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Brief # 119 – Foreign Policy 

U.S. Inaction as Conflict in Ethiopia Worsens

By Avery Roe

June 28, 2021

Policy Summary

The conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia has not received much attention in the United States but is increasingly raising international concerns over the atrocities taking place. In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a “law-and-order operation” supposedly to target domestic terrorists, but the operation has involved large-scale deployments of the National Defense Forces, aerial bombardments, and involvement of Eritrean forces, signifying a larger scale target of the Tigrayan leadership. This fighting has led to thousands of deaths and countless injuries, many due to the indiscriminate shelling of cities and other human rights abuses by the National Forces.

Since the launch of the operation over 60,000 refugees have fled the area as a result of the violence committed by the National Defense Forces, which gives the conflict regional implications as neighboring counties deal with the displaced peoples. Critical infrastructure has been destroyed and there have been reports of large-scale human rights abuses, raising concerns of genocide. Very few believe that the, already delayed, upcoming national elections will be free or fair, with the operations of key opposition parties severely curtailed.

The conflict became more complicated earlier this week when the Ethiopian Government called for a unilateral ceasefire for several months after the Tigrayan fighters retook the regional capital of Mekelle. Tigrayan leadership rejected the ceasefire. The stated goal of the Tigrayan forces at this point is a complete withdraw of Ethiopian and Eritrean troops from the region. The retaking of Mekelle also came with a near communications blackout, the cause of which is unclear.

After assuming the Presidency, Joe Biden has taken a more active role in dealing with the conflict, especially when compared to his predecessor. In a recent statement, the administration noted that; “The large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray…are unacceptable and must end.” The administration has committed $305 million in funding for humanitarian relief efforts. United States  UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has helped raise the profile of the conflict at the United Nations and a Special US Envoy has traveled to Ethiopia. In addition to this, the aid to Ethiopia withheld by the Trump administration over a disputed dam with Egypt will continue to be withheld because of the Tigray crisis.

Policy Analysis

While the Biden administration has taken steps to try to deal with the conflict, this largely seems to be following the general American pattern of ignoring atrocities in Africa. As the United States works to re-engage on an international stage this is an incredible opportunity to work with newly re-affirmed allies to pressure Prime Minister Ahmed into ceasing hostilities and working towards healing in the region. The United States’ diplomatic strategy thus far is not working and Tigrayans and those throughout the horn of Africa need to see a broader US involvement.

The continuation of the withholding of aid is the strongest step President Biden has taken, but it is significantly weakened by the fact that it is nothing new and was initially implemented by the Trump administration for a different reason. President Biden needs to take a strong stand with aid in a new way that is directly tied to the conflict.  The United States can send a message that the conflict will not be tolerated and save lives in the process.

Especially in light of the most recent developments, The US also needs to place far more pressure on Eritrea to remove its troops from the region. At this point, they are only serving to flare up the conflict and the goal needs to be for tensions to settle and a viable solution to be reached. Senate Resolution 97 that called for the withdraw of Eritrean troops and condemned the human rights abuses clearly was not enough, The United States needs to exert more pressure on both Eritrea and Ethiopia to withdraw so that a solution can be agreed upon.

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