Ethiopia’s Tigray War: Why the West Missed the 21st Century’s Deadliest War

BU Intl Human Rights
8 min readDec 1, 2023


Photographer: Finbarr O’Reilly | Credit: The New York Times

On November 2, 2022, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with representatives from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Pretoria, South Africa aiming to put an end to the two years of conflict in northern Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s government and Tigrayan authorities agreed on an “orderly, smooth and coordinated disarmament” that would lead to a “permanent cessation of hostilities,” officially ending the Tigray War. The peace agreement, known as the Pretoria Agreement, was hailed as a success by the international community, especially the United Nations (“U.N.”), who had largely delegated conflict resolution and transitional justice efforts to the African Union (“A.U.”). A year after the Pretoria Agreement, the European Union-backed International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (“ICHREE”) officially disbanded after the U.N. Human Rights Council declined to renew its mandate. The dissolution of the ICHREE was the final signal to the international community that the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia no longer required its attention.

However, the ICHREE’s September 2023 report, published just before it dissolved, paints a different picture of the current state of the Tigray War compared to the official international narrative. Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southern Africa, highlighted that “the ICHREE’s latest report sends a clear warning that this is not the time for the U.N. to lower the accountability bar on Ethiopia.” The ICHREE’s 2023 report notably concludes that “the current situation across [Ethiopia] continues to bear hallmarked risks of future atrocity crimes.” Additionally, Amnesty International’s own internal investigation corroborated the report’s claims, finding “serious human rights violations have persisted even after the signing of [the Pretoria Agreement.]” The ICHREE’s report explicitly states, “the conflict in Tigray has not ended” and the persistence of violence in the months following the Pretoria Agreement “strongly indicates a policy of impunity and tolerance of serious violations on the part of the Ethiopian State.”

European institutions and Nongovernmental Organizations (“NGOs”) estimate well over 600,000 civilians have died during the Tigray War. If true, this would make the Tigray War the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. At the height of the war, internal U.S. government documents found that the Ethiopian government was conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign of Tigrayans. Considering the global discourse and response to conflicts like Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and the recent escalations in the Israel–Hamas war, it begs the question why the international community has not been more vocal in condemning the human rights abuses unfolding in the Horn of Africa. I believe there are three primary reasons for the West’s indifference: (1) the Tigray blockade, (2) Ethiopia’s geopolitical alliances, and (3) racial biases.

The Tigray Blockade

Photographer: Amanuel Sileshi | Credit: The Economist

Global telecommunication advancements in the last decade have made on-the-ground media coverage instrumental in mobilizing governments and humanitarian NGOs. Political scientists and international relations experts coined the term “the CNN effect” to describe this phenomenon. The CNN effect contends that 24-hour international news channels, and their images of humanitarian crises, shape and influence U.S. foreign policy goals and decisions.

A few months into the Tigray War, Abiy Ahmed implemented an intense and fierce blockade on Tigray. The blockade shut down the region’s internet and phone services, restricted press access, and blocked humanitarian aid efforts. At the height of the conflict, European diplomats estimate “some 80 percent of Tigray’s population [was] unreachable.” The region was in a complete blackout. Reports published during the war often included disclaimers that the claims and figures made were unable to be verified because of the phone and internet restrictions. As a consequence of the blockade, the harrowing reports of the human rights atrocities developing in Ethiopia, including forced disappearances, torture, sexual violence, famine, and the systemic extermination of Tigrayan civilians, came months after they occurred. Additionally, the restrictions made it difficult for international journalists and NGOs to provide firsthand documentation about the developing atrocities.

The intense Tigray blockade minimized the CNN effect and the influence of telecommunication networks in disseminating information in real time. Cutting Tigray off from the rest of the world made it difficult for the international community to document the atrocities and mobilize to push back against the Ethiopian government. The blockade allowed the Ethiopian government to commit their atrocities in darkness.

Geopolitical Alliances

Photographer: Terje Bendiksby | Credit: Getty Images

The outbreak of civil war in Ethiopia surprised many in the international community. When Abiy Ahmed was first elected in 2018, he was largely seen as one of Africa’s rising stars. Notably, Ahmed won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Eritrea–Ethiopia war in 2018. This early success and attention strengthened many of Ethiopia’s existing international relationships and alliances. In late 2019, the E.U. bolstered its existing economic and political partnership with Ethiopia, extending over 170 million euros to help implement political, social, and democratic reforms. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s largest economies and has proven to be a key partner in the Horn of Africa for Western powers.

In the months following the war’s outbreak, influential global actors such as the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union put economic and diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia in an attempt to deescalate tensions. The U.S., U.K., and E.U. all suspended their Ethiopian budgetary support and assistance programs, an amount well over 800 million euros. This coordinated pressure campaign by the West left a financial and power vacuum in the region, to the pleasure of Beijing and Moscow.

In February 2023, three months after the signing of the Pretoria Agreement, members of the European Council began expressing “concern about the danger of ‘losing’ Africa to the Chinese and Russians.” In response, foreign ministries pushed for the European External Action Service to propose a plan to re-normalize economic and political relations with Ethiopia. Notably, ministers pushed for these relations to be unconditional, as holding Ethiopia accountable for their role in human rights abuses “[would] take time” and should not preclude re-engagement with Ethiopians.

Around this time, the ICHREE was still involved in monitoring and investigating the situation in Ethiopia in the aftermath of the peace agreement. The ICHREE’s work was integral for recording victims’ testimonies and compiling evidence of the atrocities committed for future prosecutions. As previously mentioned, the ICHREE notably reported that Ethiopia was continuing its campaign of mass violence against Tigray, in direct violation of their peace agreement.

Under this backdrop, the E.U. withdrew their support for the ICHREE in late 2023. At the March 2023 Human Rights Council session, Ethiopian authorities threatened to introduce a resolution to prematurely dissolve the ICHREE halfway through its mandate. Ethiopia justified its threat by saying consultations and evidence recording for transitional justice should be done through domestic and regional mechanisms, not international bodies like the ICHREE. However, while there is certainly a preference for regional and domestic mechanisms in transitional justice, it is likely that Ethiopia wanted to terminate the ICHREE early to attract less international attention to the continuing violence in Tigray.

Nevertheless, in response to these procedural threats, the E.U. acquiesced to Ethiopian lobbying and declined to renew the ICHREE’s mandate in September 2023, citing strong African opposition. In addition to E.U. and U.N. observers withdrawing from the region, in June 2023, the A.U.’s African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights quietly stopped pursing their inquiry into the region without publishing any findings or reports.

Investigative bodies such as the ICHREE have proven to be instrumental in documenting atrocities committed during periods of mass violence and genocide. The evidence compiled by independent investigators and committees have helped with transitional justice and prosecutions. Moreover, the independent nature of committee and investigation findings have been crucial in shaping and establishing global narratives regarding atrocities. The West ending these investigative mechanisms while atrocities are still being committed in Ethiopia points to a conscious effort to “move-on” from the conflict. The acquiescence to Ethiopian demands and lobbying demonstrates that the West is more interested in re-establishing its power and influence in the region than in abiding by its obligations and commitments to defend and promote human rights.

Racial Biases

Foreign Policy Illustration | Credit: Getty Images

Finally, and in the background of almost all human rights discourse, lies the harsh reality that the world still treats Black and white lives differently. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (“W.H.O.”) and an ethnic Tigrayan, publicly criticized the global community and U.N.’s apathy towards the conflict in 2022. During a press briefing, Tedros explained “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way.” Tedros went on to describe the Tigray War as the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world” with over 6 million people unable to access basic services. Tedros explicitly puts the blame on the “color of skin” of Tigrayans for why the Tigray crisis has not gotten the attention it deserves, and Tedros is not alone in his thinking. During the height of the crisis, W.H.O. emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said, “no one seems to give a damn about what’s happening in the Horn of Africa” in response to the shortage of concern regarding drought and famine in the region.

The Ethiopian humanitarian crisis joins other emergencies in the Global South, such as Yemen, Afghanistan, the Congo, and Syria, all of which receive only a fraction of the global concern that the gravity of their emergencies deserves. The common denominator between these four conflicts remains consistent — the victims are not white. The international community has a long and storied tradition of ignoring conflicts in parts of the world with little strategic importance, particularly African conflicts. After the West’s failures in Rwanda and Darfur, there should be a heightened sense of responsibility and obligation to engage in non-interventionalist conflict resolution in the Global South. However, it seems like the international community’s lack of commitment to the atrocities carried out in Ethiopia is no different from the region’s other foreign policy failures.

Of course, it would be reductive to simply assume racial biases are the only driving factor behind the global community’s lack of response. This would discredit legitimate, although lackluster, humanitarian relief and aid efforts conducted by Western powers. However, racism in international law and its mechanisms is a very real inhibitor to global peace, security, and prosperity. The international community has an obligation to address its own shortcomings when it comes to defending and protecting BIPOC individuals on a global scale. Once efforts have been made to rid international law and its mechanisms of racial biases, only then can international law truly be part of the solution in promoting global peace, security, and accountability.

About the Author:

Lucas is a second-year law student at Boston University School of Law. Lucas grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin and Donostia–San Sebastián, Spain. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Prior to law school, Lucas received his Master of Laws (LL.M.) in International Legal Studies from the Unviersidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain where his master’s thesis analyzed the legality of “coercive engineered migration” tactics under a public international law framework. Last summer, Lucas worked for the Executive Office for Immigration Review in Boston, Massachusetts.



BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.