Ethiopia – US: Congress advances sanctions bill requiring American strategy

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 8 February 2022 23:55, updated on Wednesday, 9 February 2022 10:37

US Congressional delegation
Leader of the US Congressional delegation and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks on January 28, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

US lawmakers advanced a new sanctions legislation on Tuesday, amid lingering congressional concerns that the Joe Biden administration lacks a comprehensive plan to end the violence in Northern Ethiopia.

The bipartisan Ethiopia Stabilisation, Peace, and Democracy Act and other bills addressing human rights concerns in Cameroon, Rwanda and Liberia were cleared by the House Foreign Affairs Committee led by Chairman Gregory Meeks of New York.

The bill calls on the White House to impose sanctions on anyone found to be undermining efforts to reach a ceasefire. It also suspends security assistance and restricts support from either the US or other international financial institutions.

[The United States] is not going to be complicit in this violence and we are going to do what is necessary to hold those responsible accountable…

The bill was introduced by New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski, who served as the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labour under the Barack Obama administration. A similar bill has been pending at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since November.

“What we are saying today is that (the violence in Northern Ethiopia) has to stop; that […] if it does not stop, [the United States] is not going to be complicit in this violence and we are going to do what is necessary to hold those responsible accountable,” Malinowski said at the markup. “I’m happy the administration has moved forward with a sanctions executive order. This bill is designed to support and reinforce the administration’s efforts.”

The bill also calls for a report on the actions of foreign actors, including China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, who have been accused of supplying drones and other weapons to the Ethiopian government. It also calls on the State Department to develop a strategy to support efforts to end the civil war in Ethiopia, pursue accountability for human rights abuses and promote democracy in the country.

“One thing that this bill does that I think is important is that … it’s a demonstration of Congress’s frustration with the lack of an activist policy from the administration,” says Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a veteran of the White House and State Department.

“It’s reflective of the complaint that we’re hearing from Congress, which is that the administration is taking a very wait-and-see approach (in the Horn of Africa),” Hudson tells The Africa Report. “And Congress is trying to push them to think about more strategic – as opposed to tactical – responses to developments on the ground.”

Congress takes charge

With the war raging on, President Biden announced new sanctions for Ethiopia in September (the Treasury Department released its regulations for the executive order on Tuesday). Then in November, the administration took what is arguably its toughest measure to date when it suspended Ethiopia from the duty-free African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

Since the beginning of the year, however, the Biden administration has expressed optimism that a recent lull in the fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) could be conducive to diplomacy.

Last month, the Biden administration dispatched its special representative for the Horn of Africa during what it deemed as an ‘opportune’ time. A few days later, the White House said President Biden had spoken on phone with Abiy and indicated that Ethiopia’s AGOA suspension could be lifted if there is progress towards peace.

Even so, Congress remains concerned that perpetrators of abuses on all sides could escape accountability. Malinowski’s bill calls on the State Department to publicly determine – within 90 days of its passage into law – whether actions by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces, the TPLF, and their allies amount to genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee had previously said that the agency wanted to keep its conclusions private. “We have decided to refrain at the current moment from making a public determination in order to allow space and time to see if the talks that are currently underway can make progress,” she told a panel back in December. “But I want you to know that we have undergone an active and dynamic determination process.”

For his part, Malinowski denied that Congress was playing favourites with the bill amid vocal pushback from Ethiopians back home and in the diaspora.

“A lot of what we’re hearing is an attempt to blame one side or the other wholly and fully for the suffering that this war has brought. Any action to condemn the government is seen by some people as Congress siding with the so-called Tigrayan terrorists; any action to call out the anti-government forces is denounced as support for the government’s human rights abuses,” Malinowski said. “What we are trying to say here, today, is that no one in the US Congress has the slightest interest in taking sides in this conflict.”

California Democrat Brad Sherman however referenced reports of mass detentions of Tigrayans, including US citizens, in pushing for an amendment that calls for the release of “detainees held without charge due to their ethnic or political affiliations” before aid is restored.

Cameroon, Rwanda, Liberia

The committee also moved several congressional resolutions that do not have the force of law.

Africa panel Chairwoman Karen Bass, Democrat of California, introduced a measure asserting that the US House “continues to strongly condemn” alleged human rights abuses by Cameroon’s armed forces against the country’s southern Anglophones.

“This resolution today reaffirms that the United States continues to hold the government of Cameroon responsible for upholding the rights of all citizens,” Bass said.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, introduced a resolution urging Rwanda to release Paul Rusesabagina on humanitarian grounds. The opposition figure of the Hotel Rwanda fame is a lawful permanent resident living in Texas and a Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree.

Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar broke ranks with her colleagues on the vote, noting that Rusesabagina has been charged with terrorism offenses for associating with the armed National Liberation Front.

Finally, the committee cleared a resolution noting the deep ties between the US and Liberia as the country commemorates the bicentennial of the arrival of the first freed US slaves. The resolution however also calls on President George Weah’s government to redouble its efforts to “counter corruption, advance the causes of human rights, and implement critical economic reforms”.

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