Commentary

Washington’s Balancing Act With Tigray

While the US is maintaining indirect involvement in the Tigray conflict, there's still more it could do.

“By God, please help us,” an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia’s Tigray region told Associated Press a week ago.

Nine months earlier, the regional Tigrayan government held elections to protest the federal government’s postponement of a national vote. Subsequently, Tigrayan armed forces took federal military bases in the region in early November, initiating a civil war. After months of fighting, the federal government announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal on June 28.

Amidst this conflict are reports of atrocities against civilians by all armed forces and a famine that has further destabilized the region. At least 350,000 Tigrayans currently face food insecurity, mostly due to blockades. Moreover, 5.2 million people risk not receiving assistance if blockades continue. Beyond the humanitarian impact, Ethiopia’s democracy hangs in the balance.

Lukewarm American Response

Leading the international response is the United States, which has contributed over $400 million in food assistance, sanctioned Ethiopian government officials, and emphasized human rights concerns in official statements.

However, beyond the standard liberal internationalist language of “universal human rights,” “democracy stabilization,” and “multilateral pressure,” Washington’s response has been lukewarm.

In a May statement, President Joe Biden urged “Ethiopia’s leaders and institutions to promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism.” Similar statements have come from the State Department, with Secretary Antony Blinken asserting the “call on all parties to comply with obligations under international humanitarian law.”

Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to neighboring Sudan to escape the conflict in Tigray.
Thousands of Ethiopians have fled to neighboring Sudan to escape the conflict in Tigray. Photo: AFP

Non-intervention is a hallmark of the Biden administration’s foreign policy towards Ethiopia. Washington has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by both the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and federal forces. Yet, the administration is unwilling to take sides or use kinetic force, apart from imposing sanctions, suspending arms sales, and continuing calls for free and fair elections.

Confronting Human Rights Abuses

Maintaining Abiy Ahmed as an ally is critical for the US’ standing in the region, so denouncing his role in the conflict remains off the table.

Unfortunately, greater involvement in Ethiopia risks fueling anti-American sentiments among the population and government. Not only has Eritrea blamed the US for the destabilization, but Ethiopians themselves have denounced US restrictions on aid.

The United States must confront the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian and Tigrayan governments. But options that do not deteriorate relations with both parties beyond food assistance, sanctions, and calls for “democracy” are limited.

Suggesting any unilateral action by the US would be both scrutinized and weaponized. Still, it is possible to hold armed forces in Ethiopia accountable while supporting the fledgling democracy.

Elevating the Conflict

First, President Biden should instruct United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to elevate the conflict from an L2 to an L3 emergency designation at the General Assembly. An L3 classification also signals the war is bound to become long-term, a likely prediction given there’s no sign of a ceasefire.

Additionally, US Agency for International Development experts have already claimed the resulting food scarcity may be rising to the level of famine, signaling the magnitude of the crisis. This move would allow the UN World Food Programme to mobilize the “entire global, or ‘corporate,’ human or financial resource base.”

Even if Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield cannot push for an L3 designation, the efforts would at least show the seriousness with which the Biden administration takes the conflict.

Monitoring September Elections

Second, the US should urge the African Union to partner with the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and American NGOs to monitor the upcoming September election.

The African Union has already monitored Abiy’s recent re-election, demonstrating its goodwill with the Ethiopian government. It’s also estimated the population is 10 to 20 percent more likely to accept monitored elections as representative. Thus, such a coalition to monitor the upcoming Ethiopian election could build immediate support for Ethiopia’s long-term stability.

The logic behind the US’ continued involvement in Ethiopia is simple. The United States would like to maintain Ethiopia and, more importantly, Abiy as an ally. Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in East Africa. Its central location in the Horn of Africa is crucial for maintaining regional stability, cementing democratic gains made in South Sudan, and suppressing piracy near the Gulf of Aden.

Failing to act would not only question Washington’s commitment to universal human rights abroad but would directly affect American economic and security interests.


Headshot Sam AbodoSam Abodo is a 2021 Hamilton National Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is a research assistant at Carnegie Mellon University where he analyzes military bases in Africa. His writing has appeared in The National Interest, Washington Examiner, and The Triple Helix.

Headshot Evan WrightEvan Wright is the Undergraduate Assistant for the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative and a research assistant at Johns Hopkins’ Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies. Additionally, he is a 2021 Hamilton National Fellow and a Stanford Reischauer Scholars Program alumnus, and author of several articles for the non-profit journalism organization News Decoder.

Headshot Lauren JarvisLauren Jarvis is an Economics and International Studies student at Baylor University who has previously worked for the United Nations. She is a 2021 Hamilton National Fellow, internationally awarded researcher, and foreign policy educator and policy strategist for her business SpeechMakers.

Headshot Channing LeeChanning Lee is a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service studying International Politics, and a 2021 Hamilton National Fellow. She is also the author of Stronger Than Trust: Igniting the Faith Within Us.


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