IIT’S ALMOST a year since Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, launched a “policing” operation against the government of the northern Tigray region, which he accused of rebellion. From the start, the conflict that followed was marked by war crimes. Late last year, in the city of Aksum, for example, Eritrean troops fighting alongside Ethiopian forces murdered hundreds of civilians, mostly men and boys. Some were lined up and shot in the back. Others were shot as they left church or murdered while lying in bed in hospital. And the Tigrayans have been accused, among other atrocities, of raping and killing Eritrean refugees in UN encampments.
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Horrific as these crimes are, they are now overshadowed by an even more heinous crime: a deliberate attempt by the Ethiopian government to starve its own citizens. Since the start of the fighting, Tigray has been subjected to an increasingly restrictive blockade by government forces. Since July, it has received only a fraction of the food it needs to keep its 6 million people alive, virtually no fuel and no medical supplies at all. Over 5 million people don’t have enough to eat. Some 400,000 of them face what aid agencies call “catastrophic” hunger, the last step on the road to massive famine. Aid workers compare the crisis to the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, when 400,000 to 700,000 died.
The Ethiopian government insists that it is doing everything possible to help the hungry in Tigray and, in particular, that it is letting aid pass through its blockade. Data from UN tell a different story.
Aid agencies estimate that 100 trucks of food and medicine must enter the state every day to avoid starvation. Only about a tenth of that amount is being let through by the government and its allies. Instead of asking international agencies for help to feed its citizens, the government is hampering their efforts. He suspended the work of two of them, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and also expelled seven senior officials UN officials, accusing them of “interfering” in its internal affairs.
The United States and the European Union have taken some steps to pressure Ethiopia and the Tigrayans to end the war and abuse, including stopping the sale of arms and suspending some bilateral aid. America has also threatened to impose financial penalties on those implicated in war crimes or in fanning the flames of conflict.
But the impact has been negligible. To replace weapons previously supplied by France, Germany and Israel, Ethiopia has turned to Turkey and Iran, among others. To compensate for the reduction in aid, he asked the IMF for a bailout and its creditors for the cancellation of part of its $ 30 billion in foreign debt.
There should be an arms embargo by the UN to prevent the government from seizing deadly weapons. Yet China and Russia are preventing the UN Security Council, which debated on October 6 for the tenth time the conflict in Tigray, even going so far as to condemn the expulsion of UN officials, let alone by imposing strict penalties.
Fortunately, Western countries still have considerable leverage. The emergency loan Ethiopia wants IMF and the abstention he asks from the creditors depends on the consent of America and Europe. They should not give in until the blockade is over. Trade is another pressure point. Ethiopia exports about $ 250 million a year to America under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a duty-free regime. Each eligible country is reviewed annually by US authorities. They should take Ethiopia off the list unless Tigray gets fed.
These steps may not work. Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a long conflict with Eritrea, seems increasingly paranoid and erratic. But to do anything less would be to sit idly by while mass murders take place. To avoid a calamity, Western governments must pull all the levers at their disposal. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “No Favors For Killers”