Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. He can be reached on [email protected]
The U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power on Tuesday met with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to discuss “the urgent response needed to address the grave humanitarian crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia,” USAID acting spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala said in a statement on Wednesday.
Both leaders also discussed the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other major challenges facing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that have led to irregular migration.
“During their meeting, Administrator Power and Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed shared concerns regarding the availability and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and discussed opportunities for scaling up production and increasing dose-sharing,” Pooja Jhunjhunwala said. “Administrator Power expressed deep concern at the prospect of widespread famine in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. She stressed that the atrocities in Tigray are ongoing and 5.2 million people urgently need humanitarian relief, which is being blocked by armed actors, including Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.”
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Although the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has continued to rebuff international effort to bring about a solution to a lingering crisis in his country, the Biden administration is not letting up.
On Tuesday, the administration announced that the United States special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman will travel to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya from May 31 to June 6 to meet with senior officials of the four countries.
Feltman will be discussing “cooperative approaches to supporting a stable and prosperous Horn of Africa, including a resolution of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is acceptable to all parties,” the Department of State said in a statement on Tuesday.
Feltman recently returned from a regional trip that took him from Ethiopia to Egypt and Sudan. Back then, he met with officials in the those countries to find solutions to the dam dispute and other crises in Ethiopia, including the humanitarian catastrophe in Tigray.
Ethiopia has been receiving a great deal of attention from the Biden administration for many reasons, including that millions of people there are now on the brink of famine.
Last Friday, the United States asserted that Ethiopia’s Tigray region is facing “widespread famine”, as the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to deny access to humanitarian assistance.
The Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Samantha Power made the assertion during a meeting with UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley.
“Today, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power met with UN World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley to discuss several urgent priorities surrounding the response to humanitarian crises around the world, including in Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, and Mozambique,” USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala said in a statement.
“During their meeting, Administrator Power expressed concern that we could see widespread famine this year in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where humanitarian access and additional donor support is greatly needed,” Jhunjhunwala added.
Power’s warning came just two days after the United Nations humanitarian chief warned the Security Council that the crisis in Tigray was getting worse with the region on the brink of a “serious famine if assistance is not scaled up in the next two months.”
“It is clear that people living in the Tigray region are now facing significantly heightened food insecurity as a result of conflict, and that conflict parties are restricting access to food,” Mark Lowcock was quoted as telling the council in a personal note.
He said about 20 percent of the population in Tigray faces “emergency food insecurity,” according to the May 19 alert from the Famine Early Warning System Network, which indicated that central and eastern Tigray and some areas of the northwest and southeast are currently in Phase 4.
Power and Beasley also discussed the escalating instability in Mozambique, especially the “growing displacement crisis” and “deep food insecurity” in the country.
While the situation in Mozambique is only beginning to receive widespread attention in the media following increasing terrorist attacks and displacements of thousands of people there, Tigray is being discussed around the world.
For instance, on Thursday night, Human Rights Watch said schools in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, have been occupied and looted, with government forces using one as barracks and women coming in and out and even staying for a few days.
“On just one example, government forces used the historic Atse Yohannes preparatory school in the regional capital, Mekelle, as a barracks after taking control of the city from the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, in late November 2020, and continued to use the school through mid-April 2021,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a statement.
It said recent government efforts to reopen schools have partly been hindered by continuing insecurity, damage to schools, and protection concerns for students and teachers.
“The fighting in Tigray is depriving many children of an education and the warring factions are only making matters worse,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Occupying and damaging schools ends up affecting the lives of Tigray’s future generations, adding to the losses that communities in Tigray have faced for the last six months.”
Human Rights Watch said it conducted telephone interviews between January and May with 15 residents, teachers, parents, former students, and aid workers about the situation facing Tigray’s schools, and assessed reporting by media outlets, aid agencies, and national human rights institutions.
The organization also reviewed satellite imagery that confirmed the presence of military vehicles inside the compound of Atse Yohannes high school in December and March, as well as videos and photographs showing damage to school property.
It quoted several Mekelle residents as saying that in early December, Ethiopian forces began using the Atse Yohannes school as a base. After occupying the school for several weeks, they left; trucking away computers, plasma screens, and food.
Interim authorities soon began to repair the damage so that classes could resume, but soldiers returned in February and occupied the school for another three months.
“During this time, troops posted armed sentries at the school gate and built fortifications using stones around the school grounds,” Human Rights Watch noted, adding that a Mekelle resident working near the school witnessed women enter and leave the school’s guarded compound on several occasions.
“I saw different women taken inside. Sometimes they would stay two, three, or five days, and we would see them go in and out of the school,” she said. “They appeared beaten and were crying as they would leave… No one could ask the women what happened to them, and the atmosphere made it difficult to do so.”
Human Rights Watch said it was unable to confirm whether the soldiers sexually exploited or otherwise abused the women, but asserted that “during the conflict there have been widespread reports of sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, including in Mekelle.”
The organization added that after Ethiopian forces suddenly left the school in April, Mekelle residents found “widespread damage to classrooms and offices, and destruction of electrical installations, water pipes, and other property.”
It cited videos posted on social media and photos sent to Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts.
In April, Tigray’s interim government presented aid groups with a list of damaged and pillaged property at the school, from pens and student records to 288 burned chairs and three destroyed science labs.
Ethiopian soldiers also left behind walls covered with hateful and vulgar anti-Tigrayan messages. “On the walls were phrases insulting Tigrayan people,” said one parent. “It was painful to see and read, let alone repeat again.”
The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child has called on African countries to “either ban the use of schools for military purposes, or, at a minimum, enact concrete measures to deter the use of schools for military purposes.”
Human Rights Watch noted that under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Tigray, the occupation of a school by military forces makes the school subject to attack, clarifying that the military’s destruction or seizure of civilian property not justified by reasons of military necessity is prohibited and may be a war crime.
It said an extended military deployment without providing alternative educational facilities can also deny students their right to education under international human rights law.
“The conflict in Tigray has taken a terrible toll on children and their education,” Bader said. “International partners should now urge the Ethiopian government to take all necessary steps to ensure schools can reopen safely, including by ending the military use of schools and punishing military personnel responsible for abuses.”
The Human Rights Watch report on Thursday night, the time in Washington DC, Friday morning, the time in Ethiopia, came only a day after U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday said he was “deeply concerned by the escalating violence and the hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia.”
In a personal statement, the American leader said “large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end.”
He urged Ethiopian leaders and institutions to “promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism.”
He wrote: “I am deeply concerned by the escalating violence and the hardening of regional and ethnic divisions in multiple parts of Ethiopia. The large-scale human rights abuses taking place in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence, are unacceptable and must end.
“Families of every background and ethnic heritage deserve to live in peace and security in their country. Political wounds cannot be healed through force of arms. Belligerents in the Tigray region should declare and adhere to a ceasefire, and Eritrean and Amhara forces should withdraw.
“Earlier this week, the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs warned that Ethiopia could experience its first famine since the 1980s because of this protracted conflict. All parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine.
“The United States urges Ethiopia’s leaders and institutions to promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism. Doing so will preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the state, and ensure the protection of the Ethiopian people and the delivery of urgently needed assistance.
“The Government of Ethiopia and other stakeholders across the political spectrum should commit to an inclusive dialogue. Working together, the people of Ethiopia can build a shared vision for the country’s political future and lay the foundation for sustainable and equitable economic growth and prosperity.
“The United States is committed to helping Ethiopia address these challenges, building on the longstanding ties between our two nations and working with the African Union, United Nations, and other international partners. U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeff Feltman is leading a renewed U.S. diplomatic effort to help peacefully resolve the interlinked conflicts across the region, including a resolution of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that meets the needs of all parties.
“Special Envoy Feltman will return to the region next week and keep me apprised of his progress. America’s diplomacy will reflect our values: defending freedom, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
On Wednesday, the United States government mourned a USAID partner killed, reportedly by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The government did not identify the victim but said “the deceased was a partner with USAID in providing desperately needed aid to the people of the region.”
In a statement, USAID Administrator Samantha Power expressed “heartfelt condolences to the family of an aid worker who was killed, reportedly by Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.”
Ms Power said since the onset of conflict in Tigray in November 2020, at least seven humanitarian workers are confirmed to have been killed while delivering assistance to those suffering in the region.
Last week, the United States Representative to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the Biden administration is continuously working to take diplomatic actions to help bring about an end to the crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield recapped the diplomatic steps that the United States has taken toward addressing the conflict in Tigray, saying at a briefing, “President Biden sent his own emissary to Ethiopia; Senator Coons went out to meet with and try to engage with the government on this situation.”
“Jeff Feltman has just completed a visit to Ethiopia, and I have been actively engaged on this issue here in New York, insisting that it be put on the agenda of the Security Council and successfully getting a statement out of the Security Council,” she continued.
However, all those efforts by the United States, the African Union and others, have been fruitless for months as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ignored pleas.
With diplomatic efforts failing, on Sunday, the Biden administration expressed what it described as “deepening concerns” about the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region “as well as other threats to the sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity of Ethiopia,” and announced a visa restriction for current and former Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials.
“Today, I am announcing a visa restriction policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act on the issuance of visas for any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“This includes those who have conducted wrongful violence or other abuses against people in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, as well as those who have hindered access of humanitarian assistance to those in the region. Immediate family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions. Should those responsible for undermining a resolution of the crisis in Tigray fail to reverse course, they should anticipate further actions from the United States and the international community. We call on other governments to join us in taking these actions.
“Additionally, we have imposed wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia and will bring our defense trade control policy in line with them. We will continue humanitarian assistance and certain other critical aid to Ethiopia in areas such as health, food security, basic education, support for women and girls, human rights and democracy, good governance, and conflict mitigation, consistent with available authorities. The United States will continue its existing broad restrictions on assistance to Eritrea,” Blinken added.