U.S. Response To The Human Rights Crisis In Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict

When Ethiopia elected Abiy Ahmed to be the prime minister in 2018, the international community looked optimistically on the country’s future. In 2019, the new prime minister disintegrated the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in Ethiopia since 1991. Abiy successfully negotiated for peace over border disputes with the neighbouring nation Eritrea, winning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and instituted a number of promising reforms. 

However, things took a turn last November when forces of the TPLF attacked federal military bases, and Abiy subsequently issued a military intervention into the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Since then, the protracted conflict has created a crisis of famine in Ethiopia, especially among the people of Tigray, as their farming lands are destroyed and international food aid is blocked or unable to reach them. Abiy, far removed from his initial image as a peacemaker, has stoked war fever among Ethiopians to enlist more soldiers. 

International outrage erupted earlier this year when it was revealed that Ethiopian forces and Eritrean forces deployed in Tigray have committed what amounts to war crimes on Tigrayan civilians. The United States and other countries implored Ethiopia to commit to the withdrawal of the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF), which may be the culprit behind much of the scorched-earth tactics and excessive violence against civilians, but suspect that the EDF have returned after withdrawing in June. Most recently, the U.S. blacklisted the EDF chief of staff Filipos Woldeyohannes for human rights abuses perpetrated by the forces under his command.

“Under Filipos’ command, EDF troops have raped, tortured, and executed civilians in Ethiopia,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement. “Internally Displaced Persons have described a systematic effort by the EDF to inflict as much harm on the ethnic Tigrayan population as possible in the areas the EDF controls.”

U.S. sanctions on leaders and nations in the Horn of Africa could be vital in resolving the conflict because of the influential role the U.S. maintains in the region. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Ethiopia received $923 million in aid from the United States in 2019, the largest recipient of all Sub-Saharan African nations. Despite past cooperation and mutually beneficial relations, Abiy’s Ethiopia has not responded positively to U.S. measures prompting peaceful resolution.

In response to the U.S. State Department’s announcement of visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials and broad restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the nation would be “forced to reassess its relations with the United States, which might have implications beyond our bilateral relationship.” The U.S. and Ethiopia are key partners in providing humanitarian assistance and development assistance within Ethiopia, as well as in combating terrorism and intervening for stability in the surrounding African region.

Eritrea has also renounced U.S. sanctions, recently those against the chief of staff of its military. “The Government of Eritrea rejects, both in letter and spirit, the utterly baseless allegations and blackmail directed against it,” said the Eritrean Foreign Ministry in a statement on August 23rd, calling on the U.S. to “bring the case to an independent adjudication if it indeed has facts to prove its false allegations.”

The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments are clearly not pleased with the U.S. “meddling” in their affairs, but since Ethiopia is dependent on aid flowing in from the United States, eventually the sanctions will force them to reconsider their course. Eritrea, however, has faced isolating sanctions before, including United Nations sanctions enduring from 2009 to 2018, without relenting to outside pressure for reform. The international community will likely depend on the Ethiopian government to withdraw Eritrean forces from Ethiopia, holding Abiy and his government to their past promises.

Although the Horn of Africa nations decry U.S. involvement in Ethiopia’s plight, claiming the international community does not understand the context and delicacy of the situation, it appears unlikely that the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Tigray will resolve their conflict peacefully without outside pressure. Former champion of peace Prime Minister Abiy has called the TPLF a terrorist organization and a cancer, and has rallied citizens into a war fever to enlist recruits for the Ethiopian military.

It is not only Ethiopian government officials that are “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray” as underlined in the U.S. visa restrictions in May. On the other side, members of the TPLF have also contributed to the continuation and expansion of a conflict that has had devastating consequences on Tigrayans. Ethiopia declared a ceasefire in late June when the Tigrayans captured their regional capital Mekelle, but the TPLF rejected it and instead went on the offensive in neighboring regions like Afar and Amhara. 

Tigrayan leaders’ terms for a negotiated ceasefire include the restoration of telecommunications, health, and aid services to Tigray blocked by the Ethiopian government, withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean forces from Tigray, and a “transitional arrangement” that would likely demand the removal of Abiy from his position. Due to the popularity of Abiy’s Prosperity Party in the rest of Ethiopia as evidenced by their landslide election win, and due to Tigrayan leaders’ poor reputation after years of authoritarian rule under their party, if Tigray continues to demand for a transition in government power there will be no peaceful resolution to the conflict. Ethiopians outside of Tigray would be unlikely to accept the Tigrayan proposals. 

The United States must get involved in the conflict in Ethiopia in the areas in which it has the most influence, namely economic assistance, while continuing to support humanitarian aid coming into Tigray. With this leverage, Washington can encourage the Ethiopian government to follow through with its promise to remove Eritrean forces from Ethiopia and open the blockades to Tigray so that vital, famine-preventing humanitarian aid can flow into the region. Sanctions on Tigrayan leaders can help soften their demands for a transition of power so that a bilateral ceasefire can be successfully negotiated. 

This is the Biden administration’s opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights across the world. Strong action from the United States will also signal to the rest of the international community the need to use their influence to promote peaceful negotiations in Ethiopia. Without immediate action to resolve the crisis, citizens of Tigray will continue to face human rights abuses and a serious impending famine.


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