Mulubrhan Balehegn, Ethiopia Insight.
These same governments are not only downplaying an extensively documented genocide and ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region but also continue to provide diplomatic support to the Ethiopian government.
The rush by Western leaders to declare genocide is happening in Ukraine and to avoid doing so in Tigray, now twenty months into the war, is the symptom of a neoliberal world order whose basic tenets and global policy prescriptions inadvertently produce mass atrocities, and then elicit selective responses based on economic and security interests.
The war on Tigray demonstrates how the global neoliberal project—which is premised on spreading market-oriented reforms, often at the expense of economic security and human rights—enables genocidal violence in the developing world.
The roots of conflict in Ethiopia, and elsewhere, often have an economic basis that is linked to the nature of the free market capitalist system. The 2014 to 2018 protests in Oromia and Amhara showed how identity-based conflicts intertwine with global economic dynamics.
Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 with the full support of Western powers, largely based on his plans to implement a dual reform agenda of economic and political liberalization. Key warning signs were ignored and the regime was emboldened by ‘Abiy-mania’ in the West.
Beyond the power struggle at the center, constitutional disputes, and security dilemma, one reason the central government went to war with Tigray was to maintain a pliant regional government that would not be an obstacle to Abiy’s economic liberalization project.
In Washington, the Trump administration sided with the federal government against Tigray’s regional government and thus facilitated atrocities in Tigray. The Biden administration has taken some diplomatic action, but has been criticized by Tigrayans for not doing enough—and accused by regime supporters of trying to bring TPLF back to power.
Tigray is therefore only the latest case in which global market forces heighten the drivers of conflict and, once genocidal violence commences, Western powers largely turn a blind eye or continue to prioritize national interests despite their empty rhetoric about human rights.
Prior to 1991, Ethiopia was ruled by the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist junta that assumed power in 1974 following a military coup that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch.
Derg’s time in power was defined by mass killings, manmade famines, and civil unrest. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-nationalist parties led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), overthrew the repressive military junta in 1991 after seventeen years of bloody civil war.
The EPRDF, which ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades, achieved an economic miracle by sustaining double-digit growth for nearly a decade in the 2010s. It did so by implementing what Meles Zenawi, its leader until his death in 2012, called a revolutionary-democratic and developmental state model in which the government exerted control over markets and the economy.
The model worked from an economic development point of view, as millions of people were lifted out of poverty and the country became a coveted destination for investors and donors. Between 2000 and 2019, Ethiopia’s Human Development Index increased by 66 percent.
Despite its evident success, Western countries and leaders of neoliberal institutions opposed the EPRDF’s developmental state policy.
The IMF was entangled in a lengthy disagreement with the EPRDF government, as it persistently demanded that lucrative economic sectors such as banking, communications, and Ethiopian Airlines be privatized, despite clear economic and developmental justifications against doing so.
In part to allow itself the leeway to implement these policies with minimal resistance from foreign powers, the EPRDF aligned its foreign policy with the West by becoming Washington’s key security partner in the volatile Horn of Africa region, including in Somalia.
The developmental state model had a dark side as well. It gave rise to a dictatorial government, which, in a bid to strengthen its control of the populace and the economy, sometimes resorted to violence, suppression of rights, and gross human rights violations.
Later in the EPRDF era, the government began to implement numerous elements of neoliberal economics, such as leasing land to foreign capitalists. These grievances contributed to popular uprisings in 2014, which culminated in protests in Oromia and Amhara.
According to senior TPLF officials, at least one US diplomat, Donald Yamamoto, then-Secretary of State for African Affairs, was involved in grooming Abiy to become prime minister. After his inauguration in 2018, Abiy obtained full support from almost all Western governments.
Abiy was so exalted that he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, a decision that is now widely criticized as premature and ill-advised. To the delight of his Western backers, Abiy promised sweeping reforms geared toward liberalizing Ethiopia’s politics and economy.
Before even starting his liberalization project, however, Abiy engaged in a bloody war with Tigray—one of Ethiopia’s semi-autonomous federal states, which is governed by the TPLF.
The causes of genocide in the modern era are mostly structural and emerge from the nature of the global capitalist system.
Siswo Pramono, an Indonesian diplomat and academic argues that neoliberalism is eliminationist and genocidal by design because its agents work to commodify, transform, and, if necessary, eliminate any form of culture, political ideology, or social relationships that are different from or opposed to free-market principles.
The neoliberal project, despite professing an unflinching commitment to democracy, abhors autonomy. Its proponents aim to create a state, citizens, and institutions that are amenable to the policy prescriptions of universal free-market fundamentalism.
If the effort faces any obstacle—for example, when traditional socio-economic and political systems are opposed to free-market reforms and global corporate culture—then the state is either placated or supported by foreign governments, financial institutions, and multinationals while it unleashes violence on a part of its own population that is hindering this transformation.
Abiy has acted to curtail the autonomy of Ethiopia’s regional states, including by going to war with Tigray. He continues to publicly flirt with the idea of returning Ethiopia to its past centralized empire, despite historical evidence that doing so will activate sub-state identities and produce an unending cycle of violence.
When Abiy assumed power in 2018, TPLF leaders and the people they represent in Tigray were framed as obstacles to liberal reforms. The name “ለውጥ ኣደናቃፊ” or “obstacles of change” has been used to describe anyone who opposed Abiy’s liberal reform agenda.
Abiy’s Western advisors were at best indifferent about such framing, and at times encouraged the narrative that Tigrayan leaders and elites were actively undermining the liberal reforms.
For instance, then-US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, suggested that high-profile assassinations that rocked Ethiopia on 22 June 2019 may be the work of Ethiopia’s old guard, meaning the TPLF, who oppose Abiy’s reform agenda.
At the war’s outset, the Trump administration provided cover for Addis Abeba while at the same time threatening Ethiopia and taking Egypt’s side in the dispute over the Blue Nile dam. The Biden administration has been more critical of Abiy and enacted some economic punishments, likely because the war has destabilized the country and the region, but at the same time, the World Bank continues to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in project funding.
Genocides never come as a surprise. The extermination stage during which victims are killed en masse is often preceded by earlier stages where governments, elites, and ideologues prepare their supporters for a final assault.
Most cases of genocide, therefore, happen because those who could have prevented them, which usually means powerful Western countries with sufficient leverage over genocidaires, refuse to intervene—such as in the cases of Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur.
In Ethiopia, intent to let Abiy clear the Tigray ‘annoyance’ to facilitate the liberalization project, many Western actors willfully ignored obvious signs of impending mass atrocities.
Both before and during the war, state-guided hate campaigns against Tigray, calls for genocide by opposition media, and anti-Tigrayan hate speech—including dehumanizing references to Tigrayans such as cancers, breast-biters, day-time hyenas, and outsiders—by state officials and prominent personalities were all clear signs of genocide that Abiy’s Western backers chose to ignore.
During the war, Abiy’s Western backers supported his administration and trusted his promise of a surgical “law enforcement operation” that would take only two weeks. Even after carnage was unleashed by the government and its allies, they were slow to take any action or show concern.
All forms of excuses were fabricated to depict a belligerent TPLF attacking Ethiopia and Eritrea. Showing the Trump administration’s bias, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the TPLF for firing missiles at Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, which took place a week after the Eritreans had attacked Tigray.
Leaders of Western countries and institutions offer up only meaningless statements of concern while continuing to do business with a government accused of genocide.
Amid the Biafra-like blockade of Tigray, Western states, including the US, UK, and European Union members, in concert with their neoliberal multilateral apparatuses such as the World Bank, are making business deals with the Ethiopian government.
Other Western countries have enabled the war on Tigray by not condemning it.
Western apathy is best represented by Canada’s lack of response to the genocide in Tigray. From the beginning of the war, the Canadian government has shown tacit support for the Ethiopian government’s war effort.
A Canadian mining company, Nevsun, provided a lifeline to the Eritrean government before it was forced to sell its interests in the Bisha mine to a Chinese company in 2019 after it lost a court case alleging that forced military conscripts were used as laborers in its mines.
A leaked report accused Canada of covering for Canadian mining companies operating in Tigray. Among them is East Africa Metals, a Vancouver-based company that is seeking to expand its existing mining interests in Tigray amid the war. Nevsun’s former CEO, Andrew Lee Smith, now holds that position at East Africa Metals.
The West’s refusal to intervene based on moralistic principles in the face of impending and active atrocities is often attributed to a self-serving and realist approach to interventions. Action and inaction are based purely on strategic factors such as security and business deals, not humanitarian ideals.
Historically, the perpetrators of genocide are state or state-affiliated actors.
Despite this reality, Western interlocutors who try to prevent or stop genocides typically rely on established diplomatic channels that are controlled by the very state that is committing genocide.
As the genocide in Tigray continues in the form of a blockade, Western politicians from the US, EU, and the UK openly convene and make public appearances with Ethiopian officials—a practice that gives international legitimacy to the government.
It may be argued that choosing to not condemn or be confrontational towards the Ethiopian government is part of a strategy aimed at building peace through gradual, incremental steps. For Tigrayans, however, such normalization of regime officials is appeasement of war criminals.
In early 2021, the State Department announced that it was looking into evidence to legally determine whether genocide has been committed in Tigray. Months later, it was announced that, to give diplomacy a chance, Washington would refrain from making a public determination.
This is a justified fear as there is a precedent in Darfur, where the US initially determined genocide was taking place only to abandon this determination after Sudan showed strong support for US’s war on terror.
Based on the new business deals and loans Ethiopia has signed with Western companies, some Tigrayans fear that the US will refrain from making any such determination in return for Ethiopia making economic concessions and based on geopolitical interests.
In the rare instances when Westerners tried to engage with Tigray’s leaders, they were mainly interested in serving their own business and geopolitical interests.
According to a Tigrayan general, when the Tigray forces were 200 miles from Addis Abeba and the fall of the Abiy regime seemed very probable, the AU’s negotiator, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, asked the Tigrayans what they planned to do with lucrative Ethiopian corporations such as the Ethiopian Airlines—apparently at Washington’s behest.
Apportioning blame to perpetrators and victims equally, shrouded in a spirit of neutrality, is another calculated and self-serving business move by Western diplomats.
In the Tigray conflict, Western diplomats worked hard to create equivalence in crimes between the genocidaires and Tigrayan forces.
Most notably, the UN allowed the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a government-sanctioned body, to investigate crimes in Tigray jointly with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The result, as many feared, was the distortion of evidence and equalization of blame.
Similarly, President Biden’s now-defunct executive order threatened to sanction not only the génocidaires but also the Tigrayan side, insinuating that both sides in the conflict have committed comparable crimes.
Human rights bodies such as Amnesty International have issued reports of atrocities committed by Tigrayan forces. Tigrayan leaders have consistently expressed their desire for independent investigations, a demand that the Ethiopian and Eritrean side rejects.
There is no equivalence, however, between what Tigray forces are accused of and the genocidal campaign waged on Tigrayans by Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean soldiers.
Western powers are reticent to officially recognize genocide is taking place even when the evidence is damning, as recognition is expensive, painful, and implies a responsibility to act.
In her extensive studies of US policy responses to genocide, Samantha Power concluded that the US has never in its history intervened to stop genocide, and rarely has it made a point of condemning one.
Some of the worst mass murders in the world have not been recognized as genocide by the US. This was the case during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It also took the US more than a century to recognize the early twentieth-century genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.
Even if the evidence of genocide is irrefutable, powerful nations have put up many hurdles that make it impossible for them to intervene militarily or otherwise. For instance, US Presidential Directive 25 makes it very hard for the US government to send troops to UN peacekeeping operations, even when an operation is aimed at stopping an ongoing genocide.
Western states continue to waste time squabbling over procedures and issue countless empty statements of concern. Virtue signaling and diplomatic expediency are prioritized at the expense of millions of victims.
The UN’s doctrine of Responsibility to Protect and other international commitments created an illusion that there would be a collective response in Tigray and elsewhere when mass atrocities are committed. In practice, Western politicians are at best bystanders to genocide and, in some respects, facilitators.
Despite the diplomatic noise, no single country or multilateral organization has yet recognized the genocide in Tigray. The few interventions implemented so far, most notably by Washington and the EU, have not stopped Tigrayans from dying either through violence, starvation, or curable diseases.
Powerful Western governments will probably let the genocide run its ‘natural course’ unless they see a convincing economic and geopolitical imperative to intervene.
Tigrayans and other unfortunate communities threatened by genocidal violence can only avoid the fate of annihilation by depending on their own internal capacity for resistance and aligning their resistance interests with powerful neoliberal forces.
In Tigray, given that at least one of the génocidaires, Eritrea, is an anti-West and pro-Russian dictatorship, a rare political opportunity exists for such an alignment.
Nonetheless, given that national interests—such as regional security and neoliberal imperatives—dictate policies of intervention and non-intervention, such an alliance would be fragile and perilous.
Mulubrhan Balehegn is a researcher based at the University of Florida and maintains the blog africanacademicresearcher.com.