Congress hits pause on new Ethiopia sanctions as leverage in truce deal

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 5 April 2022 13:16

Ethiopian and Eritrean origin people, supporters of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed participate in a protest against the US and other western countries intervention in their country and calling for the immediate end to Ethiopia's ongoing internal conflict in Washington, on Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe, File)

The US Congress has teed up new Ethiopia sanctions bills in both chambers but is holding off on passing them into law as it looks for leverage to build on last month's truce deal.

On 29 March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the bipartisan Ethiopia Peace and Democracy Promotion Act, first introduced in November last year, after Democrats and Republicans on the panel agreed that it would be best for the Senate to be poised to quickly act on the bill if necessary. The Africa Report understands that lawmakers on the committee wanted to send a clear message to stakeholders ⁠⁠— including the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ⁠— that there are enough votes to quickly pass the bill if it’s put up for a final vote.

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee cleared the Ethiopia Stabilisation, Peace, and Democracy Act in February that had been endorsed by the panel’s Democratic chairman and top Republican. The lower chamber has yet to schedule a vote on the bill from New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski, a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labour under President Barack Obama.

The Joe Biden administration has held up $130m in aid to Ethiopia and suspended its participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) duty-free scheme. The pending bills could go further, requiring sanctions on anyone the administration determines is undermining peace efforts while also suspending security assistance and restricting support from the US and international financial institutions.

It’s time for Congress to act. I know that there are differing views on the utility of sanctions and other restrictions, but I firmly believe that these tools create leverage that will help push […] diplomacy forward.

“While a hopeful moment, I remain sceptical this will be anything more than another empty pronouncement,” committee Chairman Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, told fellow lawmakers at last week’s markup after the Ethiopian government announced an indefinite humanitarian truce and the resumption of humanitarian aid to the northern Tigray region on 24 March. The Tigrayan rebels in turn agreed to a cessation of hostilities. The fragile truce appears to be holding, albeit tenuous.

“It’s time for Congress to act. I know that there are differing views on the utility of sanctions and other restrictions, but I firmly believe that these tools create leverage that will help push […] diplomacy forward,” Menendez said. “I look forward to continuing working with all of you to do all we can to advance the administration’s diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict and ensure that we have a robust legislative option available if, as I suspect, additional tools will be necessary.”

Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who co-sponsored the bill alongside Menendez and Republican James Risch of Idaho, agreed that the truce needs to be given a chance before the Senate takes any further action. Last year, Coons met with Ethiopian officials on Biden’s behalf and has played an intermediary role.

“While I’ve been encouraged by Addis’ announcement of a humanitarian truce and the TPLF’s agreement to a ceasefire last week, I still voted to advance an amended version of the Ethiopia Peace and Stabilisation Act to punish parties who continue to fuel the conflict,” Coons said in a series of tweets after the vote.


“If the humanitarian truce and ceasefire is upheld, this bill will not be necessary. I pray it won’t be, and as long as this peace continues, I’ll work to make sure this bill goes no further. However, my colleagues and I must be ready to pass this bill swiftly if fighting resumes.”

Give peace a chance

The congressional pause comes as the US government is keeping a close watch on the cease-fire, which came about soon after US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa David Satterfield met with Ethiopian leaders in Addis Ababa in late March.

The State Department immediately welcomed the truce announcement and called on “all parties” to “build on this announcement to advance a negotiated and sustainable ceasefire”.

“This commitment to a cessation of hostilities should be a critical step towards the resumption and sustainment of humanitarian assistance to the people in Tigray and all Ethiopian regions and communities in need,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a 24 March statement. “It should also serve as an essential foundation of an inclusive political process to achieve progress towards common security and prosperity for all the people of Ethiopia.”

If this opportunity is lost, and if the conflict is resumed, we see no advantage to be gained by any of the combatants and the only result would be more death, destruction, and suffering.

Meanwhile, at least five former US ambassadors and charge d’affaires to Ethiopia — including Tibor Nagy, Aurelia Brazile, Patricia Haslach, Vicki Huddleston and David Shinn — signed an 4 April statement – seen by The Africa Report – urging all sides to build on the cease-fire. The statement also calls for armed groups, including the Eritrean armed forces, to “expeditiously return to their home territories” and for the Ethiopian government and international community to look beyond Tigray at the “serious humanitarian and human rights issues in Afar, Amhara, Oromia, and Benishangul regions”.

“While recognising the intense emotional distress and hostilities — including ethnic hatred — created by the war and accompanying atrocities, we nevertheless urge all sides to implement the humanitarian cease fire and enter an ongoing process of dialogue to address the outstanding issues which contributed to the conflict,” they said. “If this opportunity is lost, and if the conflict is resumed, we see no advantage to be gained by any of the combatants and the only result would be more death, destruction, and suffering.”

Nagy, a former assistant secretary of State for African Affairs now teaching at Texas Tech University, tells The Africa Report that Congress is right to hit pause. “The congressional action was not going to move the needle and was basically an expression of the tremendous frustration felt by Congress,” he says. “With this fragile ceasefire, in my view everything should be held up to encourage it to succeed.”

Rival campaigns

The Ethiopian government, for its part, has denounced both bills as detrimental to peace efforts, notably when Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen Hassen met with Satterfield on the eve of the truce.

Advocates in the US have also taken action. Hundreds of members of the diaspora protested in front of the Capitol against both bills on 28 March, saying they would destabilise the Horn of Africa and put lives at risk.

“These bills are nothing short of an attack on Ethiopia and its people,” said Mesfin Tegenu, chairman of the Ethiopia American Public Affairs Committee. “As Ethiopia starts on its journey to peace after more than a year of conflict, Representative Malinowski, Senator Menendez and others want to cripple Ethiopia’s economy and fuel tensions. Many of the actions the bill requests of Ethiopia from an amnesty for prisoners to the formation of a national dialogue are already in progress.”

However, the diaspora movement Security & Justice for Tigrayans has launched its own petitions calling on the House and Senate to pass both bills. “The Act allows the US Government to use its diplomatic, development and legal tools to support [the] end to the civil war,” the petition says. “Furthermore, it holds perpetrators of serious human rights violations accountable.”

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