Which War Crimes Matter?

War crimes gas mask ethiopia

Millions have been displaced, thousands have been killed, and scores have been victims of sexual violence, yet the conflict in Tigray region of Ethiopia receives little attention from international media. What has condemned the people of Ethiopia, among many others embroiled in forgotten or ignored humanitarian crises and wars across the world, to silence from the global community? 

The crisis in Tigray has deep roots, the people in the region have long fought for their self-determination and right to be self-administered. For decades the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were Ethiopia’s ruling party until they were voted out in 2018 when current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, led a coalition of parties to win control of the Parliament. Following a regional election in the Tigray region in September 2020, which the federal government deemed illegal, the TPLF attacked an Ethiopian army base in Sero. The Prime Minister responded with force, causing a war that has affected millions and killed an uncertain amount of combatants and civilians.

Without independent observers, humanitarian organisations and journalists, the effect on civilians is hard to quantify and understand. However, a report by the US government found that entire villages disappeared in Western Tigray in an attempt  to make the region “ethnically homogenous through the organised use of force and intimidation”. Much of this information is derived from satellite technology which have also identified mass graves

Many of the civilian deaths have been as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the Ethiopian Defence Force against Tigray cities. However, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have reported on several massacres and attacks on civilians. On the 9th November 2020, hundreds of people were stabbed to death in Mai-Kadra. Amnesty weren’t able to confirm the perpetrators, but some witnesses claim that the killings were committed by TPLF fighters who had just lost battles against the EDF. 

Beyond Ethiopia

Elsewhere, in the city of Axum, the Eritrean government is accused of committing war crimes between 28th and 29th November 2020.  Officially the Eritreans are not involved in conflict within Ethiopia and have actively criticised international media outlets such as the Associated Press for their reporting on the massacres in the city. However, the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders have recently nurtured a cooperative relationship and it is widely believed that the latter is helping the former defeat the TPLF.

Reporting on the war has been limited with a media blackout in the Tigray region only being lifted slightly to allow the AFP and Financial Times to cover the conflict. Journalists still face animosity and three were detained at the beginning of March by the country’s military. In Eritrea, which is frequently described as the ‘North Korea of Africa’, independent media is banned completely. 

For foreign news agencies, it is also highly expensive to send a journalist into dangerous war zones, which may discourage them from conducting in-depth on-the-ground investigations. 

An Issue of Visibility

It is not difficult to ascertain why these countries prevent journalists and humanitarians from accessing the region: information is power. The less the world knows about the atrocities that are taking place, the less international pressure they face, less organisation within domestic opposition parties, and therefore, less resistance to their rule. Cruelly, a lack of reporting of humanitarian crises correlates highly with the amount of funding that charities and agencies receive to help those most desperately in need. 

In other conflict zones across the world, similar tactics are used to stymie opposition. For instance, in Myanmar there have been nightly internet blackouts for weeks. Despite this the protests against the coup have received international media attention. 

This screen time may have been awarded due to viral videos taken on mobile phones and uploaded to social media. One video shows Sister Ann Rose Nu Tawng in the city of Myitkyina in Myanmar, confronting soldiers and asking them to kill her instead of the young protestors. 

The kind of citizen journalism that we see in Iraq, Syria, and Myanmar is not possible in Ethiopia and Eritrea where very few people have access to technology that can record and contact the outside world. In Eritrea, 1% of the population have access to the internet and 6% have a mobile phone. It is only slightly better in Ethiopia, where 18% have access to the internet and 36% have mobile phone subscriptions.

There are other factors for the lack of reporting and column inches dedicated to crises such as the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. CARE International released a report which ranked the ‘10 most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2019’, nine of which were within the African continent. 

Myanmar, Syria, and Iraq may capture the world’s attention due to international military intervention, infamous terrorist activities, or because the country has previously been in the headlines as a result of its controversial democratically elected leader. However, in Ethiopia’s case, many involved in the conflict may suffer from little more than a perceived lack of relevance to the world’s agenda. 

So why is Ethiopia not on the agenda?

It is possible that African conflicts are seen as irrelevant and distant to consumers of news media. In a time when people are increasingly paying nothing to read news bulletins, editors prioritise clicks over serious investigations. If there were journalists willing to enter these dangerous regions, it would likely not be profitable or sustainable for hard-pressed news organisations. 

There is also something to be said about the geographical significance of areas that do get focused on in the press. Myanmar, Iraq, Syria and even countries like Venezuela are in continents, or even subcontinents that were significant to the global north in a historic sense. South East Asia and South America were key areas of covert conflict in the cold war, for example, whilst the Middle East and South America hold financial interest for western economies in the mineral, precious metal and fossil fuel industries. In the minds of many, these are regions people have a reason to care about, however misguided or inconsistent that interest may be.

Meanwhile, African nations are often forgotten, geopolitical and economic conflicts becoming abstracted into racial or tribal disputes, seen as arcane to outsiders, and so not really worth paying attention to. The outliers, in these cases, of conflicts like South African Apartheid and the Rwandan Genocide either directly involved a white, pseudo-western government in the former case, or in the case of Rwanda, was so unavoidably horrific that it was impossible to ignore. It’s perhaps not the whole story, true, but the racial idea of Africa has a huge amount to do with why African humanitarian crises get less attention than Asian, South American or even Eastern European situations. This is without tackling the entirely different way we frame western humanitarian crises, like the American border situation, which is deserving of an entire article in itself.

This distance and apathy could also be increased by the difficulty in explaining complex and ambiguous conflicts with long histories. These histories also often lead back to our colonial past in a way that is uncomfortable and controversial, though undeniably true. However, this is a failure of the profession to make these crises pertinent to a global audience. Humanitarian crises often lead to the destabilization of neighbouring countries and cause massive movements of migrants and refugees to other continents and regions, and reflect tangibly on our actions, past and present. 

In the case of the Tigray conflict, international apathy, information blackouts and dangerous environments for journalists and observers have all contributed to the atrocities not getting the media attention they deserve. To ensure that future suffering is not ignored and forgotten, international news media needs innovative editors who provide the space and resources for journalists to investigate these horrific events and grant them their deserved relevance. 

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Matthew Parkes

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