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Understanding a 21st Century Genocide: The Case of Tigray



Legal frameworks for Genocide

The United Nation convention in 1948 defined the term genocide as the acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership of a group, not randomly. According to Gregory H. Stanton (1998), the eight stages of genocide are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, polarization, organization, preparation, extermination, and denial. Historically, the world has faced different levels of genocides from the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Rwandan genocide, and the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians.

The Rome Statute (2002) establishes the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court includes the crime of genocide, and the statute adopts the same definition of the offense as found in the genocide convention. Based on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 6) genocide includes killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births and forcibly transferring children of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Under the national legal frameworks, the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Article 28 (1) states that criminal liability of persons who commit crimes against humanity, defined by international agreements ratified by-laws of Ethiopia, such as genocide, summary executions, forcible disappearances or torture shall not be barred by the statute of limitation.

Background to the genocidal war on Tigray

 At the beginning of 2018, the four sister parties making up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition governing Ethiopia at the time, investigated the drawbacks of the regime and concluded that they all bore responsibility for reforms where needed.     Following this, Abiy Ahmed was selected as chairperson of the coalition and consequently prime minister of the state in March 2018.

Almost immediately, however, he started using the 4D tactics (Defining, Defamation, Distinction, and Detaining) setting the course for genocide as follows:

  • The government used documentaries and dehumanizing terms to Define Tigrayan in various public speeches such as  ‘Yeken Jib (Daytime hyena)’, ‘Tigrigna speakers’, ‘Cancers’, ‘weeds’, ‘Greedy Junta’, ‘Leboch’ and ‘Zerafiwoch’ (looters).
  • It  was deliberately propagated that  all corruption, bankrupt and maladministration was associated with the TPLF system and Tigrayans, thus Defaming a political and ethnic group.
  • The government and its allies worked to alienate Tigrayans form other ethnic groups. Other Ethiopians were conditioned to accept any punishment actions on the Tigrayans as legal and normal. For instance, if one Tigrayan is illegally imprisoned, is a victim of atrocity crimes, arbitrarily dismissed from work or had their business license revoked without cause  other Ethiopians presumed the Tigrayan was at fault without any evidence and reasoning.  In other  words, Tigrayans were criminalized simply for being Tigrayan.      
  • While Tigrayans were illegally and unjustly Detained since PM Abiy came to power this increased immeasurably after the onset of the war on Tigray in November 2020, 2020. In October 2021, the state declared a state of emergency, which persecuted Tigrayans. All over the country tens of thousands (from 6 month old infants to 80 year old seniors) were detained and interned in various concentration camps and prisons. The only criterion for detention at this time was being an ethnic Tigrayan. It is important to note that many young people, elites, and Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian security forces have been executed by the government’s security.

The Eight Stages of Tigray Genocide

What happened in the Tigray war and who were the targets of the war? The following is a description of the features of the Tigray genocide using the useful system of understanding the various stages of genocide developed by Gregory H. Stanton (1998).

CLASSIFICATION:  “they”, “us” “them” classifications were widely deployed after PM Abiy Ahmed came to power. Expressions of Tigrayan cultural identity, music and public ceremonies that define the Tigrayan people were either prohibited, restricted, or vilified (particularly for those living outside of the region). Tigrayans were also excluded from all positions of the federal level.

SYMBOLIZATION: For the past three years plus, particularly in the months leading up to the war, the federal government used labels to profile and dehumanize Tigrayans such as yeken Jib (Daytime hyena), ‘Tigrigna speakers’, ‘ant-reform’, ‘weeds’, ‘Greedy Junta’, ‘terrorists’, etc both in official speeches as well as on mainstream and social media. In many federal institutions, Tigrayans were ethnically profiled and either ban from their jobs or even jailed. Moreover, businesses owned by Tigrayans all over the country also faced similar challenges. Thousands of Tigrayan security members and officers were mass arrested, detained, and later executed.

DEHUMANIZATION: The federal and regional media denied the humanity of Tigrayans declaring they were evil. Tigrayans were also equated with ‘animals’ (beasts and hyenas), weeds, and cancer that needs to be removed, as well as being called ‘traitors.’

POLARISATION: The national and regional mainstream media, newspapers, and other social media have been persistently spreading propaganda defaming the Tigrayan people, political leaders and other public figures. Political grievances and intercommunal resentments were stoked to incite communities and to intimidate and silence Tigrayans from exercising their right. 

ORGANIZATION: The Ethiopian state mobilized its national defense force, regional militia, and special forces from all regions, as well as inviting in Eritrean forces, soldiers from the Republic of Somalia. The regime also solicited and obtained military drones and other armaments from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran to attack Tigray and Tigrayans in the name of ‘law enforcement. A co-ordinated propaganda campaign aggravated the sense of revenge and genocide over Tigrayan. Meanwhile, the destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites, the looting of artifacts, and the destruction of public institutions were implemented in a systematic manner.

PREPARATION: All over the country, the government ordered security to use ID cards to identify Tigrayans who were subsequently detained, tortured, and killed extrajudicially. These acts were hidden under euphemisms like ‘law enforcement, ‘crime prevention, ‘counter-terrorism, etc. Tigrayan homes were searched and property looted by security officials under the guise of a ‘security order’

EXTERMINATION: According to well-documented investigations by international human rights organizations and media reports civilians were the victims of mass killings and executions conducted by the Ethiopian national defense forces, Eritrean defense forces, Amhara militias, and Somali soldiers with at least 126 known massacre sites. This includes only sites currently under the control of Tigray Defense Forces. Eritrean and Ethiopian war prisoners confirmed that they were ordered to kill all Tigryans above 10 years. Families were not allowed to bury the bodies or mourn loved ones. Bodies were left out in the open to be eaten by animals and thrown over cliffs or into rivers in an effort to dehumanize them further and to traumatize survivors more. Farmers’ crops, food stores, and animal fodders were looted or destroyed and livestock killed to deliberately orchestrate starvation. The former envoy to European Union Pekka Haavisto points out that both Ethiopian and Eritrean higher officials are planning to ‘wipe out’ and push Tigrayans ‘back to 100 years.’

DENIAL: Weeks in to the War on Tigray, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia claimed in an address to the House of Representatives that ‘Not even a single civilian was killed because of the war in Tigray’. However, thousands has been killed by then either individually or in mass killings. example mass killing in the holy city Axum, Mariam dengelat, Adigrat, Mahbere-Dego, Debre-Abay etc. Second, the government denied the participation of external forces in the war but this was immediately contradicted by fact-checkers and later the government had to admit the involvement of Eritrean troops. Third, the government stated, ‘there was no displacement because of the war’. However, there is internal displacement (>1.2 million people) and external displacement to Sudan (around 100, 0000 people) most of them were women, elders, and children. Fourth, the government declared that ‘there is no famine in Tigray and the community has sufficient access and aid’. However, mothers, children, and elders are dying of the food shortage and medications. International aid and media have been denied and prevented to enter the region many times. 

Specific and Extraordinary Features of Tigray Genocide

Hate Rhetoric: speeches and dangerous rhetoric has been forwarded from different governmental bodies on the Tigrayan. Special Advisor to PM Abiy Daniel Kibret said:

They should be erased and disappear from historical records. A person who wants to study them should find nothing about them. Maybe he can find out about them by digging in the ground. Anything thatcommemorates them should disappear.

Daniel Kibret

He also added: “As you know, after the fall of Satan, there was nothing like Satan that was created… Satan was the last of his kind. And they (the TPLF) must also remain the last of their kind”. This is dangerous rhetoric, which might be the final plan/step to annihilate Tigrayans not only from their social base but also from history and everybody’s mind for once and forever.

Timing: The war waged in Tigray was well designed and timed carefully. First, the war was declared during the crop harvest season. This was intentionally orchestrated to create deliberate starvation. Secondly, on November 3, 2020, the presidential election was scheduled in the United State of America. In another word, the genocidal war was started in the shadow of the USA election.

Distorting Information and humanitarian blockage: Regional media that confront the government, including Tigray TV, Dimtsi Weyane Tigray, and Oromo Media Network were banned from satellite as soon as the war was underway. Thus, the only information came from media owned and controlled by the federal government. These platforms disseminated, misinformation and disinformation as well as rhetoric inciting war and violence.  For instance, the Tigrayan massacre committed in Mai-Khadara by the Amhara militia, vigilant Fano groups, and Ethiopian defense force were reported inversely and the government did not allow for independent investigations. Subsequently, many Tigrayans were attacked in retribution and large-scale ethnic cleansing was implemented in the entire region. 

Weaponized Starvation: According to the WFP report in January 2022, above 40% of people of Tigray are suffering an extreme lack of food. Currently, about 83% of Tigrayan are food insecure. However, the blockage/siege and war in the region are continuing. According to Hagos Godefay (2022) report, which is the head of the Tigray Regional Health Bureau, 90% of the Tigray health infrastructure are destructed and require 20 years for their restoration. If the siege is continued, there is no doubt that the number of deaths will increase exponentially and the living conditions will worsen. This means the genocide will be ongoing, indefinitely.

In general, since the war was declared in Tigray, the central government and its ally forces are terrorizing the civilians and committed dreadful indiscriminate drone/air attacks on the peoples of Tigray and public infrastructures. All the genocide parameters including classification, symbolization, dehumanization, polarization, organization, preparation, extermination, and denial have been observed in the Tigray war and continue. Besides the above genocide characteristics and stages, the Ethiopian government has used timing, alliances for revenge, Humanitarian blockade, and information distorting as an advantage to commit the Tigray genocide.

The commitment by the United Nations Human Rights Council on December 18, 2021, to conduct an independent investigation on the crime committed in Tigray is a positive step toward properly identifying and ensuring accountability for the Tigray genocide. Hopefully, this will bring genociders in front of justice and ensure steps are taken to mitigate current and future atrocities. Even with this mechanism in place, I underscore the need for the international community and other concerned bodies to show more initiative to end and investigate the Tigray genocide.

Girmay (PhD) is an academic and researcher that for now wants to use this name for safety reasons.

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  1. Fuked

    March 26, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    Some really solid work here– best to draw parallels from other genocides and compare and contrast. Once the block-aid ceases and the portals of communication open– the whole world will be once again screaming “never again” and meanwhile 500 days of international denial will be the legacy they have to live with. God bless you Girmay for a great read, I will be discussing this in my anthropology and human rights courses (again) this week.

    In Solidarity,

    Eric Montgomery, PhD
    Michigan State University

  2. Eric

    March 21, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    Some really solid work here– best to draw parallels from other genocides and compare and contrast. Once the block-aid ceases and the portals of communication open– the whole world will be once again screaming “never again” and meanwhile 500 days of international denial will be the legacy they have to live with. God bless you Girmay for a great read, I will be discussing this in my anthropology and human rights courses (again) this week.

    In Solidarity,

    Eric Montgomery, PhD
    Michigan State University

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