Michael McCaul, the lead Republican congressman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised concerns on Wednesday over whether genocide is occurring in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Addressing US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield in a committee hearing, Mr McCaul said the Ethiopian government's behaviour in Tigray points to possible genocide.
“As the fighting continues, there is starvation and systematic rape being used as a weapon of war. And comments from [USAID head Samantha Power] that Ethiopia is 'destroying the reproductive health of Tigrayans' really calls into question whether conditions amount to genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention,” Mr McCaul said.
The government of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with the help of Eritrean troops and allied militias, has been carrying out a military offensive against the Tigray People's Liberation Front since November.
The conflict has internally displaced about two million civilians and the UN now estimates 350,000 people in Tigray are facing famine, including 30,000-plus children that are now considered malnourished.
Human rights organisations such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International have reported aid restrictions, attacks on medical facilities and the destruction of food sources in addition to incidents of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and massacres.
Ms Thomas-Greenfield said starvation is often used as a weapon of war in places like Yemen, Ethiopia and South Sudan, and voiced her frustration at the lack of action by the UN Security Council.
“I don’t think it is going to get better … it is going to get worse,” Mr McCaul said. His reference to "genocide" is the first made by a member of Congress.
UNHCR head Michelle Bachelet said in March that the brutality in Tigray may amount to war crimes and called for an investigation, while the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Mathias, said last month he believes genocide is occurring in the region.
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Centre, said a determination of genocide makes punitive action against the perpetrators inevitable.
"Once the spectre of genocide is unleashed, it will be difficult to talk about anything else and the bar for avoiding punitive measures will be even higher," Mr Hudson told The National.
“The only thing that will avoid further punitive measures at this stage is real, immediate, verifiable and irreversible actions by Ethiopia to allow in unfettered humanitarian access, withdraw Eritrean forces and initiate a ceasefire,” he added, while noting that the Ethiopian government has broken such previous commitments.
Mr Abiy, a Nobel laureate, has not yet fulfilled his March pledge of initiating the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and allied militias from Tigray.
On Monday, Ethiopia will hold a general election in which Mr Abiy is seeking to extend his mandate.
The US government has called for an inclusive process but said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held".
“The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and intercommunal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process,” the State Department said.
Mr Hudson saw the vote as a great risk for Mr Abiy.
“It seems unlikely to be able to grant him the broad mandate or the legitimacy he is seeking. At the same time, it could further unleash forces within the country that are already undermining Ethiopia's unity and cohesion.”
The US envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, has made two trips to the region to help broker a ceasefire in Tigray.
On Thursday, he will meet an official Ethiopian delegation in Washington, which will include Special Adviser to the Prime Minister Mamo Mehretu.
A protest outside the State Department has been planned by Tigrayan activists who are calling for the US to put more pressure on Mr Abiy.
The Ethiopian government has called reports of war crimes and famine in Tigray "baseless".