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The US can no longer ignore Ethiopia’s human rights crisis

November 28, 2023


In recent weeks, the world’s gaze has been intensely focused on a war halfway around the world. Intense fighting between Israel and Hamas has left thousands of people dead, including many children, and generated television images that make it hard to look away.

At the same time, just 1,500 miles south of Gaza City, a violent and escalating conflict is largely being ignored by the outside world. Earlier this month, in northern Ethiopia’s Amhara region, government soldiers

The fighting between troops loyal to the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and civilians tied to the region’s Fano militia — forces that were on the same side just a year and half a ago in quelling a civil war in the neighboring Tigray region — is just the most recent example of a deteriorating security and human-rights situation in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his diplomatic efforts with his neighbor and rival Eritrea. This has created a reservoir of goodwill toward a leader who, in recent years, has jailed dissidents and journalists while escalating a civil conflict, not only in Amhara but in other parts of Ethiopia as well.

Experts with the United Nations this summer sharply criticized the mass arrests of thousands in the Amhara region. Eyewitnesses say that civilians, including children, have been killed by government drone strikes, while thousands have been evicted and seen their homes looted as troops burn badly needed food supplies.

More recently, Human Rights Watch noted that the second anniversary of the ceasefire between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has been marred by both incessant fighting and violations of basic civil liberties.

The U.S. and its allies continue to take an extremely cautious approach in responding to these abuses. In one sense, that’s understandable, because Ethiopia — with its growing population of 125 million, and its geographic significance as the cornerstone of the contentious Horn of Africa — is a longtime American ally whose strategic importance seems to inspire a deliberate approach.

Two years ago, the Tigray conflict created discord between the U.S. and the Ahmed government. The U.S. threatened sanctions and even placed visa restrictions on some ranking Ethiopian officials. Ahmed accused both America and the European Union of overlooking terrorism by the Tigray rebels.

President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the subsequent ceasefire. The Americans saw that agreement as an opportunity to restore closer relations with Ethiopia at a moment when rivals, including China, Russia and Turkey, are competing for influence in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Washington has looked to Addis Ababa to provide peacekeeping troops within the region, and as a bulwark against chaos in neighboring Sudan.

But it has taken much of Biden’s first term for Blinken and his fellow diplomats to articulate a coherent policy for Africa, let alone Ethiopia specifically, that looks beyond short-term solutions. Washington’s main goal has been to prop up the status quo amid the growing challenges of superpower competition and new threats from climate change.

The U.S. has long been the biggest provider of humanitarian aid and other assistance to Ethiopia, totaling some $3.16 billion in assistance during the Tigray conflict as well as a severe drought.

In June, the Biden administration informed Congress that Ethiopia is no longer engaging in a pattern of “gross violations of human rights,” ensuring that the spigot of American dollars would stay wide open. This declaration ignores the violent reality on the ground in Amhara region and elsewhere.

The decades-long history of close ties between the U.S. and Ethiopia should offer an opportunity for Washington to leverage that relationship, and the flow of cash, to urge the Ahmed government to keep its promises around human rights that are now routinely violated.

Leading groups from within the Ethiopian American diaspora have called for major human-rights and anti-corruption reforms in their homeland. These would include the release of all political prisoners, guarantees of press freedom and unfettered free speech, a crackdown on official graft, sanctions against those linked to atrocities, and a push for a cessation of attacks by government forces in Amhara, Oromia and other regions wracked by bloodshed.

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden told the global Summit for Democracy not long after taking office in 2021. “We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.” With the world on fire right now, Ethiopia and its history of close U.S. relations presents a unique opportunity to fight for democracy in a part of the world where it truly matters, in Africa. This is not a moment for patience, but for action.


Mesfin Tegenu, the chairman and CEO of RxParadigm, is executive chairman of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee.

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