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Horn Of Africa And Ethiopia

Volume 163: debated on Monday 4 December 1989

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The following questions stood on the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what plans he has to discuss the situation in the Horn of Africa with other Governments and non-governmental organisations.


To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in the light of reports of famine in rebel-held areas of Ethiopia, how Her Majesty's Government will ensure that food supplies they provide will get through to those who need them.

Discussions with other Governments and non-governmental organisations are continuing. First, I will explain the actions which have already been taken.

As the House is aware, well over 3 million people are threatened by famine in northern Ethiopia. It is estimated that about 600,000 tonnes of food aid will be needed, especially in the early months of next year. The House also knows that this appalling problem is the result of crop failure, worsened by the continuing civil war.

The Overseas Development Administration constantly monitors the food situation in Ethiopia. On 31 August I discussed our deep concern with non-governmental organisation and then on 26 October with the Save the Children Fund, by which date it was clear that famine would result from the lack of September rains. I had already announced in August 6,850 tonnes of food aid for Eritrea.

A senior ODA official reported directly to me on 31 October on his return from Ethiopia. Immediately I stepped up our continuing diplomatic efforts with the United States, the Soviet Union our European Community partners, certain Arab countries, the Ethiopian Government and both the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and the Tigre People's Liberation Front.

Our overriding priority is to get food to the starving. To do this we must first persuade the Ethiopian Government to allow the passage of food across the lines. Secondly, we must work for an end to the conflicts in Ethiopia.

On 14 November, in Rome, I discussed our assessment of need with representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the world food programme, and received their latest estimates from the early warning system of the likely severity of the famine.

On 21 November in Brussels I underlined to our Community partners the severity and urgency of the situation, and on 27 November at the Foreign Affairs Council the Commission and our partners agreed to my request to reinforce our diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. The £2 million of relief aid that I announced last week brings to nearly £13 million Britain's help for those in need in Ethiopia this year.

The aid that we continue to make available will meet real humanitarian need, but there can be no lasting relief to suffering in Ethiopia unless there is an end to the civil conflict. This requires a negotiated solution involving all parties. We have been, and will continue to be, very active in every possible forum to bring that about. I shall be raising the whole issue at the OECD in Paris tomorrow and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will also be doing so with the EC presidency.

Let the House and the nation be in no doubt that we are doing all that we reasonably can to get food to the starving and to bring peace to the people of Ethiopia.

I am sure that the Whole House welcomes my right hon. Friend's statement. I hope that, as a result of it, there will be great relief over the long term for the people of the Horn of Africa, and of Ethiopia in particular. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that she has recently attended talks in Washington on this subject? Can she give us some detail of what was discussed there?

Last week I met the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs and the acting Director of United States Aid for International Development, to discuss the problems in Ethiopia. I sought their assistance on contacts with the Soviet Union and anyone else who can bring the right sort of influence to bear on the Ethiopian Government and the rebel movements so that we may get the food supplies which are being donated to the people who need them so urgently. I cannot say that we have yet received the responses we want, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are in constant touch with all those who might be able to bring about a free passage of the food to the people who really need it.

Does my right hon. Friend think that there is any hope of establishing a food corridor through which this food can be transported to those who need it?

I would love to be able to give my hon. Friend a positive response to that question. The difficulty is that the Ethiopian Government have refused to discuss the free access of food. To get a corridor such as we all want will obviously take much more diplomatic discussion, in which we are fully engaged.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the most appalling thing in Ethiopia is the continuing conflict? Would it not be helpful if all of those who supply arms to either side in the dispute were persuaded to stop doing that? What steps are the Government taking to bring pressure to bear on those who supply arms? Is it not appalling that we should be sending arms while humanitarian aid is desperately needed to save lives?

Those who supply arms know that that can only prolong the conflict. I have no doubt that all the representations being made at a variety of levels across many Governments are to the effect that we need peace in Ethiopia before there can be any long-term solution for the starving people there.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the £2 million that was allocated, or so-called allocated, last week is geared towards the open-roads policy, which the Minister herself says is extremely hard to establish? Does she agree that the Government simply ran a high-profile public relations exercise last week, although they have been told about the problem repeatedly this year and have repeatedly refused to go to the Soviet Union, who are the only people capable of moving the Ethiopian Government?

I do not think that the hon. Member can have listened to a word of my statement, It is difficult, and it will be difficult, to establish an open-roads policy. The most efficient and direct route to take to provide food for the people of Tigré and Eritrea would be through the established channels of distribution from the Government-held ports, but that will happen only when the Ethiopian Government listen to all those to whom we have made representations, not just in the past week but during the past months. We shall go on making representations. Whether it be to the Soviet Union, the United States or any of our European partners, I hope that the Ethiopian Government will respond so that starvation can be stopped.

In contradistinction to what the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said, is it not true that my right hon. Friend has taken very early action to try to provide food for the millions of people who are in danger of starvation in Ethiopia, and that she has made real contact with the Soviet Union, which has a great deal of influence in Ethiopia? I am sure that the whole House and the nation join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on the actions that she has taken.

Has the European Economic Community, which supplied much of the food aid when there was last starvation in Ethiopia, taken adequate and good action to provide food? Is there any chance of getting the Ethiopian Government to agree to open one of the two ports, without which we shall have great difficulty feeding people in the Asmara-Wello corridor?

My hon. Friend is right. We shall be extremely grateful for the efforts of all our Community partners and, indeed, the European Commission to get food to the people of Ethiopia. So far we have not persuaded the Ethiopian Government to open either of the ports but it is an urgent matter on which we are working.

Given that the overriding priority is to get food to the starving, and in view of the intransigence of the Ethiopian Government, would it not be best to send food by the overland route through the Sudan and to provide aid to the NGOs capable of using that route? Is that not the key?

I am sure that the best way to send food to the people who need it is through the NGOs. They have good experience and seem to be the best channel. Resources sent through them and other international agencies seem to assist people. We are working on that.

As an hon. Member who represented you, Mr. Speaker, at the opening session of the national assembly in Addis Ababa, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no hope for Ethiopia unless and until the wretched civil war is brought to an end? Will she give an assurance that the Goverment will continue to play their part along with other powers to bring about a settlement and, in particular, to pursuade Russia, which probably holds the key, to bring the utmost pressure to bear on the Mengistu regime?

We are already doing that. We shall continue to do everything necessary through every channel open to us to persuade the parties to the conflict to end it.

I agree with the Minister that the war is causing starvation. If the war ceased, we could get food to millions of dying people. Some children in Ethiopia die even before they reach the age of one. Something must be done. Does the Minister agree that, even though an open-roads policy is not possible at present because of the fighting, we must continue to seek such a policy so that even if the war continues we can get food to the people? Has she considered the supply and use of lorries? Is she aware that Tigré is short of lorries to take food from A to B? Will she consider whether aid is needed to help provide lorries?

It is likely that the additional £2 million that I announced last week, bringing our total aid this year to £13 million, will be used for urgent transport requirements. As the hon. Gentleman knows well, one has only to hold in one's arms a small child who is just skin and bone to know how bad the position is.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that 60 per cent. of the fertile land in Ethiopia is not under production and that the gross domestic product of all the sub-Saharan African countries is equivalent only to that of Belgium? Does she agree that we must for ever continue to try to help the unfortunate people in those countries and not seek the immediate solutions that some Opposition Members believe exist?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the need for sustainable development. We must put in place agricultural schemes that can produce food for the future on a long-term basis. Until the conflict is brought to an end we have little chance of moving ahead with any agricultural scheme in Ethiopia. Only in countries which are prepared to undertake considerable agricultural production can we povercome future famine.

Does the Minister know whether President Bush discussed this matter with President Gorbachev last weekend?

I regret that I do not know, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I raised the matter with two Assistant Secretaries of State in the State Department in Washington on Thursday before they left, together with the President, for Malta. I believe that the message may well have got through.

As former chairman of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, may I tell my right hon. Friend that no one who has any knowledge of Ethiopia could dissent from her analysis? May I support the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and others who have said that there are two tragedies in Ethiopia the famine and the civil war? Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to support the NGOs' efforts to get food aid to the various areas of Ethiopia in the knowledge that it is not only the Ethiopian Government but others who have used food aid as a political and military weapon in the past? May I inform my right hon. Friend how sad some of us were that some NGOs were taking her to task? In fairness, in recent months she and the Government have been making considerable efforts to help Ethiopia.

Food aid should never be used as a weapon of war. Regrettably it often is. It is remarkable that we saw a letter from Save The Children Fund last week when the discussion which led to a whole series of new actions took place in the office of the director of Save The Children Fund in October.

May I say how pleased I am that the Minister is back, as the whole of last week I was trying to get a Government statement on this important issue?

Does the Minister accept that as we speak people are dying in Ethiopia? Will she explain why, despite being repeatedly warned by the aid agencies of this potential danger back in July, it took last week's dramatic television pictures to propel the Government into giving a paltry £2 million in food aid, which is only 1 per cent. of the total food aid required? While we accept that it must be right to attempt through international pressure to persuade the Ethiopian Government to open up roads to rebel-held areas, does the right hon. Lady accept that meantime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, there must be co-operation with the two local organisations that can effectively and quickly distribute the food to the people in need?

If I had not been in Washington last week for talks with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the State Department, I would not have got through to a number of people whom the hon. Lady's hon. Friends keep asking me to contact. We are concerned that people, especially small children, are dying. It was not in July that we started action. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), worked continually when he was at the ODA to get the right preparations taken should the crops fail, as they were known to have failed after the September rains were known to have failed. It did not take a Michael Buerk film to bring the Department into action. I have been in action since the first day I arrived at the ODA and my right hon. Friend before me.

The hon. Lady may think that £2 million is paltry. I made it clear that that was on top of nearly £11 million which we have already given this year. Since the beginning of 1987 we have spent some £54 million and since the beginning of 1984 £139 million in direct aid to Ethiopia. We shall ensure that assistance in this terrible disaster goes through the NGOs and that the food and transport that are required will be available to the people who need it so badly.