February 1, 2023

In first phone call with Abiy, Biden was ‘very clear’ that ‘full humanitarian access’ should be restored into Tigray and everywhere else in Ethiopia, senior U.S. official says

President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews
President Joe Biden salutes as he disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews

In his first phone call with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was ‘very clear’ that “full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” a Senior U.S. official told reporters from Washington D.C. on Monday.

“Humanitarian access was a significant focus of the discussion between the two leaders today. President Biden was very clear, as I just explained in the readout, that full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” the official said. “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that that was the request. He has made a series of commitments, including publicly, to expand humanitarian access. And it will now be up to the Ethiopian government to deliver on what they have been pledging to do. But we think this is broadly in the interest of all Ethiopians and, certainly, of the humanitarian situation.”

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali

The official acknowledged that the crisis in Ethiopia has been very challenging for the United States from before the Biden administration took office and through the entirety of his tenure up until now. 

The official explained, “It has a number of dimensions. There’s obviously a humanitarian crisis that is particularly acute. There’s also a security crisis that has regional implications, given the role and influence of outside states.  And here, I would note, particularly, the unhelpful role of Eritrea in this conflict. And it also runs the risk of distracting from other regional priorities to the United States, like the fight against al-Shabaab. 

“I wanted to clarify, given the range of accounts we sometimes see, how we see the approach the United States has been taking to this conflict from day one. We’ve been emphasizing to all parties that there is no military solution to this conflict.  We’ve been warning against atrocities. We’ve been trying to facilitate a peaceful resolution through dialogue between the parties.  We are not choosing sides or putting our thumb on the scale. 

“As I think many of you know, we sent a Senator Chris Coons out to speak — as a personal emissary of the President — with the Prime Minister early in our tenure and named a very senior diplomat, Jeff Feltman, as our Special Envoy to help manage this crisis. 

David Satterfield

“This has, obviously, also been a major focus of time across our administration — from the President to the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and really to the entire national security interagency — with regular meetings among senior officials held on this topic. 

“The trajectory of the conflict has been a bit of a pendulum, with each side having moments of clear advantage.  In recent days, the Prime Minister has begun sending more positive signals: prisoner releases, openness to dialogue, and pledges with regard to humanitarian access. 

“The Tigrayan side has also publicly committed to dialogue. 

“On the other hand, given what we’ve seen in the past, it’s hard to know how long this relatively constructive phase will last. 

“So, the purpose of the call today was really to reinforce some of the more constructive steps and inclinations Prime Minister Abiy may be demonstrating, to put the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship onto a constructive footing, and reiterate where we need to continue to see progress — specifically, the Ethiopian army not going into Tigray; stopping airstrikes, which has taken place in recent days and about which we’ve been quite concerned, including publicly; expanding humanitarian access to all regions of the country; and engaging in ceasefire talks. 

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerkii is welcomed by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed upon his arrival at Addis Ababa International Airport

“So, we do see this as a moment of opportunity if the parties are willing and able to seize it. That remains to be seen.  And this window won’t be open forever.  So, our goal will be to facilitate that to the greatest extent possible.”

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