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To End the Genocide Tigray Needs to Take Things Into Its Own Hands



Genocides were so ubiquitous in the 20th century, that it has been referred to as the “age of genocide.” In this era which saw unprecedented mass murders including more than 40 genocides claiming the lives of 200 million children, men, and women, Polish lawyer Rafael Lemkin (who coined the term genocide) said:

Genocide is so easy to commit because people don’t want to believe it until after it happens.

Rafael Lemkin

Despite the repeated “Never Again” promise of the international community, the 21st century has not escaped the scourge of genocides – Darfuris, Rohingyas, Yazidis, Uyghurs, and now Tigrayans have become the latest victims to be added to the annals of mass murders. 

Tigray Genocide – Genesis, Cause and How To End It 

Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide states that: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a)Killing members of the group; (b)Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c)Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d)Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e)Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The Tigray Genocide and “Intent to Destroy”

Since the start of the Tigray war in November 2020, half a million people have died of violence, starvation, and lack of health care. According to research by the University of Gent, as many as 100,000 people died from direct killings, 200,000 from starvation, and 100,000 from a lack of healthcare.

But the Tigray genocide did not start concurrently with the war, it has been in the making for years. 

As with previous genocides, the Tigray genocide did not erupt spontaneously but is instead rooted in the larger political and institutional changes that followed the rise of PM Abiy Ahmed Ali. 

Since he came to power in 2018, PM Abiy has used the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) and Tigrayans in general, as convenient scapegoats for the myriad ills of the country and to help realize his political ambitions. In a country gripped by anti-TPLF sentiment, blurring the line between party and people resulted in the dehumanization and demonization of Tigrayans becoming a regular feature of Abiy’s reign. 

PM Abiy is not alone in masterminding the genocide on Tigray.

President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and authorities and elites of the Amhara region played critical roles in justifying genocide in the eye of Ethiopians to mobilizing and ordering their forces to perpetrate it. 

The 2018 peace agreement between PM Abiy and President Isaias, the details of which remain hidden, was anything but peaceful. It was, in fact, a pact to “wipe out the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its army, destroy Tigray’s developmental structure, obliterate much of its cultural heritage, and dismember its domain.”

State media and pro-government private media and social-media activists joined the frenzy and became primary vehicles of anti-Tigrayan sentiments and views, disseminating documentaries, speeches, social media posts, and prints. The overall impact of such a media drive was that it primed Ethiopians to accept the looming genocide as inevitable and made it a rational and justified act. 

In the weeks following the start of the war, religious leaders and institutions, artists and influential figures began garnering support for the war and providing cultural and religious legitimacy via the othering of Tigrayans. 

Beyond the rhetoric of genocide that has saturated the airwaves,  observers have testified to the true intention behind the war waged in the name of law and order. Four months into the war, Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Union’s special envoy, Pekka Haavisto, said that upon his visit to Ethiopia at the beginning of 2021, Ethiopian officials told him that “they are planning to wipe out Tigrayans for 100 years”. 

The intention to wipe out Tigray can also be inferred from the way Ethiopian and Eritrean forces conducted the war: massacres, rape, and starvation as a weapon, and destruction of livelihoods and critical infrastructure to a degree and scale that has not been witnessed in recent history of Ethiopia. 

At the onset of the war, Ethiopian and Eritrean armies in collaboration with the Amhara regional forces have killed thousands, raped women and children, destroyed infrastructures, and cultural and religious sites, and displaced millions. The attacks on civilians were deliberate, organized, and coordinated among the different belligerent forces. 

Eight months into the war, Tigrayan forces organized and launched a counter-offensive leading to the removal of invading forces from large parts of Tigray. Consequently, the war shifted from direct confrontation to relentless drone attacks and to siege warfare. In what the United Nations described as a “de facto humanitarian blockade”, hemming Tigray from all corners and obstructing access to humanitarian aid became the primary method of war leading to famine and starvation of millions. 

The Response of the International Community

Since the start of the war, the international community has known what is transpiring in Tigray, but failed to mobilize diplomatic and political resources to influence actors and lacked the commitment and will to end the ongoing genocide. 

Despite the emerging reports of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the international community has yet to put a comprehensive plan and take concrete action to stop the tide of the genocide. 

The UN Office on Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect published warnings in February and November of 2021, but nothing concrete came out of its warnings. 

The US administration was among the first responders sounding an alarm about ethnic cleansing in western Tigray. But as the war developed and spread to other regions, the administration abandoned publishing the result of its investigation and backtracked on its designation of genocide to pursue diplomacy

Such politicking of the evil of genocide is contrary to the swift response the US accorded to Ukraine, which is rooted in racism. It took less than two months to declare what Russia is doing in Ukraine a genocide, while with eighteen months of mounting evidence the US is still yet to declare the war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray a genocide. 

Ending the Tigray Genocide

History witnesses that genocides end: but not because of international outrage, not because of mobilization against mass murder, but because of internal develop­ments among the perpetrators or external happenstance.

In his summary of how genocides end, Daniel Johan Goldhagen, once wrote “the Germans’ annihilation of the Herero (1904-08) ended only when the Germans had killed enough to solve their “Herero problem.” The Belgians stopped their gargantuan annihilation of Congo’s people in 1908 on their own accord. The Turks’ annihilation of the Armenians similarly did not falter until they had depopulated Anatolia of Armenians and accomplished their eliminationist goal.”

But, with 7% of the population already dead, can Tigray afford to remain passive while the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes solve their “Tigray problem” under the idle watch of the international community? The world will eventually arrive but not to rescue Tigray only to build a memorial and offer worn-out cliche apologies for its inaction. 

Tigray has to take matters into its own hands, and it has to take them faster than the expected and often belated response from the international community. 

As the evidence of seventy years of the UN Convention bears, when it comes to genocides, there is no such thing as the international community. 

Temesgen Kahsay is an assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology. His area of research is the intersection between religion and society, religion and culture and the role of the religion in the contemporary local and global contexts.

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