A week into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly announced that Canada had joined the growing chorus of states calling for the International Criminal Court to probe alleged war crimes by Russian troops in Ukraine.
“It was also important for us to show that we are steadfast in terms of our support to Ukraine,” Joly was quoted as saying after walking out of a planned virtual speech by her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov at the UN Human Rights Council.
The rhetoric has since intensified with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warning Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would be held accountable “for the war crimes he’s committed in Ukraine.”
The robust approach could be deemed fitting in the context of a war where invading forces have indiscriminately shelled residential areas of major cities and towns. On March 3, Russian airstrikes left 47 people dead in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihiv, where victims had been lining up outside a bread stall when they died. Hospital haven’t been spared either, with a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol bombed on March 9.
However, the uproar in Ottawa pales in comparison with reactions towards another conflict in which the toll of human suffering and victims is far worse: Ethiopia’s civil war, now in its seventeenth month.
Researchers who recently spoke to the Globe and Mail estimate that the war, and a famine exacerbated by it, may have caused as many as half a million deaths in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the epicenter of fighting for much of the war.
The research team was headed by Dr. Jan Nyssen of Ghent University in Belgium, who clarified that most of the killings were of unarmed civilians murdered in cold blood, and not a result of accidental crossfire between warring entities.
“I know of an incident near Hagere Selam (eastern Tigray), where [Ethiopian] soldiers went deep into a gorge and forests in search of [TPLF officials] Getachew Reda and Debretsion Gebremichael, but couldn’t find them,” Dr. Nyssen explains. “When the soldiers returned, they took their frustration out on the inhabitants of the village near where their military vehicles were parked, killing twenty or so people.”
Nyssen’s research estimates that anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 of those victims were killed by armed combatants, largely from the Ethiopian army and its allies, which includes regional militias and soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, once hailed for ushering Ethiopia into an era of much-needed political reform, was a widely celebrated figure just a few years ago. He became leader of Ethiopia in 2018 after anti-government demonstrations forced the resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, and one of his first acts as leader was ordering the release of thousands of political prisoners.
Later that year, he restored ties with the Eritrean government, ending two decades of hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea that dated back to the 1998-2000 border war between the two that left some 70,000 people dead. That landmark peace deal sealed Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
But the written text of the infamous 2018 agreement was never made public and today, some say that the peace deal might have paved the way for Abiy and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki to jointly wage war two years later.
In November 2020, the Nobel laureate and the Eritrean president sent their armies into Tigray to carry out a multi-pronged attack that was supposed to promptly oust a renegade Tigray regional government which Abiy had fallen out with. Ethiopian officials had projected victory within weeks or months.
But a year and a half later, it continues to drag on. Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers tasked with hunting Tigrayan guerilla fighters in the region’s mountains carried out scores of massacres of the region’s residents, including the killings of hundreds of men in the town of Axum between Nov 28 and 29 2020. Tigrayan fighters are also accused of killings and rapes, and a probe involving UN investigators accused all sides of human rights violations and “extreme brutality.”
Months of atrocities, which included ethnic cleansing and weaponized rape led to widespread condemnation, Ethiopia’s ostracization by the international community, and US sanctions against the country.
The optimism of 2018 has long evaporated and given way to disillusionment and revulsion, as mounting reports decry the sheer brutality of Abiy’s forces, including an incident in February, where Ethiopian soldiers and regional forces were depicted in a video burning civilians alive.
In the wake of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s fall from grace, the United Nations accusing Eritrean troops of deliberately starving Tigrayan civilians and prominent observers pointing out hallmarks of genocide, Canadian officials have taken a softer approach when compared to their American and European partners who have been blunt in their condemnation.
On the same day in February 2021 that Amnesty International published a blow by blow account of how Eritrean troops went around Axum, dragging men from homes and killing them in the town’s streets as Ethiopian troops stood by, Prime Minister Trudeau and his Ethiopian counterpart spoke over the phone in a conversation where, according to a readout from Trudeau’s office, the two leaders “affirmed the deep and enduring friendship between Canada and Ethiopia.”
Trudeau’s communications personnel wouldn’t respond to queries raised by the Globe and Mail about whether war crimes or the topic of the Eritrean troop presence in Ethiopia were brought up during the call.
On January 7 of this year, a Turkish-made drone armed with precision guided munitions, dropped bombs on a camp for internally displaced persons in the rural Tigray town of Dedebit, killing 59 people and injuring dozens more. The drone was among an array of armaments Ethiopia managed to procure from the likes of Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which were used to eventually fend off a threat by the Tigrayan rebels to attack the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
But the drones continue to pound away at civilian targets in Tigray. By January 14, a UN report stated that Ethiopian drone strikes had claimed the lives of 108 civilians.
A day after that report, Prime Minister Trudeau called Abiy and a Canadian government readout stated that he “expressed concern over the impact of recent air strikes,” and that the two leaders agreed to stay in touch.
Content perhaps with the relatively mellow stance when compared with other Western states, Prime Minister Abiy tweeted that “#Ethiopia appreciates a supportive and all-weather friend like Canada.”
The remark appears to have been made in reference to the likes of President Joe Biden, who signed off on Ethiopia’s termination from the lucrative AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) trade agreement over war abuses. The AGOA agreement had granted Ethiopia duty free access to American markets since 2000.
The AGOA threat had loomed large for much of 2021. The US Congress is currently deliberating over the passing of bills which could lead to additional sanctions, including one, bill H.R. 6600 which among other things, calls on the US to determine whether the abuses would amount to genocide.
“I continue to assert that Ethiopian officials have committed genocide in Tigray and I strongly urge the administration to make its own assessment as soon as possible,” said US Senator Robert Menendez, the bill’s sponsor.
Canada, for its part, besides issuing carefully worded statements expressing concern over reports of violations, had generally refrained from directly rebuking perpetrators of alleged violations.
In response to the invasion of Ukraine, however, it took merely days for Ottawa to unleash sanctions targeting the Russian government and affiliated entities.
This week, in the wake of the emergence of Russian army atrocities at Bucha, Canada announced its latest punitive measures, targeting Russian and Belarussian individuals identified as “having facilitated and enabled violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
In Ethiopia, aid agencies have been complaining for months that an Ethiopian military-enacted blockade in the Tigray region where rebel forces are encamped has prevented them from delivering humanitarian aid to the millions estimated to be on the brink of famine.
“Food is definitely being used as a weapon of war,” said Mark Lowcock in June 2021 when he was the UN’s humanitarian aid chief. He accused Eritrean soldiers of blocking supplies from reaching Tigray and Ethiopian troops of only permitting aid to reach government-controlled areas.
Three months into the siege, with Tigray’s food and medical supplies nearing depletion and famine deaths being reported, shocking images of the region’s severely malnourished children began to emerge, as hospitals staffers lamented feeling helpless as residents began dying of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and a host of other treatable diseases.
Compounding the siege is the Ethiopian government’s severing of the region’s communications and banking services. While African Union-mediated negotiations between Tigray forces and the Ethiopian government are said to be centered around eventually restoring these services, the policy of weaponizing them in the first place would be in contravention of international law.
As the grim reality of life under siege in Tigray was making international headlines, an investigation by the Globe and Mail revealed that representatives of two Canadian mining companies keen on securing rights to Tigrayan gold mines were jostling to secure Ethiopian mining licenses with the implicit support of the Canadian government.
John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, confirmed to the newspaper that Canadian mining entities with interests in Tigray had received assistance of some form from Canada’s trade commissioner service.
Global Affairs Canada has invested in enhancing Ethiopia’s mining sector, with a six-year $15 million program being launched in tandem with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in April 2016.
In 2020, the program’s mandate was extended until the fall of 2022. There are no indications that Canada ever sought to review a program that has it collaborate with a government accused of a litany of abuses that outnumber those carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine.
Last June, a deleted Canadian Embassy in Ethiopia tweet revealed that its ambassador Stephane Jobin met with Ethiopia’s mining and petroleum minister Takele Uma to “discuss the potential for further mining investments when conditions allow.”
The tweet was deleted to avoid further backlash, but screenshots have made the rounds. Months later, Tigrayans in Ottawa held a demonstration denouncing, among other things, the pursuit of commercial interests in a region ravaged by brutal atrocities.
Despite the lenient approach, Canada was among UN Human Rights Council member states which voted in favour of an EU-tabled resolution ordering an independent probe of abuses in Ethiopia’s civil war. The resolution was passed, much to the chagrin of Ethiopia’s government, which has denounced it and vowed not to cooperate with investigators.
The move hasn’t impacted relations between the countries’ leaders who spoke on Wednesday in a call that largely mirrored previous conversations, at least according to the official Canadian government readout.
Dr. Getachew Assefa, a Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Calgary, hosts the UMD Ethiopian panel discussion show where guests dissect Ethiopian current affairs, including the ongoing civil war. Of Tigrayan descent himself, Dr. Getachew said that while he felt that Canada’s softer, lukewarm stance on Tigray was “un-Canadian,” the political and diplomatic effort Canada has put in to oppose the Russian aggression left him speechless.
“I honestly feel that despite the rhetoric, Canada’s inaction regarding the unspeakable atrocities committed against millions of innocent people, including women and children, leaves me feeling that for Ottawa, not all lives matter,” he explained.
“The ‘feminist foreign policy’ is but a paper tiger if Canada fails to act when tens of thousands of women in Tigray have been subjected to weaponized rape,” he said. “I’m dumbfounded by Canada’s not doing the right thing when it mattered most.”