More than peace on the table in Ethiopian talks

First direct talks between the government and Tigray rebels could mark affirmation of humanitarian norms.

Residents and militias stand next to houses destroyed by an airstrike during the fight between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in the Afar region, Ethiopia, Feb. 25.

From the moment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, observers have worried that it would do lasting harm to international rules meant to preserve the sovereignty of nations, restrain the use of force, and protect innocent life. One place where those rules may now be finding renewal is Ethiopia.

After two years of civil war, representatives of Ethiopia’s federal government and leaders of a rebellious state have gathered to talk peace. The negotiations, which opened today in South Africa and are set to run into the weekend, are fragile. They follow two months of intensified fighting. There is little more on the agenda beyond the hope of setting an agenda.

The urgent topic is how to end a humanitarian crisis that threatens wider regional instability. The conflict has cost half a million lives, displaced millions, and left the state of Tigray – home to 7 million people – on the brink of mass starvation. The United Nations has accused both sides of war crimes.

The humanitarian toll points to deeper stakes in the talks. As the largest and most powerful country in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia lies in the middle of great power competition in both Africa and around the Red Sea. The contest for influence isn’t just about national or commercial interests. International norms must be reaffirmed, too.

Russia and China view Ethiopia’s war as an internal matter and have sought new investment ties despite humanitarian concerns. That no-strings-attached approach has left Western countries wrestling to stay in the game without surrendering their values. In July, for example, the European Commission approved $80 million for education and health projects, but stipulated that it must be dispersed “outside of government structures.”

“There’s an openness to engage based on progress, and real concerns about China and Russia filling any gaps,” one European diplomat told Politico. “But at the same time, we can’t just throw out our norms and values.”

The talks in South Africa reflect that same approach. They follow months of diplomacy by the African Union, the United Nations, the United States, and Europe. The key to any progress is their demand for an immediate cease-fire and unfettered access to Tigray for relief efforts. Beyond that, they seek cooperation from all sides in finding accountability for atrocities committed during the war.

That insistence on respect for humanitarian norms has already had an effect. Both sides acknowledge the war cannot be won militarily. And last week, the government stated that it “deeply regrets any harm that might have been inflicted upon civilians ... and will investigate such incidents to establish facts and provide redress when and if such unintended harm occurs.”

Admissions like those matter, even if they may not be fully sincere. “States have always sought to interpret legal norms to support their courses of action,” noted two legal scholars at the Liverpool John Moores University, in a recent article in the Netherlands International Law Review. “This in itself highlights the value which is attached to the system of international law and the perceived legitimacy which derives from its invocation.”

At a time of shifting competition between great powers and emerging middleweights, wars anywhere send ripples everywhere. The war in Ethiopia has devastated a fragile region. Now its parties, and the international partners bringing them to the negotiating table, are showing that strategic and humanitarian interests are not incompatible.

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