President Joe Biden signed a new executive order Friday authorizing broad sanctions against those involved in perpetrating the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia as reports of atrocities continue to emerge from the Tigray region.
The administration did not immediately impose sanctions under the new order, but “is prepared to take aggressive action” unless the parties — including the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara Regional Government — “take meaningful steps to enter into talks for a negotiated ceasefire and allow for unhindered humanitarian access,” a senior administration official told reporters.
This official said the administration is looking to see action within “weeks, not months.” Biden approved the executive order after the administration has “telegraphed for months that the parties need to change course,” a second senior administration official said.
“The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia is a tragedy causing immense human suffering and threatens the unity of the Ethiopian state,” Biden said in a statement Friday.
‘A different path is possible’
“The United States is determined to push for a peaceful resolution of this conflict, and we will provide full support to those leading mediation efforts,” Biden said in a statement.
He continued, “I join leaders from across Africa and around the world in urging the parties to the conflict to halt their military campaigns respect human rights, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and come to the negotiating table without preconditions. Eritrean forces must withdraw from Ethiopia.”
“A different path is possible but leaders must make the choice to pursue it,” the President said.
The executive order reflects a growing sense of urgency at the situation in Tigray, where humanitarian access to deliver critically needed food, fuel and medicine has been largely cut off and hundreds of thousands face famine.
CNN has uncovered evidence that mass detention, sexual violence, and killings that bear the hallmarks of genocide have occurred in Tigray. Those investigations have spurred Congress to ratchet up pressure on the administration to take action, according to one Senate aide, who noted that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing for the administration to not only name sanctions targets, but also make a determination on whether the atrocities that have taken place constitute genocide.
The aide told CNN the US Embassies in Ethiopia and Eritrea have identified names of some potential sanctions targets.
In the statement Friday, Biden said he is “appalled by the reports of mass murder, rape, and other sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations.”
The administration officials acknowledged that the situation in Tigray has deteriorated in recent months and voiced concern that violence could soon escalate as the rainy season comes to an end, allowing for greater movement in the region.
However, the first administration official said that the decision to sign the executive order but not immediately impose sanctions reflects the administration’s belief that “a different path is possible.”
“This is not a decision that this administration has taken lightly and our preference, quite frankly, is to not to use this tool,” they said. “We would prefer that the parties to the conflict work with the international community to advance discussions toward a negotiated ceasefire.”
“We want to see a prosperous, prosperous, peaceful, united Ethiopia, as well as the region in the Horn of Africa, but this ongoing protracted conflict is risking — puts all of that at risk,” they said.
‘No military solution’
This official added that they are “not optimistic about the situation on the ground and that’s why the President authorized this executive order in order to ramp up the pressure, but we are optimistic about the growing moves by regional leaders, by the (African Union) Envoy (Olusegun) Obasanjo to press for a mediated solution, and we hope that we can marshal support for these efforts.”
The situation is likely to be a “key discussion” at next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, the second official said, “because it is right now one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes in the world.”
“There’s a widespread consensus, outside of Ethiopia, at least, that there is no military solution to this conflict,” they said.
Friday’s executive order is broader in scope compared to previous sanctions announced in the region and will give the Treasury and State Departments authority and flexibility to identify individuals and entities responsible for the conflict if steps toward a ceasefire are not taken.
The first official emphasized that any sanctions will not be targeted at the people of Ethiopia, noting that the Treasury Department will issue general licenses laying out “clear exemptions for any development, humanitarian, and other assistance efforts, as well as critical commercial activity in Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
In May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced sweeping visa restrictions on “certain individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray” and the US sanctioned the chief of staff of the Eritrean Defense Forces for his connection to “serious human rights abuse committed during the ongoing conflict in Tigray.”
The State Department has also “imposed restrictions on foreign assistance for Ethiopia and have brought our defense trade control policy in line with this action,” according to a State Department spokesperson.
“Security assistance programs have been suspended. A planned Millennium Challenge Corporation economic growth ‘threshold’ program also remains on hold at this time,” they said.
In a statement last week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price called “reports of human rights abuses and atrocities” by parties to the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia “deeply disturbing,” saying that those “mounting reports of human rights abuses underscore the urgency of independent and credible international investigations.”
The statement was released following reporting from CNN that found bodies of Tigrayans, some of which bore signs of torture, washing up in a Sudanese town near the border with Ethiopia. Reuters recently reported that Tigrayan forces killed more than 100 civilians in a village in the Amhara region.
The Biden administration is also conducting “a law and fact-based review” about whether crimes which may amount to genocide have taken place in Tigray.
That review has been underway since at least late June. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Robert Godec told lawmakers at the time that “the administration is in full agreement that horrifying atrocities have been committed in Tigray and Secretary Blinken did say in earlier testimony, as you’ve said, that there were acts of ethnic cleansing.”
“We are in the process of a fact and law-based review to determine whether the terms crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes can and should be used,” he said. “The final decision on whether we’re going to use those terms is up to the Secretary of State.”