US threatens new sanctions over conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray

Biden executive order raises spectre of further sanctions against parties prolonging fighting and humanitarian crisis.

Ethiopian government soldiers ride in the back of a truck on a road leading to Abi Adi, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia [File: Ben Curtis/The Associated Press]

The United States has announced a new sanctions regime related to the continuing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, threatening to punish those who prolong the fighting and the resulting humanitarian crisis.

An executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Friday allows the US Treasury and State Department to sanction leaders and groups if they do not soon take steps to end the violence.

“The Executive Order I signed today establishes a new sanctions regime that will allow us to target those responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire,” Biden said in a statement, adding that those targeted could include members of the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Amhara regional government.

The White House noted that all named groups have been accused of rights abuses in the fighting, which erupted between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the TPLF, Tigray’s ruling party, more than 10 months ago.

In a separate statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US would delay imposition of sanctions if the warring parties “cease ongoing hostilities and enter into ceasefire negotiations immediately and without preconditions”.

The sprawling, multi-party conflict has killed thousands of people and left at least five million people in need of humanitarian aid. US officials on Thursday said that up to 900,000 people were currently living in famine conditions in Tigray alone with aid convoys regularly blocked by Ethiopian troops from entering the region.

The United Nations has called the situation a “de facto humanitarian aid blockade”.

In his statement on Friday, Biden said he agreed with the UN and African Union that “there is no military solution to this crisis”.

The latest measure comes after the US imposed sanctions on General Filipos Woldeyohannes, the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces, in August. The Eritrean government, a longtime foe of the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, has been instrumental in aiding the Ethiopian government in the conflict.

Previous US visa restrictions on Eritrean and Ethiopian officials in May were dismissed by Abiy’s government as an effort to “meddle in our internal affairs”.

On Friday, Abiy released an open letter to Biden, in which he accused the US and wider international community of overlooking abuses committed by the TPLF, which he called “a terrorist organisation”.

“Unfortunately, while the entire world has turned its eyes onto Ethiopia and the government for all the wrong reasons, it has failed to openly and sternly reprimand the terrorist group in the same manner it has been chastising my government,” he wrote.

He warned Washington of making “hurried and rash decisions”, which have in the past “left many global populations in more desolate conditions than the intervention attempted to rectify”.

“Ethiopia will not succumb to consequences of pressure engineered by disgruntled individuals for whom consolidating power is more important than the well-being of millions,” he added.

‘Concrete’ steps

Speaking to reporters in a background briefing on Thursday, a senior US official detailed steps the warring parties could take towards resolution, including “accepting African Union-led mediation efforts, designating a negotiations team, agreeing to negotiations without preconditions, and accepting an invitation to initial talks”.

On the humanitarian front, the official said actions “could include authorising daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations; reducing delays for humanitarian convoys; and restoring basic services such as electricity, telecommunications, and financial services”.

The official said that just 10 percent of humanitarian supplies intended for Tigray have been allowed into the region of some six million people during the past month.

US officials also expressed concern that Abiy will press for a military success to present to legislators when the new government is formed on October 4 after his party’s landslide victory in July.

His government’s recent call for all able citizens to join the fight and stop the Tigrayan forces “once and for all” has further stoked international alarm.

Worsening conflict

Northern Ethiopia has been racked by conflict since November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to remove the TPLF, a move he said came in response to TPLF attacks on army camps. The TPLF said federal forces and its allies launched a “coordinated attack” against it.

Though Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, had promised a swift victory, fighting has dragged on, with myriad reports of massacres and atrocities, including rape and extrajudicial killings, and hundreds of thousands of people suffering famine.

In June, the Tigrayan forces retook Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, and federal forces largely withdrew.

Since then, they have launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

Many of the displaced have reported facing retaliatory attacks.

Last week, doctors and local officials reported that more than 120 people had been killed in a massacre in the Amhara region. Tigrayan forces denied responsibility for the killings.

In a new report on Thursday, Human Rights Watch said Eritrean refugees caught up in the war have suffered abuses at the hands of both Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan fighters that amounted to “clear war crimes”.

Source: Al Jazeera