The U.S. Needs Sharper Tools to Stop the War in Ethiopia
Millions of people in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region are currently at risk of famine, a situation brought on by the government’s invasion of the region last fall after a long-running political dispute, as well as an unofficial blockade imposed on Tigray since June by federal troops, allied Eritrean forces and ethnic militias. Throughout the conflict, reports of unspeakable atrocities have been a near-daily occurrence, and the warring parties appear more resolved than ever to seek victory on the battlefield.
With no end in sight to the fighting, it’s time for the U.S. to accept that its efforts to coax the belligerents into a mediated cease-fire have not worked. Even after 10 months of shuttle diplomacy and dozens of high-level interventions from Washington, more people are dead, more civilians are starving and Ethiopia is closer to imploding than at any time in its history. What started out as a civil conflict between the national government and the ruling party of Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF, has now unleashed violence in eight of the country’s 10 ethnic regions, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and aggravating old social fault lines.
In fairness to President Joe Biden’s administration, its efforts have not been half-hearted. The White House has doubled down on diplomatic engagement by appointing veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as the first-ever special envoy to the region, while also dispatching Cabinet secretaries, cajoling a reluctant U.N. Security Council to speak up, and corralling like-minded allies to keep the up the diplomatic pressure.
Yet even as the conflict spread, the U.S. held firm to the hope that the genie of war could somehow be put back in its bottle through high-level phone calls and official visits, and that its once-staunch ally could return to the days when it was an anchor of stability in an otherwise volatile region. And, perhaps most wishfully, Washington hoped that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would pivot away from the dehumanizing hate speech he has most recently employed against the Tigrayan people and once again become the leader who acknowledged in his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that “sustaining peace is hard work. Yet, we must cherish and nurture it.”
Washington’s optimism that it could achieve these results has kept it from employing the most potent punitive measures in its diplomatic toolkit. Now, as the death toll continues to mount and more recruits join the fray, its delay in utilizing those measures is beginning to undermine its credibility.
To date, the U.S. has imposed only limited visa restrictions on officials from all sides, withheld new investment guarantees and delayed new funding for multilateral development projects in the country. It has also imposed “defense trade controls,” which amount to what one State Department official termed “a de facto arms embargo.” But these half-measures aren’t even close to proportionate responses to the crimes being carried out in Ethiopia, nor do they reflect the strong rhetorical commitment the Biden administration has made to pursuing a values-based foreign policy that puts human rights concerns on par with other vital national security interests.
On the heels of consecutive trips this month to Ethiopia by Feltman and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power—both of whom were snubbed in their requests to meet with Abiy—it is time for the U.S. to impose real costs on the parties for their unrelenting march to war and the intentional infliction of harm on the country’s civilian population.
To start, it is no longer enough to speak of a “de facto arms embargo.” If the U.S. is serious about doing what it can to bring about peace, it must impose a de jure arms embargo on the entirety of the country, including the TPLF and any state-level and ethnic militias that may be mobilizing or seeking to acquire new weaponry. But given recent reports that the Ethiopian government has likely purchased Iranian drones and has signed military cooperation agreements with Turkey, bilateral measures likely won’t be enough to curb the arms race happening on the ground. That’s why the U.S. should also push to see this embargo taken up by the U.N. Security Council, to prevent outside powers from profiting off the carnage.
As the death toll continues to mount and more recruits join the fray, Washington’s delay in utilizing its most potent punitive tools is beginning to undermine its credibility.
Next, the U.S. must impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against those responsible for human rights abuses in the Tigray conflict. The sanctioning this week of Eritrean Army Chief of Staff Gen. Filipos Woldeyohannes, for allegedly overseeing troops who “raped, tortured and executed civilians in Ethiopia” is an important start. It should serve as a warning to Ethiopian officials and militia leaders of what could await them.
Aside from punitive measures against perpetrators of human rights abuses in Tigray, the Biden administration should issue a new Executive Order that would allow it to more flexibly sanction a wider range of individuals and entities. Potential targets could include individuals who are intentionally blocking humanitarian aid shipments; those using social media and other information platforms to incite violence and foment hate; and anyone seeking to undermine diplomatic efforts to achieve a cease-fire and long-term political settlement.
Ethiopian companies and financial institutions that are implicated in the war effort could also be targeted. The country’s flagship airline, Ethiopian Airways, has allegedly helped transport Ethiopian troops to the front lines—though it denies those charges—and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, the country’s largest lender, is reportedly the most important financier of Abiy’s war effort. Given America’s leverage over these major Ethiopian businesses—Ethiopian Airways flies a fleet of Boeing-made aircraft in need of regular servicing, and the CBE holds accounts with the New York Federal Reserve—stiff sanctions against them could curtail the government’s ability to make war and push the companies’ executives to use their own influence over Abiy to pursue peace.
Lastly, if the U.S. approach to Ethiopia is to have any credibility, it can no longer be articulated in ad hoc statements of concern. Instead, it must be nested in a comprehensive policy framework that justifies tough sanctions based on the damage the conflict is doing to U.S.-Ethiopia relations, recalls the American values and interests that are threatened by the ongoing violence, and makes clear the conditions necessary to unwind these punitive measures.
This statement, reflecting a “whole of government” approach, should be articulated by no less than Biden himself and include a reminder that vital humanitarian aid is not being suspended—in particular, the U.S. donation of more than 1.2 million COVID-19 vaccines and more than $1 billion in ongoing humanitarian, health and development assistance, currently making Ethiopia one of the largest recipients of U.S. donor support in the world.
A crucial addendum to this policy framework would be a communications strategy that pushes back against the disinformation campaign being waged by the warring parties and their supporters, both inside and outside of Ethiopia. This online army—ranging from official spokespeople to fake journalists to nationalistic trolls from diaspora communities—has only worsened the conflict by denying basic facts, sewing dissent and casting aspersions on the work of legitimate human rights observers and credible journalists.
Washington must cut through this veil of disinformation using all of the tools at its disposal, including the selective release of classified evidence when new massacres occur and basic facts are denied. In the early days of the conflict, for example, the outgoing Trump administration was reluctant to say publicly what it knew about the presence and role of Eritrean forces in the atrocities being committed in Tigray. America’s silence at the time created space for Eritrean soldiers to commit some of the most egregious abuses of the conflict and should serve as a lesson that rampant online disinformation has real human costs.
Critics may argue that the punitive measures outlined here would disproportionally harm the Ethiopian government, further imperil bilateral relations, diminish American influence and drive Addis Ababa deeper into the clutches of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. But this is precisely why the use of tough sanctions must be accompanied by a continued commitment to diplomacy and dialogue, as well as an articulation of the conditions necessary for these sanctions to be removed.
Thus far, the combination of dialogue and admonishments has failed to bring about a cease-fire or secure access to battle zones for aid agencies, much less create the conditions for a long-term political settlement. As conditions on the ground worsen for civilians and all sides dig in for an even more protracted conflict, the time has come for the U.S. to employ its sharpest punitive tools in the cause of peace.
Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. He previously served as the director for African affairs at the National Security Council.