Washington, DC — U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on the U.S. strategy and policy response to the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Ethiopia is a vital and strategic security, economic, and regional partner, whose relationship did improve significantly with the United States under Prime Minister Abiy's government.
The historical political transition in 2018 that ushered Abiy into power was initially met with great optimism not just from the United States, but also the world.
The promise for Ethiopia's democratic transition is still possible, but recent events in both Ethiopia and the wider region, as well as global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shocks, have complicated Ethiopia's journey.
In particular, the ongoing war in Tigray, which began last November, has not just eroded U.S. optimism in Ethiopia's democratic future, but has instilled deep concerns that Ethiopia's economic and political transition is not for every Ethiopian.
This war and its aftershocks have exposed deep divisions in Ethiopian society and, worse, re-ignited possibilities of our greatest fears for this vital country anchoring the Horn of Africa region.
I am horrified by what we are witnessing in Tigray, a war that was initially termed by the Ethiopian government as a "law enforcement operation." This "operation" has displaced millions and left millions more in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
The war has inflamed intercommunal violence, seen mass killings, widespread use of rape as a weapon, targeted destruction of livelihoods, and other horrifying cases of human rights abuses. It has also caused a large displacement of persons which has led to a massive refugee flow primarily into Sudan.
This conflict has also impacted peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia, inflamed tensions on Ethiopia's borders, and forced regional states to "pick sides" not just regarding the Tigray war, but also the crisis over the filling of Ethiopia's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, also known as GERD.
The war in Tigray is a threat to not only the future of the Ethiopian state and the wider region, but also to the strategic economic and security interests of the United States. Increased instability on the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, further aggravates what is already a volatile region wracked with crises and countries undergoing fragile transitions. Such instability also undermines vital U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Countries like China, Russia, Turkey, and others in the Gulf are actively scrambling over access to resources and securing influence and power centers on the Horn of Africa and elsewhere on the continent of course.
At the end of the 116th Congress, I introduced a resolution with Senator Cardin calling for a peaceful resolution to the Tigray conflict. We reintroduced an updated version of the resolution this Congress which passed this committee in late March and moved unanimously out of the full Senate just last week.
While Ethiopia's transition faces significant challenges, passing this resolution sent an important bipartisan signal to Ethiopia, our allies, and our own government that the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, the cessation of hostilities in Tigray, and getting Ethiopia back on track with its democratic transition are priorities for the United States Senate and the United States government.
Every day we learn of new details reflecting the true horror of violence occurring throughout Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has either dismissed such reports as false or provided assurances to our diplomats and officials that the situation is not as bad as it seems. Sometimes the government will even commit to conducting investigations and holding accountable anyone found to have committed a crime. That is a commitment only.
But we have seen this script before in places like Rwanda, Darfur, and Zimbabwe. Leaving matters of accountability up to one of the participants in this conflict will not stop the atrocities and suffering. The United States and its allies must continue to transition – and do so quickly – from a position of "hands-off" diplomacy, like encouragement, engagement, and talking to the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, to "hands-on" action.
Even though it took longer than I would have liked, I am pleased by this administration's recent actions to impose visa sanctions on those carrying out these atrocities and thwarting vital humanitarian assistance. I am also glad to see limits placed on foreign aid and using our voice and vote at multilateral financial institutions to send a clear message to the Ethiopian government that what is happening in their country is unacceptable.
I encourage the administration to continue exploring every option to end the war in Tigray, to continue building a coalition of like-minded allies to pursue justice and accountability, including Global Magnitsky sanctions, and to work with the Ethiopian people to help get their democratic transition back on track – starting with salvaging their upcoming general elections on June 25.
I look forward to a robust discussion of these issues. Thank you, Mr. Chairman."
These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.