A senior US official says that the State Department is conducting a legal review into whether Ethiopian and Eritrean actions in Tigray amount to genocide.
The House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that would require Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to determine whether the humanitarian crisis in Tigray amounts to genocide but the senior administration official indicated that the State Department has already initiated the review.
The US legal code defines genocide as “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. President Joe Biden signed a broad executive order last week paving the way for sanctions on actors responsible for human rights violations in the Tigray civil war.
The Biden administration has said that it would enact those sanctions on the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments as well as the Amhara Regional Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front within a matter of weeks unless the parties agree to a ceasefire.
The US last month sanctioned the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces Filipos Woldeyohannes. The Biden administration has repeatedly called on Eritrean forces to withdraw from Tigray.
Although Ethiopia has maintained an internet, phone and media blackout in Tigray, witnesses have described widespread human rights abuses, including the displacement and murder of civilians, gang rape, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the burning of crops.
An Amnesty International Report released last month found that Ethiopian forces and their allies “subjected hundreds of women and girls to sexual violence”, war crimes that may also amount to crimes against humanity.
Fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have also retaliated with their own abuses during raids on villages in Amhara including a massacre this month that killed 120 people.
The conflict broke out last year when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military offensive against Tigray with the backing of Eritrean forces and Amhara militias.
Ethiopia is also embroiled in a border dispute over the fertile Al Fashaga border with Sudan and a tense diplomatic standoff with Khartum and Cairo over the grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Sudan and Egypt say the dam would inhibit their fair share of access to Nile water
The White House announced on Friday that it had invited Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to meet Mr Biden in Washington “in the near future” following failed coup against the Sudanese Transitional Government this week.
In the meantime, Mr Biden’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman will visit Sudan as part of his trip to the region next week.
But the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is unlikely to be a priority for Mr Feltman, as the senior administration official said that Washington is largely deferring to African Union-led negotiations on the issue going forward.
This is a regional issue, which, combined with the situation in northern Ethiopia and the Al Fashaga border, could further destabilise an already fragile region in the Horn of Africa.
The senior administrator also echoed that their interest is in a prosperous, stable and peaceful Horn of Africa, and do not want to insert ourselves into a process where they are seen as supporting one side or the other to perhaps the detriment or the benefit of any party.
Egypt asked former president Donald Trump to intervene in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue and enable negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan. Mr Trump personally left the effort in the hands of Steve Mnuchin, an unusual choice to lead a major diplomatic initiative given his status as treasury secretary at the time.
Conversely, Mr Feltman has largely limited his role in the dam dispute, seeming to prefer Africa Union Led negotiations on the subject to continue.
As a diplomatic community, Africa Union will be requested to give that support to the process, the AU-led process, to revitalise the negotiations on this and the U.S as well will give that support to that process.