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Mass atrocities in Ethiopia expose the limitations of early warning tools

Refugees queue for contributions
Refugees who fled Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict queue for contributions before sunrise in eastern Sudan. Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Since conflict erupted in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, in November 2020, there have been widespread reports of atrocities in the region. Hundreds of massacres and attacks on civilians have been documented. Recently, the conflict has spread to other areas of the country. While all sides have been accused of atrocities, there is a clear difference in the scale of the atrocities committed by government-aligned forces against Tigrayan civilians.

The current situation in Ethiopia represents a dramatic change from the optimism with which the Abiy government was viewed even just two years ago. When the prime minister was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in October 2019, for example, the official press release praised his

important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described the situation as “ethnic cleansing”. A UN Human Rights office investigation found war crimes and crimes against humanity may have been committed. Amnesty International’s investigation concluded that the Ethiopian government and allied forces have committed widespread sexual violence, constituting war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity. Genocide Watch has commented that Tigray is victim of “systematic violence with genocidal intent”.

The region is also experiencing famine as a direct result of the conflict. Ethiopian forces and those allied with them have deliberately targeted farming infrastructure and water points. The fighting has also severely disrupted the planting and harvesting of crops. In early July, the UN estimated that 400,000 people in Tigray were experiencing famine; USAID puts that figure much higher.

In late June, the conflict took a particularly deadly turn. Following the success of the Tigrayan Defence Forces in capturing territory, Ethiopian forces withdrew from much of the region, simultaneously imposing a blockade. Since then, less than 10% of the required humanitarian aid has been able to reach Tigray.

Desperately needed supplies of food, water and essential medicines simply cannot get through. There is widespread acknowledgement that this is a deliberate strategy of the Ethiopian government. In October 2021, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on the government

to allow the unrestricted movement of desperately needed fuel, cash, communications equipment and humanitarian supplies.

Others have been even more direct. Mark Lowcock, following his recent retirement as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was asked in an interview on PBS: “Is the Ethiopian government trying to starve Tigray?” His response: “Yes.”

This raises the question of whether the current atrocities in Ethiopia might have been predicted, and if so, whether timely engagement might have helped prevent the violence.

It is an important question because, in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, early warning was touted as an important means of prevention. The Responsibility to Prevent principle was established in 2005. UN member states pledged to protect their populations from genocide and mass atrocities. It also places emphasis on early warning.

Similarly, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect highlights the importance of risk assessment as a pathway to prevention.

In short, risk assessments did point to a high risk of atrocities in Ethiopia. While warnings could have been more clear, sufficient information was available to recognise the risk. Stronger engagement by the UN, African Union and others might have helped prevent the current, dire situation.

Risk assessments

I recently conducted a review of mass atrocity risk assessments to understand how effectively they can provide early warning of genocide, mass killing and other forms of targeted mass violence. Currently there are four risk assessment lists that identify countries at risk of mass atrocities. All are run by non-governmental organisations and academics. Each issues annual or periodic tables, presenting rankings or categories of risk.

Examining assessments of Ethiopia for the 2019-2020 forecasting period, we can see that both Genocide Watch and the Early Warning Project placed the country in the highest risk category prior to the outbreak of the violence.
Peoples Under Threat and the Atrocity Forecasting Project recognised some level of risk in Ethiopia, but deemed it outside of the 10 countries considered most at risk. This suggests at least some recognition of risk, and perhaps an opportunity for prevention.

One of the problems with this type of analysis, however, is that risk assessments are currently a fairly inexact tool for understanding risk of mass atrocities.

There are three principal limitations to their value. First, they over-predict risk. Even among the countries listed at highest risk, most will not experience genocide or mass atrocities in the forecasting period. This makes it hard for policymakers and practitioners to determine where it would be most beneficial to direct their limited resources.

Second, risk assessments are imprecise. While being in the top echelon of risk is indicative, a country ranked first is not necessarily any more likely to experience atrocities than a country ranked 10th. And the converse is true.

Ethiopia provides a strong example of this imprecision. It ranked 9th or lower in most risk assessments.

Finally, risk assessment lists have a very limited capacity to determine when violence might erupt. Peoples Under Threat, for example, has ranked Ethiopia in the top 15 at-risk countries every year since its inception in 2006. Similarly, Genocide Watch has long recognised the risk there. That can make it hard to determine when that risk might be realised, and to respond accordingly. It can also lead to complacency as to the severity of the risk.

In short, while risk assessments did identify serious risk of mass violence in Ethiopia before it started, the information was somewhat ambiguous. Detailed qualitative analysis is crucial to truly understand risk in any given country.

Conclusion

Despite the recognition of risk, it’s clear that the scope and severity of the crisis has caught many by surprise. What matters most at this point, however, is a robust international response. Currently that response is heavily focused on the civil war, and on finding a political solution to the crisis.

That is essential.

Yet that will take time – and it’s time that the people starving in Tigray don’t have. Right now, key international actors need to focus squarely on saving lives. They must collectively demand Ethiopia allows immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, in accordance with international law and independent of any other developments with respect to the conflict.

Ethiopia must feel the intense pressure of the entire international community to stop starving its own people.

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