Opening Hearts and Minds on the Day After a Canada Airlines Plane Plunges Down An Ethiopian River

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met with their Ethiopian counterparts earlier this week to discuss the situation in Oromia region, which is experiencing its largest ever flood, according to Global Affairs Canada. This follows an incident last month when 16 Canadians were killed during heavy flooding in the region. These tragedies underscore the need for Canada to speak with stronger words regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

These reports of deaths sparked outrage in the Canadian public. Perhaps even more so because a tragedy like this happens so often in the region. Many people in the Oromia region live in constant fear of violence and insecurity.

As in the case of the recent tragedy in Oromia, Canada has a long history of supporting people in need — it was Canada that first organized charity flights for famine victims in Africa in the 1980s. Since then, Canada has provided millions of dollars to Ethiopia in response to humanitarian crises, including its recent efforts to assist with the response to famine this spring. The United Nations expects more flooding this spring, and there is a need for humanitarians to remain on alert, ready to help if and when the water conditions allow for more community aid activities.

Most tragically, the vast majority of Canadians do not realize that the Oromia region exists at all. Many of us live in cities, and our jobs and lives may never set foot in this region, let alone meet the people who live in it. But these situations are all too real for the millions of people caught up in conflict, violence, and other severe humanitarian crises.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that incidents of violence in and around Oromia contribute to the refugee crisis in Ethiopia. Recent unrest in the region had led the government to further restrict rights. The violence also led to the displacement of people and triggered starvation. Several companies had their offices attacked or looted, which caused the security forces to be too cautious in responding to the ongoing emergency. The resulting violence contributed to these big humanitarians stepping up their support with both resources and expertise.

Canada is a world leader in humanitarian aid, and Canada has been an important humanitarian partner in many emergencies around the world. Canada has also been a leader in expressing and implementing its own criticism of Ethiopia’s human rights record. After the country’s people came out to protest a harsh government policy to expropriate lands, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed openness to international human rights and social justice assistance.

It is time for Canada to step up and do more to raise its own voice on Ethiopia’s human rights issues. But more than that, Canada must do more to end the root causes of such violence and instability in the region, and to help the people who have been forced to flee, whether through ongoing violence or displacements.

The Government of Canada needs to work with Ethiopia, other countries and nongovernmental organizations on the ground to address these root causes. This is what will improve the situation of the people who live in and around Oromia. It is the right thing to do for the people of Oromia region.

Imma Normanda is a doctoral student at McGill University.

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