The warning signs of genocide in Ethiopia are here – the world must act to prevent it | Helen Clark, Michael Lapsley and David Alton

Genocide happens when warning signs are ignored. The world looks the other way and refuses to believe that mass ethnic killings are possible. We hope the worst is avoided. But to prevent genocide, we must raise the alarm before we can be certain.

Seldom before has the danger of genocide been signaled so clearly in advance as in Ethiopia.

Neither side of this conflict is angelic. All sides in Ethiopia’s conflict have committed violations. But only one side has committed violations of an extent and of a nature that could plausibly be considered genocide – and that is unfortunately the coalition of the Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; the Amhara Regional Government; and the state of Eritrea.

In the past year, the world has seen twice as this coalition committed international crimes against civilians with Tigrayan identities – including murder, rape, torture and famine.

We might now be faced with a third atrocity, even bigger and bloodier than what has happened before: a possible mass killing of interned civilians in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Five warning signs of ethnically targeted mass violence flash red.

First, figures in the Ethiopian government and its allies have promoted hate speech against the Tigrayan people as an ethnic group. You have fomented violence in a language that identifies all Tigrayans as enemies. This hate speech escalated – Tigrayans have been labeled “cancer”, “weeds”, “rats” and “terrorists”.

Second, the government has mobilized the tools for mass atrocities in the form of militias and vigilante groups organized on an ethnic basis and with an ethnic agenda. It armed them and granted them impunity.

Third, the government eliminates any middle ground. It has silenced independent and critical voices. It has blocked media access to Tigray, closed or censored independent national journalists, and intimidated foreign reporters and their local colleagues. People trying to protect Tigrayans are also attacked. People who try to stay out of politics are condemned as “fence sitters”.

Fourth, the government has begun large-scale detention of Tigra civilians in the areas it controls. A year ago it interned at least 15,000 members of the Tigrayan ethnic armed forces, who we know continue to be held in detention centers. It has interned Tigrayan civilians in western Tigray. In the past few weeks she has interned more than 30,000 ethnic Tigrayan civilians in Addis Ababa and an unknown number elsewhere.

Fifth, the international community is divided, confused and indecisive. The government has protectors in the UN Security Council. The African Union listened respectfully to the government’s denials and concealments. The main European powers hesitated. The US has toned down its condemnations, perhaps out of fear of being diplomatically isolated. It also has conflicting priorities, including trying to facilitate humanitarian aid and negotiating a ceasefire and political settlement – an agenda that can prevent a party to the conflict from being called on for atrocity or genocide.

In the 1990s, after mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, interest in the obligation to prevent genocide enshrined in the 1948 Convention on Genocide increased again. There are now more than two decades of political and institutional reforms aimed at preventing and responding to atrocities. There was a litany of mea culpas, of calls for more political will and calls for “never again”.

In the decades following Rwanda and the wars over the dissolution of Yugoslavia, critical reports were written that shaped the debate and policy on the use of coercion in the pursuit of peace, humanitarian aid and the prevention of atrocities. At the United Nations, the African Union, international commissions of experts and under the leadership of powerful countries – tons of papers are devoted to the analysis of the past, the commitment to heed warning signs and to prevent genocide.

These reports all stressed that genocide is preventable – if there is the political will to respond to warnings.

Today in Ethiopia, these warnings couldn’t be clearer. Now is the time to act – to ask what happens and that the UN Security Council use all measures at its disposal to make sense of the call “never again” and to prevent catastrophe.

  • Helen Clark is a former head of the UN Development Program and former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Fr Michael Lapsley is President of the Healing of Memories Global Network and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories. David Alton is an independent Crossbench Life peer and genocide activist

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