from the international community at large. In light of the recent closing of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), we have interviewed two Human Rights advocacy groups concerned with the wellbeing of Tigrayans at length, namely Legacy Tigray, and Omna Tigray for their thoughts on the conflict, the Ethiopian government, and their hopes for the future. Given the length and detail of these interviews, we intend to release a series of articles detailing our discussions.
Fundamental to any proficient level of understanding of the Tigray War should be underpinned by at least a basic understanding of the ICHREE, and as such, will be provided. In late 2021, “the Human Rights Council established an international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia”, composed of three experts and appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council. It has been extended once, to the current date and now has been concluded. The ICHREE’s mandate states that it should “conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law and international refugee law in Ethiopia committed since 3 November 2020 by all parties to the conflict, including the possible gender dimensions of such violations and abuses”. Given the continued assault on human rights in Ethiopia, as reported by the ICHREE, the committee recommended its own extension, to “ensure continued international scrutiny and independent investigations into past and ongoing violations in Ethiopia”.
Omna Tigray, Yikuno and Meaza Gebremedhin:
Meaza Gebremedhin is from Tigray. Currently, she resides in the U.S. and arrived in 2019–She did so to pursue a master’s degree in International Relations with the hopes of one day returning and working in Ethiopia. In 2020, the Tigray War began, and Gebremedhin’s home was destroyed, leaving her and many others stranded outside of their home country. Following the beginning of the war, a number of professionals within the diaspora community came together to found Omna Tigray–their mission was, and continues to be, to advocate for an end to the conflict in Tigray, to appeal for humanitarian aid, and to bring about peace and stability in the Horn of Africa. Gebremedhin herself also has a background working as a proponent for women’s rights in Ethiopia prior to the war. Her work with Yikono was pioneering, and helped to facilitate the independence of women in Ethiopia. Yikono raised awareness and education regarding menstrual health, gender-based violence, financial literacy, the starting of small businesses, and the potential difficulties that come alongside early marriage.
Omna Tigray believes that what has occurred during the Tigray War equates to essentially a “state-sponsored genocide”, which has been carried out jointly by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Their hopes were that once ICHREE was established in 2021, the members would have access to Tigray, which at the time was severely limited, and that there may be some recommendation made to the International Criminal Court (ICC). While this would have undoubtedly applied pressure on the Ethiopian government, it is worth noting that Ethiopia is not subject to the Rome Statute of the ICC, the statute which includes crimes against humanity. This is because Ethiopia is not a signatory. In any case, the Ethiopian government denied access to UN experts for investigation at that time.
It was expected that given the continued occupation of Tigray by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, the continued lack of access to medical care, sanitation, food, and continued acts of sexual violence that the mandate for ICHREE would be extended. Instead it was concluded today, October 4th. To Gebremedhin, this is yet another reminder that “human rights don’t really matter when geopolitical interests are at the frontline of policymaking.”
An excerpt from the Interview:
Q: The international community seems to believe that the war in Tigray is ‘over’–regardless of the suffering that is experienced in Tigray now. Could you expand on what you believe the threats are now that are posed to Tigrayans in the country, and if they differ from the threats that were experienced during the war?
A: I think to answer that question it’s important to understand what really transpired in November 2020. Why was there a full blown genocidal war between the people of Tigray and the federal government? I understand the official narrative from the Ethiopian government was that it was a law and order operation–just the same as what Putin says about the invasion of Ukraine. In my professional understanding, as a person who studies political science: the fundamental reason has a basis in conflicting ideas about the state-building process–or what Ethiopia should look like. For the people of Tigray, and many other ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the country should be a state that recognises the difference its people have. Not only recognises it, but celebrates it.But the federal government wants to have a unitary state, a state that doesn’t necessarily celebrate the differences people have, but seeks to take power from each and every nation and nationality and impose one monolithic identity on every Ethiopian citizen, including the people of Tigray. But the constitution does grant nations and nationalities in the country the right to self administration under article 39, and the right to self-cessation if they see fit. So when these two very different political visions of Ethiopia going forward came together, that’s when the conflict began.
Note: Gebremedhin goes on to explain that the sort of military action seen in Tigray was not seen in Tigray first, but across the Ogaden, targeting Somali Ethiopians, and then in Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia, where cultures with strong national identities but weak political connections or conflicting desires were stamped out. Citizens were denied connection to the internet while simultaneously being attacked by drones and helicopters.
A (Continued): So the next target was Tigray. Tigray historically has held its right to self-determination very seriously, because it is a right that historically, Tigray has paid the ultimate price for. At the core of this conflict, is the government’s intent to centralise power and disenfranchise regions, and to ensure these regions struggle to exercise their language, their culture, and other things that make them who they are. So when they came to Tigray there were clear messages as to what was going to follow if the people of Tigray continued to insist on their democratic and fundamental rights of self-determination and self-administration. . . . In September 2020, Ethiopia was supposed to have its federal and regional government elections, but like so many other undemocratic governments across the world, Abiy used COVID as an excuse to further erode democracy and extend his stay in power. Tigray still chose to hold their local elections, and we’re going to take precautionary measures so COVID doesn’t spread, but we will have a local government, mandated by the constitution. After that is when the conflict began. The fundamental political reasons for the conflict haven’t changed. The federal government still wants their unitary government, and the Tigrayans still want their right to self-determination and self-autonomy to be respected–which is why the suffering of the people remains the same, on the ground.
Q: On the point of the difference between the unitary state and the federal state, what do you think the future of Tigray will be like under the central government, assuming that they continue to pursue the unitary state?
A: The future is quite clear, because we’re already seeing it. There will be further disenfranchisement in Tigray as a region, the scramble for Tigray will continue–with significant portions of Tigray still being under the illegal occupation of Eritrean and Amharan forces. The people of Tigray, over 2.5 million of them have been internally displaced. You have millions of people who have been removed from their ancestral lands from Southern, Eastern, and Western Tigray and are currently in IDP (Internally Displaced People) centres in Mekelle, and have no representation whatsoever at the federal level. So decisions are being taken for us by others, and Tigray is still undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises, exacerbated by the conflict, because the federal government weaponised food and medical aid against the people of Tigray. So Tigray’s future under the federal government is bleak, it’s extremely dark.
A Developing Political Situation:
Ahmed’s government will undoubtedly continue to pursue a policy of centralisation, and with the EU pledging a $680m aid package to Ethiopia, it looks likely that Western governments will seek to normalise their diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia. However, it is still a developing political situation. Grassroots diaspora-led activist groups like Omna Tigray and Legacy Tigray will continue mobilising their communities in an attempt to hold the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to account for their transgressions against human rights, and there are still hopes that through a UN framework some semblance of justice might yet be accomplished, alongside the restoration of Tigray’s political rights as afforded by the Ethiopian constitution.
The world proved that it could take meaningful steps towards restorative justice vis-a-vis a UN framework in 1994, when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created. Unfortunately, as Gebremedhin accurately pointed out during our interview, “It all boils down to a lack of political commitment.” The people of Tigray, including Omna Tigray and Legacy Tigray have supported again and again the use of an independent committee to hold all parties responsible in the pursuit of justice. Meanwhile, the ICHREE has today come to a close, having not been drafted a continuation by any country. It has failed to be granted a continuation in spite of pleas from diaspora-run advocacy groups like Omna Tigray and Legacy Tigray, as well as pleas from global organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Meanwhile, the victims of this war are left to pick up the pieces of broken lives, while those capable members of the diaspora urge the world to take a stand.
There is hope for Tigray’s future. A hope inspired by self-determination, and a hope inspired by justice. These hopes are held in spite of an increasing culture of impunity held by various leaders across the world–and it is against those odds, that there is still a declaration by the victims of war that human rights must be upheld.