Two U.S. senators have called on their government to consider imposing sanctions on any political or military officials found to be responsible for human rights violations during a month of conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
The proposed resolution was introduced on Wednesday by Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, and Senator Jim Risch, a Republican.
It was the first such call by U.S. lawmakers since war between Ethiopian federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) broke out on Nov. 4.
The conflict is thought to have killed thousands and displaced more than 950,000 people, according to United Nations estimates, about 50,000 of them into Sudan.
Concern has mounted over reports of civilians targeted by both sides, posing a policy dilemma for the United States, which considers Ethiopia an important ally in a volatile region.
The government has said it will investigate any reports of atrocities or mass killings, but will only allow independent investigations if the government was not able to do so.
Accounts from all sides are difficult to verify because most phone lines and internet connections to the region have been down since the conflict broke out. Foreign journalists are required to have permits to leave the capital city.
The Ethiopian army has captured Tigray’s regional capital Mekelle and declared victory but TPLF leaders say they are fighting back on various fronts around the highland city.
The Senate resolution introduced by Cardin and Risch also called on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the TPLF to cease hostilities and pursue a peaceful resolution to the war.
“The ongoing fighting in Tigray has already cost thousands of lives and created a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions, threatening the long-term stability not only of Ethiopia, but the entire region,” Cardin said in a statement after the resolution was introduced.
Civilians fleeing fighting in Tigray last month told Reuters that they witnessed bombing by government warplanes, shooting on the streets, and people being hacked to death with machetes.
Rights group Amnesty International said scores and probably hundreds of people were stabbed or hacked to death in the town of Mai Kadra in Tigray less than a week after the war began.
Ethiopia’s state-appointed human rights commission’s initial report found that an estimated 600 civilians were killed in that attack.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in Geneva on Wednesday that events in Tigray were still “worrying and volatile”.
“There is an urgent need for independent monitoring of the human rights situation in the Tigray region, all necessary measures to protect civilians, and accountability for violations,” Bachelet said.
Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum responded that there was “nothing volatile about Tigray or Ethiopia”.
“The federal government is well equipped and able to restore order and is undertaking such activities as cities and towns slowly return to regular activities,” she said.
Meanwhile aid groups are pressing for safe access to the northern region, which is home to more than 5 million people and where 600,000 relied on food aid even before the conflict.
The government has said it was delivering aid in areas that it controlled, but relief agencies are increasingly frustrated.
A United Nations team visiting refugees in Tigray was shot at over the weekend. The government said it had failed to stop at two checkpoints.
In response to that, another U.S. Senator, Bob Menendez said in a tweet: “Attacks on humanitarians must STOP. Refugees & all civilians must be PROTECTED.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged the problems on Wednesday and said Ethiopia and the United Nations had now agreed on joint missions to assess humanitarian needs.
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