EXCLUSIVE: Former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana Michelle Gavin shares insight into humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

This article was written by Lindsey O’Neal in Florida and Noah Pitcher in California

In an exclusive interview with Today News Africa correspondent Lindsey O’Neal, Michelle Gavin, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, gave an insight into the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and underscored the importance of holding the involved parties accountable to understand what has really been going on.

Gavin offered an assessment of the current scene in the Tigray region, saying, “You have a situation of grave insecurity, serious human rights abuses, a humanitarian crisis.”

“Civilians in the area have been displaced and don’t have access in many cases to healthcare or to food. There is concern about impending famine. Over 60,000 people have crossed the border into Sudan as refugees, but a great deal more are internally displaced,” said Michelle Gavin.

“Humanitarian access has been the major first order of business in the international community’s response to this crisis,” said Gavin in the interview. “The issue has been one of access, and the World Food Program and Medecins Sans Frontiéres, who are very adept at operating in remote and complex security environments, have struggled to get on the ground.”

Gavin highlighted the importance of openness, saying that what is needed is “more access for humanitarians, more access for journalists, and more honesty from all parties in discussing what’s going on.”

A recent study conducted by Medecins Sans Frontiéres found that about 73% of health facilities in Tigray have been looted and 87% of facilities are no longer fully functioning.

The conflict in Tigray, which started last November, has forced over 200,000 people to flee their homes and has left at least 2.3 million in need of assistance according to Human Rights Watch.

On the ground, complex security barriers and bureaucratic obstacles have slowed aid to people in the region of Tigray which has been subject to extensive human rights violations including the systematic and indiscriminate raping, abusing, and killing of civilians.

Gavin explained that humanitarian access has recently improved but there is still a long way to go, saying, “Access has gotten better. It’s still not what the humanitarian community would like for it to be, but it has improved to be able to move people and supplies to the areas where civilians have been displaced and need help.”

There is hope of relief for Tigrayans as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced Friday that Eritrea has agreed to withdraw its forces from the Tigray region. However, many people within the region remain displaced from their homes and unreached by humanitarian aid.

Abiy’s statement comes in the wake of mounting pressure from the international community to address the ongoing crisis in Tigray.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that Eritrean troops be withdrawn from the region and asked for an investigation into what has occurred.

However, the humanitarian crisis in Tigray remains dire and many questions remain unanswered, such as the reasons behind Eritrean occupation in Tigray in the first place.

Many have asserted that Eritrean troops, which have been accused of committing many of the worst atrocities in Tigray, invaded the region at the invitation of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and have worked in coordination with one another.

“It matters a great deal whether or not the Eritreans were invited by the government of Ethiopia and that remains tremendously unclear,” said Michelle Gavin in her interview with Today News Africa.

The Ethiopian government has previously denied accusations that it invited Eritrean troops into Tigray with one general reportedly saying in January, “They just entered by themselves, and this has to be made clear.”

As the future of the nation remains in flux, Ethiopia must decide whether it will grow to become the democratic heart of the Horn of Africa or whether Abiy Ahmed will continue to act in a dictatorial manner, furthering the government’s regression into oppressive authoritarian rule.

“There needs to be some forthright honesty about just what’s going on here and who is under what authority where,” Gavin said of the crisis in Tigray.

As Ethiopia faces a critical time in determining the fate of the country and its future as a democracy, responsibility falls on the international community to hold the government accountable and make sure that human rights are at the forefront of discussion moving forward.

Ethiopia is currently set to hold parliamentary elections on June 5, a potential opportunity to administer a legitimately fair and just democratic election after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed the 2020 election, causing concern that the country is not living up to its democratic aspirations.

The time is now to determine the fate of not just Tigray, but all of Ethiopia. Will Ethiopia strive toward democratization or succumb to authoritarianism? Yet, the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is not merely political in nature but is also a matter of basic human rights.

The Ethiopian government and the international community must be open and honest in their pursuit of justice in order to come to the defense of the vulnerable and quell the ongoing human rights abuses and violations in the Tigray region.

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