The Peace Prize to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has come to come light after the brutal war of recent months in the country's northern region of Tigray.

By Gunnar Zachrisen (19.02.2021)
[Rough translation of an article posted on Bistandsaktuelt, a monthly newspaper & website published by NORAD, Norway]

A number of media outlets have in recent weeks reported that the civilian population and refugees have been subjected to extreme abuses in the shadow of the acts of war. Killings, rapes and obstacles to humanitarian aid to starving civilians appear in various reports from the UN, Human Rights Watch, and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Recently, the Bistandsaktuelts reporter in Ethiopia was also attacked and threatened with death after she had carried out investigations into sexual abuse during the war in Tigray and about the role of Eritrean forces in the war.

Probably military forces from both sides have committed human rights violations. Nevertheless, leaders of the state have a particular responsibility to have control and responsibility for their military forces, and to take measures to prevent, stop and investigate such misdeeds. Both Ethiopia’s Minister of Women and the government’s own human rights commission have acknowledged that there have been widespread and gross sexual assaults on civilians during the Tigray War.

A main reason for the Peace Prize in 2019 was the Prime Minister’s role in establishing a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea. In retrospect, it is reasonable to believe that the talks with Eritrea’s autocratic leader may have had more purposes than just peace.

In the weeks before the TPLF forces’ so-called “preemptive strike”, extensive troop build-up took place around Tigray’s borders. A senior military leader in Sudan has stated that Khartoum was notified in advance and asked to prevent TPLF soldiers from crossing the borders when the offensive began, writes Ethiopian expert Professor Kjetil Tronvoll in a recent article. The internationally renowned Horn of Africa researcher had warned diplomats in advance for several months – long before the TPLF’s “pre-emptive strike” against a military camp in Tigray – that the war was underway.

In the months since November 2020, Eritrean forces have played a very active role in the war against the common enemy, the former TPLF regime in Tigray and their military forces. Eritrea’s hostility to the TPLF leadership in the border region of Tigray is well known. It has a background from the war of liberation and was intensified by the war between the two countries from 1998-2000, where tens of thousands were killed on both sides.

Over the years, there has often been criticism of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s awards to heads of state and key government politicians. Ever since the award to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho (who said no thanks) in 1973, it has been a recurring theme. Since then, it has happened several times, including when US President Barack Obama received the award in 2009.

“For what?” was the question a reluctant award-recipient Obama asked when he was notified of the award. In the years that followed, the US president was responsible for extensive drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia – attacks that took the lives of insurgents the United States considered terrorists, but which also resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

The rationale for the Peace Prize for Obama was to strengthen his peace efforts, exactly the same justification as for the award to Abiy Ahmed.

A few key questions that can be asked in this context, however, are: How wise is it to give such leaders an award? Does a peace prize contribute to legitimacy, not only for peace work, but also for actions that are in direct conflict with the purpose of the Nobel Prize?