Biden Administration Plans Visa Restrictions on Ethiopian Officials Over Tigray

Biden Administration Plans Visa Restrictions on Ethiopian Officials Over Tigray

Imposing visa restrictions on officials signals the start of a major U.S. policy shift.

TOPSHOT – Ethiopian refugees gather to celebrate the 46th anniversary of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front at Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan, on February 19, 2021. – In remote eastern Sudan, refugee activists are keeping the flame burning for the former rebels who dominated Ethiopian politics before being ousted from their regional stronghold of Tigray last year. (Photo by Hussein Ery / AFP) (Photo by HUSSEIN ERY/AFP via Getty Images)

May 21, 2021 (Foreign Policy) — 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.

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