By Teklehaymanot Weldemichael and Meron Gebreananaye
Last week marked the first anniversary of the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Pretoria, South Africa.
Marking this date, the Secretary of State of the United States of America, Anthony Blinken, yesterday issued a statement, stating:
“One year ago, the Government of Ethiopia and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front officially ended a war that killed hundreds of thousands. Today, we remember those who lost their lives and recommit to our partnership with the people of Ethiopia.”
Hanna Tetteh, the UN Under Secretary General and Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa also posted on X:
“The first anniversary of the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that brought an end to the conflict that ravaged Northern Ethiopia is an important milestone and the Federal Government and the TPLF as signatory parties are commended for the steps taken to consolidate peace.”
A common assumption reflected in these statements is that the agreement has stopped the war. This assumption, however, is wrong and deeply troubling. It arises from either a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the crisis confronting the Tigrayan people or a deliberate choice to move past the reality in Tigray and rehabilitate the Ethiopian government and other actors as quickly as possible. In the first instance, international observers have persistently attempted to relegate the war in Tigray to a traditional civil conflict. However, as revealed by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), the nature and scope of the grave atrocity crimes committed in Tigray, including androcide, industrial scale of rape and sexual violence accompanied by attempts to render women infertile, as well as ethnic-based targeting and attacks against Tigrayans across Ethiopia, all indicate a complex and multi-layered conflict characterized by genocidal intent. Unfortunately, the ICHREE was not allowed to continue its investigation or given the mandate to make this determination.
The second option is reflective of the reluctance of international actors to assume a meaningful and sustained stance to address the violations of international law and human rights in Tigray since the beginning of the war three years ago. Secretary Blinken’s statement, in which he affirmed the desire to “recommit our partnership with the people of Ethiopia”, notably lends support to the belief that the international community wishes to draw the curtain on Tigray and move on as quickly as possible regardless of the situation on the ground.
Unfortunately, for the people of Tigray, the war is still ongoing and there seems to be no end in sight. The real situation in Tigray one year after the signing of the agreement is one of ongoing violence, extreme deprivation, and little expectation of justice for the victims of atrocity crimes. Let us look a bit more closely at this reality.
Violence of different forms continues
At the time of writing, about 40% of Tigray remains “hard to access” as it is still under occupation by ethnic Amhara militia (Western and Southern Tigray) and Eritrean forces (large parts of Northwestern and Eastern Tigray). This contravenes the explicitly outlined provisions within the agreement, which unequivocally mandate the immediate withdrawal from Tigray of all forces, other than the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. The occupied territories are currently fully inaccessible, including to humanitarian agencies. Investigations by international human rights organizations have revealed that these forces continue to perpetrate more acts of violence such as killings, rape and sexual abuses, and forced evictions of ethnic Tigrayans, as underscored by Human Rights Watch:
In Western Tigray, which remains largely inaccessible to humanitarian agencies, the authorities and Amhara regional forces and militias known as Fano have continued an ethnic cleansing campaign and forcibly expelled Tigrayans.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees unable to return
Millions of Tigrayans have been displaced following the onset of the war. In Western Tigray, in particular, over 1.2 million people were forcibly evicted as part of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. Others fled the brutal scorched-earth tactics deployed during the war. Last month, the Health Cluster of the humanitarian agencies in Tigray reported that there were 1,021,798 internally displaced people in 643 sites across the Tigray region.
Despite the commitment in the agreement to facilitating the return of IDPs to their homes and properties, these people remain in extremely basic temporary shelters inadequate to meet the seasons with little to no humanitarian support.
Similarly, Tigrayan refugees who fled to Sudan following the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray remain in remote camps in eastern Sudan amidst the devastating war. They are unable to return to their homes in Western Tigray as the area remains under occupation even as millions of Sudanese are themselves fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Continuing humanitarian crisis
With over million IDPs remaining in camps across a region where nearly every social and economic infrastructure has been destroyed and looted, and access to humanitarian assistance is very limited, Tigray remains one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Although the Ethiopian government has ostensibly ended the total siege it imposed before the signing of the agreement, there remain significant restrictions and limitations which continue to undermine any efforts at rehabilitating all sectors including health care, commerce, and education. The entire region is still under what Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, a Tigrayan scholar based in Mekelle, called a “micro-managed siege”. To date, large parts of Tigray remain under famine and famine-like conditions with people reported to be dying from starvation. The two largest humanitarian organisations operating in Tigray, USAID and World Food Program, simultaneously ceased aid distribution since March 2023 in response to alleged government corruption. This move victimized the most vulnerable and deepened the humanitarian crisis without necessarily offering a resolution.
Diminished hope of justice and accountability
The scale and extent of what happened in Tigray remains unknown. All efforts to document and investigate the crimes and violations of human rights and international laws have been consistently derailed by the Ethiopian government, which has refused to allow access to international investigators. Despite these efforts to derail accountability, remote investigations conducted by diverse international entities, including the ICHREE and the United States Department of State, have established that the violations committed in Tigray constitute crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes. The ICHREE team, in particular, argued that they needed more time and access to the ground to determine whether genocide had been committed.
Genocide does not end with the signing of a cessation of hostilities
People who closely followed the war and humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray were initially cautiously optimistic that the agreement would facilitate a sustainable process for peace and normalisation in Tigray. As we have briefly attempted to argue above, however, this has been far from the case. On the contrary, the agreement is consistently deployed as an excuse for international actors to ‘move on’ from Tigray and for the Ethiopian government to prevent proper investigation. This was most significantly demonstrated in the decision of the UN Human Rights Council to allow the mandate of the ICHREE to end.
The grim reality is that genocide, or even civil conflict, entrenched in complex political and societal realities is not ended by affixing signatures to an agreement to cease hostilities. No doubt the agreement could have been a credible beginning to a long process of restoring peace through justice, accountability, reconciliation, and reconstruction. Unfortunately, however, the last year has seen little desire to facilitate this process.
Instead, we continue to hear simplistic and, for victims of ongoing violence, painfully farcical, assertions such as those articulated in the statements from Secretary Blinken and Hanna Tetteh. The anniversary of the agreement brings with it much of the same for the people of Tigray. The war goes on for those Tigrayans who remain under brutal occupation. The war has not ended for the Irob and Kunama ethnic minority communities who are being brutalised under Eritrean occupation. It has not ended for the over 1.2 million IDPs living in hell-like conditions all over Tigray and the tens of thousands of Tigrayan refugees in war-torn Sudan.
Tekehaymanot G. Weldemichel is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. His research works broadly focus on state violence, land governance, environmental policies and politics, and the discourses of sustainable development.
Meron Gebreananaye has a PhD from the University of Durham, UK, department of Theology and Religion. Her research interests include literary reception, religion, culture, and communication. Meron is an editor and contributor at Tghat. Some of her writings can be found here: Google Scholar, Tghat, African Arguments and World Peace Foundation. She can be contacted via email at MeronGeb@protonmail.com or you can follow her on Twitter: @Meron_Geb.