To fight hunger, US envoy’s visit to Ethiopia must emphasise peace and accountability

People at an IDP camp in northern Ethiopia receive their first bags of wheat from the World Food Programme in September 2021. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • The unlawful denial of access to humanitarian aid and the weaponisation of food – starving civilians as a war tactic – have been the central aspects of the current Ethiopian war, which has left millions of people in a dire humanitarian state.
  • According to the World Food Programme, two million people are severely hungry, and 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished in the Tigray region.

The first visit to Ethiopia by the new US special envoy for the Horn of Africa this week is a significant opportunity to support peace and ensure an end to using food as a weapon of war.

It comes in the wake of a humanitarian truce and announced peace talks between the Ethiopian government and Tigray rebels after almost two years of a devastating civil war.

As the US and other United Nations Security Council members consolidate peace, they must ensure that the parties are held accountable for denying humanitarian access and starving civilians, a violation of Ethiopia’s and international humanitarian laws.

Failure to do so will only invite a repeat of a long cycle of impunity and hunger successive Ethiopian governments have historically engaged in.

The unlawful denial of access to humanitarian aid and the weaponisation of food – starving civilians as a war tactic – have been the central aspects of the current Ethiopian war, which has left millions of people in a dire humanitarian state.

According to the World Food Programme, two million people are severely hungry, and 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women are malnourished in the Tigray region.

Such grim numbers evoke memories of past famines.

Ethiopian authorities have a history of using food as a weapon.  Emperor Haile Selassie deliberately ignored famine in Tigray in 1954-58 and 1965-67.

During the 1983-1995 famine, “Repeated military offensives destroyed the crops in surplus-producing areas, with them much rural employment. The bombing of marketplaces restricted rural trade and exchange, impeding the redistribution of the surpluses that existed locally”.

Beyond denying humanitarian access, Ethiopia, Eritrea and their affiliate militia have also destroyed Tigray’s agricultural and food systems, a violation of Article 270 of the Ethiopian Penal Code of 2004, which prohibits “the confiscation, destruction, removal, rendering useless or appropriation of property such as foodstuffs”. Food and agricultural implements are objects indispensable to the civilian population’s survival.

Further, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417 (2018) condemns starving civilians as a method of warfare. People in distress are entitled to humanitarian assistance, and blocking or stealing such aid is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.

Damaged Safety Net

The conflict and humanitarian blockade have dismantled a precarious safety net against hunger. Even without war, cyclic climate shocks make Ethiopia susceptible to chronic food insecurity. Over the past six decades, Ethiopia has experienced a drought every three to five years. The fact that 80 percent of Ethiopians depend on rain-fed agriculture makes the impact of drought acute. In 2005, with the help of donors, Ethiopia inaugurated the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), a flagship national social safety net.

The PSNP addresses the immediate food shortage and long-term resilience through cash transfers, public works, and nutritional feeding programmes. It has cushioned the recipients from external shocks, including Covid 19. But the federal government refused to disburse PSNP payments to Tigray as early as 2020, and the war subsequently destroyed the system in northern Ethiopia.

Since the March 24 announcement by the Ethiopian government of a “humanitarian truce”, humanitarian delivery has improved; the government has allowed in fuel, cash, medicines, and medical supplies in recent months. Nearly 3,000 trucks carrying more than 120,000 metric tonnes of multi-sector assistance arrived in Tigray’s capital city of Mekele between April 1 and June 21.

But this improvement comes from a very low bar, and the arrival of food aid is insufficient in easing the humanitarian needs if not accompanied by the availability of fuel. Currently, humanitarian actors do not have adequate fuel to transport the food to the people in need outside Mekele.

The UN estimates that two million litres of fuel are required for humanitarian operations in Tigray monthly. However, only 23 tankers carrying 990,000 litres arrived in Mekele between April and mid-June. This is not adequate humanitarian access.

Time for Action

The special envoy’s visit this week presents an opportunity to address these needs. The US, the largest single-country donor of humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa country, should ask for the immediate lifting of all obstacles and blockades in Tigray to allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to alleviate the desperate humanitarian situation in Tigray and other regions.

The US should not provide the parties a blank cheque just because they are willing to engage in peace talks. The US cannot afford to let up on its demands for humanitarian access; sustainable peace is not possible without some accountability.

The current access is insufficient, and further delays will only lead to more predictable but preventable suffering.

Under the UN SC2417, the Secretary‑General is required to report swiftly to the Security Council “when the risk of conflict‑induced famine and widespread food insecurity in armed conflict contexts occurs”. Whenever such reports include access in violation of international law, the council would consider such “information and, when necessary, to adopt appropriate steps”.

Undoubtedly, Ethiopia’s case fits such a situation, and the council has a precedent. In 2018, it swiftly passed resolution 2428, imposing an arms embargo, targeted sanctions and recognising the “conflict-induced food insecurity and threat of famine” in South Sudan.

The special envoy’s visit will coincide with that of experts from the UN Commission on Human Rights. This provides a chance to emphasise the importance of including accountability as an essential part of building peace and avoiding a repeat of the past. These visits should prioritise accountability for violations of international humanitarian laws to send a strong signal to the parties in the conflict and as a deterrent in future conflict.

In October 2020, UNCHR experts on South Sudan released a report detailing how parties to the conflict used “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”. The current Ethiopia situation is not dissimilar to that in South Sudan.

The cycle of impunity for policies of starvation must be stopped. It will be unconscionable if more Ethiopians die because of famine, as in the past, not because of geography or lack of food, but because of denial and lack of access to food. It will even be worse if those responsible are not held accountable.

Abdullahi Halakhe is the senior advocate for the East and Horn of Africa region at Refugees International.

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