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Humanitarian Crisis in Tigray warrants UNSC Intervention

The use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare and denial of humanitarian access are very serious breaches of IHL so how should the UNSC respond?



Six months into the War on Tigray, credible reports of serious breaches of international law are still coming out. Various reports about the mass atrocities committed in different parts of Tigray indicate that  Ethiopian National Defense forces (ENDF), Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), and militia from the Amhara Region have been extensively involved in the commission of grave international crimes including war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, in what more and more observers are beginning to fear is a systematic genocide. Furthermore, the United Nations has also warned that sexual violence – including gang-rape and sexual enslavement – is being used as a weapon of war in Tigray. In spite of these serious and credible pieces of evidence, the reaction of supra-national organizations including the UN and the AU has remained disappointing and unsatisfactory.

What is even more concerning is that, due to severely restricted humanitarian access, at least 5.2 million people out of 5.7 million in Tigray are now in need of emergency food assistance. The widespread pillage and looting of properties including the burning of crops perpetrated by members of EDF, ENDF, and the Amhara force, has resulted in the displacement of 2.7 million among which more than 70,000 have fled into Sudan. Despite this dire humanitarian situation, for more than six months, access and delivery of humanitarian assistance have been severely and deliberately impeded exposing millions to the risk of famine and hunger so much so people have been forced to eat leaves and seeds to survive. 

After having met several times before without issuing a statement, in late April, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) finally voiced its concern about the alarming humanitarian situation in Tigray for the first time. In that statement, the council made a call, among other things, for a ‘scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access. Unfortunately humanitarian delivery into Tigray has shown no sign of improvement whatsoever in the time since. In fact an exclusive CNN investigation last week disclosed that the Eritrean forces in coordination with Ethiopian forces are blocking humanitarian aid to starving populations. The Eritrean soldiers are manning checkpoints, blocking roads, and threatening medical staff which ultimately exacerbates the humanitarian crisis.  This clearly reveals that starvation as a weapon of war is used by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments. The UN has since confirmed the CNN report and now officially acknowledges the deliberate impediment of humanitarian access in Tigray. UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “blockades by military forces” had severely impeded the ability for assistance to reach rural areas where the humanitarian crisis is worst’. 

Taking into consideration that the Ethiopian government has in no way adduced a valid reason nor military necessity to obstruct the humanitarian assistance and access, we can conclude that Addis Ababa and Asmara have disregarded the call for scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access made by the UNSC and are now using starvation of people as a weapon condemning millions of Tigrayans to death.  The use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare and unlawful denial of humanitarian access are very serious breaches of International Humanitarian Law, so how should the international community – the UNSC in particular – respond?

 How Should the UNSC Respond?

The best response that addresses the urgency of the situation, and one that can save the maximum number of the most vulnerable civilians, is if the UNSC acts according to the landmark resolution nr 2417(2018),  unanimously adopted in 2018 condemning  ‘the starving of civilians as a method of warfare — as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations.´ The adoption of the resolution was a response to the failure of the council to address conflict-induced starvation and mitigate the human toll. And no crisis could be as perfect as Tigray to test this resolution in practice.

Accordingly, as a part of its traditional and primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security, the council is mandated to address conflict-induced food insecurity including famine because starvation as a tool of warfare – a war crime – is a threat to international peace and security. To compel parties to the conflict to ensure unfettered humanitarian access and to stop the use of starvation as a means of warfare, the resolution licensed the Council to consider all tools available to it.

With respect to the Tigray Crisis, a knotty problem involving multiple actors and one which has put 5.2 million people at risk of starvation by World Food Programme estimation – the council may consider two important measures.

The first measure is applying sanctions. The council is empowered to adopt sanction measures that can be applied to individuals or entities responsible for obstructing or blocking the delivery and distribution of humanitarian assistance. In line with the existing practice, the council may enforce various sanction schemes such as arms embargoes, travel bans, and financial restrictions against Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities. It may also include assets freeze against military commanders and political leaders which would be implemented by member states. 

Sanctions, however, are insufficient for the crisis in Tigray for two reasons. First, the efficacy of the previous sanction imposed on Eritrea in 2009 and 2011 for its destabilizing role in the Horn of Africa has been widely questioned. Second, the dominant role of Eritrea in the conflict, to the extent that they seem unwilling to comply with requests even from the Ethiopian government/military renders the sanction on Ethiopian powerless for they are incapable of ensuring unhindered humanitarian access without Eritrea agreeing to do the same.

Therefore, the Security Council should seriously consider a comprehensive strategy as a part of maintaining peace and security but also as a means of ensuring safe, timely and unimpeded humanitarian access. The deployment ,therefore, of a UN peacekeeping force in Tigray is a second measure that can be applied by the UNSC in adddition to or alongside the sanction measures to save millions of lives.

Finally, the engagement of the UNSC on the Tigray crisis should be conducted with appropriate consideration of long-term and sustained political solutions such as facilitating and promoting the cessation of hostilities and encouraging a means of resolving disputes peacefully.

Yonas Aregawi is PhD candidate at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. Formerly, he was a lecturer at the school of law of Dire Dawa University.

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