House Resolution 6600, the misnamed Ethiopia Stabilization, Peace, and Democracy Act, has moved from the House Foreign Affairs Committee to the House floor. It would impose harsh sanctions not only on Ethiopia but also on its neighbor and close ally Eritrea. The two countries are working together to defend themselves against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, commonly known as the TPLF.
In international law, sovereign nations have the right to work together for mutual defense, as Ethiopia and Eritrea now are. In 2018, Eritrean President Isais Afwerki, Somali President Abdullahi Mohammed Abdullahi, aka Farmaajo, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation Between Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, which resolved that "the three countries shall build close political, economic, social, cultural and security ties.”
The United States however, charges that Eritrea cannot rightfully join Ethiopia in mutual defense against the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front, which attacked an Ethiopia military base in November 2020, and waged war against Eritrea—sometimes declared and sometimes undeclared— for decades, up until PM Abiy and President Isaias signed a peace treaty in 2018.
The authors of House Resolution 6600, also known as the Malinowski Bill, also allege that the leaders and armed forces of both countries, and the TPLF, are guilty of committing atrocities in the current conflict, but the proposed sanctions would harm only Ethiopia and Eritrea. I spoke to Canadian and international criminal defense attorney John Philpot.
Ann Garrison: These new sanctions against Ethiopia and Eritrea are illegal. Can you explain why?
John Philpot: Well, if passed and implemented, they will be an intervention in the internal politics of a sovereign nation, namely Ethiopia. The entire setup of this bill is to impose conditions on Ethiopia in handling its so-called civil war, which I don't think, by the way, is properly called a civil war, but we can get into that in a minute. They are trying to make Ethiopia accountable to the US and there is absolutely no basis for that in international law.
They even want to collaborate with the social media giants to intervene in Ethiopians’ use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
So, this is the US government deciding how Ethiopia has to handle its internal politics, which violates Ethiopian sovereignty. The United Nations Charter says that every country is equal, and they have the equal right to decide their future.
The US wants to impose not only sanctions on Ethiopia’s trade with other countries, but also third-party sanctions that would punish nations choosing to trade with Ethiopia. They want to control who Ethiopia does business with. And in this bill, they're also talking about Eritrea, because obviously, the evolution of Eritrea, an egalitarian state often called “the Cuba of Africa,” is very important for the entire Horn of Africa region.
AG: The attention, including the euphemistic title of the bill, is all on Ethiopia, because there’s fighting going on within their sovereign territory. But the sanctions would apply to Eritrea as well.
JP: Yes, but the major target here is Ethiopia. I'm questioning whether its properly called a civil war or even an “internal conflict,” because there are external factors, most notably the US imposing its will. I think that the TPLF has been a US proxy force since it attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force on November 4, 2020.
AG: Well, they're accusing Eritrea of being involved because Eritrea has what might be called a mutual defense pact, which is legal, according to the UN Charter, right?
JP: Any mutual defense pact between two sovereign nations is legal. The US has no legal right to object to it, or to interfere.
AG: Okay. Now can you explain the difference between UN sanctions and US and or EU sanctions, which are commonly known as “unilateral, coercive measures” or more simply, “economic warfare”? What does the UN have the legal right to do?
JP: Chapter Seven of the UN Charter allows the UN Security Council (UNSC) to organize an intervention when it determines there exists
“any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. This intervention can be economic under Article 41 or full intervention under Article 42. Examples include when one nation has violated another’s sovereignty, aka started a war, by invading, bombing, and/or interfering with its viability as a sovereign nation, including its ability to trade with other sovereign nations. Blocking land or marine transport to a sovereign nation is an act of war.
According to international law, the UNSC could sanction the US, UK, or any other nations for waging war, including economic war, primarily in the form of trade sanctions on other countries. However, the US’s outsized military and economic power and its veto power make that impossible on a practical level.
The UNSC did unfairly impose sanctions on other nations like, for example, the Habyarimana government in Rwanda, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was possible because Russia and China were then so weak; they didn’t feel strong enough to risk resisting despite their veto power on the UNSC.
It is also legal for the UN to agree to impose sanctions on a country when it's violating certain rules, most of all if it violates another nation’s sovereignty by invading—or bombing—its territory, but also if it is deemed to be committing genocide or crimes against humanity within its own borders.
AG: That’s why the allegations of “Tigray genocide” are like a Sword of Damocles hanging over Ethiopia and Eritrea’s head—because the US has used it as an excuse for bombing Yugoslavia, Libya, and Syria.
JP: Yes, but those wars were illegal. They were—and in the case of Syria, are—illegal wars waged unilaterally by the US and its allies and proxies. The fact that the UN Security Council can legally organize a multilateral response to stop genocide does not mean that the US can legally take that mission into its own hands.AG: Nobody wants to risk upsetting the big guy in the room, with not only veto power on the UN Security Council but also with the largest military, the largest economy, and even control of the international monetary system and the dollar, the currency that all international trade is transacted in. The U.S. can try to ban any nation in the world from trading in dollars, which is essentially banning it from trade outside its own borders.
JP: Nevertheless, both shooting wars and economic wars waged by the United States are totally illegal and by the way, totally condemned by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2020.
AG: Some people ask what good the UN is since it’s so dominated by the the US, but isn’t the idea and the codification of international law important nevertheless?
JP: Of course, it is, and the US should be reminded what international law is and publicly shamed every time it violates it, as it does every day.
And the US is not so dominant as it once was, not only because of China and Russia’s growing power and influence in the world, but also because they have been standing up to the US and its allies, France and the UK, on the UN Security Council ever since the NATO War on Libya. They refused to censure, sanction, or take military action against the sovereign governments of both Burundi and Syria, and now they are doing the same with regard to Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Many direct interventions by the US have been stymied in recent years since international law and the role of the United Nations have been enhanced in the past decade.
If the world silently acquiesced to US abuses of power, they would be even worse.
The issue of sanctions, unilateral coercive measure, siege warfare by the United States and sometimes with its allies have become a major issue for the anti-war movement in the last few years and will be more and more important in the next years. We may see a day, I hope soon, where the United States must pay reparations for the damages caused by its sanctions. If I burn your house down, I have to pay you damages.
John Philpot is an international criminal defense attorney based in Montreal, a frequent speaker on international affairs, and a member of the boards of Just Peace Advocates and the Sanctions Kill Coalition. He is a defense counsel at the International Criminal Court and formerly at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Ann Garrison is a Black Agenda Report Contributing Editor based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison.com.