The exemplary US sanctions regime for the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia and its limits


On September 17, the Biden administration unveiled a new sanctions regime that could be applied in the coming weeks to a wide range of warring parties in Ethiopia. Its design and the diplomacy surrounding it are examples of constructive American engagement in the midst of an escalating war and appalling humanitarian situation.

However, we should not hope that the sanctions regime will dissuade the belligerents from persisting in their dangerous path.

Intensification of war, worsening famine

Since November 2020, the Ethiopian government has been at war with the political leaders of Tigray’s ethnic minority – the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) – which previously dominated the country’s leadership and disagreed with the policies of Prime Minister Abiy. Ahmed. Despite the early successes of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) – backed by Eritrea, the longtime enemy of the TPLF – the Tigray insurgency routed the ENDF in parts of the northern region of Tigray in spring 2021.

Tigray forces also took control of parts of the Amhara region, viewing the occupation as leverage against their Ethiopian rivals and Eritrea, which now occupies western Tigray (an area claimed by the Amhara ). Tigray forces also pushed into the Afar region to establish a strategic corridor to Djibouti to alleviate the strangulation from Addis Ababa to Tigray, where electricity, internet, banking services and access to food basic and medical care have been down since November. But while TPLF forces remain in Afar, they have failed to secure the corridor. The TPLF’s push towards Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara, was also repelled by the ENDF and its allies.

In a move heavy on the possibility of triggering a wider civil war, Prime Minister Abiy has stepped up, calling for the formation of anti-TPLF militias across Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s instability is also having potentially destabilizing effects on the entire Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia and the Red Sea region.

The now stalled war has involved atrocities against local populations and Eritrean refugees in Tigray perpetrated by the ENDF, Eritrean and Tigray forces, as well as local militias.

The humanitarian crisis in Tigray is becoming more catastrophic every day. During months, 5.2 million of the 6 million inhabitants of Tigray face hunger and need food aid.

Yet a blockade of Addis Ababa and attacks by insurgents and militias hampered aid deliveries. Since June 28, only 10% of supplies have reached Tigray. Ethiopian government continues deny access to Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Council, accusing them of “”armamentThe TPLF, and has taken legal action against other humanitarian NGOs. Worse yet, in response to UN criticism of the “man-made” humanitarian disaster, the Ethiopian government excluded senior UN officials leading humanitarian efforts. The humanitarian situation has also worsened in the Afar and Amhara areas under TPLF control.

The new US sanctions regime

Avoiding an escalation of the civil war and its regional fallout and reversing the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region have been critical priorities of the Biden administration. US diplomats have spent months probing and pushing Abiy and the TPLF into proximity talks for a negotiated ceasefire. However, the so-called “humanitarian ceasefire” that Abiy declared in June after the ENDF rout in Tigray has been anything but humanitarian.

American officials have also engaged extensively with European partners; the Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates, which have close relations with Abiy; Turkey; and various African leaders, including the African Union Special Envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Yet despite exemplary diplomacy, all signs until August were that the emboldened TPLF and Abiy remained rooted in their bellicose, intransigent, and violating human rights policies – which prompted my argument to this. that Washington’s hard love may have to be applied to the Ethiopian government, TPLF, Eritrea and others at least attempt de-escalation of the conflict.

September 18, The US government announced such a tough love policy – implying new sanctions to be applied to the above actors in the coming weeks unless they allow unhindered humanitarian access and enter into a dialogue to end the conflict.

The laudable design of the sanctions regime avoids typical pitfalls. First, it grants legal exceptions for the delivery of humanitarian aid. This important reservation draws lessons from the mistakes of the Obama administration, including the concern to deprive terrorist groups (in this case, al-Shabab) of material and financial support. scares humanitarian NGOs to deliver food during the 2011 famine in Somalia, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths.

Second, the administration has acknowledged that sanctions are like glue – once they are kicked out of the political tube, they are difficult to remove. While they are ready, the sanctions have not yet been applied to any individuals on any side of the conflict. The Ethiopian government, the TPLF, Eritrea and the leaders of the Amhara region have been granted a few weeks of grace to allow humanitarian access and start a dialogue on conflict mitigation. This delay in implementation takes into account Prime Minister Abiy’s plan to announce his new cabinet in early October. The new cabinet and a strong electoral mandate in June 2021 give Abiy political space to begin defusing the civil war, although they may also encourage him to double down on his militaristic policies.

Other tools are ready, but difficulties to come

The Prime Minister, his voters and the TPLF still believe in complacency with their demands and hope to militarily exhaust their opponents. So the Biden administration should at least privately communicate a concrete deadline for the sanctions grace period. It should also stress that sanctions can be applied later if negotiations are deliberately blocked by one party. Even under the best of circumstances, negotiations will not be easy or quick.

Another possible sanction is looming on the horizon before November 1: to extend or not Ethiopia’s eligibility for duty-free imports permitted under the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA brings Ethiopia around $ 100 million in cash every year and, more importantly, directly generates jobs for around 100,000 people, mostly women in southern Ethiopia who work in textile factories that export to the United States. AGOA certification is statutorily linked to respect for human rights, requiring that the gross human rights violations existing in the Tigray conflict cease.

The big question is whether Russia, China and even Turkey will attempt to reduce the threat of US sanctions. Turkey continues to expand its diplomatic and economic ambitions in the Horn, having offered to mediate disputes between Ethiopia and Sudan over refugees and al-Fashaga’s fertile farmland (mainly in Sudan, but claimed by Ethiopia), two issues exacerbated by the conflict in Tigray, as well as Ethiopia fills up of the Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam on the Nile. Ankara declared its support for a peaceful resolution the Tigray conflict, but can give Abiy the impression, either inadvertently or intentionally, that he can shop around among international actors to reduce American and European pressure.

Russia may well be tempted to insert itself into another area where it can undermine American objectives, whatever their substance. Russia’s policy in Africa – and in other places – has been to reverse U.S. efforts simply by opposing them. And in Ethiopia, Russia might be tempted to try to “win back” its Cold War ally of the 1970s.

China also has shares in Ethiopia: it sees access to the Red Sea as a strategic priority and should not want to see the situation in Ethiopia degenerate into a complex and protracted civil war that would undermine its basic politics in the country. Horn, including its posture. of a military base in Djibouti. China’s financial exposure to Ethiopia also makes it want stability in Ethiopia. But there are complexities. China has made substantial economic investments in Ethiopia under the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime. This diet is land expropriation in the Oromia region for decade-long agricultural leases to Chinese and Gulf companies, exacerbated ethnic Oromo anti-EPRDF protests and helped bring down the regime. True democracy and accountability in Ethiopia could mean a review and revocation of many of these shady deals, and China may prefer to cultivate political clients rather than neutrally seeking to defuse the conflict. The direction and degree of China’s involvement in Ethiopia therefore remains unclear.

Beyond the need for Washington to restore credibility and positive relations with European partners as a whole, a strong engagement with them on Ethiopia could help counter the above risks. Many European countries have strong interests in Africa, but have been divided over Ethiopia and have not established levers such as a sanctions regime.

The Ethiopian government currently feels alienated from Washington and is eager to find new external sponsors. Unfortunately, Addis Ababa sees the relationship in binary terms. Yet for years the United States has erred in coddling the EPRDF regime, ignoring its authoritarianism and human rights abuses at home and in Somalia in the name of counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa. By being able to deliver hard love to Addis and the TPLF, American policy has matured in the right direction. If belligerence subsides, wider civil war is avoided, and conflict resolution mechanisms are adopted, the United States and Ethiopia should be able to return to close cooperation.

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