December 7, 2022

In their own words: Senior Biden officials describe at length the humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia and why sanctions may be imposed soon


U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Friday signed an executive order establishing a new sanctions regime against those responsible for the atrocities and prolonged conflict in Ethiopia. The individuals and entities that may be affected are yet to be named and the sanctions have not yet been imposed. However, senior administration officials on Monday discussed at length why the American leader took the unprecedented step against the warriors in the Horn of Africa, and what may be coming next.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on COVID-19 and the economy, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Bryan Hunt, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa and the Sudans, and Erik Woodhouse, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions, who briefed reported on Monday morning via a teleconference, asserted that President had exhausted all options after months of pleas and engagements with the government of Abiy Ahmed Ali, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has pursued war rather than peace.

Both officials explained that the aim of the sanctions was not the sanctions in themselves, but another tool by the Biden administration to achieve lasting peace in Ethiopia and help millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray and elsewhere.

They called on all parties, including in Ethiopia and Eritrea to take immediate steps for peace, warning that failure to do that may lead to more actions from the Biden administration.

The press briefing came just days after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed released a defiant statement, essentially downplaying the possibility of American sanctions.

In their own words below, Bryan Hunt and Erik Woodhouse explain at length the current situation on the ground in northern Ethiopia, President Biden’s sanctions and the path ahead to achieve peace.

Mr. Hunt:  “Thank you very much.  First, let me say that the Biden-Harris administration is determined to press for an end to the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis in northern Ethiopia.  This expanding conflict is causing immense human suffering and threatening the unity of the Ethiopian state as well as regional stability. 

“Last Friday, President Biden announced a new executive order that provides the Department of the Treasury, working in coordination with the Department of State, the necessary authority to impose sanctions against individuals and entities linked to the Ethiopian Government, the Eritrean Government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara regional government, if they continue to pursue military conflict rather than meaningful negotiations to the detriment of the Ethiopian people. 

“This action follows months of failure by parties to the conflict to respond to international calls to stop the fighting and commit to a durable political solution.  This conflict has already sparked one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today, with more than 5 million people requiring assistance, of which over 900,000 are already living in famine conditions.  For far too long, the parties to this conflict have ignored international calls to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire and the human rights and humanitarian situations have worsened.  Less than 10 percent of the needed humanitarian supplies have reached the Tigray region over the past month due to obstruction of aid access. 

“As the United Nations Secretary-General and African Union leaders have stated clearly, there is no military solution to this political crisis.  Absent clear and concrete changes, the Biden-Harris administration is preparing to take aggressive action under this executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a range of individuals and entities. 

“However, if the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF take meaningful steps to enter into talks for a negotiated ceasefire and allow for unhindered humanitarian access, a different path is possible, and the United States is ready to help mobilize assistance for Ethiopia to recover and revitalize its economy. Those meaningful steps include accepting African Union-led mediation efforts, designating negotiation teams, agreeing to negotiations without preconditions, and accepting an invitation to initial talks.  Steps towards humanitarian access could include authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations, reducing delays for humanitarian convoys, and restoring basic services to Tigray such as electricity, telecommunications, and banking. 

“I want to be clear:  These sanctions authorities are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea.  The new sanctions program is deliberately calibrated to mitigate any undue harm to those already suffering from this conflict.  The United States provides Ethiopia with more humanitarian assistance than any other country, and we will continue to help those in Ethiopia who need our assistance.  The executive order should not affect the continued provision of humanitarian and other assistance to address basic needs throughout Ethiopia. 

“As I said at the top, the United States is determined to work with our partners and allies to make it clear that there are consequences for perpetuating this conflict and for denying life-saving humanitarian assistance.  It is time to agree to a negotiated ceasefire and to turn away from military escalation.  Thank you very much.

Mr. Woodhouse: “Thank you very much.  I first want to follow up on the comments from Acting DAS Hunt by emphasizing that sanctions are a tool that seek to change the behavior of the targets.  These measures impose tangible costs on human rights abusers and perpetrators of conflict.  By imposing such costs, the United States seeks to send a signal that such actions are not without consequence.  These measures will apply pressure on individuals and entities to end the targeted behaviors. 

“The situation in Ethiopia shocks the conscience with millions displaced, widespread reports of human rights abuse, and over 900,000 people in Ethiopia experiencing famine conditions.  For months, the United States has been using a range of tools to press for a peaceful, durable, political solution to the crisis.  The extent of the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia is too great now not to use every tool at our disposal.  This is why President Biden signed this executive order authorizing the use of financial sanctions against those contributing to or prolonging the crisis. 

“I want to emphasize, as others have, that the United States did not announce sanctions against specific individuals or entities on Friday.  We are hoping we will not have to.  We hope President Biden’s action on Friday prompts the Eritrean Government to withdraw troops immediately and the Ethiopian Government, Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and Amharan forces to stop fighting and commit to a negotiated ceasefire.  We hope we will see concrete steps towards these roles immediately, including that the Ethiopian Government end its restrictions on humanitarian supplies entering the Tigray region and the TPLF to stop its advances in the Amhara region, which are fueling displacement and deepening ethnic tensions.

“However, if we do not see such progress immediately, we will take further action.  We will not hesitate to use the authorities provided by President Biden in this executive order to impose financial sanctions against those involved in the conflict, including those responsible for threatening peace and stability, obstructing humanitarian access or progress toward a negotiated ceasefire, or committing serious human rights abuses.

“I want to underscore that our support for the people of Ethiopia, the work of the United Nations, the African Union, and NGOs in the region is steadfast.  The sanctions program is designed to mitigate any negative impact on commercial activity, life-saving humanitarian assistance and longer-term assistance to address basic needs of at-risk populations in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa.  To that end, the Department of the Treasury has taken a series of steps to help ensure these sanctions will not affect personal remittances to non-sanctioned persons, humanitarian assistance, shipments of food and medicine, and the activities of certain international organizations and NGOs, including the African Union, the United Nations on the ground in Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

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