Famine in Ethiopia: Is the world averting its eyes?

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A woman carries an infant as she gets in line for food at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021.

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Days after the United Nations issued a report on famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray province that faulted government obstruction of aid, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expelled seven U.N. humanitarian personnel.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed shock, but the Security Council took no action. In fact, experts say, Mr. Abiy is finding he can act with impunity because no power on the international stage has the will or desire to stop him.

Why We Wrote This

The U.N. secretary-general was “shocked” Ethiopia had expelled U.N. humanitarian staff, but the Security Council didn’t act. Has the world lost its devotion to the “responsibility to protect,” and if so, why?

Not only have traditional defenders of international human rights tired of intervention, say the experts, but China and Russia have emerged as staunch and influential defenders of a government’s right to rule over domestic affairs without outside interference.

“What’s going on with Ethiopia is illustrative of two syndromes at work in various forms and with varying intensity in different places around the world,” says Michael Doyle, a Columbia University professor and former U.N. assistant secretary-general.

“One is about intervention fatigue and a growing sense post-Afghanistan that you can’t really make things better, so don’t get involved,” he adds. “And the other looks at China and Russia’s growing willingness to take sides, and declares there’s another game in town despots can turn to if they get any kind of trouble from the United States.”

Not so long ago, Ethiopia was a darling of the international community, an ethnically diverse country that had emerged from stifling communist rule with a model for building inclusive governance and equitable prosperity.

In 2019 the country’s leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel Peace Prize for pulling Ethiopia back from the brink of ethnic warfare and for committing to build a democracy through dialogue.

But these days, the Horn of Africa country is an example of another – darker – trend in global power politics, one that portends dire consequences for human rights and potentially opens the door to horrors like ethnic cleansing and genocide. It’s a door many experts thought was closing.

Why We Wrote This

The U.N. secretary-general was “shocked” Ethiopia had expelled U.N. humanitarian staff, but the Security Council didn’t act. Has the world lost its devotion to the “responsibility to protect,” and if so, why?

As his government carries out a scorched-earth war in the rebellious Tigray province, Mr. Abiy is finding he can act with impunity – spreading famine and attacking civilians in a way the United States says is approaching genocide – because no power on the international stage has the will or desire to stop him.

After Myanmar and Venezuela, Ethiopia has emerged, say African and international affairs experts, as Exhibit A for the faltering international defense of human rights and for the rise of enablers of gross rights violations.

A decade after the U.S. and European powers intervened in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya to stop a threatened massacre – an intervention that resulted in regime change – Mr. Abiy is operating in a very different global power environment, the experts say.

China’s role

Not only have the Western powers, the traditional defenders of international human rights, tired of intervention, but China and Russia have also emerged as staunch and influential defenders of national sovereignty and a government’s right to rule over domestic affairs – and the national population – as it sees fit and without outside interference.

“The ascendant idea a decade or so ago was that there were human rights standards and norms of behavior that leaders could be held accountable for, but more recently we’re seeing something very different,” says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar specializing in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa at the America Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.

“Now there’s always someone who can give an aspiring despot support and even a sense of impunity,” he adds. “For the Ethiopians and Abiy Ahmed,” he says, “that power is China.”

Last week Mr. Abiy expelled seven senior United Nations humanitarian personnel, accusing them of aiding rebel forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which controls Tigray and formerly led Ethiopia’s government.

Days earlier, the U.N. had issued a report warning of famine across Tigray and accusing the government of stopping food, medical supplies, and fuel from entering the war-torn province.

The year-old war in Tigray has killed thousands of civilians, displaced 2 million people, and deepened what experts call “man-made famine.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “shocked” by Ethiopia’s action and demanded that the government reverse its decision. But when the Security Council took up the issue last Friday under “any other business,” no action was taken and no condemnation of Ethiopia’s expulsion of U.N. personnel was issued.

Afghanistan ... and the Cold War

For some experts, events in Ethiopia underscore two trends they see advancing in international affairs – both of which they see as welcome developments for the world’s authoritarian rulers and human rights violators.

“What’s going on with Ethiopia is illustrative of two syndromes at work in various forms and with varying intensity in different places around the world,” says Michael Doyle, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general.

“One is the Afghanistan syndrome, and the other is the new Cold War syndrome. One is about intervention fatigue and a growing sense post-Afghanistan that you can’t really make things better, so don’t get involved,” he adds. “And the other looks at China and Russia’s growing willingness to take sides, and declares there’s another game in town despots can turn to if they get any kind of trouble from the United States.”

Baz Ratner/Reuters
People stand in line to receive food donations at the Tsehaye primary school in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021.

Nowadays authoritarians and human rights violators have powerful options on their side, Dr. Doyle says, “which was just not the case in 2000 or 2005, or a decade ago” when the U.S. and European powers intervened to stop Mr. Qaddafi.

Today, leaders under pressure from Western powers can turn to Russia (Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela) or China (Myanmar’s military junta) to stave off any serious action against them. Not only does China bristle at the notion that any outside power has any kind of say in how it treats its Uyghur Muslim minority, some experts say, but it also wants to extend the principle of noninterference in another country’s sovereign affairs beyond its borders.

“Russia and China want to make a world safe for autocracy,” says Columbia’s Dr. Doyle.

Responsibility to Protect

How the world has changed. It was just in 2005 that U.N. member states approved the Responsibility to Protect. The new doctrine known as R2P declared leaders responsible for their citizens’ well-being, and moreover endorsed international intervention in cases of state-sponsored violence against the population.

“Basically R2P said to leaders, ‘You can do whatever you want, run your economy into the ground or whatever, anything except genocide, ethnic cleansing, and gross human rights violations,’” says Dr. Doyle, who was serving at the U.N. when R2P was negotiated. “It put a floor on the very worst government behavior,” he adds, “below which leaders could not go without risking international intervention.”

The West’s Libya intervention is seen by some experts as both the R2P doctrine’s zenith – and its undoing.

“Libya was the Responsibility to Protect gone awry,” says Mr. Rubin of AEI. “It left a bad taste and a reticence about regime change, and today Abiy knows that,” he adds, referring to the Ethiopian leader.

Noting that his sources tell him Abiy is preparing another major offensive into Tigray, Mr. Rubin says, “Abiy is getting to the point where he just doesn’t care what the outside world thinks, and he knows he really doesn’t have to.”

Limits of U.S. policy

Which is not to say that the U.S. and other Western powers have thrown in the towel. In April Secretary of State Antony Blinken named seasoned diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as special adviser on the Horn of Africa, an appointment largely intended to keep the pressure on Mr. Abiy. In February the U.S. accused the Abiy government of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s USAID administrator and prominent anti-genocide crusader, Samantha Power, has also focused attention on Ethiopia. But when she visited the country in August, she was notably denied a meeting with Mr. Abiy.

The result is that “U.S. policy becomes a little bit toothless,” says Dr. Doyle. “There are statements, occasionally even strong statements, and both Samantha and Jeffrey are perfectly capable of that, but in the post-Afghanistan fatigue I don’t see things ratcheting up much higher.”

Mr. Rubin says it would be wrong to conclude that Ethiopia is “completely in China’s pocket.” Mr. Abiy has been trying to execute a “balancing act” between China and the West, especially the European Union, he says. “Abiy doesn’t want to become too dependent on either,” he adds, “but as the conflict goes on, he’s also tilting towards the power he feels has his back.”

It would be equally wrong to conclude that all big-power cooperation on human rights issues is a thing of the past. Noting that the Security Council recently extended the provision for humanitarian corridors in Syria by six months, Dr. Doyle says, “Maybe that’s not a lot, but it’s something, and suggests international cooperation on these issues is still possible.”

But that may offer little consolation for populations facing state-sponsored violence and gross human rights violations, he says – or little sense of threat to despots.

“Qaddafi thought he could ‘get rid of the cockroaches’ with impunity, and it turns out he could not,” Dr. Doyle says. “But today he probably could get away with it – we live in a different world.”

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