U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is planning to target Ethiopian and Eritrean officials with visa restrictions in an opening diplomatic salvo against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government over atrocities committed in the country’s Tigray conflict, U.S. officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter tell Foreign Policy.
The visa restrictions represent a potential turning point in U.S.-Ethiopian relations, which have steadily soured since a conflict erupted in the northern Tigray region of the country last November. The conflict has sparked widespread reports of atrocities, possible mass violence along ethnic lines, and war crimes committed against civilian populations by forces in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea.
The Biden administration has grown increasingly frustrated with Abiy’s response to the crisis after months of high-level diplomatic talks. The conflict began in November of last year when Ethiopian federal forces launched an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the country’s former ruling party, in response to a TPLF attack on an Ethiopian military base.
The Ethiopian government has dismissed criticism of its handling of the crisis and insisted soldiers who commit atrocities will be held to account. The United Nations has said that all sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes.
The visa restrictions are seen as a shot across the bow, signaling mounting U.S. frustrations with Abiy for his handling of the conflict and failure to address mounting international concerns over the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter said the Biden administration plans to further ratchet up pressure on Abiy in other ways, including upholding a halt on U.S. security assistance funding to Ethiopia and targeting World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs in the country. Officials said there are ongoing discussions about possibly leveling sanctions against Ethiopian or Eritrean officials complicit in Tigray atrocities, but no final decisions have been made.
The United States has long viewed Ethiopia as a critical partner in East Africa, but the visa sanctions could be the first sign of a strategic pivot away from Addis Ababa, said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat and intelligence official now at the Atlantic Council.
“This is a major strategic shift in the Horn of Africa, to go from an anchor state for U.S. interests to become a potential adversary to U.S. interests,” Hudson said. “That’s a strategic shift that we have not wanted to make, and that’s what recent U.S. diplomacy has been doing, to try and salvage something that is no longer salvageable.”
The conflict in Tigray has killed an estimated thousands of people and displaced some 1.7 million people across the region, sparking a humanitarian crisis that could have knock-on effects in fragile neighboring states such as Sudan. Tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan have spiked in recent months over a border dispute and a massive Ethiopian dam project on the Nile River, which both Sudan and Egypt say threatens their water supplies.
The expected U.S. announcement on visa restrictions comes ahead of pivotal elections in Ethiopia, set to be held on June 21 and seen as a major test of whether Abiy’s democratic reforms in the country will take root.
U.S. law prohibits publicly issuing personal information on travel visas, meaning any U.S. announcement likely won’t list the names of specific individuals targeted. Several experts speculated that the list could include a range of officials, from individual Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers to military field commanders to midlevel political figures in the country.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment, including questions on who will be targeted by the visa restrictions. The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During its first months in office, the Biden administration has held multiple high-level discussions with its Ethiopian counterparts, urging Abiy’s government to defuse the conflict, open access to international aid organizations to Tigray to address the humanitarian crisis, and remove Eritrean troops from the region. Biden dispatched a key Senate ally, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, to meet with Abiy in March. He later tapped a seasoned former U.S. and U.N. diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, as his special envoy for the Horn of Africa. Those engagements have yet to yield results, however, and a growing chorus of U.S. officials and lawmakers have voiced frustration over what they see as Abiy’s failure to de-escalate the crisis.
On Friday, the Ethiopian government announced it convicted three soldiers of rape and one of killing a civilian, the first public statement that members of its military were found guilty of committing crimes in Tigray. Over two dozen more soldiers stand trial on charges of rape and killing civilians, as Reuters reported.
Regional experts and U.S. lawmakers say the Tigray conflict underscores broader tensions between ethnic groups in Ethiopia and could portend wider instability in East Africa’s most populous country. Feltman previously told Foreign Policy that if the conflict spirals into other parts of the country, it could make Syria’s civil war look like “child’s play” in comparison.
“[T]he atrocities and humanitarian suffering in Tigray is one of many ethnic and political crises challenging Ethiopia and the broader region,” Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a written statement. “The United States should continue to press the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments to end hostilities in the Tigray region.”
The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray, a move that followed a CNN investigation revealing Eritrean troops disguised as Ethiopian military units blocking humanitarian aid deliveries to Tigray.
The resolution signals a hardening line in U.S. Congress, which controls U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid budgets and funding, toward Abiy’s government. Lawmakers are pressuring the Biden administration to act more quickly and forcefully in holding Ethiopian and Eritrean officials to account, including through sanctions.
“The escalation ladder needs to jump multiple rungs,” said one congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “What we need to do is, we need to move faster. People continue to die, rapes and other atrocities continue to happen, and there needs to be an acceleration at a much faster rate here.”