The United State’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on a state visit to Ethiopia this week in what Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, described as an attempt to “refashion” the US’s engagement with Ethiopia towards a partnership “that’s commensurate with their [Ethiopia’s] size and influence and with our interests and commitment to Africa”.
Ethiopia has been embroiled in catastrophic human rights and humanitarian crises for the last several years. The crisis in Tigray over the last two and a half years has in particular been described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian and human rights crises. US officials claim that the gross violations of human rights in Tigray had to some degree strained the relations between the United States and Ethiopia. Since January 2022, Ethiopia has been denied access to the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a duty-free trade program, due to the gross violations of human rights in Tigray.
Ahead of Blinken’s visit, the State Department released a statement detailing US assistance to Ethiopia over the last many years. In the last two years alone, the US State Department claimed to have provided an estimated 3.16 billion USD in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia.
What the statement did not include is an explanation for why hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in Tigray, starved to death despite so much supply of “humanitarian” aid to the country. That would have addressed the elephant in the room — the siege and deliberate steps taken by the regime to starve people.
Among other things, the focus of yesterday’s meetings included the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front in November 2022, accountability for crimes committed during the war, and partnership between the two countries. The Secretary of State also announced that the US will provide USD 331 million in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia this year. Secretary Blinken stated on twitter that he and Abiy Ahmed Ali’s deputy, Demeke Mekonen Hassen, discussed:
“…[A]bout progress made on implementing the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and the need for unhindered access by international human rights monitors to conflict-affected areas, as well as Ethiopia’s important regional role.”
In a separate tweet, he added that he also met with the Prime Minister and discussed:
“The need for accountability to reach a durable peace. Also agreed to revitalize our strong partnership.”
While some progress has clearly been made in halting active battlefield-level fighting and the indiscriminate bombing of towns and villages, and enabled the transportation of limited humanitarian supplies into the region, human rights abuses of all forms including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and rape and sexual violence continue in areas that remain under the control of Eritrean and Amhara forces. The condition for minority groups such as the Irob and Kunama, who remain under the occupation by Eritrean forces, and thus out of reach of humanitarian assistance, is particularly dire. The rest of the region’s civilian population remains under uncertainty and insecurity.
Large parts of Tigray remain cut off from access to basic social services such as healthcare, banking, telecom and power. Even in areas where some services were restored, they do not match the needs. For example, banks are open in major towns but they have no cash for people to withdraw.
The hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan civil servants who have not been paid in over 30 months remain so four months after the signing of the agreement.
Moreover, despite the peace agreement clearly stating lifting the siege as one of the immediate actions, Tigray largely remains under the brutal siege that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people over the last 30 months. A recent update by MSF East Africa on the conditions for civilians in Northwestern Tigray speaks for itself. On March 9, 2023, MSF East Africa on its twitter account posted the following updates:
“Following the end of active fighting in the area [northwestern Tigray], people who fled to rural areas or the forests in search of safety are gradually moving back to the small towns and urban areas. However, crops have been lost and there are few tools or seeds to plant. Many health facilities are not functioning because the buildings have been partially destroyed and or looted. Some have received insufficient supplies, others no supplies at all, while the needs remain considerable.”
Among the people Blinken met on the first day of his visit is Daniel Bekele, the notorious Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian regime’s Human Rights Commission and a close ally of Abiy Ahmed Ali, who issued a statement saying that he met Blinken and that they discussed about “the importance of victim-centered and #HumanRights compliant transitional justice process and mechanisms.”
There seems to be a deep misunderstanding about the notion of domestic justice and accountability mechanisms. While it is important that domestic mechanisms are strengthened and encouraged, the move to replace independent international mechanisms is very problematic for two key reasons. First, no institution in Ethiopia today is immune to influence by the perpetrators of the crimes. Institutions like the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission are nothing more than the extended arms of the Ethiopian regime. Daniel Bekele and the commission he heads have continuously denied and downplayed the scale of human rights violations particularly on ethnic Tigrayans throughout the Tigray war. They cannot thus turn around and present themselves as arbiters and judges. Second, to present the crisis in Tigray as an internal matter and to claim to depend on domestic justice and accountability mechanisms is to misframe the nature of the problem and to overestimate the capacity of the domestic mechanism, even if there were effective ones. The question remains: how will even the most capable and impartial domestic mechanisms hold foreign actors like Eritrea accountable for crimes its troops committed in Tigray? Note that despite numerous reports of atrocities by Eritrean forces, neither the Eritrean or Ethiopian regime has acknowledged any crime committed by Eritrean troops. In fact, the Eritrea’s ruler, Isayas Afewerki, at a press briefing in Nairobi last month, dismissed reports of gross human rights violations by his army in Tigray were as “fantasies” and “fabricated lies” by actors who, he claims, want to “derail any peace process”.
The irony in yesterday’s events is that everyone that the US delegation met and discussed with are members of the very actors that oversaw the devastating campaign on Tigray. From his statements, Secretary Blinken seems to trust the report and words of human rights organisations based in Addis Ababa many of which clearly sided with the Ethiopian government throughout the Tigray war. Following his meeting with the officials of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, he stated:
“I am moved by the commitment of human rights leaders and advocates in Addis. I welcome their efforts to support inclusive dialogue and a victims-centered transitional justice process to heal the country’s divisions and provide peace and security for all Ethiopians.”
Talks of “victims-centered transitional justice” and “progress” in the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) would have made sense if the voices of members of the Tigrayan community could be heard in the room. None of the human rights organizations based in Addis represent the voices of Tigray’s heavily impacted population. Tigrayans who worked in such organizations prior to the crisis were ethnically profiled, forcefully removed from their positions and many were detained in concentration camps. We also know that many have left the country fearing for their lives amidst an ethnic purge during the last two years.
What has also become clearer now is that the Pretoria agreement effectively pushed Tigray into total silence as the Federal government in which Tigray clearly has no representation has taken the mandate of speaking for Tigrayans in discussions on matters that determine their future as people. The terms of the agreement prevent Tigray’s political leadership from reporting on and speaking about even the most obvious violations and crimes on the region and its civilian population. Without access by human rights bodies and the media to the region, whatever the Ethiopian regime claims is accepted as true. As Mehari Taddele Maru, a scholar based at School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, rightly noted:
“If AU and two parties had issued an implementation report on the Pretoria deal, we would have a clear record of the litany of unimplemented commitments. Now is the opportunity with Secretary @SecBlinken’s visit to engage parties to pressure a reflection on realities on the ground.”
Celebration of impunity?
At the press briefing yesterday, Mr.Blinken dodged two questions by a AS reporter about the process of genocide determination and whether he is against the Ethiopian government’s attempt to end the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts of Ethiopia (ICHREE).
The US is understandably putting efforts to diplomatically engage with governments in that part of the world given the threat it faces from competing powers over regional hegemony. However, the ease with which Blinken’s delegation spoke about the death of close to a million people and unimaginable suffering of many millions of people under the order of the very same officials they comfortably shook hands with is deeply troubling.
It is nothing less than a celebration and endorsement of impunity. A particularly disturbing development is how US officials fail to express their outrage about Ethiopia’s continuous attempts to prevent independent international investigation into and impede justice and accountability for human rights violations in Tigray and broader Ethiopia. That the Ethiopian regime and its Eritrean ally are actively trying to prevent investigation should tell everyone about the extent of human rights violations that happened in Tigray, which many correctly claim amounts to genocide.
Photo: Antony Blinken sits with a cup of Ethiopian coffee smiling with Demeke Mekonen Hassen.
One cannot help but imagine the level of outrage that the above picture would have caused if it was in Moscow and the man on the right side was Sergey Lavrov. Demeke Mekonen Hassen and his regime oversaw the death of close to a million Tigrayans in two years and it is deeply troubling that Mr. Blinken does not feel a shred of embarrassment going to great lengths to appease him and his regime. “Refashioning” partnership with Ethiopia should not come at the cost of encouraging and celebrating impunity.