Can Visa Restriction Stop Atrocities in Northern Ethiopia?

Radio Erena: 31 May 2021

On May 23, the U.S. Department of State announced a visa restriction on “any current or former Ethiopian or Eritrean government officials, members of the security forces, or other individuals—to include Amhara regional and irregular forces and members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray.”

The visa restriction came on the eve of the 30th Independence Day celebrations in Asmara. Unsurprisingly, President Afwerki’s speech on the occasion didn’t refer to the recent decision by name, but he broadly highlighted, as usual, the conspiracies against the nation and the hurdles in her path toward development and progress. In a reaction implicitly belittling the impacts of the decision, the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the American decision as “exceeding minimal bounds of civility and propriety.”

Once more, both the President and the press release point to the attack of November 4, by the TPLF on the Northern Ethiopian Army Command as the event that unleashed the present conflict. Such premise, though finely weaved, is misleading. Obviously, all agree that the attack by the TPLF troops ignited the armed conflict to its darkest possibilities.

However, the war has already been raging on between Asmara and Addis Ababa axis on one side, and Makkale on the other long before the start of the military confrontations. The suspicious visit of Afwerki to Addis Ababa in October last year, shortly before the attack- at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic- had put, according to confirmed sources, the final touches to move the conflict from legal and political grounds to a large-scale armed conflict. The short-sighted TPLF leadership fell for the ruse when it reacted violently to the attempts of the allies to corner it. The TPLF leadership has not wisely considered the impact of the war on its people. Greater self-restraint was needed to evade the war; but to no avail, the trap had been perfectly set and the TPLF blindly went into it.
The TPLF leadership is not a blameless victim; it showed poor political judgment in dealing with the course of events, hence, it had to suffer the consequences. What was absent from TPLF calculations that its archenemies would not spare the innocent civilians the punishment in their spiteful retaliation.

The protracted nature of the conflict raises many questions. However, the relevant one is: will this visa restriction really ‘punish those who are responsible or complicit in undermining the resolution of the conflict?

The Eritrean officials, particularly, the security strategists and policy executors do rarely travel abroad. They don’t take the risk of traveling to any country in which they may be in danger. Even when they do; they make quite sure that they are fully protected. The United States and Canada are not, since the mid-1990s, preferable destinations for top Eritrean security officials.

All in all, the impact on Eritrean officials will be minimal or literally non-existent. Ethiopian officials, on the other hand, might be affected by the decision. Yet Addis Ababa will know how to dodge the decision by limiting the travel of officials who may be targeted by the American visa restriction. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the restriction was strongly worded. It flatly objected to Washington telling Addis Ababa how to “run and manage its internal affairs.” As it said. It went further to threaten that it may be forced to ‘reassess’ its relations with Washington.

Ethiopia knows that she is an indispensable partner in the American battle against ‘terrorism’, therefore, threatening to pull out of the battle will force the Department of State and White House to reconsider their pressure on Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian protest paid off this time. President Biden came to the fore to declare that he will send his Special Envoy to the region next week to discuss issues related to the conflict, in addition to the Nile Dam impasse.

Grave human rights violations in this raging conflict can’t be addressed with visa restriction as if the United States is a place that such officials can’t live without visiting. Visa restriction and presumed threats of freezing of assets are the least worries for Eritrean officials. In contrast, the trauma caused by the conflict is horrifying, especially among the Eritrean refugees, who became the targets of all the parties of the conflict at the same time.

Hindering the peaceful resolution of the conflict, committing atrocities, or obstructing the passage of humanitarian aid, all these actions need political and ‘legal’ not ‘immigrational’ handling. Only independent, transparent and collective legal investigations are the right steps toward redressing the grave human rights situation. Diplomatically, the U.S. and the international community, throughout incessant concerted pressure, can ensure an immediate, verifiable withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara militia from Tigray. The recent visa restriction decision amounts to prescribing Aspirin to a cancer patient. In this case, slackness kills not the medicine.

Collective and prudent efforts are urgently needed to contain the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict and to avoid a flare-up of fresh regional confrontations.

By Fathi Osman