A top United States official said the Biden administration is preparing to impose additional sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea if attacks against civilians in the Tigray region continue, and is reviewing whether war crimes have been committed.
“The violence in Tigray is horrifying. It shocks the conscience,” US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Godec said on Thursday.
The US has called on parties to end the conflict, allow humanitarian access and halt human rights abuses. “If we do not see immediate progress on these fronts,” Godec said, “we will be imposing additional sanctions.”
Now in its seventh month, the conflict in Tigray has killed thousands of people and put as many as five million at risk of famine amid atrocities committed by armed forces in the region.
Godec condemned “the brutal killings, sexual violence including gang rape, forced removals, and the wanton destruction of civilian property” in Tigray.
Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have unleashed a “campaign of unremitting violence and destruction that amounts to the collective punishment of the people of Tigray,” Godec said.
Amhara regional government forces are forcing Tigrayans from their homes in “acts of ethnic cleansing”, Godec told a US Senate hearing.
The Biden administration has suspended US economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, previously a US ally in the region, and is looking at imposing new sanctions on individual Ethiopian and Eritrean government and military officials, Godec said.
Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress are unified in their alarm and condemnation of what is happening in Tigray. Legislators have called for an international arms embargo on participants in the conflict and target economic sanctions.
“Many of us believe in fact these are war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate committee, said.
“We cannot turn away blindly when such things happen in the world,” said Menendez, who with other US legislators has called on the Biden administration to act more forcefully to pressure the Ethiopian government to end the conflict.
The administration has committed $305m in new humanitarian aid for Tigray and Biden has appointed Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa.
President Joe Biden on May 26 called for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region and said immediate humanitarian access must be granted to avoid widespread famine in the conflict-torn area.
“Belligerents in the Tigray region should declare and adhere to a ceasefire, and Eritrean and Amhara forces should withdraw,” Biden said in a May 26 statement.
“All parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine,” he said.
The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs warned earlier this week that Ethiopia is at risk of famine because of the conflict.
“There is a serious risk of famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months,” Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator told a Security Council briefing, according to the AFP news agency.
Five million people in Tigray and across the border in Sudan need humanitarian assistance, Sarah Charles, assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development, told the Senate committee.
“The scale of need is staggering” and armed groups have inflicted widespread and gender-based “violence so brutal that women are left with organ damage”, Charles said.
Conditions in Ethiopia echo a widespread famine in the 1980s that killed more than 1.2 million people and displaced millions more, US officials said.
“If Ethiopia continues down the road it is going, there is a risk of a massive humanitarian crisis and a refugee crisis and it poses a risk to the wider region,” Godec said
“We have made very clear that if we do not see immediate progress … Ethiopia and Eritrea can expect further actions,” Godec said.