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The Morning Dispatch: Crisis in Tigray
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The Morning Dispatch: Crisis in Tigray

Plus: A look at the debate over gun violence prevention legislation.

Happy Wednesday! Unless you are either a giant cargo ship trying to navigate the Suez Canal or a public relations official for General Mills dealing with a customer that alleges to have found cinnamon-coated shrimp tails in their Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then you are not having a happy Wednesday.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Police charged a 21-year-old man with 10 counts of first-degree murder following the mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado grocery store on Monday. Authorities are conducting an “extensive investigation” into the shooter, but have yet to determine his motive.

  • Department of Homeland Security data obtained by Axios show that only 13 percent of the estimated 13,000 migrant family members attempting to cross the U.S. southern border between March 14 and March 21 were returned to Mexico under Title 42, the Trump-era policy that allows the federal government to close the border indefinitely to “nonessential travel” to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

  • North Korea has reportedly resumed its missile tests, firing off a series of short-range missiles over the weekend in response to U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea.

  • A fire in Bangladesh destroyed large parts of a Rohingya refugee camp, leaving at least 15 dead, 560 injured, 400 missing, and 45,000 displaced, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. The camp is home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled persecution in Burma in recent years. 

  • The NIH’s Data and Safety Monitoring Board sent a letter to AstraZeneca on Monday expressing concern that the pharmaceutical company’s press release about the efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccine used “data that was already outdated and potentially misleading,” and that it was actually 69 to 75 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19, not 79 percent. AstraZeneca in a statement said the company would “immediately engage with the independent data safety monitoring board to share our primary analysis with the most up to date efficacy data.”

  • Early exit polls in Israel show a tight race, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party likely winning a plurality of seats in parliament but falling well short of a majority. Whether Netanyahu will have enough support to continue on as prime minister likely won’t be clear until later in the week.

  • The Senate voted 57-43 on Tuesday to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General of the United States, a role he previously held in the Obama administration.

  • The United States confirmed 52,612 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard. An additional 856 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 543,744. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 31,671 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 1,707,293 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday. 83,930,495 Americans have now received at least one dose.

Crisis in Tigray

When we last wrote to you in November about Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s military campaign in the northern Tigray region, we noted that “a swift resolution to the conflict is unlikely.” That prediction rings true more than four months later, as Tigray’s civilian population continues to suffer amid ongoing fighting, food and water shortages, and mass displacement.

In response to the regional violence, President Biden dispatched Delaware Sen. Chris Coons—a longtime political ally who was previously under consideration for secretary of state—to meet with Abiy in Ethiopia and “convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region.”

The two met over the weekend, and while a detailed readout of the conversation is not yet available, a National Security Council official confirmed to The Dispatch that the humanitarian crisis was the topic of conversation.

Coons “expressed our concern for the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region,” a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday. “Prime Minister Abiy publicly committed to deepening in a meaningful dialogue with the international community to address this conflict in Tigray, and he also shared publicly that he condemns the human rights violations that are going on.”

In what has been referred to as “genocide” by some and “ethnic cleansing” by others, the Ethiopian government launched a multi-pronged assault on Tigray’s civilian population last November, after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) gave Abiy pretense for intervention by attacking a federal military base at Sero.

Fighting alongside the Ethiopian army are militias from the neighboring state of Amhara and, by some accounts, Eritrean forces operating under the leadership of Abiy’s ally, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. The result: Thousands of civilians dead, and many more displaced by way of indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, village looting and burning, and sexual assault and rape.

But it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how bad things have gotten. “While there are ongoing reports of atrocities against civilians in Tigray, it is very challenging to verify overall death tolls credibly since the Ethiopian government has not yet granted access to the region for independent human rights monitors and communications within the region remain highly curtailed,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International told The Dispatch. “Amnesty has been requesting access since December 2020 but those requests have gone unanswered.”

What we do know is that more than 60,000 refugees have poured into neighboring Sudan since the outset of the conflict—many of them unaccompanied children. Reuters found that at least 2 million people were displaced from their homes between November and January.

The state of Tigray is currently home to more than five million people, most of whom are ethnic Tigrayan. The TPLF traditionally exerted its influence on the federal government through the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a political coalition made up of four ethnicity-based parties. When the organization was dismantled in 2019 in favor of the multiethnic Prosperity Party headed by Abiy, Tigrayans found themselves without effective representation in the capital of Addis Ababa.

These existing tensions flared when Abiy delayed last summer’s elections—ostensibly due to the pandemic—and the TPLF moved to conduct its own elections regardless. Abiy declared the vote—and the TPLF’s resulting regional victory—illegitimate. On November 4, the TPLF allegedly attacked a federal military base and attempted to steal artillery and equipment.

“Over the past months of continued provocation and incitement for violence by TPLF, the Federal Government has maintained a policy of extreme patience and caution in order to avoid any harm that such provocations would cause the people of Tigray,” a statement from the government read. “While the Federal government has used all means to thwart a military engagement against the TPLF, a war however cannot be prevented only on the goodwill and decision of one side, but on the mutual choice for peace by both parties. The last red line has been crossed with this morning’s attacks and the Federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation.”

But the Ethiopian National Defense Force’s response seems aimed not just at subduing TPLF “rebels,” but also at eradicating the region’s entire ethnic heritage. Survivors and doctors have reported rape and sexual assault targeting Tigrayan women—a tactic often deployed in conflict zones as a part of genocidal campaigns—at a massive scale. The systematic destruction of homes, places of worship, and vital infrastructure appears to demonstrate the army’s ultimate purpose of ridding the area of its civilian population.

In late November, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces indiscriminately massacred several hundred civilians in the ancient city of Axum over a 24-hour period in what Amnesty International said likely amounts to crimes against humanity. Other large-scale massacres—in Mai-Kadra, Debre Abay, and Dengolat—have also provoked accusations that Abiy’s forces are committing war crimes. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has since agreed to investigate rampant extrajudicial killings and sexual violence in the region.

A U.S. government report obtained by the New York Times last month concluded that Abiy’s army and other militias in the region were “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.” The Biden administration has thus far been forceful in condemning the Ethiopian government’s moves in Tigray—and announced last week an additional $52 million in humanitarian aid to the region. But it has stopped short of identifying Abiy as the culprit, or pursuing punitive action.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken went on the record earlier this month describing acts perpetrated by pro-Abiy forces in the region as “ethnic cleansing” and called for “full accountability” for those responsible. But officials have been largely deferential to local governing bodies to settle the dispute.

“What’s happening in Ethiopia has had, and will continue to have, devastating consequences for thousands of innocent people, and it poses a direct threat to regional peace and security,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council early this month. “The onus to prevent further atrocities and human suffering falls squarely on the Ethiopian government’s shoulders.”

Gun Policy Debate Receives Focus

After a week that saw two awful mass shootings in America—a spree at several massage parlors in and around Atlanta last Tuesday and a rampage at a grocery store in Colorado on Monday—President Biden reentered the federal firearm policy debate on Tuesday, calling for Congress to move forward on several gun control bills Democrats have backed for years.

“While we’re still waiting for more information regarding the [Colorado] shooter … I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future, and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said in remarks broadcast from the White House. “We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.”

Biden also called for the Senate to quickly pass two bills already passed by the Democratic House intended to strengthen background checks for gun sales. One, H.R. 8, would mandate background checks for all firearms sales; current federal law requires only licensed dealers to perform background checks. The other, H.R. 1112, would erase a current federal provision that permits dealers to move forward with a sale if a background check takes longer than three days to process. (Advocates of abolishing that provision describe it as a “loophole,” in the sense that it potentially allows criminals to acquire a gun they should not legally be permitted to possess. It is not a loophole in the legislative sense, but a provision that Congress deliberately put in place when it established the background check system in the ’90s.)

Biden’s calls were part of a pattern that has been repeated time and time again in recent years: A mass shooting takes place, Democrats push to pass new restrictions they argue would help prevent such shootings from taking place in the future, and Republicans block those restrictions, arguing they violate the Second Amendment and don’t address the root causes of mass violence. The latest round of congressional jockeying is just beginning, but the contours of how it is likely to play out were visible in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence that also took place Tuesday.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Sen. Ted Cruz said during the hearing. Alongside Judiciary Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley, Cruz has repeatedly proposed legislation to increase funding for the federal background check system and strengthen criminal penalties for attempting to purchase a firearm illegally, among other provisions.

During the Trump years, the White House frequently tried to pivot from gun policy to other issues it argued were connected with gun violence. These ranged from mental health issues—Trump bounced around the idea of rebuilding America’s largely defunct mental health institutions—to the sale of violent video games.

On Tuesday, Grassley pointed to a different policy area. “I’ve taken a few lessons from these terrible events,” he said. “The first is that we can’t reduce violence in our communities without a professional, well-trained and fully funded police force. This includes gun violence. The rallying cry during the riots last summer was ‘Defund the police.’ Cities that followed that advice saw a rapid spike in violent crime.”

Worth Your Time

  • Sen. Ben Sasse gave a fiery speech on the floor of the Senate yesterday in support of the filibuster, entering into what he deemed the body’s “most important policy debate in decades.” Democrats are under immense pressure from their base to do away with the 60-vote threshold, but Sasse argued that “part of the responsibility of being a U.S. Senator is to stand up to the extreme fringes of your party.” The Nebraska senator said the consequences of going nuclear would be dire—not just for Republicans, but also for the country. “If you want to see American politics become more brutal, if you want to see American politics become more crude, if we want to see American politics become more demagogic, then stripping away the mechanism that has forced us to work together, that would be the perfect recipe for bringing about this dystopian reality,” he said. “If you want a lame, mean politics that aims only to own the libs or drink conservative tears, this is how you bring that crap show about. You’d set the Senate on fire.”

  • You wouldn’t necessarily know it from paying attention to our national politics, but political moderation—on both sides of the aisle—is still a winner at the ballot box. Nathaniel Rakich crunched the numbers over at FiveThirtyEight and found that in 2020, incumbent Republican and Democratic House members with moderate voting records most outperformed Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the site today: Ryan has a piece on Maryland’s digital ad tax, and Jonah wrote about last week’s bilateral meeting between American and Chinese diplomats.

  • In the latest Sweep, Sarah touches on the effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, GOP congressional candidates’ race to win endorsements from former President Trump, the DNC’s fundraising efforts, Colorado’s increasingly Democratic electorate, and more. Plus, Chris Stirewalt drops in to write about President Biden’s approval rating thus far.

  • Will Congress finally reclaim its Article 1 war powers? Should the District of Columbia qualify for statehood? When will the fencing eyesore surrounding the U.S. Capitol finally come down? Haley and Ryan answer these questions, and more, in the latest Uphill.

  • Tevi Troy—presidential historian and all-around smart person—joined Tuesday’s episode of The Remnant to talk about the U.S.’ culture of censorship before moving into the most vitally important topics of our time: Marvel vs. DC, and the Snyder Cut.

Let Us Know

As Sarah noted in her Sweep newsletter yesterday, the Washington Post reported this week that news consumption—print, digital, cable—is down across the board since President Trump left office in January. Trump predicted as much back in 2017.

Have your news consumption habits changed at all in recent months? Do you find yourself less interested in the day-to-day goings on? How can a certain daily newsletter make sure you keep reading it every morning?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).