A military campaign that was supposed to last days has stretched into months, inflicting severe suffering on untold numbers of people. War crimes, rape, torture, starvation and death have resulted in a humanitarian crisis, heading to full-blown genocide. 

If you thought I was talking about Ukraine, you could be right, but I’m not. I’m talking about Ethiopia, where for almost two years, the Ethiopian military has been waging a campaign of death and destruction on the northern Tigray region, the very area where two of my sons were born. Recent estimates put the death toll of military plus civilians at 500,000 — at least. It could be double that.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his role in ending the decadeslong conflict with its northern neighbor, Eritrea, and ushering peace into the region, is a full participant in the genocide. The pact Abiy made with Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki led to both of them aligning against the people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in an effort to, as one Ethiopian leaders said, “wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.”

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As with all genocidal actions, the first move is to dehumanize those who will be targets. The dehumanization of the Tigrayans began in 2018. Ethiopian leaders called Tigrayans “daylight hyenas.” Media described them as “traitors and agents of foreign powers,” soldiers told victims of violence that their goal was to “cleanse the bloodline,” and the prime minister said they were a “cancer” and like “weeds” to be “uprooted.” The threats and dehumanization have continued after the first shots were fired two years ago and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a dominant force in toppling the Marxist government in 1991, was set upon by the Ethiopian military. 

From the very first first days of this war, civilians have been targets of violence, fear and death. Thousands of women have been raped, Tigrayans have “disappeared” from their places of employment, even in the capitol of Addis Ababa, bodies are being left for the hyenas and millions are at risk. Starvation is being used as a weapon of war. The Tigray region has been without electricity, telecom, banking and other basic services for two years, and has found humanitarian assistance to be extremely limited because of government blockades. The medical infrastructure has been decimated. The infant mortality rate, or babies dying within the first month of life is now four times higher than it was just two years ago.

Women are dying during pregnancy or within 42 days of giving birth at five times the rate before the war, and children under 5 are dying at twice the prewar rate.

“The situation in Ethiopia is spiraling out of control. The social fabric is being ripped apart & civilians are paying a horrific price,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted last week. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization and himself from the Tigray region, tweeted on Saturday that “There is no other situation in which 6 million people have been kept under siege for almost 2 years like in #Tigray, Ethiopia…There is a narrow window now to prevent genocide.”

Is it genocide or something else — and does it matter?

Genocide is a term coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing and was first recognized under international law in 1946. In 1948, it was codified by the United Nations and has been ratified by 152 countries, including Ethiopia. 

The actions that constitute genocide include the following:

  • Killing members of the group.
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In 1998, four years after the Rwandan genocide, President Bill Clinton told survivors in Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda, “We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.” A year and a half later, he told the U.N. General Assembly, “It is easy to say, never again; but much harder to make it so.” 

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Mass atrocities” are instances of “large-scale, systematic violence against civilian populations.” Although the term mass atrocities has no formal legal definition, it usually refers to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Whether the actions of the Ethiopian government against the people of Tigray constitute “genocide” or “mass atrocities,” I suspect it doesn’t much matter to the people being slaughtered, raped and starved. 

This week, representatives of the Ethiopian government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces from the Tigray region are due to meet in South Africa for formal peace talks. There remains high levels of distrust, but there is also growing pressure from the international community of political and religious leaders. Pope Francis tweeted on Sunday: “May the efforts of the parties for dialogue lead to a genuine path of reconciliation.” Amen.

Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy.