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Ethiopia: Biden opens door for sanctions over Tigray

September 17, 2021

The US has said it is prepared to issue sanctions on parties responsible for the fighting in northern Ethiopia amid a growing humanitarian crisis.

Villagers walk down a dirt road in Tigray
The conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region has displaced thousands of people Image: GIULIA PARAVICINI/REUTERS

US President Joe Biden on Friday issued an executive order that allows for sanctions on parties "complicit in prolonging" the conflict in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.

The fighting has left thousands of people dead and millions more in need of humanitarian aid. In a press statement announcing the order, President Biden said he was "appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations."

Washington has repeatedly called for a negotiated end to the fighting in Tigray, and the threat of sanctions could increase pressure on the conflicting parties to sit down for talks. 

What does the order say?

The order allows Washington to take punitive actions against individuals in Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara regional government if the parties continue to "choose conflict over negotiations to the detriment of the Ethiopian people," the statement said. 

"The sanctions are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea, but rather the individuals and entities perpetrating the violence and causing a humanitarian disaster," the statement continued.  

The order establishes a new "sanctions regime targeting those responsible for prolonging the conflict, obstructing humanitarian access or preventing a ceasefire," it added. 

Although no deadline for Ethiopian leaders has yet been set, senior Biden administration officials told news agencies they expected progress on negotiations in the coming weeks. 

Ethiopia's humanitarian crisis

Conflict broke out in November 2020 between Ethiopian government troops and forces loyal to the TPLF, the regional ruling party that controls Tigray.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had sent troops into the northern region to topple the TPLF.

However, government forces failed to push out the Tigrayan forces, and a protracted conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, while unleashing a hunger crisis, making a large part of the population dependent on food aid.

The Tigray fighting also drew in soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, and in the summer, spread into the neighboring Ethiopian regions of Amhara and Afar.

Exacerbating the crisis, the conflicting parties have been accused of preventing international aid groups and food transports from accessing the region during this time.

The United Nations and the US have repeatedly called for a negotiated end to the fighting and for international aid groups to have unrestricted access to the region.

US officials said Thursday that only 10% of humanitarian supplies sent to Tigray have been allowed into the region over the past month, the Associated Press reported.

Previous pressure from Washington on the combatants to end the conflict has yet to work. In May, the US announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials.

The move was dismissed by Abiy's government as an effort to "meddle in our internal affairs.''

wmr/rt (Reuters, AP, AFP)