As the horrific suffering in Ethiopia’s Tigray region continues, the United States and other members of the international community are sounding ever more urgent alarms.
In the last two weeks, officials at the highest levels of government have taken pains to draw attention to Tigray. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield has repeated her pointed call for public Security Council discussions of the crisis. USAID Administrator Samantha Power held a “day of action” focusing on the crisis that featured multilateral discussions, briefings, and an announcement of additional U.S. assistance. The G7 also weighed in, re-iterating the now familiar calls for a cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of the Eritrean military, and unfettered humanitarian access.
All of the outrage and worry is sincere and entirely justified. The man-made famine that the humanitarian community warned of for months is underway. Each new report of atrocities and starvation from the region is gut-wrenching; each instance of deliberate obstruction of life-saving assistance is infuriating. Yet the Ethiopian government’s response to these calls thus far—and to U.S. visa sanctions and aid suspensions—is a combination of denials and defensive rhetoric, claiming that it is the victim of a malicious disinformation campaign and that others are vastly overstating the nature of the crisis.
With limited leverage to change the behavior of Ethiopian or Eritrean authorities, expressions of concern cannot be confused with actions to address the causes of the crisis and the motives of those who perpetuate it, which in the case of Tigray are fundamentally political. It is true that actors may change their calculations when the international community sends a clear message that certain policies are beyond the pale. It’s also true that raising the profile of the issue can help shake loose additional, urgently needed funding for relief efforts. But the impact of public statements can diminish over time, particularly if the segment of the international community making them does not grow consistently. Without containing Eritrea and finding a rules-governed, negotiated way forward to address Ethiopia’s fundamental political tensions, it is difficult to envision a realistic and sustainable endpoint to Tigray’s suffering. Growing the coalition willing to exert real influence aimed at those goals is a tremendously difficult challenge.