By Duke Burbridge
According to the food distribution data collected by the Food Cluster in November, Tigray was still under a humanitarian blockade nearly a month after the Ethiopian government promised to allow and facilitate “unhindered humanitarian access” to Tigray. This new commitment to lift the siege of Tigray was part of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, signed November 2 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Ethiopian government is compelled to end the use of weaponized starvation against the people of Tigray. Objectively, over the course of the “Tigray War”, denial of food and medicine have been the primary weapons of war used by the Ethiopian government and the primary target has been the civilian population of Tigray. Since November 2020, according to University of Ghent Professor Jan Nyssen, the humanitarian blockade is believed to have caused the death of between 350,000 and 500,000 civilians in Tigray through starvation and denial of healthcare. This is in addition to the 30,000 to 90,000 combat deaths.
After Pretoria, humanitarian aid should be allowed to cross the line of control and provide food to civilian populations everywhere in Tigray. However, by the end of November, humanitarian assistance had still not been restarted in areas under military occupation, with some exceptions along the southern border with the Amhara region. The areas that remain blocked from humanitarian access include nearly all of the Northwestern zone and half of the Central and Eastern zones, which collectively represent more than half of the total population in need. Most critically, areas remaining under blockade tend also to be those that:
- were hit hardest by the famine,
- bore the brunt of the Eritrean invasion,
- had the greatest number of households displaced,
- were blocked from receiving aid for the longest amount of time.
In the week ending November 30, distribution reached only 1% (~36,000) of the 3.6 million civilians who need food urgently in the Northwestern, Central, and Eastern zones. This is despite two new supply routes running from Amhara directly into the Northwestern zone for the first time in a year and a surge in delivery of food to Tigray in the second half of November.
It is worth noting that the humanitarian blockade does not get more legal as it gets smaller. It is a crime against humanity to intentionally starve any single district or town in Tigray. The entire Northwest zone and most of the Central zone had been under Ethiopian Federal control for more than a month by the end of November and food assistance was only beginning to reach a fraction of the households in need. In areas surrounding the capital, where the local Tigrayan government is believed to still control, the humanitarian response appears to be restarting without hinderance.
Three Layers of the Blockade of Tigray
As noted by the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) report released in September, the blockade of Tigray is multidimensional.
The Commission finds reasonable grounds to believe that the Federal Government and allied regional State governments have implemented a widespread range of measures designed to systematically deprive the population of Tigray of material and services indispensable for its survival, including healthcare, shelter, water, sanitation, education and food.
Report of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (Sep 19, 2022), p12
I try to tackle the complexity of the humanitarian blockade of Tigray on my UMD Media show “Tigray Humanitarian Update.” In the show, I describe three critical “layers” of obstruction, that have been used by the Ethiopian government to block humanitarian aid from reaching Tigrayan civilians. These layers involve the deliberate obstruction of (1) humanitarian supplies, (2) fuel for humanitarian dispatch within Tigray, and (3) access in Tigray to populations known to be at urgent need of food and medicine. It is important to note that the presence of any of the three layers can result in a complete denial of aid.
Following the Cessation of Hostilities, I created a baseline from a snapshot of the state of each layer at the time of the agreement. Essentially, everyone in Tigray who resided outside of the capital of Mekelle were being blocked from receiving humanitarian assistance. This means that an estimated 90% of people in Tigray who need of outside food assistance according to the World Food Programme are being deliberately starved. The only reason why this 10% were not under the blockade was that the ban on fuel for humanitarian operations created a bottleneck for food that was delivered to Mekelle in August.
According to data from the Food Security and Logistics Clusters, over the course of 2022, Tigray was under a complete blockade for five of the first eleven months. For three months, sufficient food was allowed into Tigray to feed civilians in the capital, but the blockade on fuel restricted humanitarian assistance outside of Mekelle. In June, the restrictions on fuel were slightly eased to allow some food to be dispatched beyond the capital, but these were reimposed in July. It was not until August when there was enough food and fuel to deliver humanitarian aid everywhere in Tigray where access was not blocked by hostile military occupation. Fighting resumed in the last week of August and the Ethiopian government once again blocked all food and fuel coming into Tigray in September and October.
In the first two weeks following the Cessation of Hostilities agreement, there was absolutely no progress towards lifting the blockade. In the second half of the month, supplies began to enter Tigray again and the addition of new supply lines into Tigray from Gondar and Kombulcha significantly reduced the need for fuel. However, the third layer of the blockade remained almost entirely intact by the end of the month. As of November 30, an estimated 60% of people in need in Tigray (or roughly 3.2 million people) remained entirely blocked from outside humanitarian assistance.
Layer 1: Humanitarian Supplies (0% Blocked)
As of the end of November, this layer of the humanitarian blockade appears to have been lifted from Tigray. According to the Food Cluster, 53,500 MT of food entered Tigray over the 20-day period between Nov. 16 and Dec. 6. I have since been able to confirm that this amount is sourced to the two major international aid agencies transporting humanitarian cargo and not the Ethiopian government.
While the amount reported by the Food Cluster is much smaller than some of the more outlandish claims made by the Ethiopian government, it is still a significant amount of food to enter Tigray over a 20-day period. Mathematically speaking, this is just barely enough food to feed the entire population in need for the time it took to deliver. After three months of complete blockade and another military offensive there is little to no food stock outside of Mekelle, which means that any delay in distribution or dispatch inside Tigray, or interruption in delivery of food to Tigray would be catastrophic.
Layer 2: Fuel (Est 10-25% blocked)
By opening additional supply corridors into Tigray, the need for fuel is reduced by a significant, though unknown amount. Prior to the resumption of conflict in August, humanitarian supplies were forced to enter Tigray almost exclusively through the Semera to Mekelle corridor. After arriving in Mekelle, supplies were then distributed throughout Tigray. However, due to the government ban on fuel for humanitarian operations in Tigray, August was the only month this year where the supply of fuel was sufficient for normal food distribution.
The amount of fuel that has entered Tigray has not been confirmed but is reported as 415,000 liters by UNOCHA. This would have been about a quarter of what was previously needed, but without a more current estimate it is not possible to know if this is enough fuel to distribute food, water, and other life-saving assistance.
Layer 3: Access (60% blocked)
The third blockade layer is still preventing a significant amount of people in need from accessing humanitarian assistance in Tigray. It is estimated that 60% of people in need in Tigray are being deliberately blocked from accessing humanitarian assistance during famine conditions.
Over the past year, humanitarian assistance has been blocked to areas of Tigray under military occupation by the Ethiopian or Eritrean militaries or Amhara militias. Until September, this territory only included the Western Zone of Tigray and areas along the northern border with Eritrea. Particularly due to forced displacement from these regions, this blockade affected less than 5% of the total population in need in Tigray.
However, after the resumption of conflict, the Ethiopian-Eritrean coalition began gaining more ground, including major population centers in the Northwestern Zone like Sheraro and Shire, which were also hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced Tigrayans. After taking Shire in mid-October, the Eritrean-Ethiopian advance accelerated into the Central Zone and by the end of the month an estimated 70% of Tigray was once again under occupation.
Parting Thoughts and Conclusions
While the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement should have resulted in unhindered humanitarian access in occupied areas of Tigray, this has clearly not happened for the overwhelming majority of people in need. There have been no objections raised by any influential international actor or donor country about the ongoing failure to reach civilians in Tigray who are likely at the greatest risk of starvation. There has been an alarming but expected silence from the African Union monitoring team that Secretary Anthony Blinken pledged to support after his recent meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
It can only be assumed that the peace process has gone as expected following the Pretoria Accords. The silence of the African Union; lead negotiators, special envoys, and State Department officials, appears to demonstrate that the continued starvation of Tigrayan civilians was accepted as collateral damage. The appeasement approach towards Ethiopian has been consistent for more than a year of glacial progress, which has only been possible through the sacrifice of Tigrayan families. With an agreement now in hand, the world must now recognize where the Ethiopian government is not honoring its commitment. As long as civilians in dire need of food are still being deliberately blocked from receiving humanitarian assistance anywhere in Tigray, the peace process will continue to represent a crime against humanity.
(Duke will continue to monitor humanitarian access in Tigray and regularly update this column until the humanitarian blockade of Tigray has been completely lifted. He is also the host of the Tigray Humanitarian Update on UMD Media’s YouTube channel.)