Despite more than a month and a half of peace, Tigrayan families are being deliberately starved. They will continue to starve until the international community, donor countries, the United Nations, the United States, the International Criminal Court assigns a priority to the lives of Tigray civilians consistent with their own obligations to prevent atrocities and genocide and uphold universal standards of human rights.
Starvation is an old weapon that has been condemned by both the United Nations Security Council and the US Congress. According to the Rome Statue which guides the ICC, deliberately creating conditions designed to cause mass death is either a crime against humanity or an act of genocide. Yet these institutions have all fallen silent and refuse to act while the Ethiopian government uses starvation as a weapon of war and means to subjugate millions of Tigrayan civilians.
According to the latest data released by the Food Insecurity Cluster in Tigray, half of the region is still blocked from receiving outside food assistance. Progress has been made towards expanding food distribution in the Southern and the Eastern zone, with the very important exceptions of Irob and Zalambessa Town. However, families living in the Northwestern and Central zone, who are also known to be starving, remain blocked from urgently needed humanitarian aid.
The map above shows that two things are undeniably absent from Tigray: unhindered humanitarian access and peace. There is no peace in forced starvation. Those who suggest otherwise are divorced from reality. The war between the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) and the TPLF may have ended, but the genocide in Tigray continues under the protection of a fraudulent peace process.
Aid is needed right now.
It is important to understand that there are no food stocks in the areas currently blocked from receiving outside food. As a result of more than two years of scorched earth warfare and a humanitarian blockade, the Tigrayan population of 7 million is believed to be almost universally dependent on outside food aid. There is no way to know the actual conditions in Tigray, because the Ethiopian government (GoE) continues to block critical famine assessments along with nearly all communications in or out of the region.
The last IPC assessment was released in June 2021. It found that more than 350,000 people in Tigray were in famine conditions. The assessment also projected this level to increase by another 50,000 even if outside food assistance was allowed into the region. Instead, the government rejected the assessment, denied the famine, and only allowed a fraction of the aid (and none of the fuel) that would have been needed to mount an effective response to what became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
By December, aid was entirely blocked from entering Tigray for more than three months. The last assessment of critical areas of the Eastern zone was also conducted in March 2022. A multi-agency team visited Adigrat and Irob and found almost 140,000 people cut off entirely from food and medicine, displaced families and host communities both left to starve:
“In Adigrat, the team assessed the humanitarian situation as extremely dire for both the host community members and the 78,000 IDPs living in IDP sites. Food insecurity is severe, and people have managed to cope by resorting to negative survival mechanisms, including children engaged in begging and survival sex. Similarly, in Irob, with a population of 52,000 and more than 9,000 IDPs recently displaced from hard-to-reach areas in the Zone, people are facing extreme hardship, with no food or medical supplies that have reached the woreda since July 2021. Most of the population in Irob are severely food insecure. Displaced and non-displaced people in both Adigrat and Irob urgently need food, nutrition, and medical assistance.”
Unfortunately, no food security assessment of the Western Zone of Tigray or the northern districts bordering Eritrea has been allowed at any point during the past two years.
For the rest of Tigray, the last food insecurity assessment of Tigray was conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in June 2022 and released in August. The WFP assessment showed that half the population was in the absolute worst category of food insecurity. The other half was moderately food insecure. While the August 2022 assessment followed a robust methodology and covered an impressive geographical area, many of the hardest hit areas of Tigray were inaccessible.
The WFP’s figure of 89% food insecurity was based primarily on samples from easily accessible districts. In the northern half of the Northwest, Central, or Eastern zones (hereafter, Northern Tigray), food insecurity would have been much worse. It is reasonable to assume that all households in Northern Tigray are severely food insecure unless evidence shows otherwise.
A lot has changed since early June, when the data for the previous assessment was collected. Initially, developments were positive. Over the next three months, food distribution was possible for the first time in a year (or more in some cases) in rural areas of Northern Tigray. The food assistance provided in the immediate aftermath of the assessment would have lowered food insecurity significantly, but only temporarily.
Less than a week after August release of the WFP assessment the GoE reimposed the humanitarian blockade to the entire region and conflict resumed between Tigrayan and GoE forces. A new military offensive was launched by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, which was geographically focused on Northern Tigray, particularly in areas that had recently received food. The new campaign also caused mass displacement from across Northern Tigray in September and particularly October, when the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces began seizing major population centers in the Northwest and Central zones. In many cases, families were displaced multiple times.
It must be assumed that any food stocks found by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were looted or destroyed, as they did in the previous military campaign. It should also be assumed that any food distributed prior to November has by now either been consumed or lost. Finally, a weak output from the next harvest should also be assumed, particularly due to the blockade on fertilizer and mass displacement of largely agrarian communities.
This all points to a conclusion that outside food assistance is very likely critical to the survival of any household still living in Northern Tigray. According to joint reports by the Logistics Cluster and the GoE, a sufficient amount of food has entered Tigray to begin distribution throughout Northern Tigray, yet that has clearly not happened.
Distribution or Disinformation
It should be noted that the GoE has made unconfirmed claims about food distribution in many of the areas that have been blocked from humanitarian access. It would be dangerous and absurd to accept such claims made by a government which stands credibly accused of blocking humanitarian aid and intentionally starving the civilian population of Tigray by the most senior aid officials in the world.
The previous UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Mark Lowcock blamed the Ethiopian government for obstructing of humanitarian access in a PBS NewsHour interview:
“What’s happening is that Ethiopian authorities are running a sophisticated campaign to stop aid getting in by, for example, making it impossible for truck drivers to operate by setting up checkpoints with official and with militia people, by preventing fuel getting in. And what they are trying to do is starve the population of Tigray into subjugation or out of existence, but to avoid the opprobrium that would still be associated with a deliberate, successful attempt to create a famine taking the lives of millions of people.” Mark Lowcock, PBS Newshour. (Oct 6, 2021)
Lowcock is not alone in accusing the Ethiopian government of deliberately blocking aid in Tigray. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council in August 2021 that a “de facto humanitarian blockade” existed in Tigray. He issued a chilling warning that if the blockade continued to obstruct the delivery of food, “large numbers of people will starve to death.” The current UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths reported in September that aid to Tigray was still being blocked by a “de-facto blockade” and noted of the blockade: “This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government.”
Following the publication of Griffiths’ interview with Reuters, the Ethiopian government ordered the expulsion of the UN’s top officials for “meddling” in Ethiopia’s affairs. The UN fought the expulsion of these officials but ultimately lost. UN officials have since avoided references to the humanitarian blockade or identifying responsibility for the obstruction of aid. This self-censorship did not extend to the UN-mandated Independent Council of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) who found three months ago that:
“…[T]he Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that the denial and obstruction of humanitarian access to Tigray Region by the Federal Government and allied regional State governments was committed for the purpose of depriving the Tigrayan population of objects indispensable for its survival, including food and healthcare. The acts thereby violate the prohibition against the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, as well as the obligation of each party to a conflict to allow and facilitate the delivery of impartial humanitarian relief consignments for civilians in need of supplies essential to their survival.” ICHREE Report (Sept 19, 2022)
The architects of the Tigray famine may or may not one day be held to account for what appear to be clear and well documented acts of genocide. For the present, with millions of lives still hanging on the delivery of life-saving food and medical aid, the GoE’s impunity for weaponized starvation must not evolve into credibility as a source of food distribution data.
The humanitarian crisis created in Tigray must be brought into better focus. This requires a swift and transparent assessment of the delivery and distribution of food and medical assistance in Tigray from warehouse to beneficiary, conducted by USAID. A more comprehensive assessment of all financial and humanitarian assistance from the United States to Ethiopia in the past two years should follow. This is not only necessary to ensure that the aid provided to Ethiopia is reaching those who need it the most, but also to ensure that US taxpayers are not underwriting crimes against humanity or ethnic genocide in Ethiopia.
These assessments should form the basis of robust monitoring mechanisms and US foreign policy towards Ethiopia should be directly tied to how efficiently aid is being distributed to communities at greatest risk. Right now, this describes nearly all of Tigray, even those who received a partial food ration last month; but the critical areas are likely in Northern Tigray, which is still almost entirely under a humanitarian blockade.
Everyone at USAID and the US State Department from the highest levels on down, must take Tigrayan lives more seriously in 2023. It is time to learn from mistakes and pivot towards civilian security, human rights, and international humanitarian law. It is too late to prevent a genocide in Tigray, but it was never too soon to end it.