Oct 18, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

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Interview: “Time to agree to a negotiated ceasefire and to turn away from military escalation”: U.S.

The following is excerpts from telephonic press briefing with Bryan Hunt, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa and the Sudans, and Erik Woodhouse, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions on the Biden-⁠Harris Administration actions in response to the ongoing crisis in Northern Ethiopia held on September 20/2021.

Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S.
Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to
welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank
all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to
be joined by Bryan Hunt, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for East
Africa and the Sudans, and Erik Woodhouse, Deputy Assistant Secretary
for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions.

Acting DAS Hunt and DAS Woodhouse will discuss an upcoming national security action related to the current crisis in Ethiopia.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Acting DAS Hunt and DAS Woodhouse.

Thank you very
much. First, let me say that the Biden-Harris administration is
determined to press for an end to the ongoing humanitarian and human
rights crisis in northern Ethiopia. This expanding conflict is causing
immense human suffering and threatening the unity of the Ethiopian state
as well as regional stability.

Last Friday, President Biden announced a new executive order that provides the Department of the Treasury, working in coordination with the Department of State, the necessary authority to impose sanctions against individuals and entities linked to the Ethiopian Government, the Eritrean Government, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Amhara regional government, if they continue to pursue military conflict rather than meaningful negotiations to the detriment of the Ethiopian people.

This action follows months of failure
by parties to the conflict to respond to international calls to stop the
fighting and commit to a durable political solution. This conflict has
already sparked one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world
today, with more than 5 million people requiring assistance, of which
over 900,000 are already living in famine conditions. For far too long,
the parties to this conflict have ignored international calls to
initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire and the human
rights and humanitarian situations have worsened. Less than 10 percent
of the needed humanitarian supplies have reached the Tigray region over
the past month due to obstruction of aid access.

As the United Nations
Secretary-General and African Union leaders have stated clearly, there
is no military solution to this political crisis. Absent clear and
concrete changes, the Biden-Harris administration is preparing to take
aggressive action under this executive order to impose targeted
sanctions against a range of individuals and entities.

However, if the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF take meaningful steps to enter into talks for a negotiated ceasefire and allow for unhindered humanitarian access, a different path is possible, and the United States is ready to help mobilize assistance for Ethiopia to recover and revitalize its economy. Those meaningful steps include accepting African Union-led mediation efforts, designating negotiation teams, agreeing to negotiations without preconditions, and accepting an invitation to initial talks. Steps towards humanitarian access could include authorizing daily convoys of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies to travel overland to reach at-risk populations, reducing delays for humanitarian convoys, and restoring basic services to Tigray such as electricity, telecommunications, and banking.

I want to be clear: These sanctions
authorities are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea. The
new sanctions program is deliberately calibrated to mitigate any undue
harm to those already suffering from this conflict. The United States
provides Ethiopia with more humanitarian assistance than any other
country, and we will continue to help those in Ethiopia who need our
assistance. The executive order should not affect the continued
provision of humanitarian and other assistance to address basic needs
throughout Ethiopia.

As I said at the top, the United
States is determined to work with our partners and allies to make it
clear that there are consequences for perpetuating this conflict and for
denying life-saving humanitarian assistance. It is time to agree to a
negotiated ceasefire and to turn away from military escalation. Thank
you very much.

Over to you, DAS Woodhouse, for your opening remarks.

Thank you very much. I first want to follow up on the comments from Acting DAS Hunt by emphasizing that sanctions are a tool that seek to change the behavior of the targets. These measures impose tangible costs on human rights abusers and perpetrators of conflict. By imposing such costs, the United States seeks to send a signal that such actions are not without consequence. These measures will apply pressure on individuals and entities to end the targeted behaviors.

The situation in Ethiopia shocks the conscience with millions displaced, widespread reports of human rights abuse, and over 900,000 people in Ethiopia experiencing famine conditions. For months, the United States has been using a range of tools to press for a peaceful, durable, political solution to the crisis. The extent of the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia is too great now not to use every tool at our disposal. This is why President Biden signed this executive order authorizing the use of financial sanctions against those contributing to or prolonging the crisis.

I want to emphasize, as others have,
that the United States did not announce sanctions against specific
individuals or entities on Friday. We are hoping we will not have to.
We hope President Biden’s action on Friday prompts the Eritrean
Government to withdraw troops immediately and the Ethiopian Government,
Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and Amharan forces to stop fighting
and commit to a negotiated ceasefire. We hope we will see concrete
steps towards these roles immediately, including that the Ethiopian
Government end its restrictions on humanitarian supplies entering the
Tigray region and the TPLF to stop its advances in the Amhara region,
which are fueling displacement and deepening ethnic tensions.

However, if we do not see such progress immediately, we will take further action. We will not hesitate to use the authorities provided by President Biden in this executive order to impose financial sanctions against those involved in the conflict, including those responsible for threatening peace and stability, obstructing humanitarian access or progress toward a negotiated ceasefire, or committing serious human rights abuses.

I want to underscore that our support
for the people of Ethiopia, the work of the United Nations, the African
Union, and NGOs in the region is steadfast. The sanctions program is
designed to mitigate any negative impact on commercial activity,
life-saving humanitarian assistance and longer-term assistance to
address basic needs of at-risk populations in Ethiopia and the greater
Horn of Africa. To that end, the Department of the Treasury has taken a
series of steps to help ensure these sanctions will not affect personal
remittances to non-sanctioned persons, humanitarian assistance,
shipments of food and medicine, and the activities of certain
international organizations and NGOs, including the African Union, the
United Nations on the ground in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Thanks very much and I look forward to taking questions.

Thank you, Acting
DAS Bryan Hunt and DAS Erik Woodhouse. We will now begin the question
and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please
state your name, affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related
to the topic of today’s briefing: the Biden administration’s response
to ongoing crisis in northern Ethiopia.

We have received some questions
submitted in advance by email and journalists may continue to submit
questions in English on Twitter and via email to [email protected]
Please be considerate to other journalists on the call and make your
questions as brief as possible, in the interest of time.

With that, we’ll go to one of the
questions sent in to us from Ethiopian News Agency, from Mr. Gosaye
Feyissa. His question is, “U.S. President Joe Biden signed a new
executive order on Friday, September 17th, authorizing broad sanctions
against those responsible in prolonging the ongoing conflict in
Ethiopia. In your view, will this sanction or these sanctions
negatively affect Ethiopia’s commitment in ensuring peace and stability
in the Horn of Africa?”

Our view is that it
should not. The Ethiopian Government has a number of interests of its
own in ensuring that there is stability in the Horn of Africa. We fully
anticipate that they will continue to try to act as a constructive
partner across a range of issues, but at the same time we need to be
very clear the conflict in northern Ethiopia is already having a
destabilizing impact on the Horn. There are refugees that are fleeing
the conflict into Sudan, causing immense problems in that country. We
have Eritrean troops which have come into northern Ethiopia as part of
the conflict and are carrying out horrific atrocities in the Tigray
region. And we continue to be very concerned that the advances of the
TPLF into Amhara and Afar could have significantly destabilizing
economic and political impacts across the Horn.

So using the tools at our disposal to
attempt to bring the parties into meaningful negotiations towards a
ceasefire is, frankly, the only viable way forward given the worsening
impact that we are already seeing this crisis have on regional
stability.

Thank you. Next
we’ll go live to Mr. Nick Schifrin of PBS NewsHour. Mr. Schifrin.
Operator, open the line. Mr. Schifrin, you may ask your question.

Hi, Bryan.

Mr. Schifrin, your line is open.

Hi, guys, thanks for
doing this. Bryan, I assume these questions are for you. Can you talk
a little bit more about the Ethiopian Government restrictions on aid
going in? Can you confirm or comment on the fact that the Ethiopian
Government is restricting what aid workers can bring in, including hard
drives and cameras, presumably to stop them from documenting what’s
happening in Tigray? Can you talk about the extent of the aid that they
are stopping, and do you believe the TPLF is also in any way hindering
aid from arriving in Tigray? Thanks.

Sure, Nick. To the
first question, on the Ethiopian Government restrictions, what I can say
is that the estimates from the international humanitarian community are
that we need about 100 trucks a day moving into Tigray with supplies if
we are going to be able to address the scale of the crisis we’re
currently dealing with. Since August 19th, we have seen a total of just
over 150 trucks permitted to go into Tigray by the Ethiopian
Government. That’s despite the international community being in a
position to mobilize a significantly greater number than that, which
could have potentially gone into Tigray.

So if the Ethiopian Government wishes
to be constructive in this manner, they need to permit a regular stream
of trucks on the scale that the international humanitarian community
believes are necessary to travel on a daily basis into Tigray. I would
add to that that the trucks which have been permitted into Tigray have
not been allowed to deliver medicine, they have not been allowed to
deliver fuel. Both of those are absolutely critical to addressing the
humanitarian needs of the population in the region at this time.

I would add to that, as you’ve said,
there have been restrictions on international humanitarian workers as to
what they are able to take into Tigray, particularly on flights which
have been organized into Mekelle. Some of the items that you have
mentioned have not been permitted to go into the Tigray region. We do
not see why personal communication devices, which are, frankly, critical
to the safety and security of humanitarian workers, are not being
allowed to be brought into Tigray. I will not speculate as to what the
motivation for that is; I will only point out that it further hinders
our ability to respond to the more than 5 million who are currently in
need up there.

On the question of the TPLF, we are
very concerned that the TPLF military offensives in Amhara and Afar make
the delivery of humanitarian assistance in those regions more
difficult. Certainly anytime there is ongoing conflict, it adds a
degree of complexity to humanitarian assistance operations, but we
believe that the international community is experienced and able to deal
with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in conflict zones. So if
the Ethiopian Government were to remove the bureaucratic obstacles that
continue to exist to operations, allow in the humanitarian supplies that
are necessary at the scale necessary, and allow in the equipment that’s
necessary to ensure the safety and security of those who are working on
this response, we would be able to address the significant needs both
in Tigray as well as in other regions of Ethiopia in spite of the
ongoing fighting.

Thank you. Next
we’ll go to Cara Anna of the Associated Press in Kenya, followed after
Julian Pecquet of the Africa Report. Cara Anna, you may ask your
question.

Hi, thanks for
this. When will the United States decide whether the situation in
Tigray is genocide? And has Prime Minister Abiy even agreed to talk
about Tigray these days [inaudible]? Thank you.

I don’t have any
information to offer on your first question. I will say that we are
extremely concerned by the scale of the human rights abuses, violations,
and atrocities that we have seen throughout the Tigray conflict. We
have repeatedly called on all parties to bring them to an end. We will
continue to work very closely with international partners to try to
document exactly what has transpired in the course of this conflict on
the human rights front. We’ve very much looking forward to the report
that OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have been working
on. We hope that they are given all of the access they need to be able
to fully document the scale of what has transpired in Tigray so that we
can hope to see some degree, at some stage, of accountability for what
has transpired there.

Julian Pecquet.

— with the Africa
Report. I’m sure you saw the letter from Prime Minister Abiy to the
President, I think it was Friday, where he said the Ethiopian Government
would not succumb to pressure. I was wondering, one, if you had any
response to that, and two, if privately you’re hearing anything at all
that suggests that the Ethiopians are ready to negotiate, ready to be
openminded about this or if the letter just kind of is the same as what
you’re hearing privately that the Ethiopian Government currently is not
at all ready to do what you want it to do? Thank you.

Yeah, we have a
robust dialogue that’s ongoing with the Ethiopian Government at a number
of levels, including with Prime Minister Abiy directly as well as
numerous other officials within the Ethiopian Government. It is our
hope that the Ethiopian Government recognizes that there is no military
solution possible. That’s become very clear over the nearly 10 months
of conflict that we have seen in the country, and it is our view that
the only possible way forward is for the Ethiopian Government ultimately
to pursue a negotiated ceasefire with the other parties to this
conflict. We do not believe that a continued military conflict is going
to be viable for any of the parties over the long term. It’s a
question of how quickly they decide to move towards a negotiated
ceasefire, which is ultimately what’s going to be required here. And
our hope is that this executive order will serve as a catalyst to bring
all of the parties to the negotiating table in as rapidly a timeframe as
possible in support of the efforts that the African Union has launched
under President Obasanjo.

Thank you. The
next question goes to Mesfin Bezu of the TG Ethiopian Broadcasting
Company, followed by Simon Ateba of Today News Africa. Mr. Bezu, your
question.

Okay. Thank you for
taking my question. Before President Biden issued his executive order
on Ethiopia, there was a press call by the senior administration
official on Ethiopia and he said that it is not fighting that is
preventing the government of – the movement of fuel and medicine into
Tigray; it is government’s decision, government harassment, local
harassment that has prevented the type of supplies going in. But on the
contrary, the Ethiopian Government blames TPLF because TPLF forces are
the ones that prevent aid from reaching the Tigray people and put the
blame on the Ethiopian Government. The Ethiopian Government also stated
that after the Ethiopian Government announced a unilateral – excuse me –
a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew troops from Tigray, instead of
accepting the ceasefire, TPLF has taken the fight beyond the Tigray
region into Amhara, Afar, and other regions, as you mentioned. As a
result of TPLF’s offensive actions —

Mr. Bezu, please state your question.

— the humanitarian
situation in the region has continued to have deteriorated. Since the
conflict began in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, I see that the United States
has been pushing for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. Sir, the
big question here is: Who refused to have a peaceful resolution of this
conflict? To prevent a catastrophic event, why doesn’t the U.S. push
TPLF forces to stop their fight beyond the Tigray region instead of
blaming greatly the Ethiopian Government? Thank you for the chance.

The United States
has been very clear that we believe the TPLF should immediately cease
its military offensive in Amhara and Afar. That has been stated
publicly. That has been conveyed privately. We certainly believe that
expanding the conflict outside of Tigray was counterproductive, and the
actions in those regions need to stop. At the same time, that does not –
that does not excuse the behavior of the Ethiopian Government. As a
said earlier, we need 100 trucks of humanitarian assistance every day
going into Tigray. The Ethiopian Government since August 19th has
permitted just over 150 trucks in total – 10 percent of what is required
to deal with famine conditions. This is not constructive behavior.
The Ethiopian Government has consistently refused to come to the table
for meaningful ceasefire negotiations. This is not constructive
behavior.

Are both sides doing things that are
counterproductive to ending the conflict? Yes. That is why the
executive order provides the ability for us to impose penalties on all
parties that are furthering the conflict. But the fact is that all
parties are right now furthering the conflict and doing things that are
counterproductive to humanitarian assistance, and are engaged in
egregious violations of human rights. This conduct simply needs to
stop.

Thank you. Next question goes to Simon Ateba, Today News Africa.

Yes, thank you for
taking my question. This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in
Washington, D.C. It does not seem that anything has changed on the
ground since President Biden announced – authorized the sanctions on
Ethiopia on Friday. I guess my question is: What needs to happen for
the sanctions to kick in? Is there any timeline, any deadline? And why
can’t the administration immediately sanction Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
of Ethiopia now and President Isaias of Eritrea? It’s been almost 10
months that these atrocities have been going on, and those two guys have
ignored all calls from the U.S. Government for a peaceful resolution of
the conflict. They even refused to meet with the USAID Administrator
Samantha Power, claiming that she was too small, even though she’s
responsible for disbursing billions of dollars to Ethiopia. So why not
act right away instead of dancing around the bush and wasting time?
Thank you.

This is Erik Woodhouse.

The – oh, please, Erik.

Yeah, I can
take that and then, Bryan, if you want to jump in. So, as you note, the
United States did not impose designations along with the release of the
executive order. The executive order both authorizes the application
of those sanctions and makes clear that we’re prepared to use them if we
don’t see progress towards the goals that we have identified. As we’ve
repeatedly emphasized, we very much hope we will not need to make
designations, but we are prepared to do so if we do not see immediate
and swift progress towards the goals that we’ve identified.

Bryan can provide more color on those
goals, but we’ve noted them time and again, including that we see the
Ethiopian Government end its restrictions on humanitarian supplies
entering the Tigray region, and that the TPLF stops its advances into
the Amhara region, which continue to fuel displacement and deepen ethnic
tensions.

So the goal of this executive order is
to put in place the authorities necessary to take further action, make
clear that we are very prepared to do so, and urge the parties to adopt a
different course than they have taken so far – in other words, to move
clearly towards a negotiated ceasefire and the other goals that we’ve
outlined. If we don’t see that progress, we will act.

Bryan, do you want to add to that?

No, I’m good. Thank you.

Thank you. Our final question will go to Jennifer Hansler of CNN. Ms. Hansler, over to you.

Hi, thank you so
much. Just to put a finer point on my colleague’s question, is there a
specific date ultimatum at which these sanctions would be applied? Have
you relayed that to the parties involved in the conflict that if they
don’t take meaningful steps by X time, then they will be sanctioned?
Thank you.

Yeah, we’ve had
extensive private conversations with all of the parties to the conflict
related to the executive order at this time. They are fully aware that
we expect to see action immediately to address these problems, and that
if such action is not forthcoming that we are prepared to take action
under the executive order.

Acting DAS Hunt and DAS Woodhouse, do you have any final words? Let’s start with DAS Woodhouse.

None from me. Thank you very much.

Acting DAS Hunt?

I would simply sum
up as I started: This is one of the worst humanitarian and human rights
disasters that is taking place globally today. We need to see
sustained action by all of the parties to the conflict to bring
hostilities to an end, to ensure that the 5 million-plus people who
require assistance are receiving it and to bring to an end the horrific
human rights violations that are taking place in northern Ethiopia
today. We hope that the executive order will act as a catalyst to
deliver those actions on the part of the parties, and we continue to
urge them to evaluate their conduct closely and to take corrective
actions at the earliest possible opportunity.

That concludes
today’s call. I want to thank Bryan Hunt, Acting DAS for East Africa
and the Sudans, and Erik Woodhouse, DAS for Counter Threat Finance and
Sanctions, for joining us, and thank all of our callers for
participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may
contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at [email protected] Thank
you.