US government conducting review into possible war crimes in Tigray
Review comes as US increases pressure on Ethiopia with sanctions and congressional oversight
(Thenationalnews)–US President Joe Biden’s administration is conducting a review into possible war crimes committed in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, a senior official told Congress on Thursday.
“We have a fact-based review under way that is being conducted very quickly and the secretary of state will have the final determination,” Robert Godec, acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Washington takes “extremely seriously” the statements by UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet on “atrocities that may well amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity” and by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Mathias, “who has termed the conflict a ‘genocide’ against the Tigrayan people”, Mr Godec said.
Fighting in the region is approaching its eighth month and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.
Ethiopian and Eritrean troops along with allied militias began an offensive in November against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The fighting has internally displaced about two million people and left 5.2 million in urgent need, according to the UN.
Human rights organisations such as Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International have documented cases of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and massacres as well as the use of starvation as a weapon.
“We are acutely aware of the need to determine whether the conduct meets the legal standard for atrocities or war crimes,” Mr Godec told Congress.
The chairman of the committee, Bob Menendez, said that “we believe in fact these are war crimes. We cannot turn blindly away when such things happen in the world.”
Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, said a war crimes conclusion by the US government would go a long way in ratcheting up pressure on Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed.
“The idea of the US leading a ‘fact-based’ examination of war crimes, as it has done in places like Darfur and Myanmar, suggests an effort to push back on Ethiopia’s official narrative about what started the conflict in Tigray and what is happening there now,” Mr Hudson told The National.
Mr Ahmed, a Nobel laureate, has called the military push by his government “a law enforcement operation”.
“By challenging that official narrative, Washington is putting itself on a collision course with Addis Ababa that is likely to result in efforts to impose a UN arms embargo and possibly an International Criminal Court investigation,” Mr Hudson said.
A war crimes review corresponds with a changing tone from the Biden administration on Tigray in recent weeks.
Following months of quiet diplomacy and calls for Eritrean forces to withdraw, the US issued sanctions last week as well as a presidential statement on Wednesday night.
“With President Joe Biden’s statement, the US has now signalled a new approach to Ethiopia, one that not only reflects the lies and crimes being committed in Tigray, but that now calls into question the overall legitimacy of coming elections [on June 21], Abiy’s mandate and the integrity of the Ethiopian state,” Mr Hudson added.
Tigrayan refugees wait in line to receive food from Muslim Aid at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, on Wednesday. AP
In his statement, Mr Biden called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Eritrean forces.
“All parties, in particular the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, must allow immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine,” he said.
Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, said at the hearing that the situation was increasing the risk of famine in the region.
“By blocking food assistance deliveries and preventing farmers from accessing their agricultural land to plant and harvest, the armed actors are actively exacerbating the risk of famine in Tigray,” she said.
Ms Charles spoke about intentional attacks on humanitarian staff to block aid from arriving in the region, including the killing of a USAID partner staff member and seven other humanitarian workers during the conflict.
Jeffrey Feltman, US envoy to the Horn of Africa, will be returning to the region on a second trip next week and his itinerary will include stops in Gulf countries such as the UAE.
“The Emiratis have been involved in negotiations previously and successfully. They have played an important role and what is critical is they use all the influence that they got to end the conflict,” Mr Godec said.