The Tigray crisis and western aversion to sanction

“There is nowhere on earth where the health of millions is more under threat than in Tigray. Just as we continue to call on Russia to make peace in Ukraine, so we continue to call on Ethiopia and Eritrea to end the blockade – the siege – and allow safe access for humanitarian supplies and workers to save lives.”[1]

Ethiopia is a highly diverse country, made up of more than 80 different ethnic groups. Because of this, the country applies a form of ethnic federalism.  In principle, Ethiopia´s ethnic federal system assigns significant authority to ethnic communities in each of the regional states and two city administrations. However, the 1995 constitution of the country is imprecise about the division of powers and each ethnic community ́s right to self-determination. There seems to have been a contradiction between the political settlement of 1991, which constituted a form of ethnic federalism, and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ́s drive to centralize a developmental state. As a result of this, long-simmering ethnic grievances have been compacted about a range of issues ranging from the proper balance of power between center and regional states to reforming a state-dominated economy.[2]

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (T.P.L.F) was founded in the mid 1970s as a small militia of Tigrayans, fighting against Ethiopia´s military dictatorship. The country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Amhara and the Oromo, make up more than 60 percent of the population, while the Tigrayans, the third largest group, only make up 6-7 percent. This led to the group being marginalized by the central government for a long time. In 1991 the rebel alliance became Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and Meles Zenawi, head of the T.P.LF., led Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012. In this period Ethiopia emerged as a stable country in a stormy region and enjoyed economic growth. However, there are reports of the government systematically repressing political opponents and curtailing free speech. As a result of anti-government protests in 2016, Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018. Although Ahmed was awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his work to achieve peace and international cooperation, his government has been said to have purged Tigrayans officials by removing them from security services or charging them with corruption or human rights abuses. Because of this the Tigrayans refused to join Ahmed’s new party, but still controlled the Tigray regional government in agreement with the country’s ethnic federal system. The following war led to the federal government stripping the T.P.LF. of its status as a legal party and labelling it as a terrorist organization.[3]

In April of 2022, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a 240 page long report on the crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia ́s western Tigray zone. The report is based on 427 interviews and other research conducted over a period of seventeen months and includes allegations of extrajudicial executions, rape and other acts of sexual violence, the widespread pillage of crops and livestock,  as well as looting and occupation of Tigrayan homes at the hand of the Amhara Security Forces. Tigrayans have also faced mass arrest and prolonged arbitrary detentions in formal and informal detention sites where detainees were killed, tortured, and ill-treated. The situation is worsened by the fact that regional authorities have imposed discriminatory rules that deny Tigrayans basic services and access to humanitarian aid, in addition to measures that seem designed to suppress their rights and presence in the area. This includes ethnic-based slurs that target the Tigrayan identity and banning them from speaking their language, Tigrinya.[4]

As a party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as Protocol Ⅱ to the Geneva Conventions, Ethiopia is bound by principles that guide and safeguard humanitarian action in armed conflicts. Common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions sets out a general obligation on parties to non-international armed conflicts. The general obligation extends towards all persons taking no active part in hostilities, including members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, injury, detention, etc. Such persons must in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction being made, based on race, colour, religion, sex, birth or wealth, etc. This general obligation of humane treatment is in fact one of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which applies in all types of armed conflicts. This includes rules on ensuring that humanitarian aid is quickly and impartially provided to civilians in need, and the fact that humanitarian workers can move freely. Today, as the blockade of overland routes into the region continues, it is said that more than 90 percent of Tigray is in urgent need of assistance. [5]

Although there are extensive humanitarian crises going on in Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan, the West is yet to show major signs of interest in the conflicts. As the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, best expressed it: “the world is not treating the human race the same way”.[6] This can be easily illustrated in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict. Sanctions imposed by western countries in order to stop Russia from acting aggressively, or breaking international law include: phasing out EU imports of Russian oil crude oil in six months and refined products by the end of 2022, disconnecting Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, and the Credit Bank of Moscow and the Russian Agricultural Bank from the international payments system Swift, used to transfer money across borders, cutting off three of Russia’s state-owned broadcasters from the EU on cable, satellite and the internet, and sanctioning 58 Russians, including those involved in war crimes in Bucha and the siege of Mariupol.[7]

Unilateral sanctions are to be regarded as the international community’s most powerful peaceful means to prevent threats to international peace and security or to settle them. It is time conflicts are given equal consideration in order for sanctions to be evenly distributed.

Sumaya Gele, law student and editor

[1] Davies, The Guardian, ‘Nowhere on earth are people more at risk than Tigray,’ says WHO chief,, March 17 2022 (Accessed May 6 2022).

[2] International Crisis Group (2019). Managing Ethiopia’s Unsettled Transition, Africa Report N°269, Brussels: International Crisis Group, page 24.

[3] Walsh & Dahir, The New York Times, Why Is Ethiopia at War With Itself?, March 16  2022 (Accessed May 5 2022).

[4] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia: ‘We will erase you from this land’: Crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone, page 1-2.

[5] Mwai, BBC News, Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: Why it’s hard getting aid into the region,, April 7 2022 (Accessed May 6 2022).

[6] The Guardian, WHO chief blames racism for greater focus on Ukraine than Ethiopia,, April 13 2022 (Accessed May 4 2022).

[7] BBC News, What sanctions are being imposed on Russia over Ukraine invasion?,, May 4 2022 (Accessed May 6 2022).