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Mass Atrocities in Tigray: Australia Needs to do More

22 Nov 2022
By Dr Deborah Mayersen
Internally displaced people in Shire Tigray April 2021. Source: Rastakwere /

A Genocide Emergency Alert has been called for the conflict in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. Australia must stand at the forefront of collaboration in stopping atrocities.

For two years now, the situation in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, has been dire. In November 2020, conflict erupted due to an escalating power struggle between central and regional authorities. A brutal civil war resulted, involving the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF), the Eritrean Defence Force (EDF), and Amharan militia. The conflict intensified in August, after a fragile ceasefire failed, leading to widespread alarm. Under international pressure, Ethiopian and Tigrayan forces signed a peace deal on 2 November 2022. However, this is just the latest in a string of ceasefire and truce agreements which have repeatedly been violated. While it is a promising sign, there is every possibility that without continued international pressure and close observance, this latest agreement might also be breached. Now is a critical time for the people of Tigray.

The impact of the crisis on civilians has been devastating. Amnesty International and the UN have documented widespread sexual violence committed by the ENDF, EDF, and other forces aligned to the Ethiopian government. Hundreds of massacres and summary executions have been documented, predominantly committed by forces associated with the Ethiopian government, although all sides have committed atrocities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also documented widespread crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed against Tigrayans in Western Tigray. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced due to the crisis, in what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as “ethnic cleansing.”

The conflict has led to a severe human-induced famine in Tigray. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have deliberately destroyed farming infrastructure and killed or confiscated livestock. Most concerningly, in mid-2021, the Ethiopian government imposed a blockade on the region. Since then, only a small fraction of the required humanitarian assistance has reached Tigray. Convoys of vital food, medicines, and other critical supplies have been prevented from reaching the Tigrayan people. The World Food Programme has estimated that 5.2 million Tigrayans are currently experiencing severe hunger. It is estimated that more than 230,000 Tigrayans have already died as a result of the famine, with some estimates placing the figure at 350,000. While the current peace agreement promises unfettered humanitarian access to the region, reports so far have been mixed.

Over a year ago now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum advised that there was a significant risk of genocide in Tigray, with

reports of massacres and other targeted killings of Tigrayan civilians, dehumanization, and hate speech—amplified on social media—encouraging violence against members of the group, mass arrests and arbitrary detention, and possible collective punishment in the form of a human-made famine in the Tigray region.

Genocide Watch declared a “Genocide Emergency Alert” in response to the Ethiopian government’s persecution of the Tigrayan people. My own research indicates that there is a strong prima facie case that the Ethiopian government’s extended blockade of Tigray, preventing most humanitarian aid from reaching the region, constitutes genocide. Late last year, the United States government halted an investigation to determine if genocide was underway in Tigray, in order pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict. That such an investigation was on the table, however, highlights the seriousness of the situation.

Irrespective of the precise term employed, there is no doubt that mass atrocities have occurred, and are continuing to occur, in Tigray. The international response to these atrocities has failed to reflect the severity and magnitude of the crisis. In 2021, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission conducted a joint investigation, however, the final report has been widely criticised for its lack of impartiality. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is an Ethiopian government body, responsible to the same government that has been accused of committing many of the atrocities. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has failed to adopt a single resolution on the crisis. In early 2021, an attempt to pass a resolution calling for the “immediate cessation of hostilities” had to be abandoned after India, China, and Russia objected on the grounds that it constituted interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. Last month, as the crisis escalated, UN Secretary General António Guterres remarked: “The situation in Ethiopia is spiralling out of control. The social fabric is being ripped apart, and civilians are paying a horrific price.” Even then, the Security Council was unable to agree on so much as issuing a statement on the situation.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is from Tigray, has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the poor international response to the crisis. Last month he commented, “There’s no other situation globally in which six million people have been kept under siege for almost two years,” noting further there was only “a very narrow window now to prevent genocide.” Earlier this year, reflecting on the paucity of attention given to the Ethiopian crisis compared to that in Ukraine, he remarked: “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way,” he said. “Some are more equal than others.”

What can Australia do?

Australia has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and the responsibility to protect through a stronger policy response to the crisis in Tigray. First, the Albanese government needs to make a strong statement condemning the mass atrocities in Tigray. It must condemn the role of the Ethiopian government and allied forces in perpetrating crimes against humanity and war crimes. It can also call upon the Ethiopian government to allow immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, in accordance with the peace agreement. The Australian government would also be well placed to communicate this statement directly to the Ethiopian government.

The current crisis also demands a greater humanitarian response from the Australian government. To date, Australia has donated $6 million in humanitarian assistance to the World Food Programme in response to the famine in Tigray. It has also provided $15million in assistance to the broader hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa. While welcome, this is just a tiny fraction of what is needed. It also contrasts markedly with the $65 million in humanitarian assistance (and over half a billion of total assistance) given in response to the crisis in Ukraine.  In the last week, the World Food Programme has successfully delivered humanitarian aid to Tigray for the first time in months. Nonetheless, the situation remains catastrophic, with a “staggering” level of need in the region, according to Guterres. Australia needs to assist the international community to take advantage of the current access to the region by providing substantial humanitarian assistance for the hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans currently facing starvation. The scale of the crisis demands a humanitarian response commensurate with that of the crisis in Ukraine.

Finally, in recognition of the mass atrocities in Tigray, Australia needs to include within its refugee intake a dedicated allowance for refugees from Tigray. These might also include ethnic Tigrayans who have been unable to return home from overseas since the outbreak of the crisis two years ago. Many of these are international students who have now finished their degrees but cannot return to Tigray for fear of persecution. These educated young people could make a valuable contribution to the Australian economy.

Deborah Mayersen is a Senior Lecturer in International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Deborah’s research expertise is in the field of genocide studies, including the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and genocide prevention. Her publications include On the Path to Genocide: Armenia and Rwanda Reexamined (Berghahn Books, 2014), and the edited volume A Cultural History of Genocide in the Modern World (Bloomsbury, 2021).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.