Why is the international pressure not helping end Ethiopia’s violence?

Zerihun A. Woldeselassie, CPS, The Arctic University of Tromsø

Flag of Ethiopia, free image
Flag of Ethiopia, free image Foto: unknown
Portrettbilde av Trunova, Ekaterina
Trunova, Ekaterina ekaterina.trunova@uit.no Førstekonsulent
Publisert: 26.05.21 09:11 Oppdatert: 26.05.21 09:14
Law & order Society

Despite intense pressure and punitive measures, the international response to Ethiopia’s violence, led mainly by the US and EU,  is not helping Ethiopia end the violence.

Some informed critics deemed the international response mistaken. Others fear that it may be counterproductive and destabilize Ethiopia and the region.

The Ethiopian government has accused the US  of meddling in its internal affairs, putting strain on existing alliances and future international cooperation.

While it has already agreed to allow unfettered humanitarian access and conduct a joint investigation of alleged atrocities, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s government has continued to resist U.S. pressure and attempt to increase its impact on Ethiopia and subdue it to its foreign policy aims.

Even if the Eritrean forces withdraw, following the latest US senate unanimous resolution, neither the Tigray conflict (which has now become guerrilla warfare) nor other similar ethnic-related armed conflicts will be resolved in a short period.

Ethiopia’s lawmakers have already designated the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) and the OLA (Oromo liberation army, another ethnic-based armed group), both operating actively in the country, as terrorist groups, which means that ethnic-related violence is unlikely to stop in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future.

Why is the international response not helping end Ethiopia’s violence? At least four explanations are meaningful based on the broader internal dynamic and peace-building perspective.

1)     Multiple violence and selective response

While Ethiopia’s violence is diverse and interlinked, the international response emphasized the Tigray conflict as a foreign policy priority.

Ethiopia’s violence is ethnic-related and spread in the country (including in the Benishangul-Gumuz, Amhara, and Oromia regional states). It includes large scale or numerous a) identity (ethnic, religious, or political) targeted killings, b) civilian [armed and non-armed] deaths, c) displacement (internal and external), d) incidents of property destructions [private, public, and government] and e) sexual violence many of which are either already confirmed (including by the Ethiopian government) or believed to be committed based on “credible” sources.

However, the international response has isolated the armed conflict in Tigray, emphasizing its implication on regional security and so-called rules-based international order.  Many “experts” have also focused on the Tigray conflict emphasizing its spill-over effect. 

Such a selective approach and framing has neither de-escalated the regional tension nor halted the hostilities in Tigray.

2)     Ethnic Federalism and state reform 

The international response has failed to discern the problematic aspects of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia.

Some major international community actors do not consider helping reform or change Ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, arguing that it contributed to the country’s relative peace and economic development.

Though not all through the entire period, there was, in fact, relative peace between 1991-2018 under the TPLF-dominated autocratic government. Ethiopia was also then perceived, especially by its allies in the west, as an anchor state in the region.

What Ethiopia had under the TPLF, however, was only temporary political stability built on a fragile victor’s peace.

In addition, politicized ethnicity has also been gradually resulting in a new pattern of conflicts and human security problems evident in the recent violence across the country.

Today, Ethiopia’s major ethnic related problems include 1) the creation of a new hierarchy in ethnic regions (in the form of natives vs. settlers) within historically integrated communities, 2) the rise of inter-group and intra-group ethnic and political polarization among political elites, 3) the growing problem of displacement, discrimination, and violence against ethnic minorities residing in a majority ethnicity-controlled areas or regions, 4) the continued violence related to claiming or maintaining territorial boundaries of ethnic administration, 5) the naturalization of patriarchy and, therefore, gender-based violence in the process of legitimizing ethnic nationalism, 5) the growth of ethnically organized radical youth or vigilante groups.


3)     The legal and political aspects of the violence    

By emphasizing the legal aspect, the international community’s response has played down the political nature of Ethiopia’s violence.

Focusing on human rights and international law, external actors emphasize the legal, at the expense of the political, aspect of violence in Ethiopia.  Global and regional experts, human rights organizations, activists, and the international media have also focused on the criminal aspects of violence in Ethiopia, intending to generate global attention and outrage.

This approach, however, undermines the political nature of Ethiopia’s violence. Ethiopia’s violence is essentially political, where some ethnic-based dissent groups are employing violent means to achieve their political ends.

Proponents and supporters of ethnic nationalism argue that the violence in Ethiopia is not mainly about elite competition for power and privilege. It also concerns resistance and emancipation. Many episodes of violence, including the Tigray conflict, are expressed and committed in the name of defending and protecting the interest and dignity of historically and politically marginalized ethnic or minority groups.

Nevertheless, since external and internal competing interest groups also trigger, fuel, and manipulate the violence for political and economic gains, every episode of violence in Ethiopia does not necessarily entail righteous indignation or self-defense, as many ethnonationalists contend.

The external response to Ethiopia’s violence also appears to sympathize with various internal and global actors (often based on global [social] media misinformation and disinformation campaigns and activisms) claiming or playing a victim role vis-a-vis the alleged perpetrators. However, though it appears progressive, this approach does not recognize how the commonplace conflict binaries (ex. Victim-Perpetrators, Civil-Military) have become fluid and ambivalent due to radicalized ethnic mobilization, militarization, and small arms proliferation in the country.

4)     Political settlement and normalization process

Major actors of the international response are pushing for and aimed to achieve an immediate political settlement for Ethiopia. Nevertheless, this is not something to be achieved in the short term.

Aiming to achieve a quick fix, some of the major powerful actors of the international community, including the US and EU, have imposed punitive measures to force the government to halt, especially the Tigray conflict, and hold a national dialogue.

A political settlement is, in fact, vital for peace-building efforts in Ethiopia. However, considering the  (1) continued use of violence by outlawed or ethnic-based armed resistance groups, (2) ethnic and political polarization of local and diaspora based political elites, (3) inherited autocratic form of governance and undemocratic political culture within the incumbent, (4), fragmented political mobilization, activism, and loyalties of the Ethiopian population, (5) multiple regional security problems involving Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea, a complete halt of the ethnic-related violence and an immediate political settlement has not only been challenging but also unrealistic.

What is needed now is normalization processes of maintaining and directing the political change and reform in Ethiopia towards a democratic transition. This effort entails at least two significant simultaneous political processes.

On the one hand, it demands scaling up the humanitarian support without abandoning the questions of accountability and responsibility of actors in the conflict. On the other hand, it also calls for a collective internal and external effort of depolarization and deradicalization of the broader Ethiopian political milieu as a pre-condition for any sustainable and honest peace-building endeavor.

While the local and diaspora stakeholders, including the government, have the ultimate and irreplaceable roles, the international community can and should play a concerted but impartial and facilitating role.

5)    What should be done?

Ethiopia needs comprehensive peace-building international support that considers the diverse and interlinked nature of the violence thriving across the country. International response to Ethiopia’s violence must recognize and incorporate state or constitutional reform as an integral component of the comprehensive international peace-building assistance.  Often, the main actors of the international community, including the UNSC and the US, unequivocally state that it is in their interest to see a sovereign and united Ethiopia. This position entails the need to help Ethiopia tackle the challenge political violence has brought against its sovereignty and unity without abandoning human rights. Only Ethiopians themselves can resolve their conflict. Instead of pushing for an unrealistic political settlement among ethnically and politically polarized elites, the main actors of the international community should primarily support and facilitate a more comprehensive political normalization process in Ethiopia.


Kortnytt fra Centre for Peace Studies (CPS), Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education
Trunova, Ekaterina ekaterina.trunova@uit.no Førstekonsulent
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