Famine in Ethiopia: Is the world averting its eyes?

Days after the United Nations issued a report on famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray province that faulted government obstruction of aid, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expelled seven U.N. humanitarian personnel.

U.N. The Secretary General Antonio Guterres was shocked, but no actions were taken by the Security Council. Experts say that Mr. Abiy has discovered that he is able to act without being stopped by any power.

Why This

Was Written

The U.N. secretary general was shocked that Ethiopia expelled U.N. humanitarian personnel, but the Security Council did not act. Is the world losing its faith in the “responsibility of protecting”? If so, how and why?

Not only are traditional human rights defenders tired of interference, experts say, but China, Russia and other countries have become strong and powerful defenders for a government’s freedom to govern its own domestic affairs.

“What is happening in Ethiopia is an example of two syndromes in action in various forms, and at different intensities in different parts of the globe,” said Michael Doyle, former U.N. assistant Secretary-General and Columbia University professor.

“One concerns intervention fatigue, and the growing realization post-Afghanistan of how difficult it is to make things right. So don’t try,” he says. The other, however, looks at China’s willingness to play sides and declares that there is another game despots have to turn to in the event of any trouble coming from the United States .


Ethiopia, a country of ethnic diversity, was once a beloved member of the international community. It had emerged from communist oppression with an example for inclusive governance and equitable wealth.

The country’s leader Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for helping to bring Ethiopia back from the edge of ethnic war and for his commitment to building a democratic society through dialogue.

But the Horn of Africa is a sign of a darker trend in global power politics. It could have dire implications for human rights, and open the doors to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Experts believed it was closing.

Why This

Was Written

The U.N. secretary general was shocked that Ethiopia expelled U.N. humanitarian personnel, but the Security Council did not act. Is the world losing its faith in the “responsibility of protecting”? If so, how and why?

As his government wage a war on Tigray, a rebellious Tigray region, Mr. Abiy finds that he is able to act in impunity. He is spreading famine across the country and attacking civilians at a rate the United States considers near genocide. This is because there is no international power who can stop him.

After Venezuela and Myanmar, Ethiopia is being cited by international and African affairs professionals as Exhibit A in the international failure to defend human rights and the rise of those who enable gross rights violations. A decade ago, when the U.S. intervened to save Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in order to prevent a massacre, Mr. Abiy now operates in an entirely different power environment. Experts say that this is a result of the changing global political climate.

China’s role Not only are the Western powers no longer defenders international human rights but also Russia and China have emerged as strong and powerful defenders national sovereignty. This means that a government can exercise its right to govern domestic affairs and control the population as it pleases without interference from outside.

” The dominant idea ten years ago was that there would be human rights standards that could be applied to leaders. But, we are now seeing something quite different,” states Michael Rubin of the America Enterprise Institute in Washington. Rubin is a resident scholar who specializes in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and has been a specialist in international human rights.

“Now, there is always someone who could give support to an aspiring despot and even feel of impunity,” Rubin adds. He says that Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopians are both expelled. Abiy was accused of supporting rebel forces affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (which controls Tigray) and used to lead Ethiopia’s government. Days earlier, U.N. issued a warning about famine in Tigray, accusing government officials of blocking food, fuel, and medical supplies from reaching the war-torn region.

The year-old war in Tigray has killed thousands of civilians, displaced 2 million people, and deepened what experts call “man-made famine.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by Ethiopia’s action and demanded that the government reverse its decision. The Security Council did not take up the matter under “any other business” and issued no condemnation.

Afghanistan … and the Cold War

For some experts, events in Ethiopia underscore two trends they see advancing in international affairs – both of which they see as welcome developments for the world’s authoritarian rulers and human rights violators.

“What is happening in Ethiopia is indicative of two types of syndromes that are at work around the globe in various forms and at different intensities,” said Michael Doyle, who was a Columbia University professor and former U.N. assistant Secretary-General.

” One is the Afghanistan Syndrome, while the other is called the New Cold War Syndrome. He adds that one is all about intervention fatigue, and the growing realization post-Afghanistan of how you can’t make things better. So don’t get involved.” The other examines China’s willingness to play sides and declares that there is another game town despots could turn to in case they are caught up by the United States .”


People stand in line to receive food donations at the Tsehaye primary school in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021.

Nowadays authoritarians and human rights violators have powerful options on their side, Dr. Doyle says, “which was just not the case in 2000 or 2005, or a decade ago” when the U.S. and European powers intervened to stop Mr. Qaddafi.

To resist Western pressure, leaders can look to Russia (Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan government) or China (Myanmar’s military junta), to thwart any serious actions against them. Experts say that China is not only averse to the idea of any outside power having any say over how it treats the Uyghur Muslim minorities, but also seeks to expand the principle of noninterference into sovereign affairs of other countries beyond its own borders. “

“Russian and China desire to create a safe world for autocracy,” Dr. Doyle.

Responsibility to Protect

How the world has changed. The Responsibility to Protect was approved by the U.N. members only in 2005. R2P, the new doctrine that made leaders accountable for citizens’ welfare and endorsed international intervention when there was state-sponsored violence.

” R2P basically said to leaders that they could do anything, run their economy into the ground, or whatever else, except for genocide and ethnic cleansing. Dr. Doyle was at the U.N. during the negotiation of R2P. “It put a floor on the very worst government behavior,” he adds, “below which leaders could not go without risking international intervention.”

The West’s Libya intervention is seen by some experts as both the R2P doctrine’s zenith – and its undoing.

“Libya represented the Responsibility to Protect gone awry,” said Mr. Rubin from AEI. He adds that the incident left Abiy with a bitter taste and an ambivalent attitude about regime change.

Noting that his sources tell him Abiy is preparing another major offensive into Tigray, Mr. Rubin says, “Abiy is getting to the point where he just doesn’t care what the outside world thinks, and he knows he really doesn’t have to.”

Limits of U.S. policy

Which is not to say that the U.S. and other Western powers have thrown in the towel. The appointment of Jeffrey Feltman, a veteran diplomat and special advisor on the Horn of Africa by Secretary of State Antony Blinken was largely made to maintain pressure on Abiy. The United States accused Abiy’s government in February of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

Samantha Power (USAID administrator, prominent anti-genocide crusader) has been focusing attention on Ethiopia as well. She was denied an opportunity to meet with Mr. Abiy.

The result? “U.S. “U.S. policy is a bit less toothless” says Dr. Doyle. Dr. Doyle says that there are strong statements and sometimes even bold statements. However, I do not see the post-Afghanistan fatigue causing things to escalate .”

. Mr. Rubin said that while Abiy does not want to become too dependent on either China or the West, “balancing acts” have been performed by him between the two countries. He says that Abiy does not want to be dependent on one of them, but he is also turning his attention to the power he believes has his back It would be wrong to say that big-power cooperation in human rights matters is over. Noting that the Security Council recently extended the provision for humanitarian corridors in Syria by six months, Dr. Doyle says, “Maybe that’s not a lot, but it’s something, and suggests international cooperation on these issues is still possible.”

But that may offer little consolation for populations facing state-sponsored violence and gross human rights violations, he says – or little sense of threat to despots.

“Qaddafi believed he could get rid of the insects with impunity. But, Dr. Doyle says that it was not possible. He could probably get away with this today, but we live in an entirely different world .”