The conflict in Ethiopia that started on the fateful night of November 3, 2020 following an attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led forces on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces has been a center of agenda in global politics. While the international community is pressuring the Ethiopian government to engage in a dialogue with the TPLF, unilateral sanctions have been placed on Ethiopia by the US apart from visa restrictions on officials. The European Commission is also considering sanctions over Ethiopia because of the conflict.
Apart from this, concerns of direct military intervention from the US, especially following recent talks of the matter, have triggered online and offline campaigns of denouncing such pushes. From official social media accounts of the ruling Prosperity Party to prominent activists over social media went against “bullying” by Western powers which are said to be attacks directed towards the country’s sovereignty.
A report by the BBC last week that US troops in Djibouti are ready to respond to the crisis in Ethiopia as “the ongoing war in … Ethiopia has made the region increasingly unstable” caused a concern that Ethiopia might be another “mistake” for the US. In an interview with the BBC, US General William Zana said that his troops are “here to respond to crisis.”
Among many, a Facebook page named Ethiopian Diaspora Politics, campaigning for respect for Ethiopia’s sovereignty, questioned whether Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa would be another mistake for the US which, advised by Samantha Power, destroyed Libya under the Obama administration. This, she admitted at a Senate hearing years ago, was a mistake. Consequently, #Nomore movements protested against any intervention and coercion in the internal affairs of the country.
The Ethiopian government has been a proponent of non-interventionist approach from the outset when the international community tried to put pressure on the government. A statement the Office of the Prime Minister issued on November 25, 2020, strongly argued “A fundamental element of the international legal order is the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, which is enshrined in Article 2(7) of the Charter of the United Nations.” The statement also stressed “Ethiopia appreciates the well-meaning concerns of our friends within the international community. I would, however, like to stress the fact that Ethiopia is very much capable and willing to resolve this situation in accordance with its laws and its international obligations. While we consider the concerns and advice of our friends, we reject any interference in our internal affairs.”
However, the intensity of pressures, and now a potential US military intervention in Ethiopia, has created concerns within the wider Ethiopian public. For instance, on July 17, 2021, the United States Congress member and Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on Africa, Karen Bass said that she met Ethiopian Diaspora who asked her why the US didn’t send its troops to resolve the crisis in Ethiopia.
“I was meeting with Ethiopian Diaspora on Saturday. And they wanted to know why the U.S. didn’t send in its military to resolve the situation in Ethiopia. I was telling them, self-determination. That was the call of the time period, you know, that it just seems inappropriate to me that the US would send its military, you know; I don’t want to see that happen,” she said.
Nonetheless, the US Black Alliance for Peace immediately reacted to this pronouncement and stressed “the US and its EU-NATO allies are looking out for their own geopolitical interests masked as concern over the Tigray region. They want to challenge China and impose AFRICOM on Eritrea.”
Recently, a former US Navy admiral James Stavridis wrote to Bloomberg suggesting that “Sending peacekeepers to the pivotal nation of East Africa wouldn’t be popular domestically, but may be the only way to stop the conflict.”
An Ethiopian lawyer who studied international law and diplomacy who wanted to remain anonymous believes that although the availability of legal grounds for US intervention in the country are narrow, there are clear intentions of the need for sending a military force from the West on the pretext of resolving the crisis in Ethiopia. The one pretext the US could use to effect an engagement could be the principle of responsibility to protect (R2P), he observes. But, although R2P is guided by interventionism, this also has its own limitations when it comes to military interventions.
On the other hand, US characterization of the situation in Ethiopia as a national security threat had also been linked to US interventionist approaches.
Indicating that “the situation in and in relation to northern Ethiopia, which has been marked by activities that threaten the peace, security, and stability of Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa region … constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” President Joe Biden declared a “national emergency to deal with that threat.”
Apart from announced and unannounced sanctions declared on Ethiopia, what the national emergency measures would constitute in this context was questioned by Ethiopians.
While the principle of R2P has to be backed by the United Nations, the unilateral interventions were also observed in the past especially by the United States. A discussion of justifiable interventions in sovereign nations on Interaction Council states that one such incident is to prevent humanitarian crisis. The discussion indicates that, In the context of humanitarian intervention, it is important to distinguish between actions expressly authorized by the Security Council under its Chapter VII powers, and those unilateral (non-Security Council authorized) actions taken by states, the Interaction Council indicates.
Some observers are of the view that the frequent pressures at the UN Security Council to reach a consensus are to bring about such an action from a multilateral platform. Nonetheless, mainly because of a belief from China, Russia and India as well as Kenya that Ethiopia’s internal matters need to be resolved internally with no intervention, the UNSC failed to reach a conclusive destination that would have opened the path for any intervention.
In a 2007 PhD dissertation on US unilateral military intervention at the Texas A&M University, Bradley Podliska concluded: “With overwhelming military strength, the necessity of protecting U.S. interests (and the stability of the international system), and the problems of acting multilaterally, it becomes clear that presidents act unilaterally when facing a weak military opponent, when facing a threat in the Western hemisphere, and when facing a national security threat.”
Mengistu Assefa Dadi (PhD), a research fellow at East African Policy Research Institute (EAPRI), observes that US and allies’ military intervention is a stretched suspicion, given the legacy of its experimentations in other countries, especially the Middle East.
“US is tired of fighting on the ground as it has spectacularly failed to bring any meaningful change to human conditions where the pretext for intervention was humanitarian nor its interests served remotely. The crisis in Ethiopia came at a moment when the US was defeated in its longest modern war in Afghanistan and its subsequent unceremonious exit from Kabul,” he argues, and “the Ethiopian crisis has brought to light two interrelated global trends in peace and security matter. One is the incapability of the AU to have the political and moral leadership stamina to end brutal war in its member states while the second is the ever-increasing Chinese centrality to block US and its allies’ decisions at the UNSC. The persistent resistance of the states who are conventionally perceived as authoritarian and accused of exporting authoritarianism (China and Russia) to UN leverage to pressure Ethiopia is also another big bulwark against the possibility of invoking the R2P doctrine to militarily intervene in Ethiopia.”
Apart from interests of keeping Ethiopia as their sole strategic ally to contain China, stem Russia’s and Iran’s influence in the Horn and Red Sea, the war in Tigray could be a pretext for an intervention, Mengistu observes. Other aspects of the diplomatic efforts, he argues, relate to the Middle East politics and Egypt’s interest on the Nile.
“The US changed the punitive policy it followed against Ethiopia with regard to the GERD to the war in Tigray as it sounds more “diplomatically palatable” but the underlying interests remain,” he observes. But the West have other string diplomatic teeth to pressure Ethiopia to accept a deal with the rebel forces.
Nonetheless, the pretext to invoke the R2P principle in the case of Ethiopia is present, he says. These are genocide, ethnic cleansing, crime against humanity and war crimes.
Even if investigations were not fully conducted into these matters, sanctions from the UNSC and actual necessity of military intervention via R2P strictly are legal, and there are certain procedures such as inter agency investigations into the alleged crimes beyond news headlines, he indicates.
“But the US and its allies are deeply confident and also successful in making the decision pass the UNSC; these legal procedures will be greatly overlooked as geostrategic interests deeply ingrained in ideology and economic benefit customarily overrule the international law enforcement operations,” Mengistu added although he does not see military interventions coming. And if it is going to happen, Ethiopia stands no chance of avoiding it.
“I don’t think R2P will be on the table at least for now. What we should underline is that Ethiopia created this problem on itself. It has to reckon with its imperfection, its failure to live in peace with itself, its inability to manage its diversity,” he concludes.
Government officials The Reporter tried to get a response from said that this topic does not warrant an official response.
But the legal expert The Reporter talked to observes that US military boots on the ground is an issue that cannot be fully ruled out even though the probability is less despite the wide pronouncements of the same. And, the concerns from the general public are justifiable.