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Conflict in Tigray Region of Ethiopia

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to raise the very important issue of the conflict in Tigray. It is the first time the House has had an opportunity to debate the conflict, which has, since last November, devastated Tigray, the mountainous region in the north of Ethiopia. I have given the Minister’s office advance sight of the questions I will be asking him at the end of my speech, and there are many in the UK and beyond who will be listening very carefully to what he has to say.

The conflict started in retaliation to an attack on the northern command by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The Ethiopian federal Government cut off all links into the region, closed roads, shut down communications and sent their troops to surround Mekelle. We know that in addition to Ethiopian armed forces, Eritrean forces and Amharan militias are also now present in Tigray. Since November, more than 60,000 Tigrayan people have fled into refugee camps in Sudan—some are reported to have had their exit routes blocked by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces; about 1 million people—some sources put the figure higher—have been internally displaced; and 4.5 million people have become food-insecure. Crops have been destroyed, livestock have been killed and agriculture has been disrupted. Tigray is an area of chronic food insecurity. It is the scene of the devastating 1984-85 famine, so deliberately cutting it off from food supplies and markets, as the Ethiopian Government are alleged to have done, means that people will starve.

Up to 80% of the region is still inaccessible. Some of Tigray’s, and the world’s, most precious cultural heritage sites have been destroyed and priceless treasures looted. Some 70% of health facilities are reported to have been looted or vandalised by Ethiopian and Eritrean Government forces, including, very recently, the only specialist clinic providing care to rape victims in Mekelle. Schools have been taken out of commission—they are being used for housing troops or displaced people. Two refugee camps, at Hitsats and Shimelba, have been razed to the ground. The whereabouts of 20,000 of the refugees they sheltered is still unknown. An estimated 50,000 civilians have been killed, and there is evidence that children have been targeted, and 10,000 women have been raped. Let that sink in: 10,000 women have been raped. The most recent terrible update from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported continuing human rights abuses, severe malnutrition among young children and a food security situation described as “catastrophic”. In considering this catalogue of destruction, I want to focus on three points. The first is the nature of the conflict. The second is the use of rape as a weapon of war. The third is the lack of action by the international community.

First, on the nature of the conflict, the Ethiopian Government originally said that the attack on Tigray was a “law and order operation” to deal with a long-running dispute, but multiple subsequent reports indicate a sustained and brutal assault that has included aerial bombardment and ground shelling of settlements, with the deliberate targeting of civilians. This is not a little local difficulty in Ethiopia’s back yard; it risks a much wider destabilisation and escalation of conflict throughout the horn of Africa. Early information trickling out through the refugee camps in Sudan told, right from the start, of massacres of civilians. At Mai Kadra, where responsibility is hotly contested, witnesses have spoken of both Ethiopian Government and Tigrayan militia involvement. Most notably last November, there was a brutal massacre at Axum, one of the holiest Christian sites in Ethiopia. A total of 750 people are thought to have been killed. The stories circulating last year on social media were confirmed last month by Amnesty International in a report that documents aerial bombardment by Ethiopians, followed by systematic killing by Eritrean soldiers going door to door through the town. They particularly targeted young men and boys, prevented people from burying the dead and then looted the town of everything of value, including food. Some commentators have said that food is being used as a weapon of war.

In January, over 40 people were massacred at Debre Abbay, 300 people were killed in the attack on the Hitsats refugee camp—300 people—and at a village near Samre 500 buildings were set on fire and 60 people are thought to have been killed. At a village called Bora an estimated 100 people were murdered. Emaciated and starving people displaced by the violence are pouring into overcrowded towns. The Norwegian Refugee Council says that 37,000 people have recently arrived at Sheraro, a town in north-western Tigray, where food, water and medicine are running out fast.

“The situation in Sheraro is beyond dire”,

the NRC chief, Jan Egeland, has warned. There are many parts of Tigray, particularly rural areas, where there is no communication and there are grave fears about the fate of local people in terms of violence and access to food, medicine and essential services.

What is clear from both social media and independent reporting is that civilians have been targeted because of their ethnicity—because they are Tigrayan. Footage has been circulating of men in Ethiopian military uniforms speaking in Amharic and shouting abuse at groups of boys while shooting them and throwing their bodies over a cliff. Along with this has been the vandalising of symbols of Tigrayan culture, most notably Debre Damo monastery and the al-Nejashi mosque, one of the oldest in Africa. As the International Development Committee heard last week, economic and service infrastructure has been damaged, with factories looted and vandalised and banks closed, making it hard for humanitarian agencies to operate. The Committee also heard about the destruction of health facilities, the result of systematic looting and vandalism by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces.

Secondly, I want to talk about the widespread use of rape and sexual violence. It has been estimated that 10,000 women in Tigray have been raped, and recent reports on Channel 4, the BBC and CNN have all documented the horrific nature of the attacks, including kidnapping, imprisonment, rape and mutilation. On Monday this week, an unprecedented letter signed by 12 leading figures in the international community called for the sexual violence to stop. They said there is only one medical facility in the whole region fully equipped to meet the survivors’ needs.

What especially stands out are the ferocity of the attacks, which is evident from reports and photographs of injuries to women, including the mutilation of women’s genitals, and the targeting of women because they are Tigrayan. The rapists have talked of “Amharanising” the women and purifying their blood. The use of rape as a weapon of war is always abhorrent and heinous, but for soldiers to claim to be purifying or cleansing women by raping them makes this violence look genocidal. What also stands out is the impunity. There is no indication that either the Ethiopian or Eritrean Governments are taking any steps whatsoever to rein in their troops. Those responsible for the sexual violence inflict it with complete impunity. On Tuesday, the Ethiopian Government admitted there had been sexual assaults on women in Tigray, but sought to justify it as a consequence of the conflict.

In 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously approved resolution 1820, which

“Demands the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians”,

and says they should

“immediately take appropriate measures to protect civilians, including women and girls, from all forms of sexual violence, which could include…enforcing appropriate military disciplinary measures and upholding the principle of command responsibility”.

It goes on to say that

“rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.

This is tough and unequivocal language.

The UK has the privilege of being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has a responsibility to ensure that this resolution is enforced. It was Lord Hague of Richmond, then the Foreign Secretary, who campaigned alongside Angelina Jolie against the use of sexual violence in war, and he received an award for his efforts from the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Now is the time for the Conservative Government to prove that that was more than a publicity stunt.

That brings me to my third and final point, which is the lack of response from the international community. The European Union, Germany and the United States have paused their aid to Ethiopia, and the US Administration last week sent the respected Senator Coons of Delaware to Addis Ababa. Ireland has led moves for the EU to apply targeted sanctions. However, the rest of the world has done little more than talk, and the Governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea have turned a deaf ear. What is needed is not more words, but action, so I am asking the Minister for action on the following points. The Ethiopia country programme is the biggest UK bilateral aid programme, as the Minister stressed at the International Development Committee last week. Will Her Majesty’s Government align their policies with the UK’s international partners, the US, the EU and Germany, and pause the parts of their aid programme that are going to the Ethiopian Government?

Will Her Majesty’s Government support the moves to set up an independent UN investigation into the massacres of civilians in Tigray, including those at Mai Kadra, Axum and Samre, and the targeting of refugee camps, including those at Hitsats and Shimelba? Will they do this urgently before evidence, including of survivors at massacre sites and rape victims from hospitals in Mekelle, is removed or destroyed?

Will the Government introduce targeted sanctions against those in Ethiopia and Eritrea responsible for the atrocities in Tigray, following the approach taken by the European Union? Will they continue to ensure that the UN Security Council remains actively engaged in ending the war in Tigray and the abuses associated with it? Will they press for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops, and seek to ensure that there is an inclusive national dialogue in the country, as many Tigrayans have been calling for, to secure a lasting peace?

Will the Government specifically ensure that evidence of the widespread use of rape and sexual violence in the Tigray conflict is collated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice in line with UN Security Council resolution 1820? It is wholly unacceptable that soldiers from the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies should be able to rape women with impunity. Equally, it is unacceptable that their commanders-in-chief should permit their forces to use rape as a weapon of war or fail to bring to justice those under their command who commit such crimes.

Will the Government take steps to support publicly the US Administration’s initiatives to ensure that immediate and full access is provided to humanitarian agencies in Tigray, and that unfettered access will be provided for local and international journalists without repercussions for their translators and fixers?

The Foreign Secretary has spoken of his experience of taking war criminals to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Will the Minister therefore press him to take initial steps, through the UN Security Council, to bring prosecutions against those whom the evidence points to being responsible for war crimes in Tigray, including the use of rape?

The effects of this war will continue long after the guns have fallen silent. There will be empty spaces where civilian populations were murdered, and there will be a cohort of children growing up who are the result of the rape of their mothers. This further illustrates why it is absolutely the wrong time for the UK Government to be reneging on their promise to maintain UK aid spending at 0.7% of gross national income. I hope the Minister will reflect further on that disastrous decision.

Even now, the UK Government can help avert yet more destruction in Tigray and provide justice for the survivors of the massacres and for the women who have been raped. It will, however, take much more than words; it will take action, and that is what I, and many others, hope the Minister will commit to tonight.

I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing the debate this evening. Normally, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) would have responded, but, unfortunately, he is travelling. I know that he takes the issues that she has raised very seriously, and I shall run through some of the points that he would have made had he been able to be here.

The crisis in Tigray is of grave concern both to Her Majesty’s Government and, indeed, to Members of this House. More than four months on from the start of the conflict, much of Tigray remains incredibly dangerous both for the people who live there and for the humanitarian workers trying to deliver badly needed support, and, as the hon. Lady set out in her speech, the impact on civilians is devastating. Sadly, we are aware that at least five workers—Ethiopian staff working for UK-funded non-governmental organisations—have tragically been killed in this conflict. I pay tribute to them here today for their courage, for their service and, ultimately, for their sacrifice. The targeting of humanitarians is utterly unacceptable.

The conflict has caused the collapse of essential and basic services: health, nutrition, water and sanitation. Life-saving maternal healthcare services and vaccines cannot be delivered, thereby endangering the lives of newborn children and their mothers. Huge numbers of people, likely more than half a million, are in areas beyond the reach of aid agencies. Across the region, as the hon. Lady said, 4.5 million people are now in need of life-saving humanitarian aid. The United Nations assesses that the overall humanitarian response remains “deeply inadequate” compared with the needs that have been assessed on the ground, and the situation is indeed grave.

We have received ongoing reports of egregious human rights violations since the conflict started and, as has been outlined, we are seeing and hearing increasingly harrowing stories, on an almost daily basis, of widespread murder and rape. Armed actors are subjecting civilians to appalling abuses and systematic campaigns of looting, largely with impunity. Eritrea’s role in this conflict is particularly concerning. As such, the UK has called on it to leave Ethiopia immediately. There are numerous reports of atrocities involving Eritrean forces, and their presence is fuelling insecurity.

Since the start of the conflict in November, the UK has consistently called for unhindered and comprehensive access for relief agencies and journalists. One of the greatest defences against the impunity that the hon. Lady has highlighted is the work of the media. We have been clear that the protection of civilians must be a priority, and we have pressed for investigations into the human rights abuses that have been highlighted, as well as for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. There can be no military solution to the problems in Tigray, and we have urged all parties to seek an inclusive political settlement and to restore security and stability.

In January this year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary travelled to Ethiopia and visited a humanitarian logistics hub in Gondar, run by the World Food Programme. He heard first hand from our agency partners about the difficulties faced in delivering life-saving assistance. He also met Prime Minister Abiy, the President and the Deputy Prime Minister. He emphasised to them the need for immediate humanitarian access, and made clear the UK’s serious concerns about human rights violations, media freedom and political freedom.

The Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa have also raised the situation with their counterparts across the continent and internationally. As the hon. Lady suggested, that includes recent conversations with the United States Secretary of State Blinken. I have raised these issues with my counterparts in the Gulf, and the UK has been active in discussions at the United Nations Security Council. Most recently, on 11 March, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth called again for urgent action to be taken to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, during a discussion on food insecurity and conflict in the other place.

The UK has been a generous supporter of humanitarian activities. On top of more than £100 million of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia this financial year, an additional £15.4 million has been provided specifically for this crisis response. Our embassy in Addis Ababa has been working tirelessly and in challenging circumstances to secure humanitarian access, and to press for investigations into the human rights abuses and violations that the hon. Lady outlined in her speech.

A team of UK officials from the embassy travelled to Mekelle, Tigray’s principal city, on 4 and 5 March. United Nations and NGO staff were open about the complexities of operating in this environment and the extent of civilian suffering. At a site for displaced persons, our staff heard harrowing accounts of truly horrendous abuses. They saw a relief effort hamstrung by confused Government systems struggling to keep pace with the needs of the people. It is clear that obstacles to access have weakened the overall response to this devastating situation.

One positive development has been the recent announcement from the Government of Ethiopia on access and their commitment to move to a system of access notification. Under that approach, responding organisations no longer have to wait for approval from Ethiopian authorities to enter Tigray. The UK is working with the United Nations and others to assess whether changes introduced by the authorities result in a demonstrable and positive improvement on the ground. We can also cautiously welcome the improved access for the media in Tigray.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) will be interested to know, as he has raised this privately with me, that we also support the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its work is important, and we are glad to see that those staff are planning a joint mission with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

However, it is clear that media workers remain persecuted and at risk of detention. We are also concerned that the proposed joint human rights investigation will not be seen as impartial by the victims of the conflict. The crisis in Tigray comes as Ethiopia already faces huge humanitarian, economic and political pressures. In 2021, relief agencies will assist nearly 18 million people across the country. Covid-19, climate events and devastating locust invasions have already put paid to prosperity in the region. Ethnic violence has increased in many regions and may rise further ahead of the planned elections in June this year. The stakes are very high, and this coming year will need concerted action by the international system and a strong and well co-ordinated United Nations.

Let me conclude by reassuring the House that the United Kingdom will continue to engage comprehensively with Ethiopia and to lead co-ordination with international partners in pressing for a political solution to this conflict that brings about an end to the violence. We will also ensure that investigations into atrocities are robust, unbiased, credible and trusted by the people of Tigray themselves, so that those committing abuses do not evade justice. In the meantime, it is our absolute priority to make sure that humanitarian support continues to reach those in desperate need.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.