The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is calling on the Biden administration to enact sanctions in response to the ongoing human rights abuses in the Tigray region of Ethiopia after a CNN investigation found that Eritrean soldiers were blocking critical humanitarian aid to starving and wounded civilians.
In an investigation published Wednesday, a CNN team witnessed soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, some disguising themselves in old Ethiopian military uniforms, manning checkpoints in war-torn Tigray, obstructing and occupying critical aid routes, and roaming the halls of one of the region’s few operating hospitals and threatening medical staff.
Following the publication of CNN’s investigation, the United Nations confirmed Wednesday that the “blockades by military forces” had severely impeded the ability for assistance to reach rural areas where the humanitarian crisis is worst.
GOP Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas told CNN on Thursday that “there have been ample, credible reports from human rights groups and journalists on the continuing presence of Eritrean troops, and reports that have implicated them, and other armed actors, in human rights abuses, rape and other atrocities.
“It is clear that the Government of Ethiopia and the Government of Eritrea have not upheld their public commitment to withdraw Eritrean forces out of Tigray. Now we have this on-camera evidence from CNN.”
McCaul and Rep. Gregory Meeks, the New York Democrat who’s chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have been leading a continued push for the Biden administration to “urgently use all available tools, including sanctions and other restrictive measures, to hold all perpetrators accountable and bring an end to this conflict.”
CNN has reached out to the US State Department for comment.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military operation in November against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. CNN has investigated some of the reports of atrocities emerging from the region, including mass killings and widespread sexual violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. The months-long conflict, which could potentially destabilize the wider Horn of Africa region, bears the hallmarks of genocide.
“My question is – what is the holdup? It’s been six months since the conflict started. The atrocities are continuing and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate,” McCaul told CNN Thursday.
He argued that the “Biden administration needs to take action now to demonstrate we are serious when we demand accountability for atrocities.
“The status quo cannot continue in Ethiopia. Countless lives are at stake.”
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Ethiopian regional forces from the Tigray region, unfettered humanitarian access and an independent investigation into the human rights abuses being committed.
He has spoken several times with Abiy about the crisis, most recently last month to press Ethiopia and Eritrea to make good on commitments to withdraw Eritrean troops “immediately, in full and in a verifiable manner.”
During his phone call with Abiy on April 26, Blinken noted that “Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces in Tigray are contributing to the growing humanitarian disaster and committing human rights abuses,” according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Despite the pressure from the Biden administration, there have been no signs that Eritrean forces plan to leave the Tigray region anytime soon.
Meeks and McCaul wrote to Blinken in March, urging the administration to use its authorities under the Global Magnitsky Act and “impose targeted sanctions swiftly.”
In a joint statement Monday, the two lawmakers said they are “deeply concerned by the failure” of Ethiopia and Eritrea to “honor their public commitments to withdraw Eritrean forces from Ethiopia.”
“The continued presence of Eritrean forces, who have been credibly implicated in gross violations of human rights in Tigray, is a major impediment to resolving this conflict,” they said.
The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights is set to hold a hearing at the end of the month on the “impact of sanctions” in Africa.
Amid the humanitarian crisis, the State Department dispatched its special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeff Feltman, to the region this month. Feltman traveled to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan in early May, meeting with government officials, the UN and the African Union. He is scheduled to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors next week.
The US has sent millions in additional funds to Tigray to assist in responding to the humanitarian crisis and has deployed a US Agency for International Development disaster assistance response team to the region.
The US ambassador to Ethiopia, members of the embassy team and one of President Joe Biden’s key congressional allies, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, visited the region in March.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month, the Delaware senator said he met with Abiy for five hours over the course of two days during his trip to Tigray and delivered a letter from Biden directly to the Prime Minister.
According to Coons, Abiy committed to humanitarian access, an investigation into the human rights violations, and the withdrawal of Eritrean troops.
“There was progress made on all of these fronts, but there is still more that has to be done. The Prime Minister made some important commitments. I’m going to be working closely with the Biden administration to make sure that those commitments are followed up on,” Coons said.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Nima Elbagir, Barbara Arvanitidis and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.