US lifts some restrictions on Ethiopia after human rights improvements

By Steve Holland and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States has lifted certain aid restrictions on Ethiopia in light of progress on human rights, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Friday.

The improvement on human rights occurred particularly after the cessation-of-hostilities agreement signed by the Ethiopian government and forces from its Tigray region in November, Kirby said. The pact ended a conflict that left hundreds of thousands facing hunger, displaced millions and killed tens of thousands.

Despite an overall reduction in abuses since the truce, rights groups say violence, including ethnic cleansing, has continued in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

“We are lifting some restrictions on certain kinds of assistance while pausing food aid,” Kirby said. “This decision, we believe, expands the tools available to us to bolster our support for a durable peace in Ethiopia.”

The U.S. State Department said its assistance would support peace and reconciliation.

“The focus of resumed bilateral assistance will be to support further implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement and promote sustainable peace and reconciliation through efforts including demining, transitional justice, and accountability,” said a State Department spokesperson.

“We will continue to raise concerns and speak out about reports of serious human rights abuses, including by non-state actors in Western Tigray, and urge the government to protect civilians and hold perpetrators accountable,” the spokesperson added.

The U.S. government restricted economic and security assistance to Ethiopia during the war and cut access to the trade benefits of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a duty-free program that had been a boon for the country’s textile sector.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson said AGOA access is considered through a separate process than the move announced on Friday. The United States Trade Representative leads an annual interagency review of sub-Saharan countries’ eligibility for AGOA benefits, this spokesperson said.

The Ethiopian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s announcement.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said earlier this month it was suspending food aid to Ethiopia because its donations were being diverted from people in need, and a day later the United Nations World Food Programme did the same.

More than 20 million people need food assistance in Africa’s second most populous nation, largely due to the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades and the war in northern Ethiopia.

The United States in March determined that all sides had committed war crimes. Ethiopia rejected the allegations as did neighboring Eritrea, whose forces fought in support of Ethiopian troops against Tigrayan forces.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Daphne Psaledakis and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Hereward Holland in London, and Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; Editing by Don Durfee, Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)