A senior US official told The National on Friday that the State Department is conducting a legal review into whether Ethiopian and Eritrean actions in Tigray amount to genocide.
“I don’t want to get ahead of any process, but obviously the reports about the violence against women, the murders and the mass events that we’ve seen do give pause and could potentially lead to some sort of official determination regarding the acts that we know have been committed,” the senior administration official told The National.
“But that is a legal process that we have to let play out.”
The House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that would require Secretary of State Antony Blinken to determine whether the humanitarian crisis in Tigray amounts to genocide, but the senior administration official indicated that the State Department has already initiated the review.
“It’s a process that is not taken lightly and it’s a process that’s under consideration by the State Department,” said the senior official.
“We will just let the secretary determine whether or not, based on reports and things that we’ve seen and information that we have, whether or not that designation will be made.”
The US legal code defines genocide as “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group".
President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order last week paving the way for sanctions on actors responsible for human rights violations in the Tigray civil war.
The Biden administration has said that it would enact those sanctions on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments as well as the Amhara Regional Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front within a matter of weeks unless the parties agree to a ceasefire.
The US last month sanctioned the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces, Filipos Woldeyohannes. The Biden administration has repeatedly called on Eritrean forces to withdraw from Tigray.
Although Ethiopia has maintained an internet, phone and media blackout in Tigray, witnesses have described widespread human rights abuses, including the displacement and murder of civilians, gang rape, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the burning of crops.
An Amnesty International Report released last month found that Ethiopian forces and their allies “subjected hundreds of women and girls to sexual violence”, war crimes that may also amount to crimes against humanity.
Fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have also retaliated with their own abuses during raids on villages in Amhara, including a massacre this month that killed 120 people.
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The conflict broke out last year when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against Tigray with the backing of Eritrean forces and Amhara militias.
Ethiopia is also embroiled in a border dispute over the fertile Al Fashaga border with Sudan and a tense diplomatic standoff with Khartoum and Cairo over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Sudan and Egypt say the dam would inhibit their fair share of access to Nile water
The White House announced on Friday that it had invited Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to meet Mr Biden in Washington “in the near future” following a failed coup against the Sudanese transitional government this week.
In the meantime, Mr Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, will visit Sudan as part of his trip to the region next week.
But the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is unlikely to be a priority for Mr Feltman, as the senior administration official said that Washington is largely deferring to African Union-led negotiations on the issue going forward.
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“This is a regional issue, which, combined with the situation in northern Ethiopia and the Al Fashaga border, that really could further destabilise an already fragile region in the Horn of Africa,” the senior administration official told The National.
“Our interest is in a prosperous, stable and peaceful Horn of Africa, but we don’t want to insert ourselves into a process where we’re seen as supporting one side or the other to perhaps the detriment or the benefit of any party.”
Egypt asked former president Donald Trump to intervene in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue and enable negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan. Mr Trump personally left the effort in the hands of Steve Mnuchin, an unusual choice to lead a major diplomatic initiative given his status as treasury secretary at the time.
Conversely, Mr Feltman has largely limited his role in the dam dispute, seeming to prefer African Union-led negotiations on the subject to continue.
“We give that support to the process, the AU-led process, to revitalise the negotiations on this and we give that support to that process,” said the senior administration official. “We are partners, but sort of on the margins of that process.”