President Joe Biden's administration has decided not to carry out a legal review into whether human rights abuses in Tigray amounted to genocide to make room for diplomacy as the conflict spills into the rest of Ethiopia.
“We have decided to refrain at the current moment from making a public determination in order to allow space and time to see if the talks that are currently under way can make any progress,” Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said while speaking before the House of Representatives.
“Our primary focus has been on trying to engage diplomatically in the many ways that are available to us to reach an end to the conflict, which would obviously result in the immediate end of the atrocities.”
The National was the first to report in September that the State Department was conducting a legal review into whether actions by Ethiopian and their Eritrean allies in Tigray amounted to a genocide.
While Ms Phee said the Biden administration has opted not to issue a public determination for now, she stressed the State Department continues to track abuses in Ethiopia.
“We have undergone an active and dynamic determination process,” said Ms Phee. “It’s ongoing as we continue to assess emerging reports of human rights violations and abuses. And we remain committed to seeing what we can do to address the current elements that have caused all of us such concern.”
Ms Phee also said the Biden administration is discussing a potential arms embargo on Ethiopia at the UN to stop foreign military hardware from going to the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
“The issue of arms supplies to Ethiopia is a component of our diplomacy with regional and international allies,” said Ms Phee.
She also called for an end to the pattern of hate speech that has developed on both sides of the conflict, both in Ethiopia as well as among the Ethiopian diaspora in the US.
“We would urge the diaspora to play a responsible role in helping promote a conclusion to the conflict rather than inflaming the conflict,” said Ms Phee.
“And we're also all conscious of the layers of ethnic hostility over the years that predate the current conflicts that are affecting our opportunities.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concerns over the escalating violence in Ethiopia on Saturday and once again called for negotiations to resolve the conflict.
Mr Abiy — the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Winner — has appeared on the front lines as his troops battle the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and allied rebel groups during their advance on Addis Ababa.
His government has also rounded up and detained high-profile members of the Tigrayan ethnic group throughout the country, including some Ethiopian-US dual nationals as well as UN staff.
The US, UK, Germany, France and Switzerland have all advised their citizens to leave the country as the conflict escalates.
The Biden administration had been engaged in a months-long pressure campaign to bring Mr Abiy to the negotiating table and end the human rights atrocities.
This included expelling Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides eligible countries with duty-free access to the US market, as well as sanctions on Eritrean military officials.
Ethiopia has cut internet, phone and media access in Tigray since the conflict erupted last year while reportedly complicating or halting the delivery of humanitarian aid to the war-torn region.
Witnesses have described widespread human rights abuses in Tigray, including the displacement and murder of civilians, gang rapes, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the burning of crops.
Amnesty International has documented sexual violence and civilian casualties in Tigray at the hands of Ethiopian forces and their allies.
The human rights organisation has also documented similar human rights abuses against civilians in neighbouring Amhara at the hands of the TPLF.