March 17, 2022

Menendez Presses Biden Administration on Genocide Determination for Conflict in Ethiopia

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today called on President Joe Biden to assess whether parties to the conflict in Ethiopia are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Citing evidence and reports of extra-judicial killings, massacres, sexual and gender-based violence, forced displacement and continued efforts to block humanitarian aid from reaching civilians, Chairman Menendez reinforced the need for the Department of State to make a long-overdue determination about this systematic campaign of destruction.

“I continue to assert that Ethiopian officials have committed genocide in Tigray and I strongly urge the administration to make its own assessment as soon as possible,” wrote Chairman Menendez, mentioning previous commitments he received from Biden administration officials to determine whether the legal standard had been met in the course of the conflict in Ethiopia. “It appears that the Department of State decided not to pursue this question so as to avoid stating publicly what we have all witnessed: the atrocities that have taken place in Ethiopia bear the hallmarks of war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Recognizing President Biden’s initial efforts to respond to the crisis, including his decision to impose visa restrictions, pause some U.S. assistance, and issue an Executive Order to hold accountable those responsible for prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia, Chairman Menendez also called on the administration to take additional steps to increase the diplomatic pressure, including deciding whether Prime Minister Abiy should be invited to participate in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit slated for later this year.

“We have strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea Corridor more broadly. A strong and enduring partnership with Ethiopia would help us pursue those interests,” Chairman Menendez added. “However, the pursuit of our strategic interests at the expense of the Ethiopian people and a clear statement of fact flies in the face of core American values, and is ultimately unsustainable. Accountability for atrocities must be pursued, regardless of how high ranking those responsible may be. I stand ready to partner with you on this and other matters related to the region.”

Chairman Menendez has been a leading voice in calling attention to the carnage in Tigray. In May of last year, Menendez convened a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the United States’ strategy and policy response to the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. He was also 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. 

Find a copy of the letter HERE and below.

Dear President Biden:

I write with grave concern about ongoing conflict in Ethiopia.  I continue to assert that Ethiopian officials have committed genocide in Tigray and I strongly urge the administration to make its own assessment as soon as possible.

You responded to the crisis early in your administration, including by dispatching Senator Chris Coons as your Special Representative to engage with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and appointing a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa to sustain diplomatic efforts.  Your administration also announced visa restrictions, a pause in some assistance, and in September of last year you issued an Executive Order putting in place a framework for sanctioning those responsible for, or complicit in, various activities prolonging the conflict in Ethiopia.  All of these actions have had an impact.  After months of negotiations, hundreds of American citizens trapped in Tigray have been given safe passage to the United States.  Prominent opposition figures have been released from prison. The Ethiopian federal government’s State of Emergency has been lifted, and thousands of the Tigrayans rounded up during the State of Emergency have been freed from detention. 

However much more work remains to be done.  

As United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power pointed out last week, the Government of Ethiopia continues its humanitarian blockade of Tigray.  Thousands of political opponents of the regime remain in prison, seemingly for no reason other than expressing support for opposition political parties, along with those who were detained during the State of Emergency and are slated to be charged and prosecuted.  And reports of conflict and abuse continue in northern Ethiopia and beyond.  On Monday, Reuters reported on a video that surfaced on social media showing men—some of whom were wearing Ethiopian military uniforms-- burning civilians to death in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. 

It is clear that all parties to the conflict have committed abuses.  Just over a week ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that from late November 2021 to the end of February of this year, the human rights and security situation in the country significantly deteriorated significantly.  More than 300 people were killed in air strikes, carried out by the federal government in Tigray.  Tigrayan forces in the Amhara region stand accused of 300 incidents of rape.  Many more incidents have occurred during the course of hostilities that the OHCHR has pointed out may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. 

At a hearing I convened in May of last year, I asked if the administration had determined whether war crimes or crimes against humanity had taken place in Tigray. I was assured that the State Department was “acutely aware of the need to determine whether the conduct meets the legal standards for atrocity crimes.”  However, nearly a year later State Department officials have indicated that it is no longer working on such a determination. It appears that the Department of State decided not to pursue this question so as to avoid stating publicly what we have all witnessed: the atrocities that have taken place in Ethiopia bear the hallmarks of war crimes or crimes against humanity.  I believe that the actions taken by the Ethiopian federal government amount to genocide, and I urge you direct the Secretary of State to assess whether war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide have taken place.  I also ask that you carefully consider whether Prime Minister Abiy should be invited to participate in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that you announced for later this year, even absent such a determination.            

We have strategic interests in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea Corridor more broadly.  A strong and enduring partnership with Ethiopia would help us pursue those interests.  However, the pursuit of our strategic interests at the expense of the Ethiopian people and a clear statement of fact flies in the face of core American values, and is ultimately unsustainable. Accountability for atrocities must be pursued, regardless of how high ranking those responsible may be. I stand ready to partner with you on this and other matters related to the region. 

Sincerely,

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Press Contact

Juan Pachon