Reviews | Tigray conflict reaches tipping point

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One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises has worsened dramatically over the past two months, but has received little attention from the international community. In Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where federal forces are battling regional rebels, renewed fighting has resulted in civilian casualties, the destruction of critical infrastructure and the displacement of tens of thousands of people since August. As peace talks between the Ethiopian government and representatives from Tigray begin this week, it is imperative that regional and world leaders and multilateral institutions push for an immediate cessation of hostilities – and serious and sincere negotiations.

The conflict in Tigray has taken an unimaginable human toll since it first erupted in November 2020. From the start, the war has been marked by brutality and a complete disregard for civilian life. According to an international commission convened by the UN Human Rights Council, there is evidence to suggest that combatants of all stripes have engaged in serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, gang rapes and deliberate starvation. The true scale of the devastation is hard to gauge, thanks to a two-year internet blackout and access restrictions in Tigray. Yet researchers at Ghent University estimate that the war, resulting famine and lack of health services left between 385,000 and 600,000 dead. Millions more have been displaced.

When a humanitarian truce was agreed in March, some hoped it would herald the lifting of the “de facto blockade” imposed by Ethiopia and pave the way for broader peace negotiations. But the fighting resumed in August. In recent weeks, Ethiopian forces have taken control of several key towns in Tigray, including the strategic town of Shire.

The federal offensive was backed by troops from neighboring Eritrea, a longtime enemy of Ethiopia which made peace with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government in 2018 – an act for which Mr Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, those who sang the praises of Mr. Abiy four years ago are sounding the alarm. UN Secretary General António Guterres recently warned that “the situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control”. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization and Tigrayan, went even further, saying that “there is now a very narrow window to prevent genocide” in Tigray.

So far, diplomatic efforts have been inconsistent and uncoordinated. As the war enters a critical period, the international community should step up its engagement. For starters, world leaders should push both sides to negotiate in good faith at the ongoing African Union-led peace talks. They should urge an immediate end to the fighting, the protection of aid workers and the opening of access to the humanitarian aid they desperately need. The United States and its allies have leverage: they could threaten to impose new targeted sanctions on actors who have committed abuses and continue to suspend non-humanitarian assistance until there is progress. With Ethiopia’s economy struggling from the conflict, world powers can also make it clear that debt relief is available, but only if the situation improves.

As fears of atrocities grow and the death toll rises day by day, the world has no excuse to look the other way.

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