Tigray is starving, it is time for the UN to act

The aid should flow to Tigray now, no matter what. That is the law, and the United Nations should uphold it.

Brkti Gebrehiwot, a 20-year-old woman from Agulae, a town previously occupied by Eritrean troops, tries to feed her one year and eight month old son Aamanuel Merhawi, who suffers from severe acute malnutrition at Wukro hospital in Wukro, Tigray region, Ethiopia, July 11, 2021. [Giulia Paravicini/Reuters]

A year after the outbreak of the war in Tigray, Ethiopia, the United Nations Security Council is yet to act. This is despite the UN’s own assessment that there are famine conditions in Tigray and that the Ethiopian government is systematically obstructing the delivery of essential aid to the region.

Last month, PBS Newshour asked former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, “Is the Ethiopian government trying to starve Tigray?” Able to speak candidly after his retirement, he answered, “Yes. There’s not just an attempt to starve six million people but an attempt to cover up what’s going on.”

Today, the realities are changing fast. With the Ethiopian army defeated, and the victorious Tigrayan forces and their Oromo allies closing in on the capital, Addis Ababa, the UN has one last chance to do the right thing. The absolute minimum is to act to stop the deepening starvation in Tigray and the widening humanitarian crisis across other parts of Ethiopia. With the economic crisis spiralling, hunger is even knocking on the door of Addis Ababa.

Starvation has been the Ethiopian government’s weapon of choice. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s famine plan for Tigray was simple and relentless. For eight months, his soldiers – and their Eritrean allies – pillaged and ransacked Tigray. They stole and burned food, stopped farmers from ploughing the land, looted and vandalised clinics and hospitals, ripped up water pipes and damaged water pumps, terrorised women and girls with rape and threats of rape, and helped themselves to much of the relief food delivered from outside.

Abiy imposed starvation in a systematic and rigorous way. It is not clear whether he wanted to weaken the Tigrayans’ capacity or resolve, to punish them, or to destroy them altogether. Whatever the motive, it redoubled the Tigrayans’ fierce determination to prevail, because their very survival was at stake.

In June, when the Tigrayan resistance drove out the occupying soldiers, Abiy imposed a comprehensive and unlawful blockade: food and medicine cannot get in, information about the starvation cannot get out. The banks are closed; salaries are not paid and humanitarian agencies do not have money to operate. The UN estimates that 100 truckloads of food are needed every day to feed five million people in need, including at least 400,000 suffering famine. About 13 percent of that amount has actually been allowed through.

Tigrayan children are wasting away, one-fifth of them severely undernourished. Four out of five pregnant or nursing mothers are acutely malnourished. Nurses are fainting of hunger on the job.

A comprehensive news blackout has been imposed to stop images and information from seeping out. But the truth is inescapable. And Abiy seems to have forgotten a lesson from history: previous Ethiopian leaders lost their legitimacy when their people starved.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime collapsed in the aftermath of a famine in 1973, which he tried to conceal. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam denied the existence of famine in 1984, and did his best to block relief aid to rebel-held areas in the name of protecting national sovereignty. The result was that the international donors supported a clandestine cross-border aid effort, and in due course adopted a series of norms culminating in the “responsibility to protect”.

War creates hunger – and hunger also drives war. The UN Security Council expressed this fear when it adopted resolution 2417 in May 2018: “Recognising the need to break the vicious cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity.”

Humanitarian failure escalated Ethiopia’s war. With the international humanitarians deferring to the Ethiopian government, the Tigrayan resistance took matters into their own hands.

After seizing control of their home region, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) took the offensive, sending units beyond the boundaries of their region, saying they are determined to break the starvation siege by any means necessary. As their troops have penetrated deep into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar, they have requisitioned food and medical supplies. In the coming days, they are set to control the road from Djibouti, which is the main access route for humanitarian supplies as well as the main commercial route to Addis Ababa.

But Abiy refuses to accept that starvation is a weapon that fatally injures its user. In response to a deeply flawed report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Abiy falsely claimed that he was exonerated of weaponising hunger. In fact, the joint investigation only mentioned a handful of starvation crimes and has nothing to say about the unlawful siege on Tigray imposed since June. Abiy is sending his air force to bomb the Tigrayan city of Mekelle and he is buying drones. And he has still not agreed to unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray.

Abiy’s hunger plan is an international crime to be exposed, sanctioned, and punished, not appeased. The aid should flow now, no matter what. That is the law, and the UN should uphold it.

Implementing the right to life for the starving means that the UN must deal with the realities on the ground. That means speaking directly with the Tigrayans, the Oromo Liberation Army, and whoever controls territory and people, to allow the aid to flow. If that means overruling the wishes of Abiy, so be it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.