Congress pushes Biden administration to enact sanctions over Tigray conflict

Congressional leaders have called for sanctions to be put in place to pressure Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to withdraw from Tigray

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 07: A protester raises his fist during a demonstration against Ethiopia's war against Tigray regional forces near the Chinese Embassy on May 07, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. The protesters were also demanding the Chinese government stop supporting the Ethiopian government. The Tigray War began in 2020 and is ongoing. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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The US Congress is pressuring the Biden administration to place sanctions on human rights abusers in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, pointing to the continued failure of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to withdraw from the region.

"We understand that the Biden administration is reviewing all options, but nothing has been announced or finalised, which is why we are pushing them on this," a congressional aide told The National on Wednesday. "It has been over six months since the conflict started."

The Democratic chairman and top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee – Gregory Meeks of New York and Mike McCaul of Texas – are leading the bipartisan push to convince the Biden administration to use its authorities under the Global Magnitsky Act to levy sanctions on those violating human rights in the Tigray conflict.

“The administration has ample authority from Congress to impose sanctions and other means of financial pressure – they just need to do it,” said the congressional staffer.

Mr Meeks and Mr McCaul doubled down on the issue earlier this week with a joint statement urging the Biden administration to “use all available tools, including sanctions and other restrictive measures, to hold all perpetrators accountable and bring an end to this conflict".

They specifically hammered Ethiopia and Eritrea for failing to live up to their March agreement to remove Eritrean forces from Tigray.

“We are deeply concerned by the failure of the government of Ethiopia and the government of the state of Eritrea to honour their public commitments to withdraw Eritrean forces from Ethiopia,” they said in the statement. “The continued presence of Eritrean forces, who have been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights in Tigray, is a major impediment to resolving this conflict.”

The congressmen referred to “mounting reports of atrocities against civilians, including sexual and gender-based violence, at the hands of Ethiopian and Eritrean forces and other armed groups".

Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy for the Horn of Africa, is in the region this week to mediate the Tigray crisis as well as Ethiopia's dispute with Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has said that "ethnic cleansing" is taking place in Tigray, personally called on Ethiopian and Eritrean forces to withdraw from the region during a phone call with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed earlier this month.

The State Department did not reply to The National's repeated requests for comment on its Tigray sanctions review.

Mr Meeks and Mr McCaul first raised the prospect of sanctions over the Tigray conflict in a letter to Mr Blinken in March.

“We urge the administration to utilise all available tools, including Global Magnitsky authorities and other targeted sanctions, to hold parties accountable for their actions to bring an end to this crisis,” the congressmen wrote at the time.

A destroyed tank is seen by the side of the road south of Humera, in an area of western Tigray annexed by the Amhara region during the ongoing conflict, in Ethiopia, Saturday, May 1, 2021. Ethiopia faces a growing crisis of ethnic nationalism that some fear could tear Africa's second most populous country apart, six months after the government launched a military operation in the Tigray region to capture its fugitive leaders. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
A destroyed tank is seen by the side of the road south of Humera, in an area of western Tigray annexed by the Amhara region during the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. AP

“All sides of this conflict, including the Tigray People's Liberation Front, Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Eritrean forces and other armed groups operating in Tigray have been implicated in atrocities against civilians.”

The Tigray conflict erupted last November when Amhara militias joined Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in an offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front. The conflict has displaced more than two million people to date and has left another 4.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced an additional $152 million in humanitarian aid for Tigray earlier this month, bringing the total amount of US aid to the region to $305m.

Further complicating matters, Sudanese soldiers swept in to retake much of the disputed Al Fashaga border with Ethiopia after Amhara fighters left the area to fight in Tigray.

Sudan has also echoed Egypt's accusations that Ethiopia is holding up negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Cairo says will inhibit access to its fair share of Nile River water.