May 27, 2021

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Committee Hearing on U.S. Strategy and Policy Response to Crisis in Ethiopia

“It has become abundantly clear that events on the ground call for a robust response from the U.S., the region, and the international community, one that conveys an unequivocal message: we will not tolerate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic violence.”

WASHINGTON  U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks at this morning’s full Committee hearing on the United States’ strategy and policy response to ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. Testifying before the Committee were the Honorable Robert F. Godec, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and Ms. Sarah Charles, Assistant to the Administrator, Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, United States Agency for International Development.

“Until recently, many of us were hopefully watching a country that appeared to be in the midst of a historic transition to democracy after years of authoritarian rule. Now a brutal war in Tigray, internationalized by Eritrea’s participation, violence and insecurity in other parts of the country, and rapidly closing political space have given rise to the possibility that Ethiopia is instead on a trajectory towards state collapse,” Chairman Menendez said. “It has become abundantly clear that events on the ground call for a robust response from the U.S., the region, and the international community, one that conveys an unequivocal message: we will not tolerate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic violence.”

“We have strategic interests in a partnership with Ethiopia, and its leaders will not be pleased by these actions,” Chairman Menendez added. “But the pursuit of our strategic interests at the expense of the Ethiopian people flies in the face of core American values, and is ultimately unsustainable.”

Earlier this week, Chairman Menendez was joined by Congressman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in writing a joint op-ed titled, “Ethiopia: The Biden administration must put its foot down” which was published in The Africa Report.

Below are Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered:

“Let me start by thanking today’s witnesses for testifying about the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. For decades, Ethiopia has been a key security partner for the U.S. in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea corridor — a region of tremendous strategic significance. New Jersey is also home to a proud Ethiopian diaspora community that remains actively engaged with current events.

Until recently, many of us were hopefully watching a country that appeared to be in the midst of a historic transition to democracy after years of authoritarian rule. Now a brutal war in Tigray, internationalized by Eritrea’s participation, violence and insecurity in other parts of the country, and rapidly closing political space have given rise to the possibility that Ethiopia is instead on a trajectory towards state collapse.

On Tigray, let me be blunt: I see echoes of Darfur. There are reports of extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, and forced displacement of Tigrayans. Armed actors have looted and destroyed health and education installations, and attacked refugee camps. CNN recently reported that armed actors are blocking food aid. Aid workers have been murdered. As a result, Tigray now appears to be on the brink of famine. All sides are guilty of abuses, but the fragmentary reporting we have indicates that Ethiopian, Eritrean, and allied militia have disproportionately been responsible for targeting civilians in a manner that is both reckless and sinister.

We appear to be witnessing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

While the conflict in Tigray is the most alarming and graphic illustration of insecurity and ethnic violence in Ethiopia, it is far from the only place in the country where civilians – including members of Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, Amhara and Oromo, and other communities – are being targeted and killed in significant numbers. 

A major force behind much of the unrest gripping the country is rapidly closing political space as a result of a failed democratic transition. The Prime Minister initiated laudable reforms early in his tenure; however momentum has shifted: his government has jailed opposition leaders and their supporters, and denied them due process; on his watch journalists have been intimidated and even killed; and dissent and free speech have been suppressed. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government has refused to pursue the kind of political dialogue that could lead to a political consensus about how a new Ethiopia should be governed.

In this environment, there is little hope that Ethiopia’s June 21st elections can credibly reflect the will of the people.                    

I applaud the Administration’s focus on this crisis. The appointment of Amb. Feltman as Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa sent an important signal – although we do need to have a broader conversation about special envoys in general – and I appreciate this effort thus far. But Prime Minister Abiy has met our diplomatic initiatives with stonewalling, broken promises and unfulfilled commitments. 

The government has failed to provide unfettered humanitarian access, secure the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, or commit to a political solution to the conflict. And throughout, it has engaged in misrepresentation and disinformation, including on the origins of the crisis in Tigray, the human rights and humanitarian situation on the ground, and the active involvement of foreign troops in the conflict.

It has become abundantly clear that events on the ground call for a robust response from the U.S., the region, and the international community, one that conveys an unequivocal message: we will not tolerate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic violence. 

We must pursue accountability no matter how high up the chain of command responsibility lies. I support the Administration’s announcement of visa sanctions, and a pause in some assistance. We should also impose targeted financial sanctions on individuals perpetuating conflict, use our voice and vote at international financial institutions to oppose all funding that does not directly support the basic needs of the Ethiopian people, and ensure that Ethiopian troops currently operating in Tigray who may be implicated in war crimes are not deployed as UN peacekeepers. In addition, the Administration should begin marshaling international support for arms embargoes so that the weapons of war fueling this disastrous crisis can be taken off the table.

We have strategic interests in partnership with Ethiopia, and its leaders will not be pleased by these actions. But the pursuit of our strategic interests at the expense of the Ethiopian people flies in the face of core American values, and is ultimately unsustainable.

With that let me turn to the distinguished Ranking Member, Senator Risch, for his opening statements.”

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