WASHINGTON, DC – Now that Ethiopia’s civil war has settled into a seemingly intractable slugfest, the United States must consider its options to prevent further loss of life. The US already is deeply engaged in efforts to mediate a ceasefire, working closely with the African Union, the European Union, and other interested parties. In that diplomacy, as in most African peace processes, the US has assumed a supporting role. Nevertheless, it can take the lead on two critical and lifesaving challenges: ensuring accountability for human-rights violations and preventing the use of starvation as a weapon of war.
All parties to the conflict have committed appalling mass atrocities, and these incidents will increase with further fighting. At the beginning of the conflict, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his ally Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki saw an opportunity to wipe out their common enemy, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces had early battlefield successes, accompanied by tactics such as mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and blocking food aid. But offensives by the TPLF and its ally, the Oromo Liberation Army, soon reversed the government’s military gains and for a time put the TPLF and OLA within striking distance of the capital, Addis Ababa, provoking mass diplomatic evacuations.
Under these conditions, the TPLF will not agree to a ceasefire without the kind of concessions that Abiy is unlikely to accept, prolonging the war. But human-rights abuses will most likely continue even if the TPLF and OLA eventually take Addis Ababa. To create real accountability for war crimes and find creative avenues for humanitarian-aid deliveries, US leadership is needed.
While rights groups should preserve available evidence for future legal proceedings, any judicial process is unlikely to occur until far in the future, with uncertain results. Efforts to hold perpetrators financially responsible, however, could be stepped up immediately.
In September and November, US President Joe Biden’s administration imposed targeted sanctions on key Eritrean figures and entities. The US, the EU, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and others should expand the list to include Ethiopian officials, TPLF leaders, and other militia actors who are responsible for atrocities. But it is imperative to move beyond sanctions of individuals and adopt “network sanctions” that target not only key leaders, but also the physical and legal channels through which they move money and their enablers and facilitators in the international financial system.
Governments should then work with global and regional banks to close the financial system to the sanctioned entities. In other words, these governments should use the tools usually associated with pressuring North Korea, Iran, and Russia, rather than the rarely enforced one-off, individual sanctions that have become the hallmark of international financial pressure in Africa.
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Sanctioning authorities also could issue anti-money laundering advisories and work with banks and national regulators to block illicit schemes associated with these officials or their networks. In addition, the US and European governments should use their votes within international financial institutions to deny loans to the Ethiopian government.
Similarly, humanitarian-aid strategies urgently need to be revamped. The United Nations and NGOs have tried valiantly to overcome Ethiopian government obstruction of their aid operations in Tigray, but at the moment only 1% of the more than five million Tigrayans who need food aid are receiving it. The food crisis in Tigray intensified through the summer and fall, and still further in the last month, as the Ethiopian government appears to have mostly closed the tap on the trickle of humanitarian aid getting into the region. If TPLF offensives don’t open an aid corridor from Djibouti soon, nonconsensual humanitarian intervention will be the only option to prevent mass starvation in Tigray.
The longer the war rumbles on, the more likely it is that Ethiopia will fragment into regions controlled by competing authorities. Getting aid to those in need in areas where authority is contested will become increasingly difficult.
Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa have been the site of many nonmilitary interventions to distribute necessary aid, saving thousands of lives. During Sudan’s civil war from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, airlift operations brought aid into rebel-held areas of southern Sudan that were inaccessible to UN agencies. Similarly, a cross-border humanitarian operation from Sudan into insurgent-held territory in Tigray and Eritrea lasted from 1981 until 1991. These examples, along with more aggressive options, should urgently be considered to find the best way to provide aid to areas where mass starvation is likely in the coming months.
Millions of Ethiopians’ lives are at stake. The US and other governments must introduce adequate measures to ensure accountability and sustain humanitarian efforts to aid the starving.