On March 23, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed admitted that neighboring Eritrean troops had entered the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia during a conflict that broke out in November 2020. Additionally, he announced that Eritrean troops had agreed to withdraw from the region. In a statement, Ahmed finally acknowledged the vicious human rights abuses in the war-torn region, calling for the prosecution of perpetrators. Amnesty International and other members of the international community have condemned the Eritrean military for egregious human rights violations during the conflict — ultimately amounting to ethnic cleansing — including sexual violence against Ethiopian women and civilian killings in Axum last year.
In response to Ahmed’s inaction regarding violence in Tigray, the European Union imposed budget sanctions on Ethiopia amounting to €88.5 million (over $100 million), funds which were targeted toward health, employment and development sector reforms. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden called for an end to the violence and sent Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., on a diplomatic mission to address the U.S.’s humanitarian concerns with Ahmed in March.
But current U.S. diplomatic efforts are not enough to condemn, end and repair abuses in the Tigray region, and following the EU’s lead with sanctions will only further destabilize Ethiopia’s economy and promote future violence and human rights abuses. Therefore, the U.S. must shine the spotlight on Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s extreme negligence in the conflict. Eritrean soldiers are accused of committing at least 516 rapes against Ethiopian women and pillaging towns and cities, amongst other atrocities. Meanwhile, Afwerki continues to deny these violations and even refuted Eritrean presence in the Tigray region altogether.
If the United States considers itself a watchdog of human rights, Biden must not only keep up pressure on Ahmed to investigate human rights violations, but also demand that Afwerki come clean about his denials, which are damaging to the families and individuals who suffered horrific acts of violence at the hands of Eritrean soldiers. Trying perpetrators in domestic or international tribunals will be crucial to the transitional justice process in the aftermath of the conflict, but these efforts must not turn the spotlight away from Afwerki and his criminal negligence.
Afwerki has used deflection and evasion of responsibility for horrific handlings of regional conflict as a power-keeping strategy. This approach has fueled ongoing conflict and human rights violations in the region for decades. To balance the U.S.’s role as both a diplomatic facilitator and a critic of Afwerki’s authoritarian regime, Biden must demand Afwerki’s full accountability at the peacemaking table and a commitment to resolving decades-long tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Truth-seeking investigations and criminal trials in the aftermath of the Tigray conflict will never be fully effective without addressing Afwerki’s negligence and demanding reparations. The recent amplification of survivors’ voices combined with the heat of EU sanctions seems to have created the push that moved Afwerki to agree to pull out of Ethiopia. However, the international community has long labeled Afwerki as a pariah, and with a track record of ignoring and refuting these calls, it is unclear how far international pressures will sway Afwerki’s commitment to peace beyond agreeing to pull troops out of Tigray.
As an active participant in discussing ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, Biden’s strategy has to address decades of violent power struggles between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The U.S. needs to be prepared to be called upon as a responsive, ameliorative and preventative mediator.
By calling attention to the humanitarian crisis and engaging in diplomatic relations as well as investigations, Biden is off to an acceptable start, but he must do more. The United States needs to take a more assertive role of active opposition toward Afwerki’s regime, not by following the EU’s lead and imposing harsh sanctions on Ethiopia, but by calling for truth and taking a seat at the negotiation table to ensure transitional justice processes take place in order to prevent human rights abuses in the future. Continuing to allow abuses to operate in the shadows will only perpetuate future violence and leave decades of past conflict between the two countries unresolved.
That said, Biden must urge Afwerki to take responsibility for Eritrea’s human rights abuses and atrocities in the Tigray region. Naming and shaming may have been enough to drive Afwerki to bring his troops out of Ethiopia, but it will not be enough to compel him to own up to the damages at the bargaining table and be an active partner to Ethiopia in aiding Tigray’s socioeconomic repair, as well as mending larger relationship issues between the two countries. What is needed from Biden is a push for truth, reconciliation and justice that extends above and beyond seeing an immediate end to the conflict.
Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.