It’s an ordinary Wednesday. The main campus of Addis Ababa University is carrying on with business as usual, with all of the customary activities taking place. The gate keepers are inspecting the IDs of students and visitors to campus in the same way they always do. For passers-by or anyone on campus, it appears to be any other day, with no indication that the college is to host US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
There was not a heavy security presence, unlike the trend observed in previous similar situations. Even officers from the Federal Police Commission were on campus just an hour before the event, and Blinken security officials began a security check-up 30 minutes before the press briefing. Journalists appear dissatisfied, given that the press conference was three hours late. Almost at 8pm, the long-awaited press conference began.
Blinken began the news conference by reiterating President Biden’s pledge made at the US-Africa Leaders Summit late last year. “The United States is “all in on Africa, and all in with Africa,” said the US Secretary of State Blinken, who permitted only a few journalists to ask questions in advance without giving everyone an equal chance to debate him, a move that frustrated journalists in attendance and even led to criticism that how can a country that promotes free press bar the press from asking questions?
“Prime Minister Abiy and the Ethiopian federal government and Tigrayan regional leaders should be commended for reaching this agreement and the significant progress in delivering on their commitments,” said Blinken, adding, “These efforts have created the foundation to rebuild the communities that have suffered so in Tigray, Amhara, and the Afar regions. They need the help and support.”
For the past two years, the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia has been strained. Even though the conflict in North Ethiopia began during the presidency of Donald Trump, it escalated during the tenure of Joe Biden, who has been asking all warring parties to lay down their arms and accusing the Ethiopian government of using food as a weapon of war and committing human rights violations against civilians. It even resulted in Ethiopia’s suspension from the African Growth Opportunity Act trade privileges and the sanction of military officers involved in the war.
“As the fighting has stopped, human rights violations declined. Humanitarian assistance is flowing, finally reaching nearly all communities in need, services are being restored in the Tigray Region, the TPLF is disarming, Eritrean and other non-federal forces are departing,” said Biden, as he unveiled his meeting with the signatories to the agreement – the heads of delegation of the Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF – to underscore support for peace as well as the dividends it can yield.
The US is now attempting to repair relations with Ethiopia, having welcomed the peace gained as a result of the two subsequent agreements struck in Pretoria and Nairobi. “As the process of implementing the peace agreement moves forward, we want to move forward in continuing to strengthen the relationship with Ethiopia in all areas but particularly when it comes to economic development,” said Blinken.
Nevertheless, the process of re-engagement is not as straightforward as it may appear on the surface. For instance, on the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, which aims to bring those responsible for grave violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law to justice, the United States and Ethiopia are on opposite ends. Blinken said: “going forward, what’s very important is the commitment that exists to a process of transitional justice, and that includes both reconciliation and accountability.”
Although the Ethiopian government recognizes the significance of transitional justice for the country’s long-term peace, it intends to end the UN experts’ mandate. The federal government has repeatedly stressed that granting its mandate to be extended would jeopardize the peace progress that has thus far been achieved. During the African Union’s annual summit a few weeks ago, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Demeke Mekonen, urged the African Union and its members to support Ethiopia’s efforts to terminate its mandate.
“Ethiopia has prepared a resolution for the Council’s consideration on terminating the Commission’s mandate. This resolution will be presented at the Council’s upcoming session,” stated Demeke. “Ethiopia calls on this August body to endorse our resolution and assist us in terminating this unwarranted mandate.”
Rights organizations, including Amnesty International, rejected his calls. Blinken has already alluded to the significance of the post-conflict period for his country’s reengagement with Ethiopia.
“With regard to our own engagement and assistance as the work continues, as this process of implementing the agreement continues, to include making sure that there are no ongoing, proceeding violations of human rights, to include making sure that the transitional justice process is stood up and moving forward in an inclusive and credible way, then our own ability to continue to move forward on our engagement with Ethiopia – to include economic engagement – will also move forward,” he underscored.
Blinken did, however, make one major break from the past, particularly in relation to the conflict in North Ethiopia.
“For our part, the United States acknowledges the human rights violations and repression committed during the past three decades – actions which sowed the seeds of future conflict,” remarked the Secretary of State, conceding that the US and others (perhaps referring to allies) had been insufficiently vocal about those atrocities in the past.