Editor’s Note: Michelle Gulino is the International Legal Associate at the Human Rights Foundation. Gulino previously worked on international women’s human rights issues across Sub-Saharan Africa and provided relief services for trafficking survivors. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_gulino. Malaak Jamal is the Senior Policy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, where she oversees its research and analyzes political regime developments. Jamal’s opinions have been featured in TIME, The Washington Post, and The News Lens. Follow her on Twitter @malaak_jamal. The views expressed in this commentary are his those of the authors. View more opinion on CNN.
In 2018, after a two-year conflict, two historically warring nations — Ethiopia and Eritrea — at last signed a peace agreement. The following year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who brokered the peace, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the two years since, Abiy joins the ranks of controversial Peace Prize recipients and nominees, as his record now includes overseeing what may amount to war crimes. Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was awarded the prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights;” shortly thereafter, her government was accused of genocide against the Rohingya minority. Joseph Stalin, head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was twice nominated for the prize.
When Abiy received his Nobel Prize, he faced two clear paths: the path of democracy that could reconcile deep-rooted internal ethnic divisions and bring lasting peace to Ethiopia, or that of authoritarianism and renewed ethnic grievances.
Sadly, he has failed to heal a persistent national rift. Ethiopia is in crisis, as an escalating armed conflict between Abiy’s federal Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and forces of the previously dominant political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has ballooned into a humanitarian catastrophe. This power struggle came to a boiling point last year during a constitutional dispute when the Tigray region held its own elections, refusing to recognize Abiy’s administration.
Following an alleged attack by the TPLF on an Ethiopian military camp, Abiy then deployed troops into the Tigray region and, as some international observers believe, joined forces with Eritrean troops, who slaughtered Ethiopian citizens. This act of betrayal fueled the Tigrayans’ long-simmering sense that Abiy had abandoned them. After months of denying the presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopia, Abiy finally admitted to their involvement in perpetrating abuses against the Tigrayans, but couched their involvement in the conflict by stating that Eritrea had acted in self-defense of its border.
Gruesome accounts of decapitated bodies, the use of rape and starvation tactics as weapons of war, and mass extrajudicial executions have surfaced since November. More than 500 cases of rape — including rape by armed forces, gang rape, and forced rape of family members — have been reported in Tigray.
The ENDF, regional forces, and Eritrean soldiers have destroyed food supplies and targeted civilian areas with fire — bringing upon the Horn of Africa probable famine and incalculable death.
More than 2.2 million Ethiopians have been displaced by the ongoing conflict and violence. In one week alone last December, at least 315,553 Ethiopians were displaced. International pleas for a ceasefire by aid agencies, the African Union, and the United States have been rejected. This crisis could destabilize not only Africa’s second-most populous country, but the entire Horn of Africa.
After assuming power, Abiy made steps toward democratic reform, but in the face of renewed conflict, these have given way to increasingly repressive rule. In an effort to stifle dissent, for example, Abiy shut down phone and internet communication, and detained journalists and dissidents on politically motivated charges. His government also began a state-sponsored propaganda campaign to conceal abuses in the Tigray region.
Allowing Abiy to continue this repressive course sends a signal to other countries that authoritarian regimes can operate with impunity, perpetuating mass killings, rape, famine, and displacement — all of which we have a collective interest to end. But what can the international community do to avert further authoritarian ascendance and deescalate the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia?
First, democratic leaders should refuse to engage formally with Abiy, and bar him from participating in global events such as the World Economic Forum while mass killings in Ethiopia continue. Democratic governments should boycott events — like World Press Freedom Day and the African Union Summit — hosted or sponsored by Ethiopia’s regime. Doing so will let authoritarian rulers like Abiy know that the international community will not tolerate their abuses. Notably, the US State Department imposed travel restrictions on Ethiopian officials on Sunday.
Second, business leaders and institutions can refuse to trade with or provide financial bailouts to Abiy’s government, which would only grant Abiy undeserved legitimacy in global markets. As Africa’s second-most populous nation, Ethiopia is an important trade and investment partner. Refraining from further trade would represent a blow to Abiy’s propaganda campaign and increase pressure on him to end rights abuses in his own country.
Many business leaders consistently cite their commitment to human rights standards, while doing the bare minimum to enforce these standards. They need to ensure tangible actions by governments to address abuses before moving forward with partnerships with the likes of Abiy. They should follow the example of a number of companies that have called out China’s oppressive regime and refused to support the exploitation of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, whose forced labor supplies dozens of international brands.
Third, international journalists must continue to report on the humanitarian disaster Abiy’s agenda has wrought, as Abiy attempts to portray an image of democratic reform abroad. Abiy helped create an information blackout in Ethiopia by jailing domestic journalists and restricting foreign reporting. The global media has a responsibility to expose human rights abuses and hold authoritarian rulers accountable.
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Abiy has, of course, capitalized on the authority that the Nobel Peace Prize confers, to enhance his standing in the global community. Petitions asking the Nobel Committee to rescind the prize have garnered tens of thousands of signatures. But the Nobel Committee says the Prize, which is awarded for past accomplishments, cannot be revoked. It is essential, however, that anyone who prizes peace push to stop the displacement and killing of Ethiopian civilians immediately.