Viewpoint

Ethiopia’s sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect in Tigray

A balance must be struck between shielding civilians and respecting the state.

The civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region brings into focus tensions between the traditional principle of state sovereignty and the emerging Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm.

The deterioration of events into war crimes against Tigrayans reveals the limitations of anti-interventionism as an absolute virtue. To mitigate legitimate concerns about state sovereignty and neo-imperialist meddling, external actors must concentrate on humanitarianism and accountability for international crimes.

The evolution of state sovereignty norms

Francis Deng identifies four phases in the evolution of state sovereignty norms. First, the European treaty of Westphalia in 1649 established a system of modern nation-states. Second, the supreme power of the sovereign was challenged after 1945 by emerging human rights norms, such as the Genocide Convention. Third, the 1990s ushered in a post-Cold War phase where United Nations (UN) peace missions were more frequently employed. Fourth, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted in 2005, holds that the interests of individuals are paramount and the sovereignty of states is conditional.

Under R2P, norms of state sovereignty no longer shield states from their responsibility to protect citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Wherever a state abdicates that responsibility, the international community is obligated to intervene through various means.

R2P emerged in response to many failures of collective action in the 1990s. Humanitarian intervention was unsuccessful in Somalia, largely absent in Rwanda and Srebrenica, and applied without a UN Security Council mandate in Kosovo.

Proponents of R2P assumed that the failure to enforce human rights norms derives from a failure of law. In reality, as the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Tigray demonstrate, the collective absence of a political will is a much bigger factor.

R2P opponents and proponents

Opponents of R2P include realists, who are generally more concerned with state security and sovereignty than the emerging principle of human security. While liberals portray global society as a community of states with a common higher purpose, realists see power and self-interest as the prime determinants of international affairs.

The lack of consistency in how R2P is employed is therefore explained by the fact that some states are simply too powerful, or well connected, to be targeted. An alternative conception of this term would focus on popular sovereignty rather than only the sovereignty of states.

Anti-imperialists see R2P as a Trojan horse for Western power interests. Sovereignty was conceived in Europe and then foisted upon African societies during the colonial period, leaving the continent with a set of irrational territorial boundaries that artificially divided communities. Newly independent states were subsequently forced into a struggle against neo-colonialism.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his supporters often manipulate anti-imperialist arguments to provide cover for the Ethiopian regime’s authoritarian abuses. The fear that the R2P norm will open the door for a pattern of interventionism is nonetheless legitimate. Western powers citing R2P in 2011 to justify NATO’s military intervention in Libya is a case in point.

The extent to which authoritarian states genuinely represent the will of the people must be questioned. Abiy has eliminated most of his opposition, through both the war in Tigray and a mass arrest campaign in Oromia, leading into the country’s delayed election.

Norms of non-intervention protect the rights of states to govern as they see fit and afford no protection to marginalized groups who are peripheral to, or in direct conflict with, the dominant identity group. Incompatible cultural and legal values are a common feature of post-colonial African states. Ethiopia’s civil war entails a struggle to control the central state and is defined by competing claims to sovereignty. Abiy invited Eritrea into the conflict, but evidently has little control over Isaias Afwerki’s troops.

 ‘Boots on the ground’ options

There are four potential avenues to send boots on the ground in Tigray: (1) a UN peace mission could be dispatched with host state consent; (2) the UN Security Council can authorize the use of force by other states or actors without host state consent; (3) other actors could use force without either host state consent or a Security Council resolution, as was the case in Kosovo in 1999 or; (4) the African Union (AU) could authorize an intervention under provisions in its Constitutive Act, with or without host state support.

Options two and three are unpalatable because it is unclear who would intervene military in Ethiopia, to what ends, and whether such an intervention would ameliorate the situation or simply add another layer of complexity to the war. China and Russia, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, are known to veto any initiative that does not come from African states.

In cases of disputed sovereignty, there is an argument to be made in favor of dispatching a UN peace mission against the will of a host state. Under current conditions, however, diplomatic pressure is needed to force Ethiopia into accepting a UN peace mission. The value in UN peacekeepers being present, even with a less robust mandate, is to bear witness, document atrocities, and protect civilians.

This leaves working through the AU as the best avenue for action, at least in theory. The Eastern African Standby Force (EASF), which has been operational since 2009, is well-positioned to intervene. Regrettably, there has so far been no public push by the UN or AU to deploy a peace mission or regional protection force to Tigray and, thankfully, no talk of Libya-style military intervention in Ethiopia.

The regional conflict resolution architecture is threatened by the tripartite alliance formed between the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Owing to this shifting regional power balance, East Africa’s regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has become effectively defunct in this capacity.

Non-military solutions in Tigray

Beyond directly intervening, the role of external actors in Ethiopia should be to: (1) mediate a ceasefire deal with a view towards organizing a national dialogue, (2) pressure the Ethiopian government to allow unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, (3) ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray, and (4) enforce accountability through international law.

Targeted sanctions, such as freezing assets, travel bans, and an arms embargo, are viable means of applying diplomatic pressure to achieve these ends. The Biden administration has placed visa restrictions on Ethiopian officials and is considering halting financing from US loans and international financial institutions.

On the first point, Abiy has rejected numerous calls for external mediation and recently used parliament to brand the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) a terrorist group.

Secondly, after the region was initially cut off from most humanitarian aid, access has increased somewhat in recent months. At the same time, coordinated starvation crimes are reportedly being committed in Tigray.

Third, after denying for months that Eritrean forces were in Tigray, Abiy announced on 4 April that Eritrean troops would be withdrawing from the region. Eritrean forces remain in Tigray and are accused of blocking access routes.

Fourth, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that a probe will be launched into rights violations committed in Tigray. Accountability could ultimately involve launching cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) or creating a Hybrid Court through the AU, as is proposed for South Sudan but has yet to materialize.

The absence of a coordinated international response thus far to the horrific reports coming out of Tigray has been troubling. In addressing the crisis, a delicate balance must be struck between the legitimate imperatives to respect the sovereignty of African states against neo-imperialist meddling and the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations.

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Main photo: A UN General Assembly plenary meeting in 2019 on the Responsibility to Protect; July 2019; UN

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About the author

Patrick Wight

Patrick holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Development from the University of Guelph, Canada. He spent 18 months conducting research in Ethiopia between 2014 and 2019 on the sidelines of the South Sudan peace process.

5 Comments

  • Why is the article one-sided? Atrocities committed by Tigreans against other ethnic groups, including ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Amhara should also be brought before the law. The hostile and bellicose calls for war by the Tigrean regional administration , months before their November attack of the Ethiopian Federal army in the north is well documented and now must be exposed for the world to see. The subjugation of the Amhara during the sadistic reign of EPRDF, the killing, torture, imprisonment of thousands of Amharas, Oromos, and any other group by TPLF and its supporters should be divulged in detail, however gruesome. Perpetrators should be prosecuted and punished. Similarly, the mass murder of the Amhara by Oromo extremists should also be thoroughly investigated. All perpetrators of such heinous crimes against humanity must be prosecuted and punished as well.

    The looting of massive amounts of Ethiopia’s resources by these criminal gang must be exposed as well. Their enablers, accomplices and partners in crime must face the consequences as well. Apologists like Alex de Waal whose arrogance, subterfuge and outright racism and neocolonialist barbarism should not be given carte blanche to attack an entire nation. His conflicts of interests must be exposed and his self serving advocacy and opinions (which he has an awful too many) must under no circumstances be used as “expert opinion”.

  • I concur it is an idealist passage relevant to distant situations. The tplf has been brutally killing some ethnic groups claiming falsified history (the recent MaiKadra genocide) and yet. the west bypasses such atrocities or belittles them. Is one type of life more valuable than others? And now, the tplf is aiming to capture state power once more and engage in the same barbaric killings. Where is your theoretical R2P applicable here? So much for Liberal idealism!

  • Nice and idealistic argument but it has little value in practice and reality on the ground. Eventhough the flimsy of sovereignty argument itself has little merit in such cases, especially when the same state supposed to protects its citizens engages butchery scheme and wanton violence, the past experience and history have shown that an ill-thought, dishonest and mismanaged with Ill-defined mission intervention has its drawback First, few countries benefited from this kind of outside intervention. DRC, CAR, Somalia, Iraq Afghanistan,etc are good candidates among others.
    Second, such interventios come with multiplayers with various vested interest actors that complicate and exasperate the situation even further. The Idea of the R2P of civilians, the brainchild of the former Canadian foreign Minister of Lloyd Axworth I presume , should be applied equally and extended to all sides of belligerent party members and in this case the Ethiopian and Eritrean Regimes and the the TPLF fighters as well.
    Overall, only the last point of” Non Military Solution … ” is the best option among the difficult choices listed.

    By the way, the much-cited demise and inffectivenness of the regional organization,the IGAD, was caused by non other than rapacious Woyane regime who used and abused it as their own personal property and whims over two decades for their various miliary, political and diplomatic selfish schemes or adventures untill nothing was functioning properly. It was used to destroy Somalia ,Eritrea and Sudan and to destabilize the whole region. It badly needs an argent image rehabilitation and restructuring if ever wanted to become. relevant again. It must be cleansed and fumigated from Woyane dirty treachery and an evil curse before anything.

  • Nice and idealistic argument but it little has value in practice and reality on the ground. Eventhough the flimsy of sovereignty argument itself has little merit in such cases, especially when the same state supposed to protects its citizens engages butchery scheme and wanton violence,but also experience and history have shown thatt an ill-thought, dishonest, mismanaged and with Ill-defined mission intervention has its drawback First, few countries benefited from this kind of outside intervention. DRC, CAR, Somalia, Iraq Afghanistan,etc are good candidates among others.
    Second, such interventios come with multiplayers with various vested interest actors that complicates and exasperates the situation even further. The Idea of the R2P of civilians, the brainchild of the former Canadian foreign Minister of Lloyd Axworth I presume , should be applied equally and extended to all sides of belligerent party members and in this case the Ethiopian and Eritrean Regimes and the the TPLF fighters as well.
    Overall, only the last point of” Non Military Solution … ” is the best option among the difficult choices listed.

    By the way, the much cited demise and unffectivenness of the regional organization IGAD was caused by non other than rapacious Woyane regime who used abused it as their and own personal property and whims over two decades for their various miliary, political and diplomatic selfish schemes or adventures untill nothing was functioning properly. It was used to destroy Somalia ,Eritrea and Sudan and to destabilize the whole region. It badly needs an argent rehabilitation and restructuring if ever wanted to become. relevant again. It must be cleansed and fumigated from Woyane dirty treachery and an evil curse before anything.

    • The sovereignty issue is non-existant with respect to the conflict in Tigray. The TPLF never claimed/expressed in its dispute with the Abiy Ahmed regime the desire to pursue the goal of independence from Ethiopia. The TPLF goal is to be able to govern its region under the federal system. Prime Minister Abiy claims that his war in Tigray is about ‘Law Enforcement Operation.” The TPLF never broke any existing law. The entire war in Tigray is about the long-standing Amahra ideology to control various ethnic groups from the top. Incidentally, this is not the first time Tigreans wanted rule themselves in the context of Ethiopian sovereignty. For example, Woyane,which fought against the regime Emperor Haile Selassie in 1942/43 goal was to govern themselves witin the Ethiopian state.

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