Lowenstein Clinic Finds Ethiopia and Allies Responsible for Mass Starvation in Tigray

A group of people stand in a line before a doorway, some holding blue plates of food. From inside the building, a hand holding an empty blue plate reaches out.
Tigrayans stand in line to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 9, 2021. Photo: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School has determined, based on publicly available information, that Ethiopia, with its allies, violated international law by inflicting starvation on the civilian population of Tigray during the two-year-long war in the region. The Lowenstein Clinic’s legal analysis, “‘All of Us Are in Constant Hunger’: Ethiopia’s Responsibility for Starvation in Tigray,” found that Ethiopia and its allies committed gross abuses of human rights and severe violations of the law of war, known as international humanitarian law. 

The clinic’s study calls for credible, independent investigations of conduct by warring parties that significantly contributed to massive hunger in Tigray. It also calls for redress for the civilians who suffered starvation and other harms.

“All of Us Are in Constant Hunger” is the product of an 18-month-long legal analysis of information derived primarily from publicly available sources. The Lowenstein Clinic examined hundreds of reports from the Ethiopian government, United Nations agencies, human rights and humanitarian organizations, journalists and academics. The clinic also conducted interviews with human rights experts, humanitarian relief workers, academics, health professionals and former officials from the federally appointed interim administration of Tigray.

Cover of the study.

Publicly available reports cited in the study indicate that, after the war began on Nov. 4, 2020, Ethiopia, with its allies, including Amhara regional authorities and Eritrea, extensively looted and attacked the food, water and healthcare systems that sustain civilian life in Tigray. The Ethiopian government and its allies exacerbated these harms throughout the conflict, the clinic’s study found, by encircling and laying siege to Tigray, cutting the region’s 6 million inhabitants off from essential public services and from the rest of the world. For more than two years, according to the study, Ethiopian and allied forces blocked almost all supplies of cash, fuel and electricity from entering Tigray, while also obstructing or denying the passage of humanitarian relief. In Tigray, a rural society where people depend heavily on agriculture, these tactics pushed millions of people into darkness, desperation and hunger. 

“We are hungry. The little food we have been able to get is not enough to sustain our family. I often go hungry for days just so my children can eat.”
—Ngisti (a pseudonym),
who fled Western Tigray

The study quotes a 36-year-old farmer who fled her home in Dansha, Western Tigray, shortly after the war began. Ngisti (a pseudonym), spoke to a humanitarian relief worker in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in May 2022.

“We are hungry,” Ngisti told the relief worker. “The little food we have been able to get is not enough to sustain our family. I often go hungry for days just so my children can eat.”

By extensively looting and attacking Tigray’s food, water and healthcare systems; cutting off and restricting supplies of electricity, cash and fuel; and delaying or denying the delivery of humanitarian relief, Ethiopia, with its allies, violated the international-humanitarian-law prohibition against the starvation of civilians as a method of combat, the clinic’s 138-page legal analysis found. The conduct of Ethiopia and its allies also violated the human rights to life, food, water and the highest attainable standard of health. 

Publicly available information indicates that members of Ethiopian and allied forces, as well as Ethiopian officials, committed international crimes, the clinic’s legal analysis found. The study urges further investigation of starvation-related violations of international law, including to determine whether the conduct of Ethiopian and allied forces and officials that caused starvation in Tigray constitutes war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

In November 2022, the Ethiopian federal government signed a cessation-of-hostilities agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In the months since, civilian access to humanitarian aid in Tigray has improved in some areas, and public services, including telecommunications, electricity and banking, have partially resumed in Tigray’s major towns. High levels of humanitarian need persist, however, and abuses by Eritrean and Amhara forces reportedly continue. 

“It is imperative for the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray regional authorities to take further steps to alleviate the intense suffering in Tigray, including by removing remaining barriers to humanitarian access and by ensuring civilian protection,” said James Silk ’89, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights at Yale Law School and Director of the Lowenstein Clinic.

“It is imperative for the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray regional authorities to take further steps to alleviate the intense suffering in Tigray, including by removing remaining barriers to humanitarian access and by ensuring civilian protection.”
— Professor James Silk, Lowenstein Clinic Director

“All of Us Are in Constant Hunger” underscores the gravity of the violations that Ethiopia and its allied forces committed during the armed conflict and foregrounds the need for transitional justice processes to address starvation-related harms. 

The clinic’s legal analysis focuses on conduct by Ethiopia and its allies that contributed to starvation. Expert entities, including the United Nations International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have documented grave abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, including Tigray forces.

The Ethiopian government should grant immediate, unfettered access for credible, independent journalists and human rights investigators to all parts of Tigray, the clinic’s study states.

“Without credible accountability for the many grave violations of international law and gross abuses of human rights committed by warring parties during the conflict, including those that deprived millions of people in Tigray of essential items on which they relied to survive,” Kristine Beckerle ’15, one of the faculty supervisors of the Lowenstein Clinic study, said. “Ethiopia will likely continue to experience recurrent cycles of violence, starvation and repression.”

The clinic’s study also calls on the Ethiopian government and its allies, as well as Tigray regional authorities, to provide adequate, effective and prompt reparations to civilians harmed as a result of international-law violations committed by warring parties, including unlawful attacks against food, water and healthcare systems and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Even as peace returns to Tigray, the study concludes, civilians throughout the region will continue to suffer the devastating physical and psychological effects of hunger, malnutrition and starvation. 

“Given the scale and severity of the violations discussed in our analysis, it is crucial for the Ethiopian government to fulfill its legal obligation to investigate and ensure remedy for starvation-related violations committed by warring parties in Tigray,” Beckerle said. “The Ethiopian government should cooperate fully with regional and international accountability efforts and take all available steps to ensure redress for the egregious, long-lasting harms that the war has inflicted on civilians in Tigray.” 

The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic is a Yale Law School course providing firsthand experience in human rights advocacy under the supervision of international human rights lawyers. The clinic undertakes research, legal analysis, and reporting, as well as litigation and other advocacy, on behalf of human rights organizations and individual victims of human rights abuses.