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Canada and the war on Tigray

Trudeau government continues to provide financial support to the Ethiopian government despite allegations of war crimes

Canadian PoliticsAfricaWar Zones

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa in an attempt to shore up support for a seat for Canada on the United Nations Security Council, February 7, 2020. Photo from Twitter.

In the final weeks of September, images began to emerge of severely malnourished children from Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, home to around seven million people. These pictures provided visual proof of the humanitarian calamity the United Nations has long been warning about.

Tigray is currently suffering the worst famine anywhere in the world, with millions in dire need of food. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs revealed that 400,000 people in Tigray are suffering from catastrophic hunger while USAID puts the number at nearly one million. According to UNICEF, over 100,000 children in Tigray are at risk of starvation-induced deaths, while the UN is recording “unprecedented” malnutrition (now over 22 percent) particularly among children, pregnant women, and new mothers.

Terrible stories from the region, of people going for days without eating or subsisting on leaves to survive, underscore the severity of the famine, which has already killed hundreds, if not thousands. All the more horrific is that this famine, which threatens the lives of millions, is not the result of drought or a natural disaster. It is a man-made famine, brought on by the systematic and deliberate campaign of destruction unleashed on Tigray by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea since November 2020 in their military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

On November 4, 2020, while much of the world was engrossed in the outcome of the US presidential elections, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on Tigray. This declaration followed years of escalating political tensions between the Ethiopian federal government and the regional government in Tigray. While ostensibly declaring it a domestic law and order operation, Abiy invited forces from Eritrea and the neighbouring Amhara region to launch a brutal offensive against the people of Tigray.

Despite the communications blockade imposed by the Abiy regime since November, news began to emerge of atrocities carried out by the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara forces in Tigray, including hundreds of massacres, pervasive sexual and gender-based violence, and attacks on religious sites, all of which have decimated the region’s health, food, and education infrastructure and displaced millions. The atrocities perpetrated by the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and bear the hallmarks of genocide.

The man-made famine is a central component of Abiy’s campaign in Tigray. With roads in and out of the region closed, trade and commerce halted, and humanitarian organizations prevented from accessing the north of the country, there were warnings of famine as early as January of this year. Reports show that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces destroyed and looted crops, killed livestock, burned food supplies, banned farming, and blocked humanitarian access into Tigray in a deliberate attempt to create and exacerbate the starvation crisis. Since being pushed out of many parts of Tigray in late June, the Ethiopian government has continued to besiege the region, cutting off its inhabitants from electricity, transportation, communication, and enacting a de facto aid blockade.

Recognizing that the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe from the war on Tigray is too grave to ignore, the United States and the European Union (as well as the United Kingdom) have been working to facilitate a cessation of hostilities. On September 17, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order authorizing a wide-ranging sanctions regime on Ethiopia. Similarly, on October 7, the EU parliament adopted a resolution calling for sanctions and an arms embargo on Ethiopia. Many other states, international organizations and humanitarian agencies have similarly been vocal in their calls for an end to the hostilities.

There is, however, one notable absence among the chorus of voices holding Mr. Abiy’s regime to account: Canada. Since November, beyond issuing a few half-hearted statements, the Trudeau government has not taken any meaningful steps to utilize the tools at its disposal to facilitate an end to the conflict. The Canadian response has been weak and ineffective, which is surprising given the significant leverage at Canada’s disposal. Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of Canadian development assistance, having received nearly $2 billion between 2010 and 2019. Moreover, in 2018 alone, trade between Canada and Ethiopia peaked at over $170 million.

Canada has a strong economic relationship it could use to push for a meaningful ceasefire and the opening up of aid access into Tigray. Yet, not only has Justin Trudeau’s government shown its unwillingness to move beyond tepid statements, but it has also continued to provide financial support to the Ethiopian government, which stands accused of atrocities and helping to spur the world’s worst famine crisis in a decade.

Justin Trudeau and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, February 8, 2020. Photo from Twitter.

While it is easy to dismiss the humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray as just another war in a remote part of the world, this crisis should be at the centre of Canadian foreign policy discourse for two key reasons. First, Canadian presence across the world needs to live up to the values its leaders claim to espouse. As early as 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to bring Canada’s “compassionate and constructive voice” back to the world stage. However, with respect to Tigray, the Trudeau government has been neither compassionate nor constructive. In fact, in so far as it has had a discernable voice at all, it has raised it in defense of a regime that has been accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. The complete disjuncture between Canadian foreign policy rhetoric and practice should be alarming and disconcerting to all.

Second, and more disturbingly, reporting by The Breach has revealed that Canadian mining companies have been investing heavily in Tigray since November 2020. At least six Canadian firms are either already in or have licenses to operate in Tigray, while two Canadian companies have worked closely with the Ethiopian government amid the war. The reporting suggests that the Canadian government’s lacklustre response to the humanitarian catastrophe may be influenced by its desire to protect the millions of dollars it has spent to reform the mining sector in Ethiopia and protect the investments of domestic mining companies that believe the region “holds billions of dollars in gold.”

As is well known, Canadian mining companies have been widely criticized for their conduct across the Global South, which includes environmental disasters, gross human rights abuses, and attacks against Indigenous peoples. The link emerging between Canadian mining interests in Tigray and Canada’s ongoing support for the Ethiopian government could be the newest addition to this roster of injustices. That this is happening under a government that prides itself on its feminist credentials and espouses noble values about Canada’s benevolence makes it all the more hypocritical.

If Prime Minister Trudeau wants to bring Canada’s compassionate and constructive voice back to the world stage, this is the time to do so. The Abiy government’s war in Tigray represents a decisive moment for Canada to affirm the values it proclaims guide its presence in the world, by deploying all of the economic, political, and diplomatic tools at its disposal to help bring a swift end to the humanitarian crisis before it spirals out of control.

Fifi H. is a graduate student in the field of international political economy. Her research focuses on the political economy of development and urbanization in the African context.

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