Daniel Hamilton: The international community must take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed in Ethiopia

12 Nov

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Until recently, there was a real sense that Ethiopia had turned a corner.

Despite the country’s tragic past, which has seen its people experience the vile deprivations of the communist Derg junta, intractable and bloody feuds with its neighbours and multiple coup d’états, the country has always had a spirit and verve unlike any other in Africa.

The pace of economic development in recent years has been staggering.

Where choking traffic had once paralysed the city, a sparkling new mass transit system rose above the streets to connect those living in formerly isolated suburbs. The new rail link from Addis through the eastern city of Dire Dawa and onto the port of Djibouti – and on to the rest of the world – gave new hope that Ethiopia may finally live up to its potential as Eastern Africa’s manufacturing powerhouse. The city’s myriad jazz bars were packed to the rafters with tourists and locals revelling in the benefits of growing salaries.

Tuesday evening’s plea by the Foreign Office for British citizens to evacuate the country at the earliest opportunity is therefore a painful one for those that know the country well.

Ethiopia’s wholly avoidable collapse into anarchy, just two years after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on improving neighbourly relations with Eritrea, is a stark reminder of the challenges fragile states face.

The roots of this avoidable conflict began last year when the central government authorised what was initially presented as a necessary law enforcement operation against separatist terrorist elements loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of the country. The operation won widespread support from supporters of the government.

Since then, and with the world distracted by the Coronavirus pandemic, the conflict has grown as an exponential rate. It has ceased to be a battle between the TPLF and central government and mutated into an alliance of nine other restive ethnic groups who, through a marriage of convenience, wish to topple the Abiy government.

Early this month, the Ethiopian Parliament imposed a six-month state of emergency which has handed the central government increasing powers to crack down on terrorism – perceived or imagined – in increasingly heavy-handed ways. Rather than calm the situation, this mechanism has effectively thrown fuel on the fire, with the UN Human Rights Commissioner expressing concern about mass killings of civilians and military personnel on both sides of the conflict.

As I write, the city of Addis Ababa is now at imminent risk of falling to opposition forces whose strength and durability has been underestimated by the central government.

Nobody doubts that the Abiy government has overstepped the mark and surrendered the moral leadership to run a country of more than eighty different ethnicities with a diverse range of culture and religious beliefs. But the opposition’s agenda, in particular that of the TPLF, risks the permanent division of Ethiopia, the permanent displacement of millions of people from their homes and the opening of tribal and ethnic conflicts that could have repercussions far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

In her excellent article in The Times earlier this week about the element, Alicia Kearns MP highlighted the efforts of the Bosnian Serb to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to serve sectarian agendas.  The same is true for the Ethiopian opposition alliance.

Despite some valiant efforts on the part of local political leaders to force dialogue between opposing factions, domestic solutions to the crisis have failed.

It is now time for the international community to take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed.

There are a number of practical steps that should be taken.

First, it is crucial that urgent humanitarian aid is allowed to reach those that need it most urgently. Across northern Ethiopia, acute food shortages and the looming risk of famine is now impacting an up to seven million people – roughly one in fifteen Ethiopians.  Pressure must be placed both the Abiy government and opposition, both of whom have clear lines of communication with bodies like the Red Cross, to allow them carry out their work unimpeded.  This aid must extend to neighbouring Sudan where the UN projects more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees will flee in the coming weeks.

Second, immediate pressure must be placed upon the Turkish government to cease its sale of military equipment to the Abiy government. In particular, the sale of Bayraktar drone systems, whose use by Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia saw entire battalions of troops liquidated at the press of a button, must end. The use of “drones of mass destruction” is not an appropriate application of military force on Abiy’s government – it has the potential to be a war crime.  Unless the supply of these weapons is limited, one can expect the death toll to rise by tens of thousands in the coming weeks.

Third, the issue of Ethiopia’s preferential access to international trade accord should also be urgently examined.  President Biden has already made steps to exclude Ethiopia from the terms of the US African Grown and Opportunity Act processes which gives the country duty-free access to most goods it exports to America – a move which has caused fury among Abey loyalists that have sought to frame the US as a hostile power with sympathies for the opposition.

Given the sensitivities regarding the US’s role in the country, the support of China – which recently dropped its opposition to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of conflict – in blocking the export of supply and export routes controlled by both the government and opposition forces via the port of Doraleh (which is de facto controlled by Beijing) will be crucial.

Fourth, it is important that a constitutional settlement is found that allows for the integrity of the Ethiopian state to be maintained while granting appropriate rights of self-government to minorities. The African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo is well placed to lead such an effort given his successful efforts to lead a multi-ethnic government while serving as Nigerian President.

Fifth and finally, it is incumbent on governments globally and international institutions to put in place a solid plan to prevent the conflict spilling over from Ethiopia into neighbouring states. This will involve the provision of aid on the ground and an intensification of support for peacekeeping efforts.

Kenya, which shares long border with Ethiopia has long had its own domestic problems with separatist movements and is experiencing a devastating drought. Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011 after a protracted civil war, has long looked to Ethiopia as the guarantor of its own peace process.  Instability in Ethiopia, the region’s largest economy, risks crippling South Sudan’s already-fragile supply chains of everything from oil to basic foodstuffs and empowering rebel forces. Sudan, which has already taken in thousands of Ethiopian refugees, is struggling to navigate the fallout of its own military coup last month.

We are all aware of the impact of impact of ethnic conflicts and the mass loss of lives they have wrought on Eastern Africa in the past forty years. The images of barbarity in Rwanda and Sudan should rightly continue to haunt an international community that was too slow to act to prevent genocide.

In international relations, though, the price of delays and indecision in heading off genocide and famine is widely known – but often forgotten.

Rather than risk sleepwalking into another catastrophe, now is the time for the international community to force the country’s warring factions to the negotiating table and draw this latest tragic chapter in Ethiopian history to a close.

Peter Oborne: The remarkable Baroness Cox – loathed by Azerbaijan, loved in Armenia. And back there as war rages.

2 Dec

Baroness Cox at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in front of the eternal flame

Peter Oborne is a columnist for Middle East Eye. His books include Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan.

Ali Kemal was a Turkish journalist and politician noted for his pro-British views. He came to an unpleasant though courageous end when he was murdered by a mob after condemning the mass killings of Armenians in what has become known as the Armenian genocide.

After his lynching, the mob inscribed the phrase Artin Kemal in blood on his chest. “Artin” was a common Armenian name.

Today, Ali Kemal would probably be rolling in his grave at the inertia of his great grandson, Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister has said and done nothing to help Armenia in its latest conflict with Turkish-backed Azerbaijan.

Johnson has solid reasons. Azerbaijan has oil. Armenia does not. Total trade in goods and services between the UK and Azerbaijan was £1.1 billion in 2019. Turkey is a fellow member of NATO and important ally.

And even if the Prime Minister had followed his great-grandfather’s example, it would have made little or no difference. Britain does not have the capacity to come to the aid of a tiny landlocked nation squeezed between Russia, Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s geographical predicament does not just explain Britain’s silence in the 44 day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia which ended three weeks ago.

It also accounts for the shameful fact that Britain has never acknowledged the Turkish genocide of more than a million Armenians just over a century ago.

The United States, Israel and many other countries won’t do so either.

No wonder the Armenians feel so friendless and bereft. And no wonder Britain – and much of the West – is becoming unpopular in Armenia.

When I reported on an anti-government demonstration in Yerevan two weeks ago, I was unwelcome among sections of the crowd.

One protester shouted “Fuck Britain!” at me as I interviewed local people. Another repeatedly harassed me to explain in no uncertain terms that “Britain has let Armenia down”.

My Armenian companion felt the need to tell numerous protesters that I was a journalist reporting on events, and not a representative of the British state.

But there is one British politician who has indeed stuck up for Armenia through thick and thin.

She is the remarkable 83-year-old Baroness Cox. The Baroness was awarded her peerage by Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago, for her brave role in taking on Marxist agitators as a sociology lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London.

On one occasion, Baroness Cox was aggressively manhandled in the classroom. “I was standing on a table refusing to stop a seminar. I told them they’d have to carry me out, which they did.”

This principled stand brought her to national attention. The legendary Times newspaper columnist, Bernard Levin, devoted no less than three consecutive columns to her fight for academic freedom.

Since then, the doughty Baroness has made no less than 88 visits to Nagorno-Karabkh.

I saw for myself how she was loved in Armenia, when I accompanied her on her most recent trip last month, made at the invitation of the Armenian government which paid some of our costs. (For a part of the time, we were accompanied by an Armenian official.)

The Baroness is revered. She is a nationally known figure who has done more for Anglo-Armenian relations than any other British politician.

During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, she flew in many times under artillery fire to deliver aid. Today, her charity supports a rehabilitation centre in Nagorno-Karabakh’s main city, Stepanakert. Originally founded to cater for the many injured veterans of the first war, the centre provides support for all kinds of disabilities – and had to quit Stepanakert in a hurry after it was shelled. We met her committed team of approximately 30 medics and physiotherapists in the Armenian capital of Yerevan instead.

Here’s one episode which illustrates the love – affection is too weak a word – with which Caroline Cox is held.

Stopping off at a restaurant for lunch, we were met by a man who had heard by chance that the Baroness was in Yerevan. He had come specifically to talk to her.

Visibly emotional, he explained that they had met almost three decades ago on the 30 July 1992, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in their first war. The man was then a second year student and soldier who had been wounded in the fighting. The Baroness, who has trained and practised as a nurse, visited him and other soldiers in a basement in Stepanakert.

“You hugged me and you held my hands. They were covered in dirt and blood,” he said Badoyan, tears in his eyes. “When everyone abandoned us, toy arrived to help. You gave us all a lot of hope. I’ve waited 28 years to say thank you.”

It was humbling to watch the two embrace.

The Baroness has been agitating in the House of Lords for Britain to take a much more robust stance on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

At present, her burning priority is the release of prisoners of war. “We have watched video evidence of horrible brutality inflicted on prisoners, including torture, beheadings and mutliations”, she says.

The Baroness is also calling for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious sites that have come under Azerbaijan’s control following the ceasefire agreement, as well as increased humanitarian aid.

“More than 14,000 civilian structures – homes, schools, hospitals – have been damaged during the conflict. We need an urgent plan of economic support,” she says.

There are two sides to every conflict, and it’s important to stress I did not visit Azerbaijan and hear its side of the story. According to reports from Human Rights Watch, there is evidence of both Azerbaijaniand Armenianforces using illegal cluster munitions against civilians.

According to Azerbaijan, Armenia “resorted to the brutal tactic of terror by deliberately targeting large civilian settlements of Azerbaijan … with heavy artillery and missiles, including ballistic and cluster munitions.”

It says that evidence of “reckless attacks of Armenia on civilians and civilian infrastructure” amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Baroness Cox’s support for Armenia has not gone unnoticed by Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijan Ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizade,sent a letter to Baroness Cox shortly before the latest conflict broke out stating that her language reminded him of the “inflammatory rhetoric used by the Armenian propaganda”.

Shortly after the ceasefire was agreed, the embassy released a statement regarding the Baroness’ trip last month.

It accused her of supporting “the separatist puppet regime illegally established by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” and called her visit “disturbing”, “disruptive in nature” and not in line with the UK government’s official position “which recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and welcomes the signing of the document ending the fighting

Baroness Cox’s response said: “members of the House of Lords reserve the right to hold conversations with interested parties in any given conflict, and also reserve the right to hold opinions that differ from those of the official UK government position.”

And that: “Members concerned with the actions and history of Azerbaijan towards Armenians will continue to monitor the situation and, where applicable, support the internationally recognised precedent for self-determination.”

In a victory speech, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, referred to Armenians as “savages”. He describes his victory in the one-sided conflict against the under-equipped Armenian army as the destruction of “Armenian facism”.

Such pronouncements will do little to assuage concerns for Armenians that their latest defeat is not an end to trouble in the region whose security is currently in the hands of Russian peacekeepers.

Baroness Cox is adamant that the only way to secure the long-term future for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is to recognise its independence. But with Azerbaijan securing vast swathes of territory in the region, and little international support for Armenia, this looks unlikely.

It’s easy to dismiss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a far away war with which Britain has no reason to get involved. But whichever side you take, there’s no question that Baroness Cox’s long involvement in this troubled area has served as witness to the terrible troubles faced by the beleaguered Armenian people. She has helped keep their story alive during a time when few others in the west have done so.

I can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson’s great grandfather, Ali Kemal, would approve.

The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, of which Baroness Cox is director, covered a substantial proportion of my expenses.