The Tigray question 

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 15 Jun 2021

A global pro-Tigray movement is increasingly highlighting the discrepancy between Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize and alleged war crimes committed there, writes Bassem Aly 

The Tigray question 
Elena, 7, center, stands in line with other displaced Tigrayans to receive food (photo: AP)

A global, pro-rights movement is increasingly questioning how Abiy Ahmed earned a Nobel Peace Prize amid alleged war crimes by Ethiopian troops in the separatist Tigray region. 

Ironically, some of the voices hail from Norway. The Guardian opinion piece published on 7 June, entitled “The Nobel committee should resign over the atrocities in Tigray”, by Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo’s Bjørknes University College who regularly tweets about Ethiopia, was widely shared on social media.

“The war on Tigray in Ethiopia has been going on for months. Thousands of people have been killed and wounded, women and girls have been raped by military forces, and more than 2 million citizens have been forced out of their homes. Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed stated that a nation on its way to ‘prosperity’ would experience a few ‘rough patches’ that would create ‘blisters’. This is how he rationalised what is alleged to be a genocide.

“Nobel committee members have individual responsibility for awarding the 2019 peace prize to Abiy Ahmed, accused of waging the war in Tigray. The members should thus collectively resign their honourable positions at the Nobel committee in protest and defiance.” 

The committee gave Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 on multiple grounds, including signing a peace agreement with Eritrea’s President Isais Afwerki in September 2018 to end a border dispute. 

However, contrary to the reputation you would expect, Ahmed admitted last March that “reports indicate that atrocities have been committed in Tigray region”. He vowed that soldiers who raped women or committed other crimes would be held responsible, avoiding holding himself or his government accountable. 

He also confirmed that Eritrean military troops “crossed the border and were operating in Ethiopia”, an acknowledgement that Addis Ababa had refused to make for a few months. “Any damage [Eritrean forces] did to our people is unacceptable,” Ahmed said. 

In May, Gilles Carbonnier – vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – described conditions in Tigray as a “very worrying situation” to Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the ICRC provided a “direct response” to 72,000 Tigrayan refugees in Sudan, working to restore family links and allow people to connect with their families. “We are also engaging with parties to the conflict, underlining the basic rules that should be respected in armed conflicts and trying to persuade them to protect civilians from the impact of hostilities and respond to their needs,” Carbonnier added. 

The UN children’s agency announced earlier this month that more than 6,000 children, whether unaccompanied or separated, need protection and help. UNICEF underlined that humanitarian workers cannot easily provide healthcare, food and other supplies since the war erupted in November 2020. 

The United Nations estimated that more than 350,000 Tigrayans are facing famine, while two million more are approaching the worst conditions they have had in a decade. It compared the situation to that of Somalia. Local officials, farmers and aid workers in Tigray, where six million people live, accuse the Ethiopian forces of preventing civilian access to food aid. Sometimes they steal it, officials revealed.  

On 13 June, Pope Francis urged that all food aid and healthcare assistance should “be guaranteed” for the hungry Tigrayans. At a Sunday noon blessing, he said the people in Tigray have been “struck by a grave humanitarian crisis that has exposed the poorest to famine. Today there is famine! There is hunger!”

Almost a week earlier, a number of world leaders sent a letter to Ahmed to demand an end to the war. “We recall the powerful words of your Nobel Prize acceptance speech two years ago. As you so forcefully said, there are those ‘who have never seen war, but glorify and romanticise it. They have not seen the fear. They have not seen the fatigue. They have not seen the destruction or heartbreak, nor have they felt the mournful emptiness of war after the carnage,’” they said. 

Some of those who signed this letter were also Nobel peace laureates such as Jose Ramos-Hortam, Timor-Leste’s ex-premier and president. Others were members of the Nobel Peace Committee itself, such as Emeritus Bishop of Oslo Gunnar Stålsett. The list also included ex-UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, Finland’s former president Tarja Halonen and veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. 

The war in Tigray started in November 2020 between Ethiopian army troops and the separatist People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The latter created its own electoral commission and held separate regional polls in response to the decision by Ahmed to postpone nationwide elections due to Covid-19. 

The premier believed that the TPLF “crossed the line”, while parliament declared that Tigray’s government was illegal.  Ahmed’s troops have used ground and aerial means in their war on Tigray. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to Sudan afterwards. 

The situation reached a stage in which the United States imposed sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea in May. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Washington has “repeatedly voiced our grave concerns about human rights violations and abuses in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.” 

Arguing that US adiministrations – especially Democratic ones – have been “historically pro-Ethiopian”, Amani Al-Taweel, an Africa expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told the Weekly that this counts as a “change in US-Ethiopian relations.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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