UN will need support of African states in Tigray conflict, says leading analyst

A man mourns the victims of a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengolat, north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray region on 26 February 2021.
A man mourns the victims of a massacre allegedly carried out by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengolat, north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray region on 26 February 2021. © AFP - Eduardo Soterase

The UN Security Council is expected to discuss the ongoing conflict in the northern Tigray region on Thursday. But a sense of intransigence amongst African countries towards taking a stronger stance on Ethiopia has so far thwarted efforts to stop a war backed by Eritrea, warns a leading expert on the region.


“I think it’s outrageous the way the African members have failed to move on this,” said Alex de Waal, a top commentator on the Horn of Africa at Fletcher School, Tufts University, talking about discussions within the UN Security Council slated for Thursday.

The conflict in Tigray, with Ethiopian troops backed by forces from Eritrea against fighters aligned to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), is set to be on the agenda, following an initiative by the Irish government. But the talks would be closed door, and no statement is guaranteed, according to the AFP news agency.

Washington released a statement about the situation in Tigray on Tuesday following a call between Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, expressing concern about the human rights and humanitarian situation.

“Secretary Blinken pressed for the immediate end to hostilities and the withdrawal of outside forces from Tigray, including Amhara regional security forces and Eritrean troops,” a readout of the call published by the US government said.

Map showing Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Tigray region.
Map showing Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Tigray region. Aude GENET AFP

Human rights watchdogs have repeatedly warned about rights abuses carried out during an offensive PM Abiy has called a law and order operation, targeting the leadership of the TPLF. Addis Ababa justified the campaign saying the TPLF carried out an attack on federal Ethiopian soldiers.

Amnesty International recently published findings of a report into Eritrean soldiers involved in mass killings in the northern city of Axum.

Alex de Waal, a long-standing scholar who notably worked on the African Union-led panel for Sudan, believes the UN Security Council has two options for taking action on Ethiopia.

Either a more general resolution about the conflict’s impact on international peace and security, especially given Eritrea’s role in the conflict.

Or, the UN Security Council could instead try and use resolution 2417, which is designed to target situations where there is a link between armed conflict and food insecurity.


De Waal thinks African countries have a responsibility to protect civilians in Tigray, and the African Union bloc has an obligation to stop states from perpetuating abuses.

He described what he sees as a “regression” and indifference to grave circumstances that could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

“It’s outrageous that African states haven’t called this out,” he said.

The US and Europeans have so far held back from any strong action, but Washington is starting to shift position, according to de Waal. It is not only a humanitarian issue, but now an international security question.

“It has got to such a stage, that the outrages and atrocities are at such level, and the destabilisation caused by the rapid collapse of a functioning state in Ethiopia,” said the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, pointing to disastrous peace and security ramifications throughout the region.

African reluctance over taking a tough line with Ethiopia is evident on the Security Council, with Kenya, an ally of Addis Ababa, representing African countries along with Niger and Tunisia.

Renewed US interest

The Trump administration did little on Ethiopia, and now current President Joe Biden’s government is starting to bring it into focus, with Blinken offering US help to resolve the conflict, and stressing commitments by PM Abiy to allow humanitarian access, which has been a problem.

Access to the northern region is restricted by the authorities and a number of journalists working for Western news agencies were recently detained, underlining the clampdown on reporting and scarce information coming from the conflict.

For any action or mediation at the UN, the key lies in Eritrea’s role in the conflict, argues de Waal, who has been calling for a stronger reaction to the crisis in Ethiopia, writing in the Irish and American press.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, on the left, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, on the left, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. AFP/File

The main thing is getting the Eritrean forces out because “they’re actually running the war” in Tigray, according to de Waal, and this can be achieved putting pressure on the government of Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, since sanctions against the country were previously in place, and could be restarted.

Otherwise if Eritrean forces did not withdraw from Tigray, then Asmara can continue to be called out for human rights violations by its forces. As an occupying power, it has humanitarian obligations, said de Waal.

The UN Security Council’s last meeting on Tigray was on 2 February, calling for more humanitarian access, but African Council members had rejected the idea of a joint text.

Several supposed agreements for humanitarian access by the UN have been reached, but scant access is provided and hundreds of thousands of people affected by fighting are said not to have been reached.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning