[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate; this is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Hon. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia.
Good afternoon, Mr Bone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. With so much going on in the world—in Afghanistan, for example, and the great concerns over Ukraine—problems in Africa sometimes get over-looked. I remember, with some shame, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were killed while the world, including our own country, stood and watched. We cannot allow that situation to happen again. That is why I called this debate, so that we can once again highlight the problems emerging from the conflict in Ethiopia.
Many individuals are concerned about what happens in Africa. I have been chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia since 2009, and have taken an interest in the country for a lot longer. Years ago, Sir Bob Geldof asked me, “What got you interested in Ethiopia?” and I replied, “You did.” Sir Bob’s amazing work in the mid-1980s raised the profile of Ethiopia and inevitably drew attention to the problems that the country suffered at that time—potential starvation being the main one. At that time, the country continued to have political problems, due to the continued existence of the Marxist Derg.
Prior to my first visit to Ethiopia in December 2002, I held a debate in the Commons. Only when researching for that debate did I realise just how much else there is to that amazing country, in terms of its history and potential. For example, Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest Christian civilisations. Apart from a brief spell under Mussolini, it has enjoyed independent status for centuries, and has never been colonised. It also claims to be the origin of coffee, the birthplace of Lucy—one of the world’s oldest human beings—and the home of the fabled Queen of Sheba. The spectacular beauty of the country is amazing.
For many years, Ethiopia’s sizeable Christian and Muslim populations have rightly lived side by side without any problems, as have something like 80 tribes with 80 languages. Albeit from a low base, Ethiopia’s economic growth has been at a level that we in the western world would envy. Yes, there have been accusations of human rights abuses from time to time, with the definition of terrorism sometimes being loosely interpreted. The media have not always been entirely free, and there have been concerns about the functioning of the democratic process and the demise of the Opposition.
However, for a country that has a young democracy, the overall situation has been reasonably impressive, at least until recently. In May 2018, after I had again visited Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed—crucially from an Oromo, not a Tigray background—became Prime Minister. Straight away, he began doing the right things. The long-running war with Ethiopia’s former region Eritrea was ended, earning Abiy the Nobel peace prize in 2019. He announced his intentions to liberalise the economy by privatising state-owned enterprises, such as Ethiopian Airlines—an excellent one to travel on, by the way. Political prisoners and journalists were freed from prison, and the outlook was bright.
Where did it all go wrong? In truth, street protests and uprisings started before Abiy became Prime Minister. On my last visit, in April 2018, we were prevented from visiting various areas because of the security situation. Although it is easy to point the finger at Abiy—and we can come back to that—the unrest had emerged before he became Prime Minister.
It is probably too simplistic to say that trouble erupted because Abiy came from the Oromo tribe and therefore ended the domination of Ethiopian politics by the Tigrayan tribe, which represented just 6% of the country’s population. Again, the situation is more nuanced than that. It is probably also too simplistic to blame the outbreak of trouble on the cancellation of elections because of covid in 2020. However, it is probably true that the absence of a normal, functioning Government and Opposition-style parliamentary process in Ethiopia has not helped. It is also true, albeit it perhaps dangerous, to say that Ethiopia’s federal style of constitution has led some to believe—wrongly, of course—that breaking away would serve certain regions better. For example, Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia but it is no longer.
One of the fears that many of us have is that the current conflict could lead to a general fragmentation of the country. It is very worrying, for example, that forces from Oromia and Amhara have been involved in the conflict. Fragmentation is a real fear, even though each region would probably be incapable of any form of successful self-governance or comfortable, progressive existence. For example, the establishment of food security safety nets over the last few years—they are being severely tested at the moment—could have happened only through a federal Government programme; they could not have been achieved by any one region. It is important for separatists to realise that.
Many of us are also concerned about the possibility that, partly aggravated by the massive movement of refugees from Ethiopia, the conflict will destabilise the entire region—an outcome that none of us wishes to see. Ethiopia has the unfortunate geographical reality of being neighbour to a number of states that themselves are struggling with various challenges. It has to be a worry that some of them might become engaged in this conflict, thereby worsening it and the region.
However, such political machinations are far from the minds of those who are suffering because of the current conflict. The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, particularly in the north, is severe.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for bringing such an important debate to the House. I fully agree with him that we as a country, and as a Parliament, cannot sit back and watch while events unfold in Ethiopia in the way they are. I have had several emails from constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn whose families are trapped in Tigray, where airstrikes are hitting civilian areas multiple times a day. I am sure that the hon. Member, who has extensive knowledge of the area, agrees that the UK and its international partners should take steps to prevent the brutal bombing campaign. Does he believe that the Government should be working with the UN Security Council to secure no-fly zones over Tigray and Oromia as a means of protecting civilians such as my constituents’ families?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, which, although short, raised a number of important points. I will come on to one or two of them as I make progress, if she will allow me, but she is absolutely right to make them.
On the humanitarian situation, the World Food Programme estimates that 9.4 million people across Tigray, Amhara and Afar are in dire need of humanitarian food assistance as a direct result of the conflict. I am very sorry indeed to hear about the situation of the hon. Lady’s constituents’ families in that particular area: that is extremely worrying. The number of people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance has increased by 2.7 million in the last four months alone.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for bringing forward this really important debate. This is an issue that I have been contacted about by many constituents who have family in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. They are obviously deeply concerned about the humanitarian impact of this terrible conflict on ordinary people, particularly their families.
I completely support what the hon. Member said about humanitarian assistance. I particularly want to reinforce his points about the UN World Food Programme, which, along with other agencies, should be a focus for securing access to Tigray and neighbouring regions. Does he agree with me that the UK Government must use all diplomatic and development tools to help achieve that?
Again, I am grateful for the intervention. I will come to that point, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady and I thank her for raising it.
I am told that, in addition to the 9.4 million people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance, 400,000 Tigrayans face famine conditions. I am advised that there are more people in that famine situation than in the entire rest of the world, which is very, very worrying. The World Food Programme briefing states that
“life-saving food assistance operations in northern Ethiopia are about to grind to a halt because intense fighting has blocked the passage of fuel and food.”
There are also claims that the Ethiopian Government are failing to ensure the safe passage of trucks carrying aid through to Tigray, partly by not issuing permission for the trucks to make the journeys. Of course, the federal Government have also closed off banking services, electricity and the internet. The situation needs to be addressed urgently. The Ethiopian Government can give permission for trucks to pass through Afar and into Tigray to deliver some of the aid that is needed. Countries across the world need to respond to the general food crisis that the country faces, or the harrowing scenes of the mid-’80s will appear on our television screens once again.
Up to 50% of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were found to be malnourished, and the stocks of nutritionally fortified food for these people are now exhausted, with further stocks urgently needed. The World Food Programme is calling for an additional US$337 million to deliver emergency food assistance in northern Ethiopia. I very much hope that countries across the world will respond.
To make matters worse, a drought is affecting the region, which, according to the UN, means that 26 million people—around a quarter of Ethiopia’s population—will require food assistance this year. Normally, the figure is about 6 million or 7 million, but this year it is 26 million. That, together with the fact that humanitarian aid is not getting through to Tigray, means that Ethiopia faces a situation of massive and grave proportions. Again, it is vital that countries respond to the World Food Programme’s wider appeal for an additional US$667 million to help towards that bigger problem.
On the military conflict, Human Rights Watch claims that war crimes are being committed in Ethiopia. It says that Tigrayan forces have executed dozens of people they have captured, and that Ethiopian federal forces have bombed homes, hospitals, schools and markets. Amnesty International claims that troops fighting in support of the federal Government have committed widespread rape against ethnic Tigrayan women and girls, and it further claims that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are responsible for a pattern of sexual violence in Tigray of terrible gravity.
Amnesty International also claims that police in Addis Ababa arrested and detained hundreds of Tigrayans without due process, that journalists and media workers were also detained, and that hundreds of people were in detention with their whereabouts unknown. It is important to point out that the reports suggest that atrocities have been committed by all sides—by the federal Government forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Eritrean troops. That, of course, makes it so much worse.
The Tigray Defence Forces, part of the TPLF, were within reach of Addis before Christmas, but the forces of the federal Government fought back and the TDF have now left Afar and Amhara, and are back in Tigray, though western Tigray is held by Ethiopian forces. Eritrean forces remain there as well.
My recent discussions, however, suggest a ray of light. Many people who were detained have been released and it is hoped that there will be a will on both sides at least for discussions about peace. That is so important, because it would be difficult to address the humanitarian issues that I have outlined if the conflict continues. If the conflict continues, there will be no winners but millions of losers. That cannot benefit anyone.
I have quoted the work of some charities and organisations and I thank them and many more, including officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British embassy for the briefings that they have probably sent all of us. I pay tribute to them for their work in Ethiopia to try to manage and alleviate the effects of the crisis. Sadly, a reported 25 humanitarian workers have been killed because of the conflict, which is a tragic outcome for people who were only trying to save the lives of others. That kind of loss should encourage all of us to do everything we can to help.
As I said, I have been a friend of Ethiopia for a long time. I have defended the country in this House and more widely at times when perhaps I should have been more critical. Over many years, I pressed the UK Government to increase aid to Ethiopia, and I was proud when we did. I have also visited the country a number of times. Sometimes, however, I have found it necessary—as true friends always should—to issue warnings to Ethiopia, for which I have not always been thanked. Now is one of those times.
I have heard it claimed many times by representatives of Ethiopia that the details of the conflict have been twisted by the media and by some international commentators, and that reports are exaggerated. I have no doubt that competing stories about the conflict are coming out of that country. Equally, however, I have no doubt that the situation is perilous and that atrocities have been, and continue to be, committed by both sides. There are far too many reports by independent charities all saying the same thing.
I apologise for not being able to stay for the full debate. I, too, have heard from constituents who have connections, friends and families in Ethiopia and are incredibly concerned about the humanitarian situation. They want to see a peaceful resolution.
Does not the solution to any kind of conflict ultimately have to be negotiated? It has to be done through talking and the ballot box. The risk—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—is of a spiral, in which things continue to get worse. If the humanitarian situation deteriorates further, that will simply encourage people towards even more desperate means and measures. It is increasingly important that the international community should provide that humanitarian relief and encourage a diplomatic and peaceful negotiated solution.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I was going to suggest that in a minute.
I stress that I was motivated to hold the debate because I want to see people’s lives saved. I want to see Ethiopians live in peace and prosper, and I want to see Ethiopia survive as a country. This conflict cannot go on. In other words, I have held the debate not because I want to criticise Ethiopia, but because I want to help.
I therefore call on the UK Government to continue their aid programme and the dialogue that I know they are having with the Ethiopian Government. I call on the international community to respond to the World Food Programme’s appeal for further financing. I call on the United Nations to do more to bring about a peaceful and speedy solution to the conflict and on our own Government to use our position on the Security Council to press for more action. I call on Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia immediately.
I call on both sides in the conflict to accept what we are saying: that there will be no winners. There will only be losers, in the most awful way—through hunger and possibly famine, deteriorating health and further poverty. Those are not outcomes that anyone would want to see or be prepared to accept.
There should be an immediate ceasefire on both sides, accompanied by peace talks that address not only the conflict but the future political situation in the country. I also make another request, very specifically and because this situation is becoming really terrible. I do not make it in any way to undermine the work that the Minister and his colleagues are doing; I know they are doing a lot. Nevertheless, I call on our Prime Minister to phone Prime Minister Abiy to discuss how we can reach the peaceful situation that we need to avoid catastrophe.
We do not want to see another Rwanda and we do not want to see a repetition of the Balkans conflict. We do not want to see those tragedies being repeated. So let us act now.
It is not very often in Westminster Hall that I am called to speak first, so I am rather surprised to be called now, but also very pleased. I had thought that there might be more participants in this debate than there are.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate and on his outstanding presentation of the issue, which comes from his knowledge of it. I have been involved with him before on this issue and I have always acknowledged that he has an expertise on, and indeed a real love for, the nation and the region. Therefore, I greatly appreciate what he has said today— to be fair, I think that we all greatly appreciate it—because it has set the scene from a knowledgeable and evidential point of view.
It is always a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), in Westminster Hall. Even when he was not the shadow Minister, he and I were together in debates such as this one all the time. So, it is good now to see his elevation, so that he can promote his interest in this issue at another level.
It is also nice to see the Minister. We are running well together. Last night, we participated in the Adjournment debate in the main Chamber and here we are in Westminster Hall today. So we are really together in many things. To be fair to the Minister, I do not think that this issue is really his ministerial responsibility; I think I am right in saying that. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who has ministerial responsibility for Africa, is away on a visit. This issue would be in her portfolio. None the less, I am sure that the Minister who is here today will be more than able to address some of the concerns that we have.
I have a very straightforward point of view on this issue and I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have a heart, and a burden, for those people across the world who do not have the opportunity to express themselves from a religious point of view through their beliefs because of persecution. I will give some statistics in relation to that, as well.
Also, although the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I are politically very distanced—I say that very gently to him, by the way—we are very often on the same page when it comes to human rights issues. We were for many years when I first came here, and he has been a lot longer than I have, and these are issues that resonate with us. We speak on behalf of our constituents, who ask us to do so, but also because we think the same way, too. That is important.
The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia and the severe drought in the south-east of the country mean that millions of people are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. It is absolutely horrifying to watch some of the footage that we have seen, showing the hunger there. Here we are in an affluent society. We have our three meals a day and a choice of meals, but some people do not even have a meal for one part of the day, or maybe not even for a week.
The World Food Programme estimates that some 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in dire need of assistance. Some of the background information refers to a famine of biblical proportions and that is perhaps how I would describe it, too. That gives people an idea of just how important this issue is. The International Rescue Committee ranks Ethiopia second on its list of the 10 worst humanitarian crises expected in the world in 2022, so now is the time to do something about where we are. We have seen those terrible pictures of Yemen, as well, and I think that every person who sees those pictures is moved by the hunger they see. I know that I am, and I am quite sure that everyone else is the same: I am no different from anybody else when it comes to compassion, understanding, and wanting to help. As such, I look to the Minister for assistance. Maybe he could give us some indication of what has been done in relation to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, and how we can address it.
I also noticed something in the background information that, to be fair, I already knew through the APPG. By the way, some 145 Members from the House of Commons and the House of Lords participate in that APPG, and many of those Members—who are very aware of the issue of human rights and persecution of people for their religious beliefs—are sat in this Chamber today. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the widespread use of sexual violence, torture and forced displacement by all parties since conflict began, and it grieves me greatly when I hear of the acts that those armies and groups in Ethiopia are carrying out against women and young girls—such depravity, viciousness and violence, to a degree that particularly upsets me. In his contribution, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that in a very graphic way. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) takes a particular interest in these issues, and I always look forward to her contributions, so I hope to hear some things today from the hon. Lady that can add to this debate.
I would also like to draw attention to the terrible situation faced by Christians in Ethiopia. In 2019, the situation for Christians in Ethiopia was looking optimistic—I think the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to how things were changing. There was optimism for the future, and it looked as if things were going to get better. They did get better for a short time, but unfortunately, it has all fallen apart again. Open Doors’ world watch list is on Zoom today at 3 pm, promoting the same issue that I am here to talk about, and I thank Open Doors for all it does. I also thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for promoting that today in a very strong way.
Open Doors’ 2020 world watch list showed a sharp decline in violent attacks against Christians, with governmental and societal prejudice against Christians seemingly improving, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to earlier. When in October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded a Nobel peace prize for helping to end the conflict with Eritrea and promoting reconciliation, solidarity and social justice, many were optimistic—were confident about a future of change that could lead to normality—but unfortunately, the future outlook for peaceful co-existence in the country is not quite as good as we thought it was. Famine is rampant, and there is also talk of the humanitarian situation. I asked a question of the Minister on 19 November, and other Members of this House have asked questions as well. It is always good to get the background, because it gives us an idea of what we are all thinking; we are probably all thinking the same thing, but we are all looking for the Minister to respond.
We have referred to the vulnerable communities in the region, and to ensuring that Ethiopians are protected from violence. We have also referred to independent monitors being in place to collect evidence of crimes: the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that issue, and I want to make some comments about it, because it is really important that those who carry out despicable crimes and think they are getting away with them are brought to justice. This is a completely different story, which was in one of the papers today, but just to illustrate the issue—things like these probably trouble me more than they have in the past—a wee boy was killed some 30 years ago, but today, the person who killed that wee boy is facing jail. He thought he had got away with it for 30 years. I want to ensure that those people do not get away with it, and that there is accountability, so that at some time, in some place, they will get a tap on the shoulder and we will say “Your day of reckoning is coming”. That is what we need. They need to know that when they do it, there is accountability. I know, as a Christian, that they will be accountable in the next world, but I would like to see them get their accountability in this world, just a wee bit sooner. That is just the way that I see things.
The trend, in relation to Christians has not continued; the hope of opportunities has not continued. It has gotten worse in the last 18 months. Christians have suffered increased violence enacted against them by militias and terrorist groups. All too often, police and Government forces turn a blind eye to those attacks, allowing perpetrators of persecution to act with impunity. Atrocities are happening, and it is evident that religious and belief minority communities are being specifically targeted. Large amounts of misinformation circulating within Ethiopia—from Government forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Eritrean troops—means that even well-documented events are all too easy for perpetrators to deny. Again, it is vital that the atrocities are properly investigated, and that evidence is secured for future prosecutions, so that justice can be delivered for victims. That is what I want to see, as I believe does everyone in this House. I hope that that is what we will find in the future.
The conflict in the Tigray region has affected social harmony across Ethiopia, with many reports emerging of the deliberate targeting of places of worship. Again, it grieves me that, although we can go and worship our God in our churches with freedom, liberty and choice, facing no threats whatever, people there cannot. The crisis in Tigray has been defined by extreme human rights abuses, online misinformation, and by it being overlooked by the international community. I think that the plea from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was to raise awareness on that. I hope that through this debate we can perhaps, in a small way, make a big difference. Again, we will look to the Minister to give us the response that we hope to see.
As the crisis escalates, it is increasingly likely to spread to other regions in Ethiopia. There must be more effective steps to mitigate against the worsening of this crisis, successfully restrict the ability of perpetrators to act, and prioritise the protection of civilians of all faiths and beliefs.
It is alarming that, during the covid-19 crisis, many Christians in marginal communities have been overlooked in the distribution of Government aid and resources, with international non-governmental organisations having to step in to support those vulnerable minority communities. Again, on this specific issue, I ask whether the Department has had any chance to ascertain whether the help that should be getting to the Christian groups through the NGOs is actually doing so.
Considering the above, I wonder whether the UK Government would consider introducing a human rights sanction regime for actors in the Tigray conflict and for individuals or entities that persecute others based on religion or belief. Impunity has prevailed for too long—it is so annoying to hear of it happening with such regularity across the world, this time in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Political fighting has continued in recent weeks. In early January, an air strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Tigray killed 56 people. Aid workers also stated that 17 people working in a flour mill were killed by a drone strike on 10 January. Again, normal life is being disrupted. People are dying, families are grieving, and sadness seems to pervade everything related to this. Why are innocents being exploited, threatened and killed, when they have done nothing? I am coming to an end, Mr Bone; I did not realise that time was flying so quickly.
The background information that we have been given refers to a moment of opportunity. The withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and calls for a cessation of hostilities, in the negotiations in December, combined with the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray, prompted some to see an opportunity to end the fighting and begin talks. A senior US Administration official is involved in that, and he suggests that we need to have a willingness and an ability to seize that opportunity. We look to that moment of opportunity, because we hope that it will deliver for the people of Ethiopia.
I conclude by calling upon the Minister of the FCDO, and the Minister here today, to look at the situation in Ethiopia from both a humanitarian and political perspective, and help ensure that these people have some kind of hope for the future. We did not know it, but those of us in Westminster Hall today are the spokesmen for those people—we are the voice for the voiceless in Ethiopian Tigray. Today, this House does its best for them.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate and on all the work that he does through the APPG. His commitment to the region, his passion and his understanding have been demonstrated by not only his speech but the work that he does throughout this place. I commend him for it. It is also a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has always been a champion for the most vulnerable on this planet—it is a pleasure to speak in his wake.
A peaceful resolution to the conflict seems no closer now than it did when we last met here in November, or when the International Development Committee carried out its inquiry and report in the spring of last year. The humanitarian situation is deteriorating, particularly for women and girls, as the use of sexual violence by all sides is becoming systematic. That is what I want to focus my short speech on today.
Over 2,200 cases of sexual violence were reported to authorities in just the first six months after the conflict began. The real numbers are obviously far higher. To get some sense of the scale, consider that visits to health centres following sexual assault have quadrupled since the beginning of the conflict. Half of the reported cases were gang rapes, and some health centres reported that 90% of victims were underage—remember, that is just the reported cases. The UN estimates that a third of incidents against civilians have involved sexual violence, and it will only get worse as hunger spreads, with women and girls being bartered for food—women-led households are acutely vulnerable. With the UN reporting that it will have no more cereal and cooking oil for Tigray after this week, the prospects for women and girls are looking increasingly bleak. The collapse of the healthcare system, with only a third of health centres in Tigray open and just 6% of them with obstetrics facilities, means there is no support in place for women and survivors. That means women and girls dying as a result of injuries from attacks and risky pregnancies amid the crisis of malnutrition and potential famine.
All forces must immediately condemn and explicitly prohibit the use of sexual violence by their troops and allow for the independent investigation of all reports. The UN Secretary General special taskforce must be allowed to investigate. The special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict should be permitted to visit refugee camps to interview survivors and record abuses as per Security Council resolution 1888. The recently appointed Human Rights Council expert panel must prioritise work on sexual violence. The humanitarian blockades must end, with aid convoys urgently being allowed unfettered access, if we are to avert famine and protect women and girls from the prospect of further sexual violence.
The Foreign Secretary has long declared that ending sexual violence in war is a key priority. We all welcome the forthcoming global summit on sexual violence later this year. However, women and girls across Ethiopia need support now. UK leadership on this issue is vital if the summit is to have any credibility. I welcome that this Government have sent out one expert on preventing sexual violence, but given the scale of what is going on, one expert is not enough.
We need to see this Government shift to a focus on preventing atrocity. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we need to be there on the ground, ensuring that the data is gathered so that, hopefully, we can see those criminals brought to justice in the international courts. More important than that, we need to be doing more on prevention. I know that hon. Members will share my frustration that all we have been able to do with the scraps of genuine information that we have is sit and watch and shout to try and prevent this awful hell on earth as it unfolds in front of us.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for his very good work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti, which does what all-party groups on different countries should do, making sure that Parliament takes issues seriously, debates them and sees what we can do to assist, if appropriate.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it is disappointing that such a small number of Members are here today. This is a major conflict and humanitarian disaster, and there are huge issues at stake, but far too often, when issues relate to African conflicts or anywhere in Africa, there is very little interest across this House. Those of us who are here have to try to make up for that.
I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind words earlier about intervention in human rights issues. I am pleased he got the text this morning about the dress code that both of us must follow in the debate. He is the most assiduous attender of debates raising issues of human rights and religious freedoms.
There are many histories of Ethiopia, and they are absolutely fascinating. It is the one country in Africa that was never colonised. It is the one country in Africa that is the beacon for African unity, as the centre for the Organisation of African Unity. It is the beacon for so much else about African culture and civilisation. When it was invaded by the fascist Government of Italy in the 1930s, people in this country took up the cause very strongly, and no one more so than Sylvia Pankhurst, the great suffragette. She ended up going to Ethiopia in, I think, 1942 and spent the rest of her life there, extolling the history and culture of Ethiopia. Indeed, there is a street named after her in Addis Ababa. Not only did she spend a lot of time in prison in HMP Holloway in my constituency, but she ended up in Ethiopia with a street named after her. We should be proud of her contribution.
The history of the wars of Ethiopia and the famine and the poverty is absolutely huge. There are obviously huge strategic issues facing Ethiopia—not just food supply and food production, but water supply, energy supplies and so on. I hope an agreement can be reached with Sudan and Egypt so that Ethiopia does not end up with another conflict further down the road about the use of the Nile waters. That has to be resolved. The rivers are for everybody. Water has to be for everybody. The war with Eritrea was brutal, bloody and violent and ended up with greater Ethiopia losing its access to the sea. That war eventually concluded, but with a massive loss of life.
The conflict that is now going on with Tigray, and to some extent with the Oromo people as well, is almost a copy of what went on over Eritrea. It is devastating when a civil war is going on in a country and massive human rights abuses are taking place—probably on all sides in this conflict. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said about rape being used as a weapon of war. Rape is systematically carried out against women in Tigray.
There is also the rise of racism in Addis Ababa against anyone from Tigray or anyone speaking the lingua franca of Tigray. It is absolutely appalling. We have witnessed hurt and horror, and beatings and imprisonments, and the Ethiopian Government have apparently refused to allow international bodies into Tigray and other places to investigate those human rights abuses. I hope that is going to change.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said is very important. If evidence is not collected very quickly, it will be concealed and will disappear. I am not saying that it will go altogether, but it will be much harder for prosecutions to take place down the line. I hope we in this Chamber today can appeal to the Ethiopian Government to allow the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch unfettered access to all aspects of society there. They have not taken sides in the conflict. They have not issued a view on the conflict. They have issues a demand for peace and the protection of people against systematic sexual violence.
There is a danger that, following the retreat that the Tigrayan forces performed after they could not get completely into Addis and went back to Tigray, there will be a push for the Ethiopian armed forces, which are huge and considerable, to go in and completely occupy Tigray. That is a temptation that I am sure the military commanders are looking at. The danger is that, once they occupy it, they may not want to leave, and that could be the spark that leads to conflict in the future. There has to be a coming together of some sort and an understanding of the federal nature of the country.
As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pointed out, this is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. The figures are horrendous: 9 million people are short of food and at least 400,000 are starving. There is a lack of medical supplies, and trucks are being prevented from getting into Tigray with food, medicine and all the other necessities of daily life for the people of Tigray. Many will die as a result, and children’s growth and development will be stunted. The resentment will be there for all their lives towards those who stopped the necessary aid getting in.
Solving this conflict also helps prevent the conflicts of the future. There has to be an appeal for a ceasefire as soon as one can be arranged. The UN has to perform well on this, because the history of international organisations and Ethiopia is mixed at best. The League of Nations failed to prevent the Italian invasion in the 1930s and that is not forgotten by many people. UN support for problems in Ethiopia has been patchy at various times. If the UN and the African Union are to mean anything, they must be able to promote dialogue, debate and discussion that not only bring about an immediate ceasefire and get urgent aid into all parts of the country that need it as quickly as possible, but lay the ground for a peaceful future where there is not just another war coming down the line.
I am not opposed to the aid going in—I hope we can give more aid—but aid will work only if there is a political settlement on the ground that allows it to be delivered to the people who need it. Otherwise, we will have the ridiculous picture of aid stacks being built up in various places that simply cannot get to people not that far away who desperately need them. I hope we can make that clear.
All conflicts have to be resolved politically in the end. In every war, when it finally exhausts itself and the killing fields become so full that people start to look for an alternative, that alternative has to be found. Can we not do that and find it more quickly?
We should also look at the arms supplies that are getting into Ethiopia. There should be a complete arms embargo on Ethiopia, which should extend to other countries that are supplying the conflict, either through Eritrea or other places. Particular arms sources appear to be Turkey, the United Arab Emirates—to which the UK is a big arms supplier—Russia and other countries. There has to be an arms embargo. It will not stop all the fighting and bring about peace tomorrow, but it will help reduce the levels of conflict in the future. I hope we are able to get that message across in the debate today.
Please let us have a ceasefire and a future for all the people—people in Ethiopia, the Oromo people, and people in Tigray and elsewhere in the region. We should pay far more attention to issues facing people in Africa than we do. If this conflict had been in almost any other continent in the world, this hall would have been full, but it is not. I am sorry about that. Those of us who are interested and who care—including all those here today—will ensure that the issue does not go away and we will keep it at the forefront as best we can.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing today’s debate. He was very insightful, and brought to my attention how long he has been speaking up for Ethiopia, having been chair of the all-party parliamentary group since 2008. I also thank all the hon. Members present today. They have given their own perspectives, but we all have one thing in common: we want to see a ceasefire—and to see it as soon as possible.
I visited Ethiopia nearly three years ago with the International Development Committee. I visited it to see the blossoming of peace—just months after the peace accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia—both in Addis Ababa and up in the Tigray region. From everyone I spoke to—not only people who were working there with the UN, the WFP or the aid agencies, but people on the ground and refugees, some of whom had been there for decades—I heard a sense of optimism, excitement and energy.
Yes, absolutely. It dismays me that I stand here in this debate so soon after that visit. However, I will press on, and I hope that time is on my side.
Here we are. The past 14 months of ongoing conflict in Ethiopia have been discussed in this House on several occasions, and little is changing. On each occasion, we have heard about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe: millions of people are in need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia, drought is affecting the south of the country and 2 million refugees are internally displaced. We have also heard about the truly horrifying civil war taking place, with stories of forced displacement, mass detention, starvation, torture and—as we heard from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who is my colleague on the Select Committee—the extensive use of rape and sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war by all parties since the conflict began. Repeatedly, Members from both sides of the House have called for urgent humanitarian assistance to be facilitated to provide life-saving support to these victims of war. Furthermore, we have stressed the desperate need for the ongoing violence to end, with a negotiated, consensual settlement that would allow peace to return to Ethiopia.
Unimaginable anguish has been caused by this conflict, and the country has been brought to the verge of collapse in such a short space of time. However, the withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray needs to be used as an opportunity to bring an end to hostilities and begin work on a peace settlement.
There may be grounds for cautious optimism. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian federal Government announced that they would pardon and release several prominent political prisoners. That was welcomed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called for a “lasting ceasefire” and
“a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process”.
The federal Government in Ethiopia themselves stated that the key to lasting unity is dialogue, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell Fontelles urged all parties to “seize the moment”—and the moment we should seize.
The suggestion of dialogue is arguably the most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020. To move forward peacefully, Ethiopian leaders must find a way to accommodate competing ideological perspectives and build a vision for consensual governance. Any political settlement must address the country’s festering grievances and build a new societal order based on mutual understanding and inclusivity. The Tigrayans must accept that deep grievances from their long period of dominance in Ethiopian politics remain and that most Ethiopians will not agree to their leading the federation again. Both sides can aspire to win the war, and win the war they must together, because neither can hope to win a peace alone.
Ethiopia is a patchwork of 80 ethnic groups, and any potential peace process is likely to be complex. I have a number of detailed questions today, and I hope to hear some responses from the Minister. How will the Government look to support any peace process? For example, will the FCDO use existing expertise from the stabilisation unit to create a clear road map for inclusive, post-conflict reconstruction in Tigray that proactively addresses development needs and embeds peacebuilding in the FCDO’s work in the region? Will the UK work with other key partners, including, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the UN, the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to ensure the engagement of regional leaders and an increased likelihood of successful peace?
This moment of opportunity is a fragile one, and there is no time to waste. This month there have been numerous airstrikes, killing and injuring dozens of children and civilians, including those in refugee camps. The horrific war crimes that have been a feature of the 14 months of this conflict continue without the perpetrators being held to account. The de facto blockade of humanitarian relief in Tigray has meant that no convoy from the World Food Programme—which has done so much in years gone by—has reached the Tigrayan capital since mid-December. They have had no food for the last four weeks. The continuation of this conflict will only deepen mistrust between communities, risk a potential rapid deterioration in the conflict and make peace frankly impossible.
My second set of questions for the Minister therefore concern the political and economic levers the UK is using to help to secure peace. For example, is the UK making its funding to Ethiopia through British International Investment—formally known as the CDC—conditional and dependent on an end to the blockade and violence? With airstrikes in the last few days killing scores of civilians, what engagement has the Minister had to urge parties such as Turkey and the UAE to stop providing drones, other weapons and military support to Ethiopia? Will the UK call for a UN arms embargo? That would be real leadership.
What discussions has the UK been involved in to ensure accountability for the war crimes that have taken place during the conflict? These questions have been asked repeatedly by each and every Member present, but they are important and need to be answered. Will the UK representatives at the UN use all diplomatic capabilities to call for the invoking of Security Council resolution 2417, which explicitly condemns starvation as a method of warfare and the denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations? I recognise that I have asked numerous questions, but they must be addressed if progress is to be made and to ensure that we are not having a similar debate in several months’ time to the ones we have had over the past months.
It is vital that urgent humanitarian assistance is facilitated immediately. There must be immediate guarantees from all parties to the conflict for safe and secure humanitarian corridors via all routes across northern Ethiopia. They must allow movement of supplies across battle lines and allow access to affected populations wherever and whenever needed. As we have heard, an estimated 9.4 million people are in dire need of food assistance as a result of the conflict, yet less than 12% of the supplies required to meet humanitarian needs are reaching Tigray. Supplies of food, fuel and cash, along with humanitarian workers, are unable to reach Tigray as this humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes. The World Food Programme, which does amazing work around the world, is calling for an additional $337 million to deliver its emergency food assistance response in northern Ethiopia. Across the entire country, the World Food Programme has an unprecedented gap of nearly two thirds of a billion dollars in the funding needed to save and change the lives of 12 million people over the next six months.
The UK Government have committed £76 million to the crisis response, making the UK the second largest donor globally, which I am sure is welcomed by everyone in this room. The Minister has previously stated that the UK continues to lobby other countries to increase their commitments. I have a fundamental problem with that: it just goes to illustrate the short-sighted folly—once again—of the Government’s decision to cut aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. How can they expect others to contribute more when we are cutting back? How can it be a good policy to reduce aid spending aimed at proactively preventing conflicts and crises such as the one in Ethiopia when we have to reactively increase our contributions when war, displacement, malnourishment and disease inevitably arise? Fundamentally, where is the credibility? Where is the economics in that? It is a case of penny wise, pound foolish.
Additional flexible funding is needed as a priority, but it will be of no use unless there is unfettered humanitarian access. So what steps are the UK Government taking to facilitate that? Given the killing of aid workers throughout this conflict, what guarantees has the Minister had from the Ethiopian Government on the safety of humanitarian aid workers?
Finally, we cannot lose sight of the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia. The warnings of an impending full-scale humanitarian catastrophe have become a harsh and heartbreaking reality. Like many Members present, I remember the 1985 campaign led by Bob Geldof; as a teenager, I ran in a six-mile fun run to raise money for people in Ethiopia facing mass starvation. Here we are again, much older, seeing the same thing in the same location. It is vital that all parties involved in this conflict begin the long-required dialogue to bring hostilities to an end. The UK Government must do everything in their power to ensure that this is not a missed opportunity that prolongs this brutal conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Bone.
I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing a debate on this crisis and for his powerful candour about the situation as a long-standing friend of Ethiopia. I agree with him that it is disappointing that the issue has not received more attention in the House. I have raised it nearly 50 times since the start of the crisis, through questions and in debates, alongside many other Members. However, it has not received the attention it deserves, either in this country or globally, not least given the level of atrocities, suffering and chaos, and the wider implications for the region and the world. The crisis is very much human-made, just as we saw in the 1980s, and that gives it particular tragedy.
We have heard some powerful and shocking testimony today, from a range of Members, who all made powerful points. I hope that the Minister will give us far greater assurance than previously about the priority that the UK Government give to the crisis and about how we work with others in the international community, in particular given our role as a P5 member and on the UN Human Rights Council, and not least because of our particular historical development and trading relationships with Ethiopia.
I hope that the Minister will start his response by giving us an update on diplomatic efforts to secure a peaceful settlement, which is crucial. That point has been made multiple times in the debate—securing a ceasefire is key to achieving progress. We saw some steps over the Christmas period, but they appear to be limited and have not been matched by changes on the ground.
It is deeply depressing to be here again, nearly 14 months since the conflict started. The humanitarian situation has steadily but surely deteriorated, with thousands of deaths and millions suffering, in particular in Tigray but also in neighbouring regions, such as Afar, Amhara and beyond. Civilians have faced indiscriminate large-scale massacres, arbitrary arrest, false disappearances, looting and violence. They have been denied the rights to food, shelter, healthcare and education, and we have heard about despicable sexual violence and rape targeting women and girls. There is clear evidence of crimes against humanity and of war crimes.
Since we last discussed the issue, the crisis has worsened for many people across Tigray and those other regions. The UN has warned that its food distribution operations are on the verge of grinding to a halt. In recent days, too, we have seen allegations that the Ethiopian air force hit displaced civilians with air raids. It is not known how those attacks were carried out, but we know that they occurred. In just the past few weeks, it is believed that more than 100 have been killed and nearly 100 injured.
On 5 January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that three refugees, including children, were killed by airstrikes in the Mai Aini refugee camp. Five days later, a similar attack occurred on Mai Tsebri. I do not understand how such attacks can be taking place when humanitarian facilities and internally displaced person locations are designated and known to those involved in the conflict. An attack on an IDP camp in Dedebit resulted in the massacre of 59 and the wounding of 27 others. That camp was situated around a school and many of the victims were children. What assessment has been made of those shocking incidents?
We have also seen Abiy Ahmed’s Government revoke the rights of key humanitarian NGOs, expel seven senior UN staff and block vital aid to areas faced with famine. Evidence has emerged of senior political and military figures using very inflammatory and inciting language. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referenced Rwanda and other past tragedies; such language has all the sinister hallmarks of encouraging ethnic violence, at worst. We know where that leads, as we saw tragically in Rwanda and Bosnia.
I note the rare rebuke issued last week by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That is not a normal step for it to take, but it underlines the seriousness of the situation. Will the Minister tell us what concerns we have expressed directly to the Ethiopian Government in recent weeks, in particular about action against humanitarians and the language used by some figures? I encourage our Government to work with the utmost urgency towards finding a ceasefire between all the parties to the conflict, so that the humanitarian response can operate fully.
The humanitarian situation has worsened in every way: 9.4 million people are in need across the key regions, up from 8.1 million just before the House adjourned for the western Christmas, and an increase of 2.47 million on just four months ago. That is a drastic increase in a very short period, and it is now thought that 90% of Tigrayans are in need of assistance.
I was shocked to read in a report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs that 283 severely malnourished children under five stopped receiving life-saving treatment in one area. OCHA warned that unless fuel enters Tigray as soon as possible, nutrition interventions will cease fully. Michael Dunford, the WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa, who has already been quoted, said:
“We’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving”.
What awful choices to have to make.
Malnutrition interventions are needed for an estimated 1.6 million children under five years old and pregnant and lactating women in Tigray, an estimated 1.4 million in Amhara, and an estimated 80,000 in Afar. Those are shocking figures. We are talking about women and children who are directly at risk of death if we do not intervene in the weeks ahead. Even with intervention, developmental complications as a result of malnutrition at that crucial stage of life and development risk leaving lifelong scars, as we saw in previous tragedies and conflicts in Ethiopia.
We have all heard the estimate that more than 10,000 rapes were committed earlier this year. Shockingly, the clinical management of rape is still massively lacking in Ethiopia, where only 30% of the very few clinics able to offer care to victims of such sexual violence are open. Plan International says that across the key regions there are only five one-stop centres for rape survivors to receive support. Will the Minister tell us what the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has reported on the situation and what actions we are taking to support women and girls who have been affected in that horrific way?
Humanitarian organisations need a massive boost in funding to deliver emergency aid. The UN estimates that it needs an additional $1.2 billion in funding for response in northern Ethiopia. The WFP has warned that, notwithstanding the access issues, it is set to run out of food and nutritious supplies across Ethiopia in February because of
“an unprecedented lack of funding.”
In debates on the situation in Ethiopia, I have repeatedly asked Ministers a question that they have yet to answer. There have been individual announcements about UK support to the region, which are of course welcome, but what I and others want to know is whether total UK Government support will go up or down this year. That is the crucial question. When the need is so great, support should be increasing, not reducing. The Government have cut the development budget—I have opposed those cuts on many occasions—but surely, when the need is so great and we see such suffering, our total support should be increasing. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul by taking from one part of the country to give to another. This crisis affects many people in many regions, and failing to do our fair share and work with other donors to plug the gaps would be a huge dereliction of our moral duty.
It is more than just the right and moral thing to do. I cannot understand why the Government have cut funding to a key strategic region—it is the keystone for all the states around it—by 60%. This is not only about that state’s security; it about ours too. It is illogical that, at a time of such instability around the world, we are cutting support to our friends and allies and to key countries.
I absolutely agree with the Chair of the International Development Committee. The Government’s decisions are absolutely baffling, not least because of the implications for countries in the region, many of which are also fragile; there is the situation in Sudan and in South Sudan, and last night we were debating Somaliland. How would those countries cope with a large influx of people crossing their borders? We have also discussed Somalia at great length. The Government’s perverse decision has much wider implications beyond this conflict and the people of Ethiopia and Tigray.
Evidence suggests that no aid convoys have reached Tigray since mid-December, and 80% of essential medication is no longer available there. Humanitarian groups are running out of fuel, and say that they may have to cease supply of some of the key international development programme camps completely as a result of fuel shortages. The region is also running out of key medical supplies, including insulin. Diabetics are just a matter of weeks away from facing agonising death if supplies are not replenished. The Ayder Hospital in Mek’ele—the largest in the region—has enough left to hold out for no more than one week.
Will the Minister tell us what conversations have been had with the parties to the conflict to secure and maintain urgent humanitarian access? What other methods are being considered? Have airdrops and other ways of getting resources into the country been considered, for example?
As many Members rightly said, we also want the UN and independent bodies to carry out an internationally recognised investigation into the atrocities—especially those committed against civilians in Ethiopia—so that the people responsible face justice. We must use our powers under the Magnitsky sanctions regime to sanction individuals who are already known to be committing atrocities. The US, for example, has already sanctioned many high-ranking individuals in the Eritrean Government, including the Eritrean defence forces chief and four others, in connection with the crisis in Ethiopia. It has also placed arms embargoes on Ethiopia, while the UK has lagged behind our allies in applying sanctions. I call on the Government to consider urgently working to bring forward measures against those found to have been involved in atrocities, particularly given that London is a key site for individuals who may wish to leave Ethiopia and Eritrea.
I commend the BBC World Service’s investigation programme, “Africa Eye”, for the incredible work that it does. Its investigation into the massacre of unarmed men in April last year exposed just one of many atrocities. As I and a number of other Members said in the debate on the BBC the other day, I find it perverse that the Culture Secretary has been making some quite demeaning attacks on the BBC when services such as the BBC World Service, which rely on the licence fee, are exposing such atrocities to help us to bring people to justice, as they have done in the past.
Can the Minister also tell me what engagement the Government have had in urging other countries, such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, to stop providing drones, other weapons and military support, which are fuelling the conflict and potentially being used against civilians? What is his position on calls for a wider arms embargo?
This situation is truly horrific for the people of Ethiopia and the people of Tigray in particular, and it has much wider regional consequences. We have already heard about the historical consequences of ignoring what is happening in Ethiopia, whether in the 1980s or the pre-world war two era. It is not some far-flung land that we can ignore. We have huge historical, trading and development responsibilities and links, we have a key role as one of the key players in the international community, and we should take leadership on this issue. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer many of the questions that we have raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone; I think it is the first time for me, making it the first time for you too. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough, you are my near neighbour and I often walk in your shadow locally, so it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir.
I was hoping that flattery would get me somewhere—but anyway.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to him for all his work as the long-standing chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti. I thank him for his level-headed speech and his wise counsel on this matter. Like the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), I remember—I might have been following him around, probably on a different track—running for the world at a certain point in the mid-1980s, when passions were aroused. It is a pleasure that this debate has been sponsored by the Bob Geldof of Westminster and, as I say, I thank my hon. Friend for his leadership on this issue.
I am also grateful to other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today. I will try to respond to as many of the points that have been raised as possible. Although the hon. Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) are no longer present, I will try to answer their questions too. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned ongoing conversations this week on matters that normally fall without my portfolio. He is correct that I am the Minister for Europe. The Minister for Africa would have very much liked to participate in this debate, but she is currently travelling in the region on ministerial duties, so it is my pleasure to respond to the hon. Gentleman and others on behalf of the Government.
The situation in Ethiopia remains of great concern. As a couple of hon. Members have said, there have been some welcome signs of progress over recent weeks, including the December withdrawal of Tigrayan forces back to their own region, and Prime Minister Abiy’s recent decision to release high-profile political prisoners and begin a process of national dialogue. There is a window of opportunity to begin peace talks and bring about a peaceful end to this conflict, which I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is stressing during her visit to the region this week. I hope that visit will demonstrate the UK Government’s commitment to ending this crisis and working hard with our partners in the region.
Although the developments that I have mentioned are tentative steps towards de-escalation, they are still encouraging. However, we know that, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, fighting and atrocities continue to take place, and the conflict continues to take its toll on civilians.
During her visit, will the Minister for Africa be able to speak directly to the Ethiopian Government to press for them to allow unfettered access to the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so they can examine the human rights abuses that have been so widely reported in this awful conflict?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I honestly do not know the answer, but I assume that, if we are able to, we will be using every conversation that we have to raise those concerns. This is the first opportunity I have had to debate with the right hon. Gentleman. His presentation was salient and sensible; I very much appreciated the points he made in his speech. I know he is very committed to this issue and led a debate on it last November, which I read with great interest. I promise him I have taken all his points very seriously indeed.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, on 8 January an airstrike near a camp for internally displaced persons in Tigray reportedly killed 56 people. It goes without saying that we believe that all sides of the conflict must respect international human rights and humanitarian law, and prioritise the protection of civilians—a point that we have made repeatedly. I am quite certain that the Minister for Africa will reinforce that point during her visit to the region in the coming days.
We also reiterate our call for Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia immediately. They are a source of instability, a threat to Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and a barrier to achieving the lasting peace that everyone here has talked about, which we all want to see, and which I am absolutely sure the people on the ground want to see.
Right now, 7 million people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions need humanitarian assistance. At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions, more than in the rest of the world combined. The risk of widespread loss of life is high, with young children, as many hon. Members have pointed out, likely to bear the brunt.
The response to the humanitarian crisis continues to be hampered by the lack of security. Shockingly, 24 humanitarian workers have been killed in Tigray since the start of the conflict, including staff working on UK-funded programmes. It is right that we take a moment to remember them and honour the sacrifice they made in support of the innocent victims of this conflict. Tragically, humanitarian access to Tigray has been at a standstill since 14 December and hospitals in the region report that they are out of medicine. I repeat the Government’s call to all sides to provide unfettered humanitarian access.
Let me be clear. There is no military solution to the situation in Ethiopia. It is a man-made crisis, caused by human actions and human decisions. The UK Government have been clear from the outset that the fighting must end. All sides must put down their weapons. A political dialogue is the only route to a lasting peace, and with it the return of stability and prosperity to Ethiopia. We have made these points repeatedly to the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The British Ambassador to Ethiopia reiterated those messages during meetings with the Ethiopian President on 12 November last year. He travelled to the capital of the Tigray region on 25 November to urge the TPLF to stop fighting and engage in peace talks. The Minister for Africa will use her visit to the region to discuss the potential path to peace with various counterparts. It is a principle of the African Union—which, let us not forget, is based in Addis Ababa—that African solutions should be found to African problems. It is absolutely right that African partners are taking the lead in ending this conflict.
In the last debate we had, in November, I was told that the African nations were not able to get access to gather data and to see exactly what was going on, to try to stabilise the area. Will the Minister be able to get back to see whether that is now happening, or whether there is more that the UK could do to facilitate that?
I know this is not in the Minister’s portfolio; none the less, I put it on the record in my contribution. I specifically asked for help in relation to persecution, violence against churches and the destruction of churches, and I mentioned that people do not have the opportunity to worship their God in the way that they wish to. I know that the Government certainly had a policy, which I welcomed and I am pleased to see it in place, but may I gently ask that the Minister responsible—perhaps the Minister here today will pass it on to her—focuses on that area, albeit not taking away from all the things happening elsewhere?
I will happily pass that message on to my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa, who has already spoken to Kenyan partners about Ethiopia during her trip to the region this week. The UK Government actively support those regional efforts to bring peace, particularly the work of the African Union envoy, Obasanjo, and Kenyan President Kenyatta. The Minister for Africa has also discussed the need for dialogue, humanitarian access, and accountability for human rights violations with the UN, the US and all other Security Council members.
Alongside our political work, the UK Government have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the conflict. We have provided over £76 million in response to the crisis. That includes life-saving food aid, safe drinking water, medical care, sanitation, and nutritional supplies. The conflict has tragically, as outlined in many speeches this afternoon, been characterised from the outset by appalling human rights abuses and violations, including mass detentions, killings and torture. There have been intolerable levels of sexual violence committed by all sides, and tackling sexual violence in conflicts around the globe is one of the Foreign Secretary’s top priorities.
In November, the Foreign Secretary stepped up the UK’s global leadership on tackling conflict-related sexual violence and violence against women and girls. As part of that, she announced a package of more than £22 million of new funding for initiatives on the frontline to tackle that type of violence.
Last week, the Minister for Africa met representatives from international NGOs to discuss the situation in Ethiopia and the impact of sexual violence there. The reports that she heard, I am told, were harrowing. The UK is delivering essential services to survivors and those at risk of sexual violence in northern Ethiopia. Our programmes provide victims with critical support and care, including support for emergency mental health services. Alongside our partners in Ethiopia, we are taking forward the recommendations made by our preventing sexual violence initiative’s team of experts, a point raised by the Chair of the Select Committee and others, to help to strengthen accountability and hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account.
We have also strongly supported the joint investigation into human rights abuses and violations during the conflict conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. We welcome the Ethiopian Government’s creation of a ministerial taskforce to take forward recommendations from the joint report, and we call on all parties to the conflict to act decisively to respond to its findings.
At a special session of the Human Rights Council on 17 December, we backed a resolution that created an international commission of experts to investigate allegations of violations in Ethiopia. We urge all parties to engage with the commission. We will continue to press for the justice and accountability that the situation demands.
The Government are under absolutely no illusions about the gravity of the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia, but we are hopeful that the progress made over the last few weeks can act as a platform for peace. The Government will use every opportunity to offer the UK’s support for work towards a peaceful solution. In the meantime, we will continue to push for humanitarian access and to provide humanitarian aid to those in need, and we will keep pushing all sides to end this terrible conflict peacefully. We will not turn away from those who need our help.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. Each speaker has brought their own take and concerns, repeating some points but also raising new ones. It is a shame, as the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, and where I started my speech, that for some reason there is a lack of interest in tragedies that unfold in Africa. These are human beings, and we really need to keep mentioning this in the House. We have had a number of debates, as the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), pointed out, and we are frustrated at seeing the situation seemingly get worse in Ethiopia—although as the Minister confirmed, there seems to be some opportunity for progress.
Will the Minister take this back to colleagues? As I said in my speech, I mean no disrespect to any Ministers, who are working hard on this, but I really think the situation is so serious that our own Prime Minister should phone Prime Minister Abiy to discuss it. The way it is going, it could get much worse, and then we really would not know how to tackle it, so I really think it is urgent enough, for the sake of only a phone call, to call Prime Minister Abiy and see what can be done.
I also regret the reduction in international development aid, as was also mentioned. It is short-sighted and unnecessary, and I look to it being restored as quickly as possible. We have an impressive record of providing aid to Ethiopia—for a while, it was our biggest aid recipient; now it is second—but I ask that the Government do everything they can to urge other countries to contribute to urging peace and in supporting the World Food Programme by providing sufficient funds for it to help, because the potential scale of the problem is unimaginable. It has been bad enough in the past, but it really is unimaginable, partly because of the conflict but also, as I mentioned, because of the drought affecting not only Ethiopia but other countries in the area.
I thank the Minister for his response. I look forward to working with him and the Minister for Africa, whom I have engaged with a number of times on this issue. I again thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate. We are not going away. I am glad the Minister said that the Government will not turn away. We have to get this issue sorted.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia.