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US Authorizes Sanctions in Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict

UN Security Council, Regional Bodies, Other Countries Should Also Target Rights Abusers

Tigrayan men sit atop a hill overlooking part of the Umm Rakouba refugee camp, in Qadarif, eastern Sudan, on December 14, 2020.  © 2020 Nariman El-Mofty/AP Images

Today, United States President Joe Biden signed an executive order that allows the US government to impose sanctions against those responsible for a range of serious human rights abuses in northern Ethiopia.

The order establishes a sanctions regime that allows the US government to deny visas to and freeze the assets of individuals and entities responsible for or complicit in serious abuses and obstructing access to humanitarian aid. In doing so, the US sends an important message to those committing or taking part in abuses from all warring parties, especially those in command positions, that they will face consequences for their actions.  

Since the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region began last November, Human Rights Watch and others have documented massacres, widespread sexual violence, forced displacement, and deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure by Ethiopian federal government forces and their allies, including Eritrean government forces. Tigrayan militia forces have also killed and raped Eritrean refugees.

Many of these abuses constitute war crimes, but may also amount to crimes against humanity.

Ethiopia’s federal government has continued its de facto blockade of the region, preventing aid agencies from delivering critical food, fuel, and medicine to millions. The US executive order opens the door for individuals to be sanctioned for their role in this blockade.

Although the federal government withdrew forces from most of Tigray in late June, atrocities continue. Fifty bodies were recently found in the river bordering western Tigray and Sudan. Since July, the conflict has spread to Ethiopia’s Afar and Amhara regions where more civilians have reportedly suffered abuses, thousands have been displaced, and humanitarian needs have grown.

Outside of Tigray, notably in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, authorities have discriminated against, arbitrarily arrested, and forcibly disappeared scores of Tigrayans. Hateful anti-Tigrayan statements by officials and government advisors have further heightened tensions.

The US executive order allows for targeted sanctions that emphasize individual responsibility, and, importantly, will not affect the general population. To be most effective, the United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the European Union, and other concerned governments should adopt similar measures. An independent, international monitoring mechanism can point them in the right direction.

As the last 10 months have shown, criticism alone of the warring parties’ conduct has done little to prevent or deter serious abuses. One hopes the threat of sanctions will have greater impact.

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