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HomeBlogFailure to Stand for Democracy in Ethiopia Has Weakened Democracy Worldwide

Failure to Stand for Democracy in Ethiopia Has Weakened Democracy Worldwide

By Ann Fitz-Gerald and Hugh Segal

In the post-Covid world, Western democracies have lamented the absence of commitment to the collective good – “shared common values” – among states. But their response to the conflict in Northern Ethiopia today suggests otherwise.  The positions of the US and its Western partners on the conflict reinforce the conclusion held by authoritarian states that democracy – and the less-than-sustainable hegemonic status of the West – simply doesn’t work.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rule, which dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition since 1991 for 27 years, was known for its repressive governance culture and commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideological, economic and security policies. Labelled as a tier 3 terrorist organization by the United States government, this autocratic elite demonstrated its true colours one year ago today by staging an unprovoked terrorist attack which murdered thousands of federal Ethiopian forces across all outposts of the national armed forces’ northern command in Tigray.

Had the same incident been visited upon a NATO member state, no one would have questioned that ally turning to others for diplomatic support to underwrite a law enforcement operation, aimed in good faith at neutralizing such a serious threat to the national interests of the legitimate administration. Instead, and despite being fully aware of the TPLF’s repressive persecutions and terrorist classification, some global leaders knuckled under a narrative of a digital intimidation and fake news campaign that was launched by the TPLF’s remote and well-resourced satellite hubs

The TPLF narrative vilified Eritrean forces, a long-term TPLF opponent, for unproven and uninvestigated alleged crimes. It criticized the government for postponing a federal election which international advisers had encouraged it to do, in line with the decisions of 78 other countries which postponed their elections due to Covid-19. It accused the Abiy government of “genocide” even within hours of its murderous and unprovoked attacks on its forces. And it has continued to issue critical comments to both the Ethiopian government and the population, which were working overtime to provide 70% of the humanitarian aid to a region that had been scourged by TPLF-staged chaos.

The United States and others were consistently critical of the Ethiopian government, even following the country’s federal elections in June in which approximately 75% of the eligible population voted.  These numbers were bolstered by an additional 6.6 million who voted in September, bringing the outcome of the election to an approximate 80% voter turnout.  It was the first peaceful, democratic and transparent election ever to be held in the country, confirmed by100,000 local election monitors and over 100 international election observers.

Yet despite an outcome of which even Western democracies would be proud, in which PM Abiy Ahmed secured a landslide victory, congratulatory messages normally issued in this context were not forthcoming. Not backing democracy at the outset makes it harder to support later democratic victories, even when such support should be self-evident. By embracing moral equivalency where none exists, Western states have undermined their own position. 

In effect, the position that some world leaders have adopted on Ethiopia not only ignores the voice of over 100 million Ethiopians, as well as a very populous global Ethiopian diaspora, but also defies basic democratic values – values which Western countries are supposed to support. The West’s failure to call out the TPLF for its atrocities and breaches of international law – instead preferring to direct punitive measures towards the country’s duly elected government – reflects a selective and illiberal application of these values. By treating a terrorist organization as equal to a democratically elected and legitimate government, the US and its partners, the underlying values and principles of the West come across as inconsistent and contradictory.

Such values would normally include pushing for a peaceful transition from the harsh TPLF rule that the West supported in 2018, enhancing the security of states, their populations and their borders – actions for which Ethiopia has been vilified and denied international respect – and supporting basic human rights and freedoms. These values, in turn, must rest upon a stable world order – a prospect which has diminished in the face of irresponsible meddling and destabilizing actions which have made other African states fear similar treatment.

For a hugely populous, diverse and landlocked country situated in a challenging and unstable region, Ethiopian federal democracy is the only option in the Horn of Africa. The very model that the US insists it upholds has been freely chosen by an African people for the first time in their country’s history. Yet rather than a milestone to celebrate, this is being derided and condemned by its supposed allies.

If the United States and the European Union continue to do all they can to undermine Ethiopia’s progress, the result will be damning. Washington and Brussels will be rewarding a terrorist organization that has committed the same heinous crimes as al-Shabab and Boko Haram and that has arguably targeted more children than these groups. One year on, and the embarrassment does not lie with the emergent federal democracy in Ethiopia. It can be found in Washington, Brussels and Geneva, whose commitment to democracy seems more tentative than ever.

Both President Putin and Secretary Xi have made the case openly and frankly that democracies are undependable. There are several strains to their allegation. First, they claim that important domestic decisions cannot be made effectively through the democratic process as conceived and implemented in the West. Second, they also contend that democracies are unreliable as allies and partners. Whatever the accuracy of these allegations, the failure of Western democracies to support other democratic governments, especially when they are in conflict with terrorist organizations that are bent on destroying democracy and imposing a harsh Marxist dictatorship, clearly underlines the core question around reliability.

For more than a year, the Ethiopian government has been battling an armed insurgency eager to destroy the country’s democratic character.  Civil conflict produces excesses and tragedies on all sides, but there is no moral equivalency between those sides. Any lack of resolve on that issue in the democracies of the West weakens democracy everywhere.

Ann Fitz-Gerald is the Director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Professor of International Security at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science Department.  She is also a senior research associate with the Royal United Services Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy (IPD).

Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, Senior Advisor at Aird & Berlis and former chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor