The White House is taking a firm stance with its onetime close ally, Ethiopia, threatening sanctions and a suspension of a key economic program over what Washington says are “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in an ethnically motivated conflict that has killed thousands of people in the past year.
Those strong words came as the landlocked East African nation faces a rebel siege on the capital in coming months, or sooner. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the main parties fighting the government, has in recent days joined forces with the Oromo Liberation Army and is advancing on the capital, Addis Ababa.
Human rights group Amnesty International on Friday warned that the nation is “teetering on the brink of a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe” after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed this week imposed a state of emergency and urged Addis residents to take up arms to defend the city. In making this call, Abiy used language so strong and provocative that Facebook took down his post.
A short time later, President Joe Biden issued a warning that he would revoke the nation’s membership in the African Growth and Opportunities Act, a program that allows African countries to export materials to the U.S. duty-free. Ethiopia’s government says that program created 200,000 direct jobs and 1 million indirect jobs in the impoverished nation.
“We look at the impact of removal but in this case the law is clear and there are rules that governments must observe to retain their AGOA eligibility,” a senior administration official told VOA. “If Ethiopia’s AGOA benefits are revoked, the responsibility will fall solely upon the government of Prime Minister Abiy. There is still time for this determination to be reversed. We urge the government of Ethiopia to address the human rights, humanitarian and political crises by January 1 to retain or regain its AGOA eligibility.”
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called this decision “misguided.”
“Unjustified intimidation to jeopardize the economic livelihoods of innocent citizens, which we believe is propelled by the enemies of Ethiopia behind the scenes, will not give a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” the ministry said in a statement.
What will resolve this conflict, which has raged for a year? The Biden administration said it had exercised many other options before getting to this point.
“The United States has engaged with the government of Ethiopia for months, raising our concerns about gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” the senior administration official said. “U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Ethiopia risked losing its eligibility for AGOA under U.S. law if these violations went unaddressed.”
In September, Biden threatened harsh sanctions against all sides involved in the war, including the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The executive order warning of sanctions did not name any individuals, but the criteria are broad and extensive, including even the spouses and adult children of individuals the State Department deems to have met the criteria. The order also provides for sanctions against the regional government of the Amhara region, and the rebel TPLF.
U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman landed in Ethiopia’s capital on Thursday and has since met with the country’s deputy prime minister and defense and finance ministers. It was unclear when or whether he would meet with Abiy.
Growing humanitarian crisis
But human rights advocates say this is more than a diplomatic disagreement. The conflict has triggered the world’s largest hunger crisis, leaving millions of people in need of humanitarian aid.
“The dire humanitarian and human rights crisis which began one year ago in Tigray has been spilling into other areas of the country,” said Deprose Muchena, regional director for eastern and southern Africa at Amnesty International. “To stop the situation [from] spiraling out of control, the Ethiopian authorities must urgently take serious action to ensure human rights and international humanitarian law are respected.”
Makila James, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former U.S. diplomat in Africa, said the situation is especially tragic considering the lengthy relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, once a staunch ally and bulwark against terrorism in the region. The U.S. is the single largest aid donor to Ethiopia.
“I think it's very important to underscore: The U.S. has been a long-standing partner of the country, and the people of Ethiopia,” James said. “This is not a new relationship. It goes back many, many, many, many, many decades. And particularly with Prime Minister Abiy, the U.S. government had been a strong supporter, a strong partner of his democracy and reform agenda. And so there's a great deal of disappointment and concern about what is happening in the country that has taken all of that off track.”
Ahmed Soliman, a researcher from London-based Chatham House, said time is running out to find a diplomatic solution.
“We're at a stage where the pendulum has shifted, but the next shift is one where we're talking about an irreversible situation,” he said. “So unless the parties can be brought to the table now, they're not going to be brought to the table, because one side will potentially usurp the other. ... I think what we need to kind of impress on the parties is that there is still an opportunity to pull back from the brink.”
James stressed that the solution has to be diplomatic.
“There is no military solution in this conflict,” she said. “It is one that is a lose-lose all around.”
On Friday, the U.S. State Department urged all Americans to leave Ethiopia “as soon as possible,” in a post on the website of the U.S. Embassy to Addis Ababa.
Cindy Saine contributed to this report.