Biden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict

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President Biden on Friday signed an executive order empowering the Treasury and State departments to sanction Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials engaged in the military conflict in Ethiopia, in a bid to pressure warring parties in the Tigray region to move toward a cease-fire. 

“This action provides the Department of Treasury working in coordination with the Department of State the necessary authority to impose sanctions against those in the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara regional government if they continue to pursue military conflict over meaningful negotiations to the detriment of the Ethiopian people,” a senior administration told reporters on a call previewing the announcement.

The latest action comes amid reports of egregious human rights violations occurring in the region. Human Rights Watch issued a report this week accusing Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militias of killing and raping Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region.

In signing the executive order, Biden is not sanctioning any person or entity immediately. Biden administration officials hope that the threat of sanctions will cause the parties to change course and seek a political solution to the destabilizing conflict.

“Unless the parties take concrete steps to resolve the crisis, the administration is prepared to take aggressive action under this new executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a wide range of individuals or entities,” the senior administration official added.

Biden in a statement Friday said he is “appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations.”

“The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia is a tragedy causing immense human suffering and threatens the unity of the Ethiopian state,” Biden said. “The United States is determined to push for a peaceful resolution of this conflict, and we will provide full support to those leading mediation efforts, including the African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo. We fully agree with United Nations and African Union leaders: there is no military solution to this crisis.” 

Ethiopian federal government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have been battling since last November in Tigray, a region in the north of Ethiopia that borders Eritrea. The fighting has killed thousands of people — opposition groups estimated the death toll at 52,000 earlier this year — and caused a dire humanitarian crisis.

More than 5 million people in Ethiopia need humanitarian assistance and 900,000 are living in famine conditions in the Tigray region alone, officials said. Less than 10 percent of humanitarian supplies have reached the Tigray region and the rest have been obstructed. 

The fighting has persisted despite calls from the international community for a ceasefire.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded an immediate cease-fire and unrestricted access to aid in Tigray last month, calling on the parties to recognize that there is “no military solution” to the situation.

The new sanctions regime is the latest example of the Biden administration’s tougher stance against Ethiopia over the war, though it’s unclear whether the threat of sanctions will be enough to lower the temperature.

The government of Ethiopia said it was disappointed by the sanctions announcement and labeled it “false to suggest an equivalency between an internationally recognized terrorist organization that provoked this conflict and refuses to end its campaign of violence and the democratically elected Government of Ethiopia.”

“We urge the United States to recognize the efforts we are taking to bring this conflict to an end, which include implementing a unilateral ceasefire and asking for peace negotiations without preconditions,” a statement from a spokesperson for the Ethiopian government read in part. “There are people starving at the hands of the TPLF and sanctions will not solve that problem.”

The Biden administration in May announced visa restrictions on current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean officials as, Amhara forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The U.S also restricted economic and security assistance to Ethiopia. In August, the U.S. sanctioned the chief of staff of Eritrea’s defense forces over human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Biden administration officials signaled that the administration would move to issue sanctions under Biden’s new order if the warring parties do not take concrete action toward negotiating a cease-fire or bolstering humanitarian access. 

Such steps could include accepting the African Union-led negotiation efforts or designating a negotiation team, the senior administration official said, or authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies or restoring basic services like electricity in Tigray.

Officials insisted that the new measures are not directed toward the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea. The Treasury Department is also issuing general licenses on Friday to provide exemptions for the flow of development and humanitarian assistance, including food, medicine, coronavirus-related assistance and medical devices, the official said.

“We provide Ethiopia with more humanitarian and development assistance than does any other country  benefitting all of its regions,” Biden said Friday. “We will continue to work with our partners to address basic needs of at-risk populations in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa.”

Friday’s announcement earned bipartisan applause from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally who Biden dispatched to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed earlier this year, issued a statement backing the executive order.

The lawmakers said they plan to unveil legislation “to drastically bolster U.S. efforts to pursue accountability for the carnage in the Tigray region as this protracted ethnic conflict approaches the one year mark.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also expressed support for Biden’s action.

“I also urge the Biden Administration to finalize the determination on whether war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide have been carried out during this conflict, a determination which was supposedly imminent when Administration officials testified in front of our committee in June,” McCaul added. “This determination must be completed and made public without delay.”

Updated at 12:41 p.m.

Tags Chris Coons Eritrea Ethiopia Joe Biden Michael McCaul Robert Menendez Tigray Region Tigray War

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