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Rereading Haile Selassie I’s Speech to the League of Nations Considering the Tigray Genocide



By Dr. Charlotte Touati

“There is no example of a government systematically exterminating a people by barbaric means,” Emperor Haile Selassie

On March 21, the Tigrayan community and human rights defenders gathered in front of the Palais des Nations, where the United Nations delegates sit in Geneva, to protest against the threat to the existence of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva.

The UN was born out of the promise “Never Again”, so the demonstrators on Tuesday were only asking for one thing: to make this promise respected, for all.

The place and the circumstances inspired me to make some reflections. 

A qualified genocide based on racial supremacism

For the historian that I am, what has been unfolding in Tigray for the past 2 years is a characterized genocide, in the etymological sense of the Latin word coined from gens “nation” + oc-cidere “to kill”. Abiy Ahmed and Isayas Afeworqi have decided in cold blood to eliminate the entire Tigrayan people following a long-standing plan. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is supposed to protect his citizens, has in fact equipped his country with the strategic, logistical, and legal tools to achieve his ends. Moreover, what is very important to emphasize in characterizing a genocide is the ideology that underlies it, based on racial supremacism. In this case, Abiy Ahmed has turned to the hard-line Amhara nationalists, the nation that has traditionally provided the emperors and subjugated the other nations that make up Ethiopia today. 

If the international community has not been able to stop this ethnic cleansing, it must do justice to the survivors, and for that to happen, an independent investigation must be carried out. This is the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. The maneuvers of the Ethiopian government to stop the work of the commission are illegitimate. A state suspected of war crimes cannot interfere in the process that targets it, it cannot be a judge and a party! If the Human Rights Council bends today before Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia, it opens Pandora’s box. Any regime will be able to block investigations and accountability, it is the end of international justice!

This war has already seen unprecedented violations of IHL. The instrumentalization of humanitarian aid for political purposes and its use as a bargaining chip in the negotiation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement should warn all partners of the Abiy Ahmed government that it is using dirty methods. This is in addition to the fact that he is unreliable, which has been verified time and again. 

The one who presents himself as the seventh king, the new Emperor, should consider that Emperor Haile Selassie was here at the Palais de Nations in Geneva to bring Ethiopia into the League of Nations, the first African country to enter the concer

t of nations in 1923. He was also here to found the UN in 1948 after the disaster of the Second World War. The fight against genocide is inscribed here in the frontispiece of international institutions and in fact Ethiopia was among the first countries to sign the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

A tragic twist of history: the Ethiopian government does what the Emperor came to denounce

Many Ethiopians do not recognize themselves in the King of Kings, who symbolizes for them Amhara imperialism. Ethiopia is the only African country that has not been colonized, but it is itself an empire. But let’s take the ultra-nationalist Amharas at their own game!

On June 30, 1936, Haile Selassie made a speech to the League of Nations asking for help against Italian aggression. Today, those who claim his legacy are themselves committing the same crimes. The emperor formulated his appeal to the West in Amharic, a language that for some years now has become the language of hate speech against the Tigrayans and of the No More movement precisely directed against the West.

Here is the translation of some excerpts that I will put in parallel with the actions of the Ethiopian government and its allies during the Tigray war almost 87 years later. Just reverse the roles, fascist Italy is the government of today and Ethiopia of then is Tigray in the grip of genocide.

The Amhara emperor begins with these words: “It is certainly without example that a people has been the victim of such an iniquity and is abandoned to its aggressor. Nor is there any example of a government systematically exterminating a people by barbarous means, in violation of the most solemn promises. »

The emperor describes then the use of the air force against civilians and the use of unconventional weapons, particularly during the “encirclement of Mekelle”. From the first days of the war in November 2020, the Ethiopian government bombed civilians, including children in a kindergarten, used drones, and spread STIs by using rape as a weapon of war (which can be considered a biological weapon).

Haile Selassie then denounces the duplicity of the Italian government, which signed peace treaties only to divert the international community’s attention (he even speaks of secret agreements) while it was preparing the invasion of Ethiopia. The parallel is striking with the 2018 peace treaty between Abiy Ahmed and Isayas Afeworqi, whose secret clauses included invading Tigray. But the Europeans did not want to see that this was in fact a blood pact and even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed in 2019, a year after the so-called peace agreement. In the face of Western blindness, I can’t help but think of the Honorary Doctorate awarded to Benito Mussolini by the University of Lausanne in 1937, a year after Haile Selassie’s speech. 

The emperor explained Europe’s inaction as follows: “Unfortunately for Ethiopia, this was the time when some governments believed that the European situation demanded to obtain, at all costs, the friendship of Italy.” Today, the political reality benefits the Ethiopian government because it is proven that, in the context of the war in Ukraine, Western heads of state in loss of popularity on the African continent, spare Abiy Ahmed in order to rally Ethiopia against Russia. According to Reuters, the US and the EU have reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government that would lead to the scheduled end of the ICHREE’s mandate.

The end of the ICHREE’s mandate will be the end of international law

Haile Selassie concludes: “I have the duty to tell the governments assembled in Geneva, who are responsible for the lives of millions of men, women and children, of the mortal peril that threatens them, by describing to them the fate that was suffered by Ethiopia […] I have resolved to come myself to bear witness to the crime perpetrated against my people and to give Europe a warning of the destiny that awaits it if it bows against the fait accompli.” 

“I affirm that the problem now before the Assembly is much broader. It is not only the settlement of the Italian aggression: it is collective security; it is the very existence of the League of Nations; it is the trust that each State must place in international treaties […] Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord, there is no nation on earth that is superior to the other.” 

To all this, what can the ultra-nationalists who constantly claim to be the “King of Kings” retort?

In 2023, let us read again: “it is not only the settlement of the ethio-eritrean aggression on Tigray that is at stake, it is collective security; it is the very existence of the UN; it is the trust that each state must place in international treaties and in international humanitarian law.”

In 1936, beyond describing the suffering of the Ethiopians, the dominant idea of the Ethiopian emperor’s speech was to ask for the respect of international rules. If not, if all blows are allowed, then this would jeopardize peace for all nations. And this is what has happened. Europe, indifferent to the Ethiopian drama, suffered the same fate, devastated by fascism and the Second World War. The LN disappeared. The UN was born from its ashes. We must learn from our mistakes and today, if the UN turns a deaf ear to the demands for protection and justice from the Tigrayans, it is not directly a military threat from Ethiopia that lurks, but the disintegration of international law and ultimately of the UN.

The 1936 speech asked: “Faced with a fait accompli, will states set the formidable precedent of bowing to force?” In 2023, will states set the precedent of bowing to the Ethiopian government suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity by renouncing any investigation, thus inaugurating the era of impunity?

Dr. Charlotte Touati is a historian and an affiliate researcher at the University of Lausanne

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  1. Mulugeta

    April 4, 2023 at 8:40 am

    ✍🏾 As many as 600,000 people have died, mainly due to man-made starvation.

    Exactly, so world stand with Justice & humanity.

    Dear @SecBlinken
    ✍🏾 Assure #Justice4Tigray
    ✍🏾 Ensure accountability for #TigrayGenocide

  2. nimintai

    March 29, 2023 at 2:11 am

    Using its sophisticated intelligence gathering system, US Dept. of State has made an official and public determination that war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing have been committed in Tigray. The ICHREE will not be given access to Tigray region, but the committee can rely on the US report, and also on various news accounts of war crimes narrated, for ICHREE to reach the same conclusion in its report as the US has done. Declaring a genocide has been committed In Tigray would require having to refer Abiy and Isaias to the ICC; something Russia, China, and even some African countries most likely will not agree to.
    In the meantime, the US and EU will need to ensure that some of the economic assistance they offer Ethiopia is also used for reconstruction program in Tigray.
    Abiy and his conspiracy with Isaias and the Amharas to wage war on Tigray was an act of betrayal. After the so-called peace with Eritrea, an institute in Germany had given Abiy the Hessian Peace Award in 2019. But because of the war on Tigray and related human rights violations, this peace award was withdrawn in 2021. The Nobel committee has yet to be heard from on its own award that is now tarnished by war atrocities.
    All in all, Abiy has become damaged and diminished in his political image, a stunning descent from peace prize to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  3. Negasi

    March 27, 2023 at 6:57 pm

    It is sad and mockery on humanity; it seems things are in upside down, in 21st century of Sovereignty and international law regimes like PP weird entity in ethiopia, are winning to comit genocide in the dark, then flexing muscle to live in impunity. sUre! Topsy turvy!
    The end of the ICHREE’s mandate will be the end of international law

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