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Blinken looks to restore ties in Ethiopia without glossing over war crimes

The top U.S. diplomat’s visit to East Africa grappled with the tension at the core of his pledge to put human rights at the ‘center of U.S. foreign policy’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. (Tiksa Negeri/Pool/Reuters/AP)
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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a visit to Ethiopia on Thursday seeking to restore relations with one of Washington’s most important partners in Africa without appearing to give it a pass for the atrocities that took place during a devastating two-year civil war.

The delicate balancing act embodied the tension at the core of President Biden’s pledge to put human rights at the “center” of U.S. foreign policy while also nurturing strategic partnerships that serve Washington’s economic and security interests and blunt China’s growing influence.

Blinken praised Ethiopia on Thursday for making progress on implementing a November peace deal that ended hostilities between Ethiopia’s central government and Tigrayan rebels in the north, calling the agreement “a major achievement and step forward, saving lives and changing lives.”

Hundreds massacred in Ethiopia even as peace deal was being reached

At the same time, he stopped short of restoring Ethiopia’s access to a U.S. trade program that has paid dividends to the country’s textile sector but was suspended last year over atrocities committed in the war.

“Certainly we share the aspiration of Ethiopia returning to AGOA,” said Blinken, referring to the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act. “It’s moving in the right direction.”

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most-populous nation and a frequent contributor to international peacekeeping. For years, it has been a key ally of the United States in East Africa, seen as a bulwark in a region afflicted by civil war and Islamist extremism.

But relations with the United States plunged during the civil war as the Biden administration condemned alleged atrocities at the hands of Ethiopian forces and their allies in Eritrea. Ethiopia responded to the criticisms by accusing Washington of interfering in its affairs and abandoning a key partner in its time of need.

The conflict in northern Ethiopia is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. All parties in the conflict have been accused of atrocities, although the bulk of the accusations are directed against forces from neighboring Eritrea, which entered the war in support of Ethiopia’s government. Residents, rights groups and journalists have documented frequent mass killings of civilians, systematic gang rapes and sexual slavery by Eritrean soldiers.

In his meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Blinken stressed “the importance of accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties during the conflict,” the State Department said. He also met with Tigrayan leaders and humanitarian workers grappling with the aftermath of the bloody conflict.

Blinken probably used his meeting with Abiy, which lasted about two and a half hours, to determine how quickly the United States should move forward in shoring up the relationship with Ethiopia, analysts said, a decision that has divided parts of the State Department.

“There is great pressure from within the department, particularly the Africa Bureau, to reset relations with Ethiopia by acknowledging progress made toward lasting peace by unlocking incentives around assistance,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “However, the aid and human rights communities question whether enough has truly been done to unlock that assistance.”

“Blinken will have to break the deadlock between those camps,” he added.

Blinken to visit Ethiopia as progress under Tigray peace deal slows

While calling for greater accountability in Ethiopia, Blinken also conceded that the United States failed in calling out atrocities when Ethiopia was led by a Tigrayan-dominated government, which ruled with an increasingly iron fist for nearly 30 years until 2018, when Abiy came to power.

“We and others were insufficiently vocal about these abuses in the past,” Blinken said.

When it comes to the implementation of the peace deal, Ethiopia is at a critical crossroads, but the central government and Tigrayan authorities have an incentive for the agreement to work, analysts say.

Ethiopia wants to restructure its looming foreign debt and to redeploy federal troops to contain a spreading insurgency in Oromiya, its most populous province and the political heartland for Abiy. Ethnically motivated attacks along the border between Oromiya and the neighboring Amhara region have cost thousands of civilian lives. The United Nations says more than half a million people have fled conflict in Oromiya and taken refuge in Amhara.

Tigrayan authorities desperately need a budget from the federal government to rebuild destroyed schools and clinics and pay civil servants. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front remains listed as a terrorist organization; many of its leaders are in prison, and the assets of others have been frozen.

About 17,000 Tigrayan soldiers from the federal army are stuck in prison camps, despite not participating in the war. Tigray is also suffering from severe shortages of cash, forcing commercial banks to limit consumers to taking out $30 per person last week, causing lines to stretch around the block in the regional capital.

Gen. Tsadkan Gebretensae, a widely respected former chief of army staff who broke with the TPLF two decades ago but came back to the region to help lead the fighting, said justice was important, but saving lives had to take priority.

“The crimes committed by the Ethiopian government are huge, and we have a strong interest that justice be served,” he said. “But if we make this the primary agenda, it could be a dealbreaker. It could distract us from saving lives now — people still need food, medicine and a budget. Let’s not add to the crimes that have already been committed.”

One of the key problems impeding progress has been the TPLF’s inability to form an interim government. Abiy wants the current head, Debretsion Gebremichael, to step down, but Debretsion still enjoys support from senior party leaders on the executive committee — except from Getachew Reda, an affable former law professor and party spokesman. He said all the top TPLF leadership, including himself, should resign.

“It is obvious we have failed our people miserably, and it is time to step down,” he said. “We have to take responsibility.”

Blinken’s two-country swing through Africa includes a stop in the West African nation of Niger, a close security partner that has been grappling with a growing Islamist insurgency. Blinken will be the first secretary of state to visit the country.