President Biden must act decisively to end the catastrophe in Ethiopia.
One of Joe Biden’s key presidential campaign promises was to restore the US’s global leadership, especially with regard to human rights. After securing the presidency, he said that “America is back” to engage with its allies and show the way.
“We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity,” Biden elaborated.
Yet, after more than a year of civil war that has attracted the involvement of international actors, including both US allies (UAE, Turkey, and, possibly, albeit indirectly, Israel) and rivals (Iran, Eritrea, Russia, China), it appears that the US is not doing much.
Surprisingly, however, some commentators have the opposite concern that the US is not showing adequate support to the Ethiopian government.
A case in point is a recent Foreign Policy article on the US response to Ethiopia’s civil war by Bronwyn Bruton and Ann Fitz-Gerald. Among other things, they falsely accuse the US and the West of improperly amplifying the atrocities and crisis inflicted on Tigrayans by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.
After claiming, with no evidence, that “there’s not a single nation in the geo-strategically vital Horn region that is reliably in Washington’s corner,” the authors go on to say that the US could gain a more positive reception in Africa by funding the reconstruction of war-torn Ethiopia.
This, however, overlooks the large sums of US funds already supporting health, education, and agriculture in Ethiopia. From 2016 to 2020, for instance, the US provided over $4.2 billion in development and humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia.
What’s more, they allege, again with zero evidence, that the US is planning a Libya-Iraq-Somalia type regime change in Ethiopia.
In reality, however, the US couldn’t even enforce the air dropping of food and medicine in Tigray or influence its allies such as the UAE that are arming the federal government with drones and other implements of war, let alone intervene militarily.
UAE drones were reportedly a major factor in the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments’ efforts to route the Tigray forces during the initial stages of the war. After Biden took office, his administration requested that the UAE pull out of its military base in Assab, Eritrea.
This sequence of events undermines the notion that the US government is pursuing a policy of regime change, as Bruton, Fitz-Gerald, and many Ethiopians allege.
When it comes to negotiations, the authors argued that Washington’s “calls for both negotiations and inclusive dialogue are also incompatible, as the former afford exclusivity to one group and undermine the national, unified aspect of a dialogue.”
Nonetheless, this call from Washington is surely better than the authors’ impractical position that TPLF officials should surrender and no diplomatic engagement should be made with them.
Bruton and Fitz-Gerald’s claims that the US is trying to overthrow the Ethiopian government ring hollow when we consider that the focus of the US thus far has been to hold all warring parties accountable for atrocities, ensure aid reaches those who need it, and see the fighting stop.
During the war, thousands of civilians have been massacred, starved, raped, and jailed in concentration camps. These facts have been reported by the UN, USAID, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a range of international media, such as the BBC.
The Ethiopian government’s actions have resulted in electricity, communications, and banking services being cut in Tigray, while the near full-scale siege on the region has created famine conditions. This has been accompanied by the destruction of farms and healthcare facilities, as well as the killing of healthcare and aid workers.
In addition, Human Rights Watch has reported on the latest expansion of ethnic cleansing by federal government-aligned Amhara regional forces in Western Tigray.
Since the Biden Administration was inaugurated in January 2021, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US representative to the UN Security Council, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power have stated repeatedly that the atrocities, including weaponized rape, amount to crimes against humanity and must stop immediately. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee have said that they could amount to genocide.
The US State Department has issued statements, for instance, condemning the ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the residents of Western Tigray and the hate speech by Daniel Kibret, a key advisor to the Prime Minister, who called for attacks to be perpetrated not only against Tigrayan fighters, but anyone who has sympathy for the TPLF, which naturally includes many non-combatant Tigrayans.
The House of Representatives and the Senate have both passed bipartisan resolutions (S.Res.97 and H.Res.445) condemning the atrocities and human rights violations committed by federal government forces and their allies. They have also recommended investigations into human rights abuses, imposing sanctions, opening up corridors for providing access to humanitarian aid, and reaching a ceasefire.
Despite all these, however, there have been no calls for US military action, and there is no evidence of the US supporting the TPLF.
In fact, as General Tsadkan Gebretensae has stated, the “Tigray Defense Force (TDF) is fighting absolutely alone. It has no international allies and no military or other material assistance from abroad.”
Last September, Biden announced an Executive Order that created a sanctions regime for anyone blocking peace and committing atrocities.
Subsequently, the US imposed limited sanctions on Eritrean officials, who are aligned with the Ethiopian government, for perpetrating numerous massacres, as well as the destruction of livelihoods that has contributed to the starvation of Tigrayans.
Biden’s Executive Order has not changed the behavior of the Eritrean government, however. The Eritrean war has effort continued, and they still occupy parts of Tigray, including in the west.
Similarly, Abiy has continued his siege policy on Tigray and has become even more aggressive after acquiring UAE, Turkish, and Iranian drones that provided the intelligence and firepower needed to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.
To the dismay of many, Abiy has even refused to meet with US officials, including Power.
In contrast, the recent US decision to suspend Ethiopia from its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) seems to have elicited a response from Abiy. The suspension from AGOA was followed by phone calls and visits by US officials, including a recent call by President Biden.
The Ethiopian government, which is short of funds, seems to be responding to this US policy decision, which may also involve the US taking a tough position on IMF and World Bank support for the government and at the ongoing debt renegotiations.
However, if something fruitful is to come out of this, Biden’s administration needs to stay on course and continue implementing the Executive Order.
After all, despite some peaceful gestures such as the release of a few political prisoners, Abiy’s government has continued the war by bombing Tigray, which has killed at least 108 civilians so far this year. As also indicated by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Defense Force, General Abebaw Tadesse, it appears the government is simply buying time for its next offensive.
Given these risks, it would be ill-advised for the US to change course and stop pushing for peaceful resolution of the conflict. But, the way this is executed has to be fair and practical.
For instance, the suggestion by Bruton and Fitz-Gerald that the leaders of Tigray’s government and armed forces must surrender as a pre-condition for negotiations is not only out of touch with reality, but, if it somehow occurred, would once again subject the Tigrayan people to the whims of the regimes in Addis Abeba and Asmara.
In fact, to achieve sustainable peace, Tigrayans should get security guarantees that such attacks and foreign military occupation can never happen again. As General Tsadkan said, and as most Tigrayans believe, the TDF is here to stay to serve this purpose.
If anything, as the war was planned for two years under the guise of a fake peace pact by the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea with the intention of neutralizing the TPLF, the solution to the current crisis may be the removal from power of these two leaders.
While that is also impractical, pursuing actions that limit the ability of Ethiopia and Eritrea to purchase arms may be needed as it may force the Ethiopian government to come to the negotiating table.
Given that the Tigray government has met the pre-conditions set by the US by returning its forces to Tigray, the time now seems right to impose further constraints—particularly an arms embargo—on both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.
Failing that, there are also African-led mediation efforts that the US is supporting.
The US State Department reported on 28 December that Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a phone call to President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, and both “agreed on the urgent need for a cessation of hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access, an end to human rights abuses and violations, and a negotiated resolution to the conflict.” Blinken said the US supports Kenyatta and AU envoy Olusegun Obasanjo’s peace efforts.
Another important action that may compel the Ethiopian government’s supporters to pause is for the State Department to make a genocide determination of the crimes committed in Tigray.
Several US elected officials, including Senator Menendez, Rep Brad Sherman, Rep Sara Jacobs, and Rep Malinowski, have called the crimes committed against the people of Tigray genocide. It has been reported that the required review for genocide classification has been prepared and is awaiting Blinken’s approval. The reason given for the delay is to “pave the way for peaceful resolution of the ongoing war”.
Ideally, such a decision would be up to the UN and, ultimately, international criminal justice entities. Yet any delay worsens the ongoing suffering of the people of Tigray, but also emboldens and enables the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea to continue committing crimes against humanity with impunity.
This decision is consequential and has the potential to trigger international legal action. In doing so, the UN Security Council may expedite action to end the genocide. If the ongoing siege, famine, mass arrest, and bombing of civilians and infrastructure does not stop, the end result could be the extermination of millions of people in Tigray.
Biden must remember the terrible Rwandan genocide, as well as the cost to rebuild that country. Thus, he needs to stay the course and add a sense of urgency. This means taking action to motivate all parties to the war to cease-fire and negotiate.
It would be irresponsible and counterproductive to listen to the likes of Bruton and Fitz-Gerald who are calling for the US to swing behind Abiy and Isaias’ devastating approach.
Instead, it is the lack of timely action from the US and UN Security Council that has created fertile conditions for the belligerent behavior of key actors, including Eritrea and Iran, to take root in Ethiopia.
The consequences of this inaction are an unstable Ethiopia and Horn of Africa, which, in turn, will lead to not just a worsening of a massive humanitarian crisis but also large refugee flows.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: President Joe Biden; October 2021; PBS.
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