US spells out steps Ethiopia must take ‘immediately’ to avoid sanctions

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 08:57, updated on Monday, 27 September 2021 12:33

Ethiopians protest against international pressure on the government over the conflict in Tigray, at a demonstration organised by the city mayor's office held at a stadium in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

The Joe Biden administration has put Ethiopia on notice that it needs to see rapid progress on ceasefire negotiations and humanitarian access to Tigray if Addis Ababa wants to avoid a raft of painful sanctions.

In a follow-up call with regional media on Monday 20 September following Friday’s announcement of new executive authorities, State Department officials made clear the US had run out of patience after “months of failure by parties to the conflict to respond to international calls.”

The new order declares a national emergency and paves the way for the US to sanction Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials as well as leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara regional government and its forces.

We will unveil a new legislative effort in the coming weeks for Congress to drastically bolster US efforts to pursue accountability for the carnage in the Tigray region as this protracted ethnic conflict approaches the one-year mark.

“Absent clear and concrete changes, the Biden-Harris administration is preparing to take aggressive action under this executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a range of individuals and entities,” Bryan Hunt, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Africa and the Sudans, told reporters in a conference call Monday.

“However, if the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF take meaningful steps to enter into talks for a negotiated cease-fire and allow for unhindered humanitarian access, a different path is possible.”

‘New legislative effort’

Meanwhile Congress announced that it is working on its own initiative to increase the pressure on the parties to the conflict.

“We will unveil a new legislative effort in the coming weeks for Congress to drastically bolster US efforts to pursue accountability for the carnage in the Tigray region as this protracted ethnic conflict approaches the one-year mark,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and panel member Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in a joint statement following Biden’s announcement. “It is our hope that this effort will help galvanise a political process to help stabilise Ethiopia.”

According to Hunt, the US is asking for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s to accept:

  • African Union-led mediation efforts;
  • Designate negotiation teams;
  • Agree to negotiations without pre-conditions;
  • An invitation to initial talks.

Hunt added that barely 10 % of needed humanitarian assistance is making its way to Tigray, prompting the US to call on Addis Ababa to authorise trucks to travel overland to reach at-risk populations; reduce delays for humanitarian convoys; and restore basic services to Tigray, including electricity, telecommunications and banking.

The onus isn’t just on Abiy. The US also wants Eritrea to immediately and permanently withdraw its forces from Ethiopia, while Hunt said the TPLF’s foray into the Amhara region had been counter-productive to a cease-fire.

It’s not all sticks with no carrots

The US, Hunt said, is ready to help mobilise assistance for Ethiopia to recover and revitalise its economy.

Erik Woodhouse, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, likewise reiterated on Monday’s call that the new order does not aim to punish the Ethiopian people, whom Washington is keen not to antagonise. Biden’s order, he said, was designed not to affect personal remittances to non-sanctioned individuals and entities, humanitarian assistance, shipments of food and medicine or the activities of certain international organisations and NGOs.

“The sanctions programme is designed to mitigate any impact on commercial activity, life-saving humanitarian assistance and longer-term assistance to address basic needs of at-risk populations in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa,” Woodhouse said. The United States remains the country’s single largest aid donor, donating about $1bn per year.

Visa bans, sanctions…

Last week’s order follows visa bans on several officials and last month’s imposition of sanctions on Eritrean Gen. Filipos Woldeyohannes, the Chief of Staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces. The push has so far had no visible impact on Prime Minister Abiy, who wrote an open letter to Biden on Friday vowing that ”Ethiopia will not succumb to consequences of pressure.”

“This unwarranted pressure, characterised by double standards, has been rooted in an orchestrated distortion of events and facts on the ground as it pertains to Ethiopia’s rule of law operations in the Tigray region,” Abiy wrote. ”As a long-time friend, strategic ally and partner in security, the United States’ recent policy against my country comes not only as a surprise to our proud nation, but evidently surpasses humanitarian concerns.”

The TPLF by contrast called Biden’s order  a “long overdue move” in a statement shared on Twitter by spokesman Getachew K Reda.

Both parties now only have a short window to begin working to resolve their differences before time runs out.

“The executive order both authorises the application of those sanctions and makes clear that we’re prepared to use them if we don’t see progress towards the goals that we have identified,” Woodhouse said. “If we don’t see that progress, we will act.”

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