SPECIAL BRIEFING OF U.S. Department OF STATE
NOVEMBER 15, 2022
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s call on the situation in Ethiopia. Today’s call is on background to a senior State Department official and embargoed until its conclusion. We are joined – for your information and not for reporting, we are joined today by [Senior State Department Official] who will be referred to hereafter as a senior State Department official in our transcript. We will have some time for questions at the end, but I’d like to start off by turning it over to our senior State Department official to begin with some opening remarks. [Senior State Department Official], please go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, and thank you, everybody, for taking the time. I think it’s just afternoon in D.C. I’m actually calling in from – well, if I reveal where I’m calling in from it’ll be very obvious who the senior State Department official is, but you’ll get the sense for it in a moment.
So I wanted to just frame a little bit of what’s happened over the last six weeks. I’m not going to go at great length, but you may recall that during the UN General Assembly President Biden said in his UN General Assembly speech that the United States supports an AU-led process to try to bring peace and stability to northern Ethiopia. And that is, in fact, what we have been doing as the United States, supporting the African Union in a very intense diplomatic effort that has involved not only the Secretary but the Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary Toria Nuland, our Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Molly Phee, our USUN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, people over at the White House and across the interagency, and of course, the SEHOA team and our embassies – multiple embassies in Addis, Nairobi, and also in Pretoria.
I will say that as we launched on this trip and been up in talks beginning in Pretoria on October 25th, it was very clear from the get-go that the goal as put forward by all parties during these talks in Pretoria was, as the AU has said, to silence the guns, to stop the fighting. This was reflected by the panel members, who did an outstanding job in leading the facilitation mediation effort. You know that that was the panel chair who was and is and remains former President Obasanjo, who represents – is a high representative for the Horn of Africa, joined by former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and then as well as Deputy President Phumzile of South Africa. And we on the part of the United States commend not only the work of the panel, the African Union, but also extremely impressed with the commitments as hosts and in support of this process of both South Africa and the Kenyan Governments.
The clear goal, as I stated, was to stop the fighting. And as you may recall, within about 48 to 72 hours after November 2nd’s Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed fighting in fact had stopped between the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Tigrayan Defense Forces. This is a major, important achievement, showing real willingness and indication on the part of the parties to stop the fighting and to move forward on what was most necessary in terms of supporting not only the Tigrayan people but those Ethiopians affected in the adjoining regions of Amhara and Afar.
As was provided for in the Pretoria agreement, within a couple days there was a hotline established between the top-level military commanders of the ENDF and the TDF. And then what you saw happened within five days is the launch of the next phase, the follow-on implementation phase of the cessation of hostilities agreement that began in Nairobi on November 7th between the top commanders of both the ENDF, Field Marshal Jula, and then of the TDF, or as it has become known now as the Tigrayan armed combatants, General Tadesse. They were joined by other representatives of their respective militaries as well as the continued political leadership of the TPLF Getachew Reda and then of course the lead Ethiopian Government representative, the national security advisor Redwan Hussein.
Now after another intense week or so you saw then the realization of a follow-on agreement for Nairobi that was signed on the 12th. And what you saw there is yet another important step towards establishing a longing – a lasting peace. The Nairobi agreement is significant because it expanded upon and clarified some of the key issues that were addressed and agreed upon and understood in Pretoria, including very specifically, as you may have seen from the text that was released, the commitment to a withdrawal of foreign forces as well as those non-ENDF forces from the region and that that would be done concurrently with the expected Tigrayan disarmament. This is significant because it was the first acknowledgement in essence that there are Eritrean forces operating inside of Ethiopia, and there is now a clear understanding that they are to withdraw.
Furthermore, the agreement in Nairobi built upon the urgency of Pretoria to expedite humanitarian access and the restoration of services in Tigray and in the adjoining regions. And what we have seen in the days following is the beginnings of what is extremely urgent in terms of saving lives and addressing the suffering of the Ethiopian people in this region, which is the beginnings of delivery of humanitarian assistance that in essence had stopped when the conflict restarted on August 24th. I’ll have a few more details on the humanitarian assistance delivery. There was also a clear commitment to the protection of civilians, to ensuring that there’s human rights accountability, and that there’s continued human rights monitoring to ensure that no further human rights abuses are committed.
As the implementation goes forward, much of that responsibility falls upon the African Union’s monitoring verification mechanism, which is being finalized, and which is meant to support the implementation process. And our intent as the United States is to continue to support as asked this – the entire facilitation process, the implementation process. In fact, now there’s a – as you will have seen from Nairobi agreement, also there’s an establishment of a joint commission on disarmament between the Ethiopian and Tigrayan armed forces to work out some of the details. It’s important that implementation be followed through.
We – or we know that the special envoy for the Horn of Africa was back in Mekelle to return the Tigrayan delegation and had an opportunity to meet with TPLF President Dr. Debretsion as well as then follow on in his trip to Addis Ababa over yesterday and today and had an opportunity to meet with Ethiopian Government leadership, including Prime Minister Abiy and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen. And from all, they have reiterated their steadfast commitment to the implementation of this agreement and their strong desire for this to realize in fact the goals intended from the signing of – in Pretoria of a – it is a permanent, very important – permanent cessation of hostilities that then brings a lasting peace.
It is important to note as well that the special envoy for the Horn was able to also meet today with the African Union Chairperson Faki to continue to discuss and review how the United States might be able to continue to support the implementation of this important set of agreements that were reached in Pretoria and Nairobi as well as have – the SEHOA was able to meet with other international partners who are here present in Addis to see how we might continue to cooperate in common cause in support of advancing stability and peace in northern Ethiopia.
Let me just say a couple words on humanitarian access before I turn it over to your questions. Clearly, this is urgent, given that humanitarian assistance had been discontinued, as I mentioned, since August 24th. And we have the first reports today of ICRC trucks arriving safely in Mekelle with stocks of medical cargo and additionally other convoys from the World Food Program that are going from Bandar to Mai Tsebri with nearly 300 metric tons of mixed aid commodities.
It is absolutely vital that humanitarian assistance be robustly provided unhindered, as has been agreed to by the parties. And things are starting to move, but again, it’s the beginning. But this must be sustained and it must deliver for the people of Tigray and those in the affected regions of Afar and Amhara.
We are very realistic in understanding that these are the early stages, that implementation will require continued effort on the part of not only the African Union, the panel, the governments that are supporting it – specifically South Africa and Kenya – but also the observers, which include the United Nations, IGAD, and the United States. And we will continue to provide our diplomatic support, provide logistic support, and if there are other requests for assistance to make sure that this process endures, we are prepared and very ready to do so.
With that, I’ve gone a little bit long, but let me just turn it back over to you and take your questions. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, sir. Don, would you mind repeating the instructions for joining the question queue?
OPERATOR: Absolutely. If you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, please press 1 then 0.
MODERATOR: Excellent. Could we please go to the line of Daphne from Reuters?
OPERATOR: One moment. And your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. I wanted to ask you about the Eritrean troops. We understand that Eritrean soldiers as well as Amhara militias are still in Tigray and there is no sign they intend to withdraw, especially the Eritreans. What happens if Eritreans don’t withdraw? Are more sanctions from the U.S. on the table? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you very much, Daphne. Appreciate the question. Certainly the agreement calls for the withdrawal of, as you pointed out, not only Eritrean forces but Amhara special forces and Afar militia that are currently in Tigray. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of what will happen if these commitments aren’t abided by, because what we’re hearing from the Government of Ethiopia and certainly from the other side in terms of the Tigrayan authorities is that they are committed to ensuring that this happens.
The United States always has at its disposal as a policy tool the prospect of sanctions, and we will not hesitate to deploy them if that should become necessary in terms of holding actors accountable for human rights violations or for the purposes of trying to ensure that this agreement is respected and abided.
There are clearly – there is a tremendous focus on both sides understanding that because of the language which ties the withdrawal of foreign forces and other forces that are non-ENDF to the disarmament, that it’s in both parties’ interests that this be realized expeditiously. They have formed the joint committee to review procedures and implementation. This is a work in progress. We are encouraged again by the comments made publicly today by Prime Minister Abiy to the national parliament, assembly, reiterating his commitment for peace.
And therefore the expectation is that while this may take some time that both parties understand that there was in the end no military option for success and that the only success could come through dialogue, and that’s why ultimately this Pretoria process that then has continued on through Nairobi and which will continue on with additional rounds that will be focused on resolving and addressing political issues, that it just – it needs to be through dialogue.
But we’re under no illusions. This is the early days. It’s promising in terms of the follow-on action that we’re starting to see happening, but you can rest assured that we won’t rest for a minute and we’ll remain completely focused as the United States in supporting the efforts of both sides to go forward through the African Union process and their verification and monitoring mechanism to continue to make incremental progress until all aspects of both agreements that were signed are realized.
Thank you, Daphne.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Could we please go to the line of Zeba Warsi from PBS News?
OPERATOR: One moment.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. My question is about humanitarian aid access. It is good news indeed that today two trucks carrying medical supplies have reached Mekelle City. But could you please tell us what are the nitty-gritties of – in the agreement with respect to humanitarian aid access? Is it conditional on the truth or is it permanent in its duration? And is there anything specifically about guaranteeing safety to aid workers? Because we’ve seen the conflict has been particularly deadly even for humanitarian aid workers. Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. No, thank you very much, Zeba. The commitment is really clear. It was clear in Pretoria and it was further elucidated and expanded upon in Nairobi. Humanitarian assistance is to flow unhindered, and that is the commitment. There should be no restrictions. There’s always going to be some consideration, and this is something that humanitarians are keenly aware of, and you hinted at that for some security reasons potentially at times some deliveries won’t be possible. But let’s remember that for five months between March and until August 24th there was a humanitarian truce that was respected by both sides which allowed the flow of humanitarian assistance, and now we actually have an agreement in writing that commits both parties to enable this.
There are, I’m sure, going to be some guidelines as usually happens in a time of conflict, but as this is being worked out, the permits need to be provided and are being provided from what we understand as of today. And they need to progress. We have to get urgent assistance – not only food but also medicine and other lifesaving supplies – to the people most in need to alleviate the suffering.
And likewise there is a commitment on the restoration of services, which has been an issue that has not been addressed. That includes not only telecommunications and banking but also electricity. And again, the Nairobi agreement makes clear that that is going to be happening within the next couple of weeks. Some of that needs to occur in conjunction with, as the Tigrayans have accepted, the federal takeover of federal installations. So we just need to stay very focused on making sure that this is happening.
In terms of protections for humanitarian workers, clearly there is a focus in the Nairobi agreement on protection of civilians, and clearly that also reflects a concern that humanitarian aid workers be able to do their jobs without fear. This is something that, again, both parties have committed to. With the stopping in the fighting, it does allow for a conducive environment, and so there’s every expectation that humanitarian aid workers will be able to do their heroic jobs to deliver food, medicine, and other necessary supplies to those in greatest need.
But again, rest assured – on the part of the United States and our partners in the international community, as well as, I think for sure, the African Union’s verification and monitoring mechanism – that every effort is going to be made that if there are issues that they’re resolved quickly and do not in any way impede humanitarian assistance from getting to those who most need it. Thank you much, Zeba.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Can we please go to the line of Pearl Matibe from Power FM 98.7?
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I really appreciate you doing this, particularly on this topic. My question – I’d like to probe and just press you a little bit on two aspects, on observation and capacitating African Union players. So is there – in your role as the United States in observing, could you speak a little bit more specifically about what that means and what that looks like in operationalizing that?
And then to what extent, if any, is Africa Command a part of this in terms of helping to capacitate maintaining the peace or stopping the hostilities? Are they playing a role at all, and if so, to what extent? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, Pearl, for those good questions. The United States was invited by Chairperson Faki to be an active – participate and to be part of the observer partners during the process, of course, in Pretoria and Nairobi and continue on. And Special Envoy for the Horn Mike Hammer met today with Chairperson Faki and we remain very much committed to continue to support that.
That can come in a series of ways. It’s engaging in and supporting the process as the panel, whether it’s President Obasanjo or President Kenyatta or Dr. Phumzile, might need in terms of assistance where the United States might have influence or be able to provide reassurance to either party on any particular issue. It has involved logistical support. I’m sure you’re aware that we have been flying the Tigrayan delegation on military aircraft out and into Mekelle in support of this mission, at the request of the African Union, and of course with the full consent of the Ethiopian Government. So there’s some logistical support that comes along with our observation partnership, but also we remain open to other requests that may come.
You asked about the Africa Command. It has only been involved, again, in providing the logistical military support, and there’s no expectation, there’s been no request for anything further than that. This is an AU process. The African Union has established, in agreement with both parties, this monitoring and verification mechanism that will bring 10 experts under the leadership of the panel to work out the mechanism. I know for a fact that there were Kenyan generals as well as South African generals in Nairobi working through some of these issues with the African Union Commission. There’s intent to also have Nigerian generals participate. And I would refer you to the African Union on the specifics of how this verification mechanism will carry out in terms of its monitoring.
If there are requests for support from the United States or any other of the partners, whether it’s the UN or IGAD, of course we’ll be looking to see how we can best accommodate those requests. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure that the monitoring mechanism is robust and effective, to give confidence to the parties that, if there are lags or commitments that are not being met, that they can be addressed in a way that preserves the intent of the agreement. It is very important to recognize that by calling it a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, as was signed in Pretoria, that this is meant to be everlasting and no return to fighting.
So issues need to be worked through. No implementation I can imagine will be perfect. There will be, I’m sure, some issues that come up that need to be resolved. But through the African Union and with the support of the partners and perhaps others who may be added to the process to help bring this about, I think that there’s a good chance to be successful.
One of the issues we haven’t really discussed is continuing on – not only will there be the need for political dialogue in future rounds, but also for the implementation of a robust demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration. And that’s, as we know, in most conflicts, a very intense process that requires financial support, it’s critical to the success of this agreement, and there will be further discussions and studying of how that is carried out. I understand the Government of Ethiopia has already assembled or is assembling a committee to go through how it might go forward with dealing with some of the combatants and how they can be best reintegrated.
And then finally, there’s a matter of reconstruction. Horrible, horrible damage and destruction has happened over the last two years, and there is an urgent need, again, to rebuild and reconstruct not only Tigray but in some areas of the adjoining regions of Afar and Amhara. And that’s going to require considerable financial support and it will be a subject for future rounds. But that is something that is envisioned as part of this process, and again, the United States along with the other observers are prepared to do our part, but it may require, again, broader international support.
What I have experienced from meeting with colleagues and – from other countries and other organizations is this tremendous goodwill to try to support this agreement to ensure that this conflict has ended for good, that all the loss of life is – has been tremendously tragic, but that now the focus needs to be on providing for the people of Ethiopia. And more broadly than not just northern Ethiopia, I’m sure the focus rightfully will return to many urgent needs. You know the United States is very involved and the biggest supporter of assistance, humanitarian assistance when it comes to drought relief and also in helping other regions that have difficult issues as well.
So while we’re focused on northern Ethiopia, the United States is involved and engaged throughout Ethiopia in support of the Ethiopian people. Thank you very much, Pearl.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. I think we have time for one quick final question. Could we go to the line of Jennifer Hansler from CNN?
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on what you said about accountability for human rights abuses, if you could give us any more details on that and the role the U.S. is going to play or – and has there been any determination of genocide or crimes against humanity that has been made by the U.S. in terms of what happened in Ethiopia? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you very much, Jennifer. It was very much a point of focus in the initial talks in Pretoria and continued on in Nairobi and in the discussions that the special envoy to the Horn of Africa has had both with Dr. Debretsion and Prime Minister Abiy and those in the leadership of both Tigray as well as in the Ethiopian Government. And it has been expressed that there needs to be, absolutely needs to be accountability for gross violations of human rights. That is a process that is underway in terms of how Ethiopia will come to terms with it.
We of course encourage that there be international monitoring and assistance and investigation in support of those efforts. It is important that there’s a commitment to transitional justice. It was discussed both in Pretoria and Nairobi. Now that the conflict has ended, more, obviously, work needs to be done, because since August 24th there has been virtually no access to media or others to be able to really investigate and find out what has transpired. But there is a commitment on the part of both parties to ensure that there is accountability.
On the question of a determination on atrocities, one has not been made yet. I’ll leave that to the Secretary of State. Let’s just be clear, though, that the United States is absolutely committed to ensuring that those who are responsible for gross violations of human rights are held accountable, and that there be justice for all those families who’ve lost loved ones, all those mothers and children who have perished and civilians who had no reason to be put through what has transpired over the last two years.
This will be an ongoing effort of not only the United States, but of, I think, the international community to support and ensure that, again, human rights accountability is delivered and that there’s a way forward that brings, again, a lasting peace.
So thank you, Jennifer, for that question. And thank you, all of you, for your time and your interest. I do hope that the media will soon be able to report to the world what has happened. This has been a tragic episode. We hope we’re seeing the beginnings of a true end to this conflict. The United States remains committed to doing its part in support of the African Union, in support of the Government of Ethiopia, and Tigray, and working together with not only the panel members but also the governments of South Africa and Kenya and others in the region who are very focused in wanting to make sure that this succeeds.
But we’re under no illusion; the work remains. There will be difficult times ahead, but at least in the early days of at least two back-to-back agreements, we are seeing the parties starting to take the steps that they’ve committed to taking. And we will continue to do our part, the United States diplomatically, to support those efforts.
I don’t know if that’s a wrap, but probably pretty close to it. I look forward to seeing some of you in Washington at some point when we get back.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much, sir, for being so generous with your time. Thank you so much to our callers for dialing in this afternoon. That does conclude today’s call, and as a reminder, today’s call was on background, attributable to a senior State Department official. It has been embargoed until the conclusion of the call, which of course is now. So thank you again to everyone for joining us, and have a great rest of your day.