Team Biden Balks on Africa Sanctions

As U.S. President Joe Biden ramps up sanctions on Russia, suspected war criminals in Africa escape unscathed.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Demonstrators with Tigray flags and posters march on the National Mall.
Demonstrators with Tigray flags and posters march on the National Mall.
Demonstrators with Tigray flags and posters march on the National Mall in Washington on Nov. 4, 2021, marking the one-year anniversary of the Ethiopian government’s decision to deploy troops into the country’s northernmost Tigray region. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is sitting on dozens of potential sanctions for human rights violators and coup-plotters in countries in Africa, refusing to pull the trigger despite mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates, according to seven officials, congressional aides, and experts familiar with the matter.

The U.S. State Department has extensive dockets for possible sanctions on people involved in grave human rights violations in countries including South Sudan; Ethiopia, where a deadly internal war has raged for nearly two years; and Sudan, where security officials helped plot a coup last year and then unleashed a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the officials and experts said. For reasons that are unclear to U.S. lawmakers and outside advocacy organizations, the Biden administration has yet to implement any of the potential sanctions. 

This hesitancy has frustrated some officials inside the administration as well as congressional leaders pushing U.S. President Joe Biden to be more forceful on his human rights agenda, according to three current and former officials and two congressional aides, some of whom described sensitive internal government deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. Experts outside the government argue that the Biden administration is undercutting its own foreign-policy agenda on engagement with Africa by constantly threatening to sanction human rights violators and then not following through on those threats. 

The Biden administration is sitting on dozens of potential sanctions for human rights violators and coup-plotters in countries in Africa, refusing to pull the trigger despite mounting pressure from U.S. lawmakers and human rights advocates, according to seven officials, congressional aides, and experts familiar with the matter.

The U.S. State Department has extensive dockets for possible sanctions on people involved in grave human rights violations in countries including South Sudan; Ethiopia, where a deadly internal war has raged for nearly two years; and Sudan, where security officials helped plot a coup last year and then unleashed a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the officials and experts said. For reasons that are unclear to U.S. lawmakers and outside advocacy organizations, the Biden administration has yet to implement any of the potential sanctions. 

This hesitancy has frustrated some officials inside the administration as well as congressional leaders pushing U.S. President Joe Biden to be more forceful on his human rights agenda, according to three current and former officials and two congressional aides, some of whom described sensitive internal government deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. Experts outside the government argue that the Biden administration is undercutting its own foreign-policy agenda on engagement with Africa by constantly threatening to sanction human rights violators and then not following through on those threats. 

“It makes us look like a paper tiger. We just don’t look serious,” said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA and State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. 

Other administration officials have argued that Washington needs to tread carefully on rolling out new sanctions lest they derail sensitive negotiations with the governments involved. In Ethiopia’s case, this involves the United States working to facilitate possible peace talks over the conflict with the northern Tigray region. In Sudan’s case, it is involved in efforts to get military leaders who took power in a coup last year to agree to cede some power back to a civilian transitional government.

These administration officials also argue that finalizing sanctions is easier said than done. In some cases, it’s difficult to get precise biographical information for sanctions targets, such as birth dates, a legal prerequisite. Another possible hurdle to sanctions has to do with staffing inside both the U.S. Treasury and State Departments. Several congressional aides and officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said the government has surged resources to focus on sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, leaving programs focused on other areas of the world short staffed. Treasury and State Department spokespeople pushed back on this, insisting their offices were adequately staffed. 

Still, some of these frustrations boiled over into the public during a heated Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month, when Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the State Department’s top sanctions official on the cases of Ethiopia and Sudan.

“There is a gnawing question for those of us who are big advocates for human rights and democracy: the lack of our sanctioned policy, when it is so clear and obvious that there are parties here that clearly have blood on their hands,” Menendez told James O’Brien, head of the State Department’s Office of Sanctions Coordination. “I want to have a serious conversation about why we don’t see action in some of these things.”

“I appreciate the attention. I completely agree with you,” O’Brien said in response, before the hearing moved on to discussions about Russia sanctions. 

In recent years, the United States has issued sanctions on more than 1,200 Russian individuals and entities. The bulk of those sanctions came after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, according to U.S. sanctions data compiled by the Brookings Institution, another think tank.

By comparison, the United States has only issued six sanctions related to the two-year-long conflict in Ethiopia, which has killed an estimated half a million people. All six sanctions targeted neighboring Eritrea, which has deployed its military to fight in Ethiopia.

Some officials and congressional aides privately say although the administration is justifiably focused on sanctioning Russians carrying out atrocities in Ukraine, it isn’t applying the same standard in Ethiopia. 

“Look at Russia and then look at Africa,” said one Republican congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as the aide was not authorized to speak on the record. “In Africa, virtually nothing is happening. In Sudan or Ethiopia, we’ve been told time and again that packages are on the way, that something is happening. This hesitance to actually take action … the threats start to become very empty.” 

The war in Ethiopia, between Ethiopian government forces aligned with neighboring Eritrea against forces in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, has spiraled into one of the world’s deadliest conflicts and worst humanitarian crises. As with Russian forces in Ukraine, the conflict is marked by widespread accounts of war crimes against civilians, including torture, mass rape, and forced starvation. 

Biden signed an executive order in September 2021 expanding U.S. sanctions authorities on the Ethiopian conflict. The administration sanctioned Eritrean officials and military forces using the new authority, but it has yet to issue sanctions on any Ethiopians involved in the Ethiopian conflict. The decision left some former officials flummoxed.

“The administration went through this very time-consuming and labor-intensive process to create a sanctions regime on Ethiopia, and then it hasn’t actually sanctioned any Ethiopians,” Hudson said. “That’s just unheard of in my experience.”

Other administration officials have pushed back on implementing sanctions in some African countries for various reasons. In Ethiopia’s case, for example, they are working behind the scenes to bring the Ethiopian government and opposing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces together for talks to end the country’s devastating war. Some administration officials fear rolling out new Ethiopia-related sanctions could derail sensitive efforts to piece together those negotiations.

Reports emerged in early October that Ethiopian and Tigrayan negotiators were scheduled to meet for peace talks in South Africa, but several days later, diplomats from the region reportedly said those talks were delayed for “logistical reasons.” Now, officials and aid workers in the region are warning of a possible new surge in violence in the war amid a new offensive by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in the Tigrayan region.

“Each side in this war has committed unspeakable atrocities. The Biden Admin’s unwillingness to hold any #Ethiopian actors accountable is a stain on its handling of this war. [Biden] must stop avoiding the use of sanctions in fear of offending and prioritize #humanrights,” Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Oct. 18.

“We have sanctioned Eritrean actors in connection with serious human rights abuses or actions that prolong the conflict,” the State Department spokesperson said when asked about the matter. “We are pursuing robust diplomacy utilizing a variety of tools to press the government and the TPLF to immediately halt their military offensives and come to peace talks facilitated by the African Union as well as for Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia. There is no military solution to this conflict. The only path forward is for the parties to pursue a negotiated settlement through peace talks. ” 

Human rights watchdogs have also criticized the Biden administration for underusing another U.S. sanctions program known as “Global Magnitsky” sanctions. Named after a Russian anti-corruption tax lawyer killed in a Moscow prison in 2009, the Global Magnitsky sanctions program gives the U.S. government wider-ranging authorities to sanction human rights violators. It also allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent investigators to submit to the U.S. government evidence of individuals or companies involved in human rights violations with an eye toward sanctions.

Since the Global Magnitsky program started, the United States has sanctioned 423 individuals and entities for human rights violations or corruption, of which 115 were in Africa, according to data from the Human Rights First advocacy organization. 

Advocacy groups have praised the system, saying it provides the U.S. government an ability to “crowdsource” expertise for new sanctions proposals from credible human rights organizations that can focus resources and open-source intelligence on overlooked conflicts around the globe. Amanda Strayer, an attorney at Human Rights First, said the Biden administration has used the Global Magnitsky program to great effect, including by working with NGOs that track human rights abuses and corruption abroad. About one-third of Global Magnitsky sanctions have been aided in part by information that NGOs provide the U.S. government, Strayer said.

Still, some advocacy groups say the process after submitting proposals is opaque—and in some cases, they never hear back from the U.S. government on their deeply researched sanction referrals, such as with South Sudanese security officials accused of human rights violations and rampant corruption as well as in the aftermath of the 2021 coup in Sudan. 

In October 2021, the Sudanese military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power in a coup that undercut a transitional civilian government and derailed the country’s hard-fought transition to democracy. The coup led to widespread pro-democracy protests, followed by violent crackdowns on demonstrators by security forces. Redress, a nongovernmental organization that pursues legal claims for survivors of torture and other human rights abuses, spent months investigating the coup and subsequent crackdown with an aim to identify people and institutions that could be sanctioned. 

In February, Redress filed a detailed sanctions referral dossier to the U.S. State Department for possible Global Magnitsky sanctions, said Emma DiNapoli, a legal officer with Redress. The dossier, some 75 pages long, included information from their team of investigators as well as outside financial investigators they worked with to identify 11 people and four companies ripe for a U.S. sanctions designation over the coup and violent crackdown.

DiNapoli told Foreign Policy that shortly after Redress submitted the dossier, the State Department reached out asking for follow-up details. But then, it was radio silence. Eight months later, they are still waiting. 

“At the time, we actually thought there was good momentum for sanctions,” she said. “That hasn’t proven to be true. … All momentum for sanctions seems to have entirely dissipated.”

Other analysts say the absence of U.S. sanctions on the orchestrators of the coup in Sudan signals that Washington has quietly accepted the new military government in practice, even if it continues to support the democracy movement with words.

“The lack of action altogether recently condemning the coup and condemning the consolidation of the coup, all of that points to a normalization of the relationship with the generals,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst and director at Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum, Sudan. 

A State Department spokesperson pushed back on criticism and insisted the Biden administration remains committed to helping Sudan’s democratic transition. “The United States is prepared to levy consequences on those who impede or otherwise spoil Sudan’s transition to democracy. Sanctions are only one tool the U.S. government has at its disposal,” the State Department spokesperson said.

Several officials and congressional aides said the Biden administration appears to be wary of issuing new sanctions on officials in East Africa after facing sharp backlash from African leaders over the economic fallout of Russia sanctions on the continent. 

As both Russia and Ukraine are top global exporters of food staples and agricultural products, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wreaked havoc on the global food supply chain, and food exports to African countries were caught in the crossfire of Western sanctions on Russia’s banking and agricultural sectors. 

“It’s clear that overall, we are gun-shy around sanctions on Africa now because we were called out by African leaders after these Russia sanctions,” Hudson said.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Kholood Khairs affiliation.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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