U.S. Restrictions On Ethiopia And Eritrea Aim To Boost Pressure As Conflict Continues

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. is imposing new restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean government officials. This comes as a six-month-long conflict in northern Ethiopia intensifies. Thousands have already died in the fighting there, and there are reports of possible war crimes committed by all sides, as civilians and their homes and property are targeted by armed forces. Here with more on all of this is Michelle Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome.

MICHELLE GAVIN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So what exactly are these new restrictions the administration has put in place?

GAVIN: So Secretary Blinken just announced a visa restriction policy, so essentially a visa ban. A list of names will be drawn up, or has already been drawn up, of individuals responsible - you know, in the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments responsible for the crisis. And they will be denied entry to the U.S. as their immediate family members may also be denied entry.

CHANG: OK. Well, now the Biden administration - I mean, it has previously expressed concerns about this conflict. It has put pressure on Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, to diffuse it. Why is the U.S. taking this additional step now in particular?

GAVIN: Because the statements and the diplomatic overtures thus far aren't working - the conflict persists. The presence of Eritrean troops in Ethiopian territory persists, despite Prime Minister Abiy's commitment that the Eritrean troops would leave, and the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. So there's a real concern about famine in Tigray, and the issues of humanitarian access that the international community has been working on for months remain unresolved.

CHANG: But ultimately, do restrictions like this - limiting visas and so forth - do they actually get results?

GAVIN: It's a mixed bag. These kinds of targeted sanctions, in some cases, have seemed to influence behavior, particularly if it's not just the United States but becomes a multilateral effort to isolate certain officials and make - help a government feel that kind of international pressure. In other cases, these sorts of restrictions have done very little. You know, certainly in the case of Eritrea, they have weathered much tougher sanction regimes for quite a long time in the past.

CHANG: Mmm hmm.

GAVIN: Eritrea - Ethiopia may be more sensitive to reputational risk.

CHANG: Well, if these new restrictions don't work, what else can the Biden administration do, you think?

GAVIN: Well, you know, I think it's quite telling that in the statement announcing these, Secretary Blinken did call on other governments to join the U.S. So I would say that the immediate step would be to try and make this action more of a multilateral one to the degree possible. And then there's, you know, the issue of assistance. So the U.S. has already frozen some types of economic and security assistance to Ethiopia, but we could also use the U.S. voice and vote at the international financial institutions to apply pressure. So there are, you know, a range of steps...

CHANG: Yeah.

GAVIN: ...That can be taken.

CHANG: Well, in the 30 seconds or so that we have left, what do you see are the consequences if this fighting does not come to an end soon?

GAVIN: Well, it's devastating for the entire region, in addition to the human tragedy of people living in famine conditions, people who have been the victim of these kinds of atrocities. You know, the - Ethiopia is at risk of coming apart at the seams. Tigray is not the only conflict zone in the country. These - this crisis has already spilled over. There's a border conflict with Sudan.

CHANG: Yeah.

GAVIN: Obviously, Eritrea is implicated. It has implications for Somalia, so there's a strategically important part of the Horn...

CHANG: Right.

GAVIN: ...Of Africa that it depends on a stable Ethiopia.

CHANG: That is Michelle Gavin from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Thank you very much.

GAVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.