The Biden administration has quietly informed Congress that as far as it is concerned, Ethiopia is no longer engaging in a “pattern of gross violations of human rights,” lifting a legal designation that will pave the way to resume the dispatch of U.S. and international economic aid to the East African country, according to an internal U.S. Treasury Department notification and officials familiar with the matter.
The move comes as Washington looks to revamp its relationship with Ethiopia, one of the largest economies in East Africa, after the country emerged last year from a brutal civil war that is considered to be the bloodiest conflict of the 21st century.
The decision appears to contradict reports of continued human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing campaigns in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, potentially undermining the Biden administration’s pledge to elevate human rights to the top of its foreign-policy agenda.
Still, the newest move by the Biden administration to lift the designation showcases how eager it is to strengthen ties with Ethiopia, which it views as an anchor for U.S. engagement on the continent and a crucial player in African security and development initiatives. Ethiopia is a leading contributor of troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations and is host to the African Union. More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden praised the Ethiopian government for its role in helping to support the rapid evacuation of U.S. diplomats and citizens from Sudan as the country plunged into conflict.
The Treasury Department this week notified Congress that “based on a recent assessment of the State Department, has determined that Ethiopia no longer is engaging in a pattern of gross violations of human rights,” according to a copy of the congressional notification viewed by Foreign Policy.
The notification comes on the heels of a major international aid scandal in Ethiopia. This month, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would suspend all food aid to Ethiopia after it discovered “widespread and coordinated” theft of vital aid for millions of people still afflicted by the fallout from the war and at risk of famine. The massive theft scheme implicated members of Ethiopia’s federal and regional governments, according to the Washington Post. The State Department said this month that it welcomed a commitment from the Ethiopian government to help investigate the aid scheme.
In June, Human Rights Watch released a report that found that authorities in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone had “continued an ethnic cleansing campaign against Tigrayans” despite the truce formally ending the war in November 2022. The report documented allegations of torture, arbitrary detentions, and forced expulsions by Ethiopian authorities in Western Tigray.
With the Biden administration’s new notification that gross human rights violations are no longer occurring in Ethiopia, Washington can begin turning back on the taps of direct U.S. economic assistance to Addis Ababa and also unblock major International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs to help Ethiopia’s shaky economy by potentially covering gaps in government funding and reworking its ballooning government debt.
Under Section 701 of the 1977 International Financial Institutions Act, U.S. executive directors at international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the IMF and multilateral development banks, are instructed to oppose loans or financial assistance to countries engaged in human rights violations. “Treasury will stop instructing the relevant U.S. Executive Directors at the IFIs to oppose any loan, any extension of financial assistance, or any technical assistance to Ethiopia,” the new notification to Congress reads.
The Treasury Department declined to comment.
“While there continue to be human rights concerns, the human rights situation in northern Ethiopia has significantly improved since the cessation of hostilities,” a State Department spokesperson said in response. “In light of these developments, the Department of State is no longer applying restrictions on certain assistance to the government of Ethiopia.”
Without political reform, economic stability, and accountability, there is a risk conflict could resume.
“Even prior to the lifting of restrictions, the United States remained committed to assisting Ethiopians, providing more than $1.55 billion in humanitarian assistance in FY 2022 alone,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Much of our long-term development assistance in the areas of health, food security and education that benefit the people of Ethiopia continued over the last several years.”
Human rights groups have criticized the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict in Ethiopia, where by some counts the death toll stands at 600,000, compared with its robust response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has led to at least 354,000 casualties by U.S. assessments.
Human rights advocates point to the different sanction regimes imposed as a weather vane for how the conflicts are actually seen in Washington. While both conflicts were marked by widespread atrocities and alleged war crimes, the United States has imposed more than 3,100 sanctions just on Russian entities, while it imposed only six sanctions related to the war in Ethiopia—though all six of those sanctions targeted only officials and entities from neighboring Eritrea for its role in the conflict.
*Tigray People's Liberation Front fighters gather in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia's Tigray region.