The United States’ top priority is the “unity and integrity of the Ethiopian state” and its “commitment to the Ethiopian people,” U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington on November 2. Noting that the average civil war lasts 20 years, Feltman said a war that long would be disastrous for Ethiopia and urged all parties to the conflict to “give peace a chance.”

Tigray Defense Forces fighters guard their leader’s camp, June 29, 2021. Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on November 2 and called on its citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend Addis Ababa as Tigrayan rebel forces pressed toward the capital. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
Tigray Defense Forces, June 29, 2021. Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on November 2 and called on citizens to pick up arms and prepare to defend Addis Ababa as Tigrayan rebel forces pressed toward the capital. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

Feltman’s remarks came as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a six-month state of emergency and asked Ethiopians to defend the capital Addis Ababa against Tigrayan forces who are advancing from the north. The United States opposes any attempt by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to besiege Addis Ababa.

The Need for a Change in Direction

The special envoy said Ethiopia is headed down a dangerous path, but it is still not too late to reverse course. “The change in direction must occur in days, not weeks,” he said. Feltman said he was prepared to travel to Addis Ababa at any time to support an effort by African Union High Representative Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president, to broker a peace deal. The special envoy traveled to Ethiopia a day later.

U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman discusses the dire humanitarian situation in Ethiopia with USIP President and CEO Lise Grande.
U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman discusses the dire humanitarian situation in Ethiopia with USIP President and CEO Lise Grande.

Feltman said the Ethiopian government and the TPLF should immediately commence negotiating and implement “a series of parallel steps that will stop the violence, allow life-saving access to Tigray, lead to TPLF withdrawal from Afar and Amhara and Eritrean forces from Ethiopian territory, result in a durable cease-fire (with rules understood and perhaps with third-party monitors), and initiate accountability for human rights abuses and any war crimes.”

The special envoy said the United States wants to revitalize its relationship with Ethiopia, but that “Ethiopia, not the United States, is in the driver’s seat.”

The ‘Power and Opportunity to Embrace Peace’

Abiy’s Prosperity Party achieved big gains in elections in June and September. He was sworn in for a full five-year term. Feltman said that while Abiy had “the power and opportunity to embrace peace,” the Ethiopian government has “exploited long-standing ethnic grievances with divisive rhetoric.”

The TPLF, in the meantime, has forged alliances with disaffected armed groups in other parts of the country, a development Feltman described as dangerous. As a consequence, he said, the democratic opening that emerged when Abiy was elected prime minister is now at risk.

The Possibility of Sanctions

Feltman said the Biden administration is prepared to impose sanctions that will target all parties to the conflict and those obstructing humanitarian operations. Thousands have been killed; grave atrocities, including rape, have taken place; more than 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes and 900,000 people are facing famine-like conditions in the Tigray region.

In September, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., issued an executive order that allows for sanctions on parties “complicit in prolonging” the conflict in the Tigray region. Acknowledging that it is unusual to have an announcement of sanctions with no target mentioned, Feltman explained that the administration wanted to give all actors a chance to pivot toward peace.

Also on November 2, Biden, citing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” informed Congress of his intent to end a preferential trade designation for Ethiopia as of January 1, 2022. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) significantly enhances market access to the United States for qualifying sub-Saharan African countries. Biden’s action would deprive Ethiopia of this access.

A ‘Direct Causal Relationship’

Feltman pointed to a “direct causal relationship between what is happening on the ground as a result of the policies of the Ethiopian government and the actions of the other belligerents, and the subsequent decisions that are being taken or are being contemplated by the U.S. administration.”

“It gives us no pleasure to think about visa restrictions or sanctions or having Ethiopia lose trade benefits or preferences,” he said, hinting at measures the administration is possibly considering.

The Ethiopian government has conducted air strikes in the Tigray region, blocked humanitarian supplies to the war-torn region, halted fuel supplies making it impossible for organizations to distribute aid and expelled senior U.N. officials from the country.

“The unfortunate deterioration in [the U.S.-Ethiopian] relationship derives from the atrocities of the conflict in northern Ethiopia and the reports of the use of food as a weapon of war,” Feltman said, noting that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2417 states using food in such a manner may constitute a war crime.

“We are reacting to behavior no person of conscience can accept and in a manner which will come as no surprise to any party to the conflict,” he added.

An Escalating and Expanding Conflict

Abiy sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 in response to what he claimed were attacks on federal military bases by fighters loyal to the TPLF. A year later, federal troops and the TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades before Abiy was appointed prime minister in 2018, remain engaged in a war that has escalated and expanded.

The trajectory of the conflict has shifted significantly since June when the TPLF seized Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. Since July, the TPLF has expanded the conflict into the neighboring states of Afar and Amhara. This week, it claimed to have captured two key strategic towns on the highway a couple hundred miles north of Addis Ababa — Kombolcha and Dessie. The TPLF’s reported most recent advances, while unconfirmed, have raised alarm that the Tigrayan force intends to march on Addis Ababa.

A Different Path

Even before taking office in January of 2021, the Biden transition team had been urging the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to end the conflict in Tigray, allow humanitarian access and protect civilians.

Feltman said the administration has “consistently sought to engage the government of Ethiopia and encourage a different path.” The United States, he said, has made clear that continuing military conflict in Ethiopia will have “disastrous consequences for Ethiopia’s unity, territorial integrity and stability, and also for Ethiopia’s relationship with the United States and the international community.”

Citing “credible, documented, persistent reports,” Feltman said Ethiopian federal forces, the TPLF, Eritrean Defense Forces and the Amhara Special Forces have all committed human rights abuses and atrocities, including looting, executions and the use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of war.

A joint investigation by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found all sides fighting in the conflict in Tigray have committed violations that may amount to war crimes.

A Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

Ninety percent of the population in the Tigray region is in need of aid and up to 900,000 people face famine-like conditions. The Ethiopian government’s actions have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. “Without question, the most serious obstacles are intentional government delays and denials,” said Feltman.

The Ethiopian government’s decision to block the importation of fuel into Tigray since early August has made it impossible for humanitarian organizations to distribute aid, and some have been forced to suspend operations. “This, unfortunately, suggests an intentional effort by the authorities to deprive Ethiopians who are suffering from receiving lifesaving assistance,” said Feltman.

The U.S. special envoy said the expansion of the war is “as predictable as it is unacceptable” given the Ethiopian government’s decision to cut off humanitarian relief to Tigray in June. However, he predicted, neither side will prevail militarily.

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