The Biden administration’s decision to lift its designation of Ethiopia as a human rights violator was made late last month and revealed after Foreign Policy magazine obtained the Treasury Department memo.
The move opens the door for the Biden administration to normalise relations with Ethiopia, including resuming economic aid and restoring the East African country’s membership of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), a preferential trade pact.
These were suspended amid reports of gross human abuses during the two-year war centred on Tigray, which formally with a ceasefire last November.
The US also threatened sanctions for individuals violating human rights and blocking efforts to end the war – although it only ever imposed six sanctions, all of them on Eritrean officials or organisations – and it blocked international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the IMF and African Development Fund from giving Ethiopia financial assistance.
“Treasury will stop instructing the relevant US Executive Directors at the IFIs to oppose any loan, any extension of financial assistance, or any technical assistance to Ethiopia,” according to the memo.
Murder, rape, sexual violence
The war in northern Ethiopia killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians.
A UN panel of experts has said all parties committed abuses, some of them amounting to war crimes. In March, the US State Department reached a similar conclusion when it released a report that said both sides, including Ethiopia’s military, were responsible for crimes against humanity “including murder, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution.”
During a visit to Addis Ababa that month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ethiopia needed to do more to implement the ceasefire, such as ensuring “there are no ongoing gross violations of human rights” and establishing an “inclusive and credible” transitional justice process.”
“Then our own ability to move forward on our engagement with Ethiopia, to include economic engagement, will also move forward,” he said.
Just a few months later, that stance has been reversed.
This has been welcomed by the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The Biden administration’s view that human rights are no longer being seriously violated in Ethiopia is “accurate”, says EHRC director Daniel Bekele.
“Economic sanctions on Ethiopia have done nothing but worsen the humanitarian situation for the most vulnerable,” Daniel tells The Africa Report. “Restoring (the) full spectrum of economic and development support to Ethiopia is a step in the right direction.”
When the Biden administration suspended Ethiopia from AGOA, Addis Ababa pushed back hard, launching a slick public relations campaign that claimed it threatened the jobs of thousands of women who worked in the country’s garment industry.
Befekadu Hailu, director of the Centre for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD) in Addis Ababa, says the human rights designation was a crude tool that hit Ethiopia’s poor the hardest while also doing adds that it did little to stop human rights from being violated or force the government to the negotiating table.
“Measures taken by Western governments impacted the lowest members of society, who had no say in whether to fight or stop fighting,” says Befekadu.
“The war ended because the parties reached a certain level (on the battlefield), they did not stop because of this listing.”
However, others have condemned the US decision to start normalising ties with Ethiopia following the peace with Tigray. They point out that fighting has not stopped in other regions of Ethiopia, such as Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella, where the security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings while fighting insurgent groups.
“There is an ongoing conflict in Oromia, and we see a lot of horrific, gruesome evidence of civilians being killed,” says Milkessa Gemechu, a former Oromia regional government official who teaches political science at Albion College in the US.
“The people in Oromia are also Ethiopian and they also need to be heard. Lifting this violation ignores them and gives the government the green light to carry on committing abuses there.”
When you see the reality on the ground, human rights violations are continuing.
Meanwhile, there is evidence of continuing abuses in Tigray, where Eritrean forces allied to Ethiopia’s government still occupy border areas. In June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that found authorities in western Tigray “have continued an ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans since the November 2, 2022, truce agreement” featuring torture, arbitrary detention and forced expulsions.
Together with Amnesty International, HRW has condemned the US decision. “We’re deeply concerned that the US government no longer believes that gross violations of human rights are occurring in Ethiopia,” said Sarah Yager, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch.
“Not only does the decision ignore the reality that grave human rights violations are continuing throughout the country but sends a disastrous signal that US atrocity determinations come with few consequences,” she added.
AU drops probe
Moreover, food aid has been suspended for all of Ethiopia since 9 June because of corruption by officials, potentially denying the 20 million Ethiopians who rely on donated grain their right to food, something enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In May, the AU’s African Commission on Human and People’s Rights quietly dropped its probe into human rights abuses in Tigray. The commission made no official announcement about ending the probe; the news was buried at the bottom of a general communiqué. Ethiopia’s government had previously urged the body to cease the investigation.
Mebrihi Berhane, a lawyer from local NGO Human Rights First, believes the US lifted the human rights designation because it is keen to re-engage with Ethiopia, a key Western partner in the Horn of Africa, in order to stave off Russian diplomatic advances in the context of the Ukraine war.
“When you see the reality on the ground, human rights violations are continuing,” he says.
Ethiopia’s government has vowed to deliver accountability for crimes committed during the war, publishing a “green paper” exploring options for transitional justice and launching a public consultation process. However, observers say the process lacks transparency and question the government’s commitment to it.
Lifting the human rights designation “is untimely because there is no progress on justice and accountability,” says Mebrihi from Human Rights First.
“We are not seeing an investigation being done or people being held accountable for the crimes committed. I don’t think they are willing to do that, because it means the government investigating itself,” adds Mebrihi.
The US State Department has defended the decision to lift restrictions on economic aid to Ethiopia, saying there has been progress on human rights.
“The focus of resumed bilateral assistance will be to support further implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation through efforts including demining, transitional justice, and accountability,” said a spokesperson.
“We will continue to raise concerns and speak out about reports of serious human rights abuses, including by non-state actors in Western Tigray, and urge the government to protect civilians and hold perpetrators accountable,” the spokesperson added.
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