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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

A False Perception of Genocide: America's Shift in Ethiopian Relations

July 11, 2023

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking with Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, December 2022 [Image credit: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Twitter]

In late June 2023, the U.S. President Biden Administration declared that Ethiopia is no longer engaged in “gross violations of human rights”.[1] The action is a surprising move by the United States’ government, as the announcement came roughly three months after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to discuss the abuses that took place during the multi-year conflict that began in November 2020. In late 2020, Abiy ordered attacks upon anti-governmental forces in Tigray. CNN was among various news organizations that reported how attacks upon civilians throughout the Tigray region bordered on the definition of genocide.[2] The statement from the White House can be interpreted as an economic decision, as America attempts to rekindle a prosperous relationship with Ethiopia after a cessation of economic aid to the country was announced following the eruption of the civil war, a war that also included neighboring Eritrea. As Ethiopia’s influence continues to grow throughout both East Africa and the larger continent, the U.S. reversal in policy clears a path for Ethiopian economic resurgence, but potentially at the expense of the continued pain of Tigrayans.

The roots of the two-year civil war can be traced back for decades. Since 1994, Ethiopia has had a federal system in which different ethnic groups control the affairs of ten regions. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was influential in setting up this system. For almost three decades, the TPLF party was at the center of power, before it was sidelined by Abiy, who took office in 2018 after anti-government protests. In 2019, Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending violence along the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, but his decision to extend his time in office as Prime Minister in the summer of 2020 created a powder keg of potential fighting.[3] After months of fiery language from both sides, the political crisis erupted into war.

Both 2021 and 2022 proved to be horrific for those in the Tigray region, with over five million Ethiopians becoming internally displaced in only a single year.[4] A January 2023 article appearing in El País declared that the Ethiopian civil war was responsible for the deaths of over 600,000 civilians, vastly exceeding the deaths in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.[5] A peace agreement was reached between the two sides in November of 2022, but this followed reports of attacks on civilians by Eritrean forces in the city of Axum. A highly detailed report released by Amnesty International in February 2021 noted that Eritrean forces committed acts of violence that are tantamount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate shelling of the city and the execution of thousands of civilians.[6] No Eritrean representatives took part in the negotiations of the ceasefire, and the six sanctions imposed by the American government during the war were directed solely at Eritrea, with none placed upon the Abiy government.[7]

An equally frightening report titled, “We Will Erase You from This Land: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone” was published by Human Rights watch in April 2022.[8] Among the first-hand accounts from survivors included detentions, torture, and mass executions carried out by pro-government Amhara Special Forces, with one man describing how the bodies of those killed floated ignominiously in the Tekeze River along the Sudan border with Western Tigray.[9] The brutality of the war and the reports of crimes against humanity becoming increasingly irrefutable, Secretary of State Blinken was pressed about labeling the violence of the war as extreme human rights abuses at his meeting with Ethiopian leaders in March of this year. He stated that the U.S. would address the questions of war crimes, “once we get all the analysis that goes into looking at the facts and looking at the law.”[10] However, less than a week later, while back in Washington, Blinken declared that, “After the department’s [State Department] careful review of the law and the facts, I’ve determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.”[11] While Blinken was critical of Ethiopian leaders for these horrific acts, he went on to discuss Ethiopia’s steps towards a significant transitional justice process.[12] However, despite these words and the invitation to UN representatives to monitor the ongoing state of Tigray, the threat against Tigrayans has not ceased.

A June 2023 report from Human Rights Watch revealed that the targeting of Tigrayans has only continued in the months following a tenuous peace agreement. One woman reported being forcibly removed from her home in January after Amhara forces “knocked at the door at midnight” and told the woman that she could not return.[13] There have not been any formal charges against any political or military leaders concerning the assaults upon Tigrayan dignity, and despite the apparently hollow response by the Ethiopian government, the U.S. has now decided to fully reopen relations with the country. The decision to remove the designation of a nation that may have committed war crimes from Ethiopia followed a public declaration of praise for the assistance provided by that nation concerning the removal of American citizens from Sudan. The April 22nd White House press statement included President Biden personally offering his thanks to “Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia, which were critical to the success of our operation.”[14]

The action taken by the Biden Administration comes despite a Washington Post article which cited representatives of USAID (United States Agency for International Aid) describing a massive scheme that stole donated food and denied the poorest Ethiopians access to basic necessities.[15] President Biden entered the White House touting his desire to emphasize the protection of human rights around the world. Sadly, the decision to remove Ethiopia from the list of countries conducting human rights abuses will not motivate the Ethiopian government from prosecuting those who carried out such crimes. Rather, this pronouncement essentially provides the Abiy government an opportunity to offer public declarations of transitional reform without any significant obligation to do so. The White House’s assertion about the cessation of abuse in Ethiopia only places more Tigrayans in peril while the Ethiopian government enjoys a massive influx of aid from the U.S. and the IMF. The war in Ethiopia went sadly under-acknowledged by a world engulfed in the Covid pandemic, but what is even more tragic is the apparent disregard for those who continue to suffer.



[6] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[15] Ibid.


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