US President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order on Friday allowing government agencies to slap sanctions on those fuelling the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region.
“The Executive Order I signed today establishes a new sanctions regime that will allow us to target those responsible for, or complicit in, prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, obstructing humanitarian access, or preventing a ceasefire,” Mr Biden said.
Senior US officials said “aggressive action” in the form of sanctions will be broad in scope and would target the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara Regional Government unless they choose a different path and agree to a ceasefire.
Those measures could come into force soon. “We are looking at weeks, not months,” a US official said.
Last November, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, backed by Eritrean troops and allied militias, launched a military offensive against the TPLF.
Since then, more than two million civilians have been internally displaced and 5.2 million people in the region are in urgent need of food, the UN said. Accounts of war crimes, extrajudicial killings, famine and rape have been reported by humanitarian groups.
The US has unsuccessfully leveraged its diplomacy to negotiate a permanent ceasefire or to force Eritrean forces to withdraw, with Mr Abiy and the TPLF resisting direct negotiations.
Last week, Human Rights Watch claimed Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan militias had raped, detained and killed Eritrean refugees in Tigray.
Mr Biden said he was appalled by the cruelty and suffering.
“Nearly one million people are living in famine-like conditions, and millions more face acute food insecurity as a direct consequence of the violence. Humanitarian workers have been blocked, harassed, and killed. I am appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorise civilian populations.”
Fearing further escalation, the Biden administration is now threatening sanctions on Addis Ababa, Asmara and the other warring parties if humanitarian aid remains obstructed and no immediate ceasefire is reached.
“This [sanctions] regime that will come out is broader, faster, more flexible,” the official added.
The Treasury Department last month sanctioned the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces, Filipos Woldeyohannes, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. But Mr Biden’s executive order goes even further, allowing the State, Treasury and Justice Departments to enact penalties against those involved in the fighting.
The officials voiced support for a united Ethiopia but said the protracted conflict is fragmenting the country.
“We're not optimistic,” one official said, with many fearing that clashes will intensify when the rainy season ends in October.
Washington is also concerned about the obstruction of aid delivery to Tigray by the government.
“None of the 149 trucks in the convoy that reached Mekelle Ethiopia last week returned,” the UN said of an attempted aid delivery.
Besides the 5.2 million civilians in need in the Tigray region, the UN is estimating 2.5 million people require health assistance from the World Health Organisation and other partners.
Cameron Hudson, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Centre, said Mr Biden’s executive action has been made as the situation on the ground in Tigray deteriorates.
“Mr Biden is taking action commensurate with the gravity of the crimes being committed and aligning his rhetoric with appropriately strong policy actions,” Mr Hudson told The National.
The expert sees the coming weeks as critical for the trajectory of the conflict.
Mr Abiy, a Nobel laureate, “is being re-elected in his party conference in early October. It matters if those sanctions come before,” said Mr Hudson.
With dialogue and successive trips by US envoy Jeff Feltman to the Horn of Africa failing to move the needle or secure aid delivery, Mr Hudson argued that “the time has come for the US to employ its sharpest punitive tools in the cause of peace".
Prominent US Senators welcomed Mr Biden’s action on Friday. Democratic Chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and State and Foreign Appropriations subcommittee Bob Menendez and Chris Coons said Congress will accompany the action with its own legislation.
“We will unveil a new legislative effort in the coming weeks for Congress to drastically bolster US efforts to pursue accountability for the carnage in the Tigray region as this protracted ethnic conflict approaches the one year mark,” Mr Menendez and Mr Coons said in a statement. The White House dispatched Mr Coons earlier this year to mediate the conflict.
Ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch also praised the announcement and called for accountability in Tigray. “The United States and its allies must quickly transition from 'hands-off' diplomacy to 'hands-on' engagement,” Mr Risch said.