A growing humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, worsened by a de facto government blockade, is the latest consequence of the conflict between Ethiopia’s government and rebel Tigrayan forces. The conflict has seen numerous gross human rights violations committed against civilians by all sides. The international community has been slow to act, but a December 2021 resolution to set up an investigation by the Human Rights Council offers hope that impunity will be challenged and the perpetrators of violations held to account. The government must cooperate fully with the investigation and, as international concern about the crisis grows, must enable immediate humanitarian access to Tigray.

A humanitarian crisis threatens the lives of millions of people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The World Food Programme (WFP) recently warned it is almost out of food supplies in Tigray, even though five million people continue to need food assistance.

Medical supplies are also low: doctors from Tigray’s biggest hospital have called on the Ethiopian government to allow an airlift of insulin supplies as their stocks are exhausted; without this, people with type 1 diabetes risk an agonising death. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the Ethiopian government for preventing the supply of medicines and blocking international access to Tigray.

The United Nations (UN)’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has accused the government of imposing a de facto blockade against the supply of humanitarian aid to Tigray, which is preventing food and medical deliveries. The government does nothing but shift the blame, accusing forces from the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TLPF) of disrupting supplies.

Offensive and counter-offensive

This is a bloody conflict in which there is no right side, and whoever eventually prevails will have done so at great human cost.

While at times Eritrean forces have fought on behalf of the government and rebel forces from some of the other ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia’s patchwork of regions have found common cause with the TLPF, the present conflict is at heart a battle for power between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TLPF. It erupted as a result of Abiy’s attempts to curtail the dominance the TLPF long enjoyed in Ethiopia’s politics and to merge the ethnically-based parties that made up the governing coalition into a pan-Ethiopian party, a move resisted by the TLPF.

When Abiy postponed national and regional elections due in October 2020 because of the pandemic, Tigray went ahead with its regional elections regardless, defying the central government. By the time Ethiopia’s general election was held in June and September 2021, Tigray was excluded from the process due to the ongoing conflict.

The electoral wrangling that sparked the conflict is now a distant memory. But both sides have stuck to their positions, ignoring calls from civil society and the international community to put down their weapons, since both sides have at times believed victory to be in sight.

A war of words first turned into violent conflict when TLPF forces captured army bases in Tigray in November 2020. Later that month, the Ethiopian forces’ swift response saw them take control of Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. They must have thought they had crushed the rebellion. But Tigrayan forces continued to fight a guerrilla campaign. They took back Mekelle in June 2021, and shortly after, once voting had concluded in the first part of the election, Abiy announced a ceasefire and withdrawal of troops from Tigray, despite having previously rejected ceasefire calls.

Tigrayan forces quickly took back control of their region but did not stop there, pushing into territory controlled by the government. By November 2021, Tigrayan forces claimed to have taken control of two cities a few hundred kilometres from Addis Ababa, the federal capital. The government reacted by declaring a six-month state of emergency. Authorities in Addis Ababa called on people to form groups to defend their neighbourhoods.

Abiy went to the frontlines to lead the counter-offensive personally, and the government won back the territory gained by Tigrayan forces. Tigrayan forces retreated, as they had done in November 2020, but it would not be surprising if they have again fallen back to practise guerrilla warfare. The conflict could continue for some time yet – and those who suffer the most will be the civilians who are not just caught in the crossfire but are clearly being targeted.

Violations on all sides

January 2022 has seen a series of airstrikes in Tigray in which civilians have been killed, among them children. In the worst incident so far, on 7 January at least 56 people were killed in an airstrike on a camp for internally displaced people in the town of Dedebit. The UN says at least 108 civilians have been killed in airstrikes in January so far. The government is also reportedly using armed drones supplied by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The government denies it is targeting civilians, but these are not isolated incidents, and it is the dispossessed, the many made homeless, those who are already the victims of conflict, who are suffering the most.

The conflict has been characterised by gross human rights violations from the very start. An investigation by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, published in November 2021, found evidence that all sides in the conflict may have committed crimes against humanity. The report shared numerous devastating first-hand testimonies of massacres, torture and systematic sexual violence.

The TLPF rejected the findings as biased, while the Eritrean government did not engage with the investigation. Abiy said he accepted the report, despite having ‘serious reservations’; he seemed to see it as a point of honour that the report did not accuse his government of genocide or using access to food as a weapon of war. This hardly seemed something to boast about.

Genocide Watch, a civil society group that aims to stop genocide, is less sanguine. Its findings indicate that both government and rebel forces are committing acts of genocide, with clear evidence of ethnic targeting. They accuse Abiy of consistently using hate speech against ethnic Tigrayans, which enables violence.

While all sides are sowing ethnic division, as the democratically elected leader of the nation, Abiy has a particular responsibility to avoid doing so. But this is far from the case. As Tigrayan forces advanced in November, Abiy promised to ‘bury’ the enemy. A Facebook post from Abiy even fell foul of the social media company’s usually lax standards and was removed on the grounds of inciting violence.

The powers granted to Abiy under the state of emergency are vast: people can be detained without a warrant if suspected of having links with ‘terrorist’ groups and the government can impose curfews and place areas under military control. The declaration of the state of emergency was immediately followed by a mass round-up of Tigrayans in government-controlled areas, including UN staff and WFP drivers. It seemed clear, as has happened throughout the conflict, that people were being targeted merely for being Tigrayan. Having started out by merging parties on the grounds of reducing ethnic division, Abiy is now stirring it.

Time to let the international community in

Nothing could be further from Abiy’s early promise to respect human rights and nurture democracy. In a country long infamous for repression, initial progress, including the end of the frozen conflict with Eritrea, saw Abiy awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Since then he’s become a warrior, and it’s clear that rights will be trampled in favour of victory in the conflict. Nobel prizes can’t be rescinded, but in a rare intervention, in January 2022 the committee that awards the prize spoke up, reminding Abiy that his status as a Nobel laureate means he has a special duty to contribute to peace.

To live up to these aspirations, Abiy should see international institutions as allies rather than enemies. Instead of arresting and expelling UN representatives, he should work with them. Likewise, rather than restrict international humanitarian groups – Médecins Sans Frontières and the Norwegian Refugee Council were both barred from working for several months – the government should enable them.

Abiy should see international institutions as allies rather than enemies.

Key international institutions, including the UN Security Council and Africa Union, have acted slowly and done predictably little. But in December, following civil society advocacy, the UN Human Rights Council finally agreed to set up an independent investigation into human rights abuses and violations. Abiy denounced this move as ‘politically motivated’ and blamed Tigrayan forces for abuses. Interestingly, it was the abstention of six African states, defying the calls of the African group to vote against, that helped get the resolution passed. Abiy may be running out of allies.

Abiy should realise that the best way of being recognised as the peacemaker he clearly once wanted to be is to cooperate fully with this investigation, granting it full access. If evidence is collected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, this should inform International Criminal Court action.

One of the challenges to any investigation is that Tigray is under an information blackout that makes it hard to get accurate and reliable intelligence about the situation on the ground. As it has done throughout the conflict, the government is preventing information getting out and stopping those who could help getting in. As international concern grows, this needs to change.

Above all, vital humanitarian supplies of food and medicine must be allowed in without delay. The safety of humanitarian workers – several have been killed – should be guaranteed by all sides. Already, in this conflict with no clear winners, much blood has been shed. Further losses must be prevented.


  • The government of Ethiopia and rebel forces must allow immediate humanitarian access to Tigray, including safe passage for vital supplies such as food and medicines.
  • The government of Ethiopia should cooperate fully with the UN Human Rights Council investigation and provide all information required.
  • States should cease weapons sales to all parties in the conflict, including the supply of armed drones.

Cover photo by Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images via Getty Images