Blinken Calls for ‘Accountability’ on War Crimes in Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken walked a careful line during a visit to Ethiopia on Wednesday, calling for “accountability” for atrocities during the country’s recent civil war without singling out his host, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, or his adversaries in the country’s northern Tigray region.

Mr. Blinken arrived in the rainy Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Tuesday night, the latest in a parade of Biden administration officials courting the continent amid rising competition for influence with Russia and China.

Ethiopia’s civil war was fought mainly between Mr. Abiy’s central government and forces in the country’s northern Tigray region, where in November 2020 a simmering feud between Mr. Abiy and Tigrayan leaders exploded into a sweeping conflict that threatened to tear the country apart.

An agreement this past November ended the fighting, which the U.S. government estimates left 500,000 people dead and millions more displaced. But many Ethiopians as well as foreign observers fear that the peace is fragile.

Mr. Abiy’s government was furious last year when the United States expelled Ethiopia from a regional trade pact, citing “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” by the Ethiopian government, although it also blamed other parties for the violent two-year conflict. Mr. Blinken did not repeat such condemnations in Addis Ababa on Wednesday, however, instead focusing on what he said was progress in the agreement to cease hostilities.

U.S. officials said Mr. Blinken’s goal was to help shore up the peace agreement and to reset America’s relationship with Ethiopia, a nation of 120 million that is the headquarters of the African Union and until recently was a pillar of American security policy in the region. But the war badly strained that relationship.

On Wednesday, Mr. Blinken said that Mr. Abiy, along with Tigrayan leaders with whom he also met here, “should be commended” for bringing a halt to the violence, though he cautioned that more work was needed to carry out the agreement.

Understand the War in Ethiopia

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An enduring conflict. On Nov. 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.

Rebels turn the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. The fighting subsequently moved south. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.

Drones tip the balance. A string of victories at the end of 2021 signaled that the Ethiopian government was regaining its footing on the battlefield. A fleet of combat drones acquired from allies in the Persian Gulf region was a decisive factor in the reversal.

A truce. On March 24, Ethiopia’s government announced what it called a “humanitarian truce” with the rebel forces, saying it was acting because thousands of people from Tigray, where food aid has not been delivered since December, had begun flooding into bordering regions seeking help.

Cease-fire is shattered. In August, after weeks of military buildup on both sides of the front line, fighting erupted on the border of the Tigray region, shattering a five-month truce between rebels and the government. Each side accused the other of firing first.

A deal to end the war. In October, the warring sides convened in Pretoria, South Africa, in a mediation process led by the African Union. Just 10 days later, the two sides agreed to end the war. Tigrayan leaders agreed to disarm their forces and allow federal troops to enter the regional capital of Mekelle. In return, the government promised to reconnect the region, which had no electricity, banking or internet services for the better part of two years.

He also suggested that the U.S. bore some historical responsibility for Ethiopia’s civil strife by remaining silent when abuses were carried out.

“For our part, the United States acknowledges human rights violations and repression committed during the past few decades, actions which sowed the seeds of future conflict,” he said, in an apparent reference to a period when Ethiopia was a major American counterterrorism partner. “We and others were insufficiently vocal about these abuses in the past.”

Ethiopian officials seemed keen to restore their good standing with Washington. Sharing a cup of Ethiopian coffee with Mr. Blinken for the cameras before a private meeting, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, noted that their two nations “have longstanding relations, and it is time to revitalize them and move forward.”

Mr. Blinken and Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen, in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Tiksa Negeri

Mr. Blinken later held a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Mr. Abiy, in which the men discussed the continued implementation of the November agreement, the need for humanitarian assistance to the conflict area and “the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties during the conflict,” according to a State Department summary of the meeting.

Mr. Blinken also announced $331 million in new U.S. humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia, which he said in a statement would support people displaced and affected by conflict, drought and food insecurity.

American reporters were granted no access to Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Abiy.

Mr. Blinken’s trip, his third to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state, is part of a recent U.S. focus on Africa, a continent often neglected by Washington policymakers. In December, President Biden hosted a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen; the first lady, Jill Biden; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United Nations ambassador, have all paid visits to the continent this year. Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month.

Elizabeth Shackelford, formerly a U.S. diplomat to Africa and now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said that Mr. Blinken should be skeptical toward Mr. Abiy, whose heroic image as a 2019 Nobel Prize winner — for ending years of war with neighboring Eritrea — had been eclipsed by a ruinous civil war for which he bore much responsibility and during which his forces and allied troops from the neighboring country of Eritrea were accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

“My hope is that the war has changed our approach to the Ethiopian government and made us buy Abiy’s lines less readily,” Ms. Shackelford said.

But American fears of ceding more ground to strategic competitors in Africa, led by China and Russia, could increase pressure for a hasty normalization with Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, she added.

A World Food Program convoy on the way to Tigray, Ethiopia, in June.Credit…Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in a briefing for reporters last week that the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia could not quickly revert to “normal” given the “earth-shattering” civil war.

“So what we’re looking to do is refashion our engagement with Ethiopia,” she said, adding that Mr. Abiy’s government must “help break the cycle of ethnic political violence” that has plagued the nation for decades.

But whether Mr. Abiy can deliver on stability is unclear, given the plethora of conflicts he faces in several parts of the country.

Human rights groups said it was important that Mr. Blinken pursue accountability for human rights abuses during the conflict by Mr. Abiy’s government, as well as those committed by Tigrayan and Eritrean fighters.

“Secretary Blinken’s trip will miss a crucial opportunity if he does not put human rights at the heart of his conversation with Prime Minister Abiy," Kate Hixon, advocacy director for Africa at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement before his visit. Ms. Hixon said the government was blocking access to the country by human rights monitors.

Mr. Blinken visiting a United Nations logistics warehouse in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by Tiksa Negeri

One central question for Mr. Abiy’s government is whether the U.S. might agree to reinstate Ethiopia’s participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free trade access to the U.S. market. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office suspended Ethiopia’s participation in January 2022 over atrocities in the civil war.

The suspension dealt a blow to the country’s manufacturing sector, which was among the fastest-growing economies in Africa when Mr. Abiy assumed power in 2018. But Ethiopia has suffered spiraling economic damage since the Covid-19 pandemic began and high inflation caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Blinken was noncommittal on that question, saying that America’s ability to move forward its “economic engagement” with Ethiopia would depend on continued reduction in hostilities and “making sure there are no ongoing violations of human rights.”

The civil war in the Tigray region also disrupted the region’s economy, deterring investors concerned about human rights abuses, said William Davison, the senior Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

In that climate, perhaps even more important to Ethiopia than trade preferences would be a potential loan from the International Monetary Fund, which would allow the country to restructure its mammoth debt but which would only happen with the Biden administration’s support.

Mr. Blinken plans to travel on Friday to the West African nation of Niger, which lies in the center of a region where Russia has made substantial inroads in recent years, mostly led by fighters from the Wagner mercenary group. U.S. officials said Mr. Blinken’s visit to the country would be the first by a sitting secretary of state.

Michael Crowley reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Declan Walshfrom Nairobi, Kenya. Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi.