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Ethiopia: Looming famine in Tigray is the making of ‘starvation crimes’ says report by WPF

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 9 April 2021 16:52

People displaced by the recent conflict gather around water points provided by the International Rescue Committee at a makeshift camp for the displaced in Embadanso school in Shire, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (International Rescue Committee via AP)

Without an end to the fighting in Tigray, its people will face starvation more devastating than the “biblical famine” that tore through the region in the 1980s, according to a heavily-detailed survey by researchers from the US-based World Peace Foundation.

They report, in graphic detail, on the systematic destruction of farms and factories across the Tigray region, targeting civilians directly, far beyond what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has called a “law enforcement” operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regional government last November.

If the current offensive continues, led by Ethiopian federal troops and Eritrean forces against the remnants of the ousted TPLF, at least 4.5 million people will face deadly shortages of food, medicine and water, Alex de Waal, executive director of the WPF tells The Africa Report.

LISTEN Famine in Tigray: ‘I have never documented anything as relentless & systematic as what we’re seeing

“Over the next six weeks to two months, it’s essential that the majority of the Tigrayan people who are small holder farmers are able to cultivate, because the rains come in June and in the month or so before the rains it’s important that they prepare the fields and plough,” says de Waal.

No end in sight

We have multiple reports of soldiers, Eritrean and Ethiopians, going to villages, slaughtering farm animals, especially oxen essential for ploughing.

Reports this week from UN officials, international aid organisations and journalists say that there are no signs the war against the TPLF is ending. Quite the reverse, according to De Waal.

“We are seeing the Ethio-Eritrean Alliance, the coalition of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his federal forces and President Isaias Aferwerki, are mobilising more troops, they’re sending more divisions to the front, they’re shopping for arms.”

Regional diplomatic reports concur with that analysis. Official statements from Addis Ababa and Asmara seem to contradict each other. Premier Abiy announced that Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its troops from Ethiopia.

But Eritrea continues to deny, contrary to extensive documentary evidence, that its troops have played any role in the war in Tigray.

Jake Sullivan, the UN’s National Security Advisor, called Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonnen on 7 April on “critical steps to address the crisis, including expanded humanitarian access, cessation of hostilities, departure of foreign troops, and independent investigations into atrocities and human rights violations.”

At the beginning of the week, the US State Department said it was reviewing reports of rights abuses and mass atrocities as it considers policy options. The 78-page dossier on “starvation crimes” released by the WPF this week is likely to be part of that process.

Ethiopian federal forces and Eritrean troops have targeted Tigray’s economy for comprehensive destruction, says De Waal: “The Almeda textile factory in Adwa employed about 8,000 workers until a few months ago … the Eritrean forces took everything they could load onto trucks and then the rest was bombarded with mortars and artillery.”

“We have multiple reports of soldiers, Eritrean and Ethiopians, going to villages, slaughtering farm animals, especially oxen essential for ploughing,” says De Waal. “…they slaughter more than they can eat, killing the animals as punishment. Even down to the levels of — and I’ve heard this on several occasions — of soldiers crushing and killing newborn chicks under the soles of their feet, down to that level of petty, relentless destruction.”

Central to the WPF report, says de Waal is a call for accountability for the systematic destruction of farms and food stocks in Tigray, with the aim of starving the region into submission.

“The most well known starvation crime is destroying food but the definition of a starvation crime in international law is destroying objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population … food, medicine, water and sanitation, maternal care for children … all means of livelihood.”

Dealing with starvation crimes

First, the WPF is calling for a thorough investigation:  “Starvation crimes are war crimes and crimes against humanity, so the fall within the remit of the investigation which is by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.  They would need additional resources and expertise to investigate starvation crimes, but there is no reason why they should not acquire that.”

De Waal says the issue is getting codified into international law.  The UN security council passed  resolution 2417 in May of 2018, focusing on armed conflicts that create hunger and starvation. Then in 2019 there was an amendment to the Rome statute of the international criminal court, outlawing starvation as a war crime in civil conflicts.

Political consciousness about starvation crimes is changing: “ … in the past whenever there was a famine of this type, the aid agencies that were operational didn’t want to speak about the causes of suffering because they knew if they spoke out about atrocities, their safety would be endangered and they might be expelled from the country,” says De Waal.

That could change in the coming weeks. As the crises in Ethiopia multiplies and international attention intensifies on the Tigray war, the risks of widespread starvation will lead to more regional instability just as Abiy Ahmed’s government is set to organise its heavily-contested elections in June.

Growing concerns about Eritrea’s role in the conflict in Tigray could complicate politics ahead of the vote, with rivalries of land, power and resources triggering clashes in Oromia and the Ogaden.

“There is going to be discontent and a backlash. The prospect that the Eritrean war effort, and indeed the Eritrean economy will be financed by resources transferred from Ethiopia. That is not going to go down very well in Ethiopia,” says De Waal.

He continues: “Especially if the economic situation continues to deteriorate and if the Eritreans are deployed more widely in the country … for example, against the Oromo liberation army and possibly elsewhere.”

Replay of the 1980s war

De Waal, the author of several books on the political economy of war, says the current onslaught against Tigray is in some ways a replay of the 1980s war in Ethiopia when Haile Menhistu Mariam’s Derg regime tried to starve the guerrilla forces, including the TPLF, into submission.

Over a million people died in that famine in 1984 which drew worldwide attention to the country. After Menghistu was chased from power in 1991, the new government organised an economic and political restructuring, devolving power and resources to the regions.

That boosted farm production across the country, creating a food reserve. When Ethiopia faced a devastating drought in 2015, the government had the stocks to get food to 11 million hungry people within a couple of months, saving countless lives.

On top of the risk of mass human suffering in the coming months if the Tigray war continues, says De Waal, the impressive national developmental progress in Ethiopia over the last three decades is now in jeopardy.

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