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How Many More Innocent Lives Must be Lost in Tigray, asks Adama Dieng

Adama Dieng (centre), visited Yei River State in South Sudan while he was the United Nations Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. He now calls for urgent action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

NEW YORK, Aug 18 2021 (IPS) - Despite a June 30 unilateral ceasefire declaration by Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed, United Nations agencies say a recent escalation in fighting has been ‘disastrous’ for children, amid reports of over 100 children being killed in an attack on displaced families.

It follows continuing reports of human rights abuses and warnings that over 400,000 face famine. Recently, a group of renowned peace leaders wrote to the President, urging him to take immediate action to end the crisis in the northern Tigray region.

The region has been embroiled in conflict since November 2020, when long-standing tensions between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) came to a head, with the Prime Minister launching a military operation he described at the time as a ‘law and order operation.’ He had accused the TPLF of targeting government military units and holding illegal elections.

“Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was praised as a great reformer when he assumed office in 2018. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for a peace deal that ended a two-decade war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But today, he is presiding over a civil war that has escalated out of control, with reports of mass atrocities committed by Ethiopian forces, and no end in sight,” former president of East Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Laureate José Ramos-Horta wrote in Newsweek.

The group of concerned peace leaders includes Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former Slovenian President Danilo Turk, Former President of Finland Tarja Halonen, former UN and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, Former Member of the Nobel Peace Committee, Chair of Religions for Peace Emeritus Bishop of Oslo Dr Gunnar Stålsett and former UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Envoy for Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng.

They called on the leader to end this war – along with the suffering on the people of the region ‘which has already been too great.”

The following is an interview with Adama Dieng.

Inter Press Service (IPS): What are some of your biggest concerns regarding the situation in Tigray?

Adama Dieng (AD): What is happening in Tigray is a tragedy. It is a reminder that conflict is never a solution to any dispute! Dialogue is the way out of any such situation.
My biggest worry is the well-being and safety of the people of Tigray. Innocent lives have been lost unnecessarily. Women and children, and people with disabilities have been clamped into IDP makeshift camps with little or no access to vital humanitarian support.

Humanitarian access is a challenge that warring parties need to address. The United Nations and other partners should be granted unequivocal access to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance to the population in need.

But also, the looming, indeed actual famine that is threatening the livelihood of the local population. All reports we get from the region indicate that famine is looming. How do we avert this?

This is a farming/planting season in the region. Yet, people are in camps, unable to go back to their homes ready for planting season. Without addressing the conflict, it is evident that there is a looming catastrophe because people cannot go back to their homes.

(IPS): The UN Secretary-General expressed shock at the murder of 3 humanitarian workers in Tigray, stating that this was ‘an appalling violation of International Humanitarian Law.’ With this development, along with the casualties over the past eight months, is it time for the international community to take a firmer stance?

(AD): As you may know, very well, the Secretary-General and the United Nations family have called for an unconditional ceasefire to allow free and unhindered access to humanitarians. These voices should be heeded by both parties.

Any death is tragic. Leave alone humanitarian workers who sacrifice their comfort and life to work in such dangerous and insecure areas. People who commit such heinous crimes should be held to account and face the full force of the law.

The warring parties should know very clearly that there are consequences for the ongoing and continued violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. I have no doubt that those responsible will be held to account for these violations. Unfortunately, accountability will come when people have suffered and continue to endure suffering. It is critical that the conflict stops.

I understand, some member states and regional organizations continue to put pressure on the government of Ethiopia to stop this war. By ensuring the full withdrawal of foreign forces and ensure safety and security of the people in Tigray.

The priority should be to stop the war and guarantee peace and safety for the people to resume their normal lives. As we speak, The United Nations in Ethiopia has reported a spiraling number of IDPs running to seek sanctuary in other areas of Ethiopia and indeed in Sudan. We need to return to normal to allow people to return to their homes. And people can’t return without a guarantee of peace and security.

(IPS): Many aid agencies have expressed concern over the plight of Eritrean refugees in the Region. What must be done now to do right by the thousands of refugees in urgent need of assistance?

(AD): Of course, I share this concern. However, Eritrean refugees are protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention. Ethiopia has an inherent obligation to ensure that these refugees on its territory are afforded protection as required under international law. I believe, Ethiopia as a signatory to these critical documents, understands this obligation and will ensure that Eritrean refugees are afforded requisite protection under national and international law.

(IPS): Do you support calls for independent investigators to probe allegations of human rights abuses?

(AD): Certainly. Ethiopia is a signatory to a wide range of international and regional human rights treaties. It is a headquarter of the African Union and other regional institutions. It has an obligation to ensure that those who commit crimes on its territory are investigated and punished in accordance with these international laws and standards, which are part of Ethiopian laws. I am therefore confident that the Ethiopian government is willing and will be fully supportive of independent investigations for alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that may have been committed on its territory.

(IPS): Does the declaration of a ceasefire bring hope to this situation?

(DG): This ceasefire gives me hope. But again, as you know, declaring the ceasefire and respecting the ceasefire are two different things. My primary concern is whether, both parties will respect the ceasefire. The key aspect is that we need to support all efforts that end this war which, has tragically led to the loss of life, livelihood, and dignity of innocent people in the region. If warring parties feel that they may need external support to action this, I am sure the international community, through wide range of tools and mechanisms, would be happy and ready to support them to ensure that the ceasefire endures!

(IPS): As someone who has helped establish mechanisms like early warning systems to prevent genocide and atrocity crimes, what comes to mind when you assess this situation?

(AD): The situation in the Tigray reminds us that early warning can be successful only if it is linked to early action. If we are serious about prevention, we must be prepared to act earlier, when we see the first signs of concern. One can say that we are failing the populations in Tigray.

The primary responsibility to protect the Tigrean populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, as well as their incitement, lies first and foremost with the State of Ethiopia. Such responsibility to protect was reaffirmed by the United Nations Member States when adopting, in 2005, the World Summit Outcome Document. They committed to assisting each other to fulfill this responsibility and to act collectively when States “manifestly failed” to protect their populations from these crimes. This was the first such international commitment to protect populations from atrocity crimes. It is deplorable that many states use the principle of sovereignty to resist external assistance to their affected populations.

In case leaders are serious about preventing violent conflict, they must be open to seek assistance to protect their populations in the framework of the Summit Outcome Document. Failure or unwillingness to seek such assistance, may imply that the state is either implicitly or explicitly responsible for the violence. That is why I always caution leaders around the world that if they don’t take demonstrable action to prevent atrocities against their own citizens, then under the principle of command responsibility, they could be held accountable.

It is urgent also to remind African leaders that the African Union, under its Constitutive Act, has one of the most developed early warning mechanisms with a requisite legal framework for prevention. The Act under Article 2 obligates AU Member states to intervene in situations to prevent genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This legal framework, if put into practice, goes way ahead of the United Nations to prevent armed conflicts. The serious crimes being committed in Tigray could have been prevented as there were credible assessments of imminent threats to populations.

It would mean that our governments, regional and international organizations build resilient and cohesive societies. And when we see signs of fragility, we should take early preventative actions. We should be open to mediation, dialogue, and technical assistance in areas that could trigger conflict, for example, in electoral processes or constitution-making.


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