Is the international community failing Ethiopia again?

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Ethiopia has repeatedly experienced the consequences of multilateralism’s failure to act.

Samia Zekaria Gutu, Ethiopian ambassador,

Posted on Al Jazeera’s OPINION page, 30 Mar 2021

As a founding member state of the United Nations and a member of the League of Nations, Ethiopia has always been an ardent supporter of multilateralism. It is a staunch devotee to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter including the principle of collective security. Ethiopia is hugely proud of its historic and weighty contributions to the UN, especially its peacekeeping operations. It also joined the Alliance for Multilateralism with a firm belief that only cooperation can help us solve shared challenges.

Notwithstanding this, Ethiopia has also experienced the consequences of the failure of multilateralism to act in the interest of collective security. In late 1935, the forces of Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia – while the pleas of the late Emperor Haile Selassie to the League of Nations went largely ignored.

The Emperor appealed to the international community not to abandon Ethiopia while the invading fascist forces were using mustard gas on its people. In his impassioned speech to world leaders at the League of Nations in 1936, he described how “women, children, cattle, rivers and pastures were drenched with this deadly rain”.

But while Fascist Italy’s devastating invasion was in clear violation of international law, Ethiopia’s appeal remained unanswered.

And now, some 86 years later, history appears to be repeating itself, albeit with a different set of circumstances. This points to the same lack of multilateralism and absence of awareness of the security challenges Ethiopia and the region face.

The vital reforms implemented by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his team were very much lauded by the international community. They brought real changes on the ground for which the Ethiopian prime minister received the Nobel Peace Prize. These reforms rescued Ethiopia and its people from the grip of the repressive Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated the Ethiopian government since the 1990s.

However, we are now witnessing a U-turn by the international community. Misled by orchestrated TPLF misinformation and propaganda, the international community tends to put the blame on Prime Minister Abiy’s administration for going after this grave threat to Ethiopian and regional security.

Last November’s brutal attack by TPLF Forces against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) Northern Command in the Tigray region was quite simply a declaration of war. Such an attack against a sovereign country’s national defence forces, the ultimate guarantors of a constitution and of any nation, is not something a government can ignore easily. Our constitution stipulates “the armed forces shall protect the sovereignty of the country” so the government had to take action as part of fulfilling its basic constitutional duty, which was regrettably not welcomed by some in the international community.

According to a report by Foreign Policy magazine, in a confidential memo to the UN secretary-general, Achim Steiner, Head of the UNDP, wrote that the TPLF’s attack would have been “an act of war everywhere in the world, and one that typically triggers military response in defense of any nation”. This happened in Ethiopia and no one appeared to care about this high crime.

Days after the Ethiopian government started the law enforcement operation in the Tigray region, a TPLF-orchestrated massacre took place in Mai Kadra, which claimed the lives of more than 600 Amhara civilians. Yet, the international community largely ignored it and few dared to condemn it. There was silence also when Sudanese troops violated Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in November 2020. It appears it has become easy these days to table one-sided motions at international organisations, mainly at the UN Security Council (UNSC), before exhausting all available local mechanisms and platforms for resolving such issues. The recent open debate at the UNSC on Ethiopia’s internal affairs typifies the lesser attention given to the principle of subsidiarity and exhaustion of local remedies as customary international law and established trend in the modus operandi of the Security Council.

Not only this, but the UNSC also discussed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – a hydroelectric dam that aims to change the lives of tens of millions of poverty-stricken Ethiopians who lack basic access to food and millions more living under SafetyNet programmes (including 1.8 million Tigrayans long before the current situation.

However, thanks to the Ethiopian government’s robust diplomatic efforts and the support of some principled partners, the African Union (AU) has stepped in to facilitate trilateral negotiations on the dam.

The international community’s support for the humanitarian situation in Tigray far from matches its incessant condemnation. It even fails to acknowledge the government’s stepped-up humanitarian response that has reached more than 4.2 million people to date despite limited resources.

David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), has called for scaled-up humanitarian support to Tigray, amounting to $107m. However, the international community and the UN have not made adequate support. In fact, as the UNDP memo points out, their confrontational approach “is likely to be counter-productive and will yield no results”.

Access to the Tigray region has been adequately provided to both international humanitarian agencies and the media. Yet some in the international community are still calling on the government for unfettered humanitarian access.

The Ethiopian government has strongly expressed its full commitment to undertake an in-depth investigation to get to the bottom of the allegations and bring those responsible for any crime to justice. It has also called for a constructive engagement from the international community to support its investigation. The government welcomes the recent understanding between the National Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights chief to conduct joint investigations. But it appears some actors are still adopting double standards in their public opinions on the situation in Ethiopia.

By contrast, the AU has been quite responsive. The AU Commission heeded Prime Minister Abiy’s call to undertake an investigation jointly with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. This instance shows that our future undeniably lies in the “African solutions to African problems” maxim.

Although the international community is failing it by the day, Ethiopia will neither lose trust nor revert in its commitment to global values. As former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew once said: “Despite its painful experience during its membership in the League of Nations, Ethiopia has never lost confidence in multilateral ism.”

Therefore, if multilateral ism is alive, the international community should provide significant support to Ethiopia, whose commitment to this principle has not wavered. International actors that consider democracy, peace and security, and development as crucial tools of the global order, should in principle be ready for constructive engagement and providing much-needed assistance to Ethiopia – a country of more than 110 million people in one of the most geopolitically sensitive regions of the world.

Yet, we would be remiss not to commend the most principled positions of some of our trusted partners during this critical time.