There is a war that has featured attacks on hospitals, war crimes, the torture of civilians and rape as a weapon of war. This war shares similarities to the invasion of Ukraine but has been far deadlier.
That’s how Elizebeth Shackelford, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, began a lecture to Drake students on the Tigray War in Ethiopia on Nov. 30. Tigray is a region in Ethiopia where the local and federal governments fought brutally against each for two years with the conflict ending early last month. Shackelford also spoke on Nov. 29 on human rights advocacy. Both lectures were part of the Principal Center for Global Citizenship speaker series.
Shackelford spent eight years in the U.S. state department with postings in Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Poland and D.C. During her lecture, she frequently compared Ethiopia’s two-year-long civil conflict with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Ethiopia is the 12th largest country in the world, with 117 million people. Ukraine, by comparison, hosts a population of less than half that with 48 million. During the Tigray War, an estimated 600,000 civilians died, compared to 6,555 in Ukraine. Five million Ethiopians have been displaced from their homes.
But even with greater devastation, the Tigray War has attracted far less public attention than Ukraine. Shackelford lays the blame for this largely on the news media.
“The war in Ukraine has had a dramatic amount of media press coverage,” Shackelford said. “The media coverage is one of those reasons we are paying attention to it. Because what we pay attention to is what we see. You can’t expect people to be researching this independently if you’re not gonna see it on the front pages of the news.”
The Ethiopian Tigray War has received 368,000 stories in the media globally over two years, Shackelford said. Meanwhile, since just February, there have been 12 million stories on the Russian Invasion. That’s 33 times the coverage in less than half the time.
The type of coverage has also differed. Shackelford brought up instances of CNN and MSNBC pundits commenting on the Ukrainian refugees, saying, ‘these are people who look like us.’
“But you had, you know, Europeans, of course, saying things like, ‘these are people who live lives like we do, not like people in Africa,’” said Shackelford. “We’re colored by the things that we hear and the things that we’re exposed to. And a place like Ethiopia just doesn’t seem as familiar to a lot of Americans today as places like Ukraine.”
The responses of foreign governments like the U.S. to the wars are also vastly different. The U.S. has organized a united front with the European community in providing tens of billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine while punishing Russia with unprecedented levels of sanctions.
In Ethiopia, the U.S. response has been defined by a lack of any meaningful action to protect human rights, Shackelford said. She mentioned that while the U.S. has fought hard to keep Russia from buying Turkish or Iranian drones, it did nothing to prevent Ethiopia from doing the same even in the face of intelligence that the drones would be used to “slaughter troops and civilians alike.”
“We said nothing,” Shackelford said. “We had tools available to put pressure on Ethiopia because what they were doing was against a wide variety of regulations and international provisions, and yet we did not use this tool because Ethiopia was our friend.”
The Ethiopian government is a U.S. ally in the Global War on Terrorism.
“We cared more about what Ethiopia was doing to help us fight the war against al Shabaab in Somalia than we cared about what Ethiopia was doing with regard to its own civilians,” Shackelford said. “So those are the types of double standards that we see in the US foreign policy response.”
Shackelford agrees with the U.S. response to Ukraine and acknowledges that with a war of aggression like Russia’s, it is easier to see who is in the right and the wrong than in a civil war like that in Ethiopia.
Shackelford said she is bringing awareness to the conflict in Ethiopia partially because of her own experience of witnessing a civil war break out firsthand. While in the foreign service, she was stationed in South Sudan when a civil war broke out in 2013. She writes about her experience in Sudan in her book “The Dissent Channel.”
In 2015, she and several of her colleagues wrote a U.S. State Department dissent channel, a formal way for foreign service officers to voice concern, that recommended changes to U.S. policy with Sudan. The recommendations were largely ignored by the Obama administration.
In 2017, Shackelford resigned over what she saw as changes in the direction of foreign policy during the Trump administration. Currently, Shackelford is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs.
Shackelford said that foreign policy willing to turn a blind eye to human rights in the name of national security helps contribute to state-sponsored violence.
“I’d like to point out that the problem isn’t so much that the U.S. isn’t doing anything. The problem is what the U.S. is doing, and often what the U.S. is doing is helping to be complicit in the problem,” Shackelford said in an interview with the Times-Delphic.