Via Teleconference — November 22, 2021
MODERATOR: Thank you, Operator. First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for joining us this afternoon for this on-background briefing with senior State Department officials who will discuss the situation in Ethiopia and ongoing efforts to encourage the departure of U.S. citizens from Ethiopia. Let me reiterate that this is, once again, an on-background briefing and the contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of our call.
For your information but not for reporting purposes, we'll go ahead and introduce our two briefers today. On line we have from the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Services, [Senior State Department Official One], and then we have from the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs [Senior State Department Official Two]. You will be able to refer to these two individuals as Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Two. Okay.
With that, I'd like to go ahead and turn it over at this point to [Senior State Department Official One] for some opening remarks. [Senior State Department Official One].
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Good afternoon. I'm here representing the Bureau of Consular Affairs again today to reiterate that we're urging U.S. citizens to leave Ethiopia now while commercial flight options are available. Our core message is: Do not wait until the situation gets worse to decide to leave; leave before things change. Department of State personnel go to great lengths to assist U.S. citizens in crisis as long as it is safe to do so. The U.S. embassy is unlikely to be able to assist U.S. citizens in Ethiopia with departure if commercial options become unavailable.
As we said in our alerts, which are sent via email to all U.S. citizens who have registered with us via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and are also posted to Embassy Addis Ababa's website, U.S. citizens wishing to depart Ethiopia currently have multiple options via commercial flights from Bole International Airport. U.S. citizens having difficulty securing a flight or who need assistance to return to the United States should please contact AddisACS@state.gov for guidance. The embassy can also provide a repatriation loan for U.S. citizens who cannot afford at this time to purchase a commercial ticket to the United States. If a U.S. citizen is delaying their departure because their non-U.S. citizen spouse or minor children do not have immigrant visas or U.S. passports, please, contact the embassy immediately. Similarly, if a non-U.S. citizen parent of a U.S. citizen minor does not have a valid U.S. visa or other document valid for entry to the United States, please, contact the embassy immediately. We can provide these services now, but we cannot predict when and if conditions might change. Again, now is the time to reach out to the embassy for departure assistance.
There are no plans to fly the U.S. military into Ethiopia to facilitate evacuations or replicate the contingency effort we recently undertook in Afghanistan, which was a unique situation for many reasons. There should be no expectation, particularly after we have issued so many warnings that advise departing immediately, that the U.S. will be able to facilitate evacuations via military or commercial aircraft in a non-permissive environment, including Ethiopia.
Again, we recommend that U.S. citizens in Ethiopia leave now while commercial flights are still available and while it is safe to do so. Contact the embassy now if you need assistance in leaving and encourage your family members and friends still in Ethiopia to do the same.
Thank you, and now over to my colleague.
SENIOR STATE DEPARMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Good afternoon. The United States Government remains very focused on the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Ethiopia. I am pleased we could hold another call today to ensure our messages to U.S. citizens continue to get out through as many channels as possible. That message remains, as you've heard from my colleague, for U.S. citizens to avail themselves of commercially available flight options and to depart Ethiopia now due to ongoing security concerns.
While we continue to issue security alerts and strongly encourage American citizens to leave in direct communications and through public messaging, let me please emphasize that our diplomatic engagement continues. Special Envoy Feltman just returned this morning from his eighth trip to the region, where he had productive meetings with the African Union as well as the Ethiopian Government, UN officials, and other international partners.
Our message and focus remains clear: an immediate cessation of hostilities without preconditions, access for all those in need regardless of ethnicity or geography to lifesaving humanitarian assistance, and an immediate end to human rights abuses and violations.
We welcome the leadership and diplomatic efforts by AU High Representative President Obasanjo towards these ends and urge the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front to seize the opportunity to negotiate a cessation of hostilities without preconditions and commit to unhindered humanitarian access. The administration continues to work with international partners to address the crisis in Ethiopia, including through action with the United Nations, the African Union, and other relevant partners and bodies. We have worked tirelessly to keep this crisis on the international agenda and promote a political resolution of the conflict.
MODERATOR: Okay, Operator, at this point, would you please go ahead and give the instructions for getting into the question queue?
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, you may press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. If you are using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, you may press 1 then 0 at this time.
MODERATOR: With that, let's go to the line of Daphne Psaledakis.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. If I could start off just by asking how many Americans are still in Ethiopia, and if you think that they are heeding your warnings to leave the country now. And then also on the humanitarian situation, if Tigrayans manage to (inaudible), is there any possibility that humanitarian aid would be moved into Tigray through Djibouti along that road? And if so, would that require a no-fly zone? Is that something that's being discussed?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. So on the number of American citizens - I know that this has come up before - this is not a number that I have authoritatively. Because U.S. citizens do not have to register with us. And so there is not a firm number that I'm able to provide you on that front.
In terms of heeding warnings, I know that U.S. citizens are coming to the U.S. embassy to apply for passports or reports of birth. So yes, I think that some are selecting to leave. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In regard to the humanitarian situation, we continue to encourage and welcome any action by the Government of Ethiopia and other parties that would allow lifesaving humanitarian assistance to reach all those in need in Tigray and across Ethiopia regardless of ethnicity. Moving trucks with relief supplies is just one step of the many that are necessary to help the millions of people who are in dire need. In addition, humanitarian organizations need to move fuel and cash in order to operate programs and distribute supplies once they get into Tigray and Amhara and other areas affected by the conflict.
The United States has repeatedly and urgently called for all parties to allow and facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and we are alarmed at the detention of UN and NGO staff and drivers, which is yet another obstruction to the delivery of humanitarian aid. Humanitarians must be allowed to do their work free from intimidation, harassment, and detention.
MODERATOR: Let's go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We can hear you, Jennifer.
QUESTION: Great, thank you. I was hoping to get your assessment of how the situation on the ground is now. Has it deteriorated since we were last briefed last week? And then I know there are no plans to undertake a large scale evacuation, but is the State Department working with the Defense Department on any further planning should that become necessary should commercial flights cease to become available? And are there any plans to close the U.S. embassy or pull more personnel out? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Maybe I can start and then my colleague can fill in. We continue to monitor the situation very closely on the ground as it develops, and we continue to encourage all parties to quickly move to negotiate a sustainable cessation of hostilities and to end the conflict.
With regard to the status of the U.S. embassy, just to recall, on November 4th the department ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees and family members, and that was due to armed conflict, civil unrest, and possible supply shortages. And - but the embassy remains open under the leadership of our ambassador and is prioritizing emergency consular services, particularly for U.S. citizens.
Over to my colleague.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. Yes, so in terms of planning for a NEO, as I said during my topper, the U.S. public - because of the messaging we've done continuously and because commercial flights remain available, there should be absolutely no expectation of the military becoming involved. We are always, of course, engaged in contingency planning for hypotheticals. But again, with the airports wide open, there's no reason for that at this - at all. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Let's to the line of Robbie Gramer.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MODERATOR: We can hear you, Robbie.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. There have been widespread reports in recent weeks to the rounding up of Tigrayan citizens, including those UN officials. I'm wondering, is the embassy tracking - have any dual-national U.S.-Ethiopian citizens been caught in that roundup, first off?
And second off, I know you won't elaborate on possible contingency plans, but I'm just wondering if you're talking through those plans with Abiy's government, with the Ethiopian Government or not. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi. So on the issue of U.S. citizen detentions, we are aware of detentions of U.S. citizens, and we are in close contact with the Government of Ethiopia so that we can obtain access to those individuals. But due to privacy considerations, I can't go into any more detail than that.
I'm sorry, was the second one also for me? I've forgotten the second piece.
MODERATOR: The second question, [Senior State Department Official One], was are we in conversation with the government, the - regarding our plans.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So maybe I can comment on that one. I can just say that we're in very regular conversation and discussion with the government about our posture and every - and any perceived needs that we have for the embassy. And we have - so it's a constant dialogue. And I would note that the Ethiopian Government consults with both the U.S. embassy as well as the rest of the diplomatic community.
MODERATOR: And let's go to the line of Conor Finnegan.
QUESTION: Two questions. First, the prime minister has released a statement just a short while ago now saying that he will actually join the front lines and calling on Ethiopians to do the same. Do you have any response to that? And do you still believe that this small window that the Secretary and the special envoy have referenced still exists?
And then just a housekeeping point. If you'd like this message to get out to American citizens, I'd just request that this briefing be on the record so that we could use it for broadcast. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Maybe just to come onto the questions, yes, we still believe that a small window of opportunity exists, and we truly remain fully engaged on all efforts to move all parties to the conflict to a cessation of hostilities, working very closely with President Obasanjo and President Kenyatta and others in the region. As Secretary Blinken said last week, we're all working overtime in support of this effort and very much hoping that we're going to be able to bring the sides together to get a ceasefire, to get humanitarian assistance flowing, and to get negotiations for a durable political solution.
MODERATOR: Okay, and let's now go to the line of Rosiland Jordan.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. Given the number of UN agencies based in Addis and given the number of U.S. citizens who work for UN agencies, is Washington coordinating with New York on getting officials from both the UN and the U.S. Government out of country if it becomes necessary? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Is this in regard to official staff at the U.S. embassy? I'm not 100 percent clear on a question.
MODERATOR: So [Senior State Department Official One], if I may, I think - I believe what Rosiland was asking about is: Are we coordinating on getting UN officials out of Ethiopia as well?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I would not have visibility on that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would just say we've made it very clear that our mission is on ordered departure with a reduced staffing, and we have been coordinating very closely in the diplomatic community, including with the various UN agencies on the ground, to communicate our staffing posture and the reasons for it related to the armed conflict, the civil unrest, and possible supply shortages. Other entities and diplomatic missions, many have made similar assessments to us, and so we continue to compare notes and coordinate with them as to how we would undertake contingency planning.
MODERATOR: We've got time for just a couple more questions, I believe. Let's go to the line of Bryant Harris.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing the call. So one of the purposes of taking Ethiopia out of AGOA was as leverage to get Prime Minister Abiy to go for a peace negotiation. That appears to not have worked. So have you seen any indication that the Ethiopians are taking the threat with AGOA seriously? And if not, what other sources of leverage remain with Prime Minister Abe to put him on a path towards peace negotiations at this point? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. So on November 2nd, President Biden notified Congress and the Government of Ethiopia of his intent to terminate their designation as a beneficiary country under AGOA effective January 1st of 2022. The AGOA eligibility criteria in U.S. law stipulates that, among other things, a country not engage in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights and must make continual progress toward establishing the rule of law and political pluralism.
The United States has engaged with the Government of Ethiopia for months raising our concerns about gross violations of internationally recognized human rights during the ongoing conflict. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned the Ethiopian Government that it was at risk of losing eligibility under AGOA if these violations went unaddressed. And we continue to urge the government to take steps necessary to retain or regain its AGOA benefits.
MODERATOR: Let's go to the line of Halley Toosi at Politico.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. My question is this: First of all, I'm really interested in how you guys keep rejecting the Afghanistan comparison, and I was wondering, like, actually hearing people on the ground say that, like, "Oh you guys will just take it out like you did in Afghanistan," and I thought what you're, like, reacting to by saying "We're not going to do that."
And secondly, have you made this position clear to people on the Hill? There's a lot of lawmakers who might weigh in at some point and say, "Why can't you just airlift these people out?" Have you guys been in touch with folks in Congress to say we're not doing this again the way we did in Afghanistan? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Hi, thanks. I mean, first of all, we don't comment on our communication with Congress, so I'm not going to go there. But in terms of the Afghanistan comparison, I think our goal is to make sure that U.S. citizens get to safety when that's needed. And we have throughout the history of our work, and especially in the last few years, we have really tried to push U.S. citizens to take commercial whenever possible. And we just want to make sure that we don't get into a situation where U.S. citizens are waiting for something that's never going to happen, right? That they're waiting for us to come the way that we came in Afghanistan when, in fact, that's not going to happen. We need them to remember what the norm is, and the norm is leaving via commercial while that's available.
MODERATOR: Okay. And with that, I see that we are out of time for this briefing this afternoon. I'd like to once again thank everyone for dialing in and for their participation. I would especially like to also thank our briefers, [Senior State Department Official Two] and [Senior State Department Official One].
As a reminder, this briefing was on background with senior State Department officials, and you can refer to our two briefers as Senior State Department Official One and Senior State Department Official Number Two.
With that, our briefing is concluded and the embargo is lifted. Have a good rest of your day.