I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in Ethiopia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. This debate has come at a very significant time for the Ethiopian people. It is exactly two weeks since an agreement was struck and signed in South Africa between the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or the TPLF. The ceasefire officially ending this brutal two-year conflict is welcomed by all Members of this House. However, according to Ghent University, an estimated 600,000 people have lost their lives, some 875,000 people have become refugees and 90% of Tigray’s population are now dependent on food aid. Those are staggering figures.
Of course, information is still being gathered. Establishing the full facts is incredibly difficult. This is partly because of the serious danger to even well-established and world-renowned non-governmental organisations, whose first priority has to be to protect their workers and those to whom they must give emergency aid. While we sit in this warm, relatively calm and peaceful place, hundreds of incredibly courageous and dedicated aid workers will put their own safety and comfort aside to help the human victims and survivors of the atrocities of war. We may never know the names of those who prioritise the safety and survival of others, but their selfless humanity cannot and should not be underestimated or go unrecognised by this House and politicians the world over.
Although it was a great relief to hear the news of the cessation of this bloody conflict, just two weeks before, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had expressed his deep concern that the situation in Ethiopia was spiralling out of control, and there continue to be reports of conflict in northern Ethiopia, including looting in Adwa and drone attacks. There are gravely concerning reports that, despite the ceasefire, Eritrean troops continue to defy the ceasefire and are still active. We know that they did not formally take part in the peace agreement. With no assurances of an internationally recognised and supervised ceasefire monitoring mechanism, that continues to contribute to fears over the safety and security of civilians, particularly in Tigray.
The conflict has been one of the world’s deadliest, so ensuring that peace is maintained and agreements are adhered to has to be a humanitarian priority for Governments the world over. What I want to hear from our Government today is what actions they are taking to ensure that, either through direct interventions with the Ethiopian Government and/or through the UN.
I have touched on the famine, death and displacement of Ethiopia’s people, but what is perhaps most difficult to discuss is the sexual violence and human rights atrocities committed over the course of this conflict. There has been extensive verification of widespread atrocities, including by Amnesty International, the UN councils and commissions on Ethiopia and the testimonies of many incredibly brave survivors. As politicians, we hear such evidence from warzones quite frequently, but I have rarely been as shocked and moved as I have after hearing about some of those experiences.
The stories are anonymised to protect the survivors. Aida, a 20-year-old from the indigenous Irob minority, was kept in sexual slavery with two other Tigrayan women. She was gang raped by Ethiopian and Eritrean military commanders for over a month in November 2020. Lilly, a 23-year-old from Irob, was kept in sexual slavery with six other Tigrayan women and was repeatedly gang raped by troops when they were hiding in that area. Both women escaped, but one has now given birth as a result of rape. Hanna, a mother of two suffering from breast cancer, was gang raped in a church after being dragged away from family members. Her breast was cut off by a commander and she was left unconscious after being raped by eight soldiers.
There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of similar stories being collected by incredibly brave and outstanding volunteers like Rita Kahsay, who spent three months in refugee camps speaking with those displaced by this conflict. She has painstakingly taken the testimonies of survivors at great personal risk. Some of the most horrific crimes were carried out on children. The Joint UN Human Rights Office-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that Tigrayan boys were not spared from the weaponised rapes that took place.
I am lucky enough to be in touch with Rita thanks to the work of a former Member of this House, Sally Keeble, who has continued to raise the plight of the Tigrayan people. Rita could have chosen to simply pursue her path as an engineer in the UK, but she felt compelled to act and help those left in the country of her birth. Her family are dispersed, and she has not been able to be in regular contact with them for at least two years.
Those are the human beings; those are the experiences of people caught up in brutal, bloody and deadly conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Those are the circumstances that lead to displacement and the creation of hellish refugee camps. Many risk their lives to get to safety by any means.
If those who signed the peace agreement truly welcome peace, they must allow bodies such as the UN to carry out their work. If they truly welcome peace, aid in the form of food and medical treatment must be allowed through, and aid agencies must be allowed to carry out their work unhindered. If they truly welcome peace, that process should be seen to go smoothly by politicians and the displaced diaspora so that the rebuilding of those devastated lives can begin. We in the UK must listen to the joint UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and play our part to help all those affected. We have to act as a global community and seek every assurance that the peace and cessation of violence in Tigray will be meaningful, real and lasting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It is also a pleasure to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) back in the Government. Like me, he greatly values the effect that British aid has had over very many years and wants it to continue. I know he takes a deep interest in these subjects, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge)—it is really good to see him in the debate.
We have held a number of debates on Ethiopia. I have secured an urgent question and have taken part in the debates. I have chaired the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia for a dozen years or so, and I continue to take a deep interest in the country. I am very sorry to see what has been happening over the past few years. I was at the Ethiopian embassy two weeks ago. The ceasefire had been announced the night before; it was a very moving moment and there was a lot of hope. I am very hopeful that we can make progress. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) set out the case for peace and spoke movingly. I congratulate her on securing this debate.
The tragedy of the conflict is that Ethiopia has held together for so long, despite having very sizeable Christian and Muslim populations and something like 80 tribes and 80 languages. Yes, Eritrea broke away many years ago, but Ethiopia has been very peaceful. It has had great economic success, with growth rates that we in the west would envy, and is one of the safest countries to walk around. That is the tragedy.
I have called constantly for the UN and the African Union to take more of an interest than they appear to have been taking, although there has been a good deal of success recently from the work carried out by the African Union. We now need to make sure that is followed through and the peace holds. Both sides and Eritrea are accountable for that. They have to make sure the peace holds for the very reasons that the hon. Lady set out. We have to make sure food, medical supplies and everything else that is needed in that part of Ethiopia gets through to Tigray.
I say this slightly reluctantly, but it is important that the west is not seen to lecture developing countries because we have had our own problems. We had 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, and we saw what that did to morale; it destroyed futures. We saw what it did through the 3,000 or so lives that it took. We saw the effect that had on the economy in Northern Ireland. At the worst of the troubles, the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland was something like 25%. That is what war and conflict does to a country. On that occasion in the embassy I said that, since we have had relative peace in Northern Ireland, we have had relative prosperity. Yes, there are problems, as we heard in the debate just a few minutes ago. But it is a far better place—it is almost unrecognisable from the place that it was. That is because the conflict was ended. I know that is the wish of the hon. Member for Canterbury, who very ably introduced this debate. I know it is the wish of everybody in Westminster Hall. It is certainly my wish. My call goes out to everybody involved to embrace peace and enjoy the benefits of peace.
I will stick to five minutes as you asked, Sir Gary, so we can all speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing the debate and the way she introduced it, particularly her drawing attention to the way women were treated during the conflict in Tigray, the abominable abuse they suffered, and sadly probably continue to suffer, and the lack of closure in that part of the conflict.
The cessation of hostilities agreement is obviously very good news. For there to be lasting peace, however, it is crucial that victims and survivors have justice. Does the hon. Member agree that accountability for war crimes and serious human rights abuses is paramount?
Absolutely. I am sure that everyone agrees with the hon. Member on that point. I certainly do. I was going to say this further on in my speech, but I will say it now: we must ensure that the UN Human Rights Council has unfettered access to all parts of Ethiopia to examine these abuses and the crimes that have been committed. In the past, it has been barred from access and had to interview victims by telephone and things like that. Obviously, that is a very unsatisfactory way of reporting.
The other point I make about Ethiopia generally is that there are almost a million refugees in Ethiopia from most of the neighbouring countries: South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and so on. There is a massive demand placed on Ethiopia to deal with that. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, he can give us some indication of what support we can give to ensure that the refugees are decently treated and, where they want to and where it is possible, what assistance we can give them in returning to the country they come from.
The Tigray conflict ended because of the intervention of South Africa, with the support of the African Union, and we should be very grateful for that. It was good that they brought about the ceasefire and the agreement. The ceasefire and agreement are one thing. What is important is the progress that happens after that: the investigation of the crimes that have been committed; getting humanitarian aid, medical aid and food rapidly into Tigray; and not being blockaded or blocked from going in.
There is also the question of their democratic point of view. They could not take part in the Ethiopian elections last year. The government in Tigray has been dissolved and there is no regional government in Tigray—it is done from Addis Ababa. Surely there is therefore a big democratic deficit in Tigray. If that democratic deficit is not addressed, it could well be the source of future stress and conflict.
The last point I want to make is this: Tigray is not the only part of Ethiopia where there are problems. The Roma community are also facing tensions and stresses. There has been unrest and violence, and there have been deaths as a result. It is not for us to interfere in the running of another country—I am absolutely clear about that—but we must be prepared to recognise that we may be able to play a role that can help by facilitating the UNHRC and with necessary aid and support of a humanitarian kind. We must ensure that we do not supply arms that fuel this conflict to any actor on this field and that arms that we sell elsewhere do not end up in Ethiopia, because the terror, death and real problems that the people of Ethiopia face—drought, famine, poverty, the lack of medical aid and other issues—must be addressed as quickly as possible.
Ethiopia was the one country that was never colonised by the Europeans. I see it as the major beacon of Africa. It is the centre of the African Union and so much else. Let us respect that history and participation and give all the support we can to what we hope is a path to long-term peace in that country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this important debate and setting the scene. As horrific as it is, it is important that we never forget. It goes without saying that the suffering caused by the conflict in Ethiopia is truly heartbreaking. I have constituents with family in Tigray who have not seen or heard from any of their family members in the past two years because of the communication blackout. They do not know whether their families are alive or dead. Indeed, the stories they have heard about the conditions in Tigray mean that their assumption is that some of their family members will almost certainly have passed away.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the conflict, more than 3 million are internally displaced and 13 million need food aid in northern Ethiopia. Yet there is a sense that this humanitarian crisis is not being treated with the utmost urgency. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the crisis in Ethiopia is one of the 10 most neglected displacement crises in the world, all of which are in Africa.
Last week, members of the International Development Committee and I were lucky enough to be joined by experts on the horn of Africa’s hunger crisis. We were told that the conflict in Tigray has intersected with a series of other factors to create a devastating food crisis. High inflation in world markets, partly as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, is pushing up the price of food and fertilisers. Climate change is increasing the prevalence of droughts, and the covid pandemic is devastating economies and livelihoods. We were told that there is the real possibility of famine and that the World Food Programme has not managed to get aid into Tigray since 24 August. We must welcome the recent agreement to allow full access to food and aid, but must closely track its implementation. There is no time to waste with almost a third of children already suffering from malnutrition. Michael Dunford, who is regional director at the World Food Programme across the horn of Africa, said at the evidence session that the cuts to the overseas aid budget are harming the WFP’s ability to respond to people’s needs. He said that, in 2019, the World Food Programme benefited from £181 million funding from the UK Government. In 2022, it has received less than a third of that figure—£55 million.
The Government are failing to do all that is possible to provide humanitarian support and help create the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity for the people of Ethiopia. I would therefore like to make three recommendations to the Minister. First, we must restore our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas development assistance if we want to retain the capacity to adequately respond to crises. Secondly, a significant amount of funding must be immediately directed to bilateral aid for Ethiopia. Thirdly, we need to restore our previous contributions to multilateral agencies, such as the World Food Programme.
The Committee also received evidence from Mamadou Dian Balde, the UNHCR representative in Ethiopia. He told us last week that we need greater investment in medium to long-term programmes to ensure resilience to climate change, which would include irrigation schemes and drought-resistant crops. I hope the Minister, who is in his place, will listen to all of us and be able to help not only those of us in this Chamber today, but the families who are worried sick from not knowing whether their families are alive or dead.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I am now glad I was called at the end, because I have an extra minute; I thank hon. Members for being so generous. I am particularly interested in this issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for setting the scene so well. Some of the evidence and information in her speech was hard to listen to, and quite unnerving, but I understand that she wanted to set the scene.
I speak, and declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have a deep concern and heart for all those individuals who do not get the opportunity to express themselves from their religious points of view. The situation in Ethiopia is tragic. Thousands are dead, and many more are displaced, owing to the conflict. Over 13 million people in the northern region of Tigray need food aid and lack essential services. While ethnic conflict rages on, freedom of religion or belief remains a sorely disregarded human right.
Against the background of political violence and unrest in Ethiopia and Tigray, it should be remembered that it is difficult to differentiate between faith-related and ethnically or politically related attacks in Tigray. All too often, the religious dimension is brushed aside because of the close links between ethnicity and religion, and their close links to the various drivers of the conflict. It is difficult to characterise incidents as based solely on religious identity.
I omitted to welcome the Minister to his place; I am very pleased to see him there. He has had a deep interest in these matters over the years, so I am optimistic that he will respond to our questions in a positive fashion.
When some say that the number of reported incidents based on religion or belief has dropped—from the figures and the evidential base, that does not seem to be the case—that should be understood in the broader context of the conflict. In Tigray, religion is closely entangled with ethnicity and politics. There is no denying that the conflict has had a devastating impact on Christian communities. Many churches have been destroyed and many Christians killed.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) gave me some literature related to Aid to the Church in Need, which had an event in the House of Lords. I could not attend, but I know that you, Sir Gary, were there. I sat and read one story, about the Eritrean Axum massacre, in November 2020, when there was an attack on a church where 1,000 people were worshipping:
“It might be that more were injured and died later. 750 were killed for sure.”
That illustrates the issue very clearly. As the hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned, Eritrean troops stand accused of a campaign of ethnically motivated cultural cleansing, and of participating in massacres of Ethiopian Christians. The people doing that are the army, police and those in authority. I feel very sad to say this, but Aid to the Church in Need was told that nuns have been raped as part of the attack on Tigray. That gives hon. Members an idea of the brutality, violence and ethnic cleansing that is happening. People have to be accountable.
Ethiopia ranks 38 on the Open Doors world watch list for the world’s worst places to be a Christian, despite Christianity being the majority religion in the country, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) mentioned. Given that Christianity is the religion favoured by most, it is hard to understand that Christians have been targeted. In Ethiopia, converts from Islam to Christianity, as well as converts to Protestant Churches from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, face mistreatment from family, friends and the wider community. Islamic extremist attacks against churches are increasingly prevalent. So many Christian converts face pressure to renounce their faith and continue to suffer as a result of political unrest, dire humanitarian conditions and added environmental pressures as a result of some of the driest conditions since 1981. Last year, the Government said that their priority was
“to ensure that Ethiopians, irrespective of ethnicity, religion and political affiliation, receive life-saving aid and that humanitarian access to areas affected by conflict and insecurity is restored.”
My question to the Minister is this: if that was said by our Government—my Government—then can we have an update on where we are? Can the Minister confirm that the lifesaving aid and the humanitarian access has been delivered?
In conclusion, this is not the first debate we have had on the situation in Ethiopia. I very much focused my contribution to this debate on the religious persecution perspective, which I know you have a deep interest in, Sir Gary, as do many others in this Chamber, because it matters. However, the other issues and factors in Ethiopia also matter, so I call on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, our Minister and our Government to fulfil their promises and to take what I have said into consideration when engaging in discussions with Ethiopia. We have a duty in this House and an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless—for those people who have nobody to act for them—and today we are doing just that.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing this important debate. The conflict in Ethiopia, which began two years ago in the region of Tigray, has been and continues to be brutal, devastating and destabilising for the wider horn of Africa. There are reports of thousands of deaths and abductions and of the widespread use of rape and sexual violence in the conflict, and warnings that the scale and systematic nature of the violence, and the language that accompanies it, may amount to genocide.
I pay tribute today to brave journalists, including Lucy Kassa, who has borne witness to the scale and intensity of the violence, and politicians, including Filsan Ahmed, who resigned from the Ethiopian Government over their handling of the conflict in Tigray. Both are remarkable young women who have borne significant personal cost for their work to give voice to people suffering under this conflict.
For some of my constituents, the conflict in Tigray has meant a total loss of contact with close family members over the past two years. I have a constituent whose parents and brother, who has Down’s syndrome, are in Tigray. She knows that her aunt was one of the first to be killed in the conflict, but she has not had any word at all from other family members for more than two years, resulting in unbearable worry, anxiety and anguish.
The conflict has left 20 million people across Ethiopia in urgent need of food aid, hospitals entirely without medicine and 2.8 million children without access to school. The scale of the conflict is as appalling as its brutality, with 500,000 people dead as a result of fighting and conflict-related factors such as famine, and 100,000 dead just since the fighting resumed in September. Yet for a conflict that is causing such suffering and has the potential to cause such widespread destabilisation, there has been extraordinarily little international outcry or mainstream media coverage of the devastation and insufficient international engagement.
The ceasefire that was recently signed is welcome, but it is not clear that it is yet having any impact, with further reports of violence today—not entirely surprising given the absence of the Eritrean authorities from the negotiations, since Eritrean forces are reported to be among the main perpetrators of violence in Tigray.
The humanitarian need is desperate, as is the need to investigate the crimes that have been committed so far within this conflict, to gather evidence and testimony and to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. There has been extensive verification of widespread atrocities in Ethiopia, including by Amnesty International, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Council. Their inquiries have found evidence of atrocities that may amount to war crimes, including massacres of civilians and evidence of language indicative of genocide.
One extreme feature of this conflict is the widespread use of sexual violence. Conservative estimates are that more than 26,000 women have been affected, while some estimates are far higher. While all parties to the conflict have been accused of atrocities, the UNHRC’s investigation identifies Tigrayan women as having been targeted for particular violence. It also found that the Ethiopians were the only air force in possession of the drones being used in aerial bombardments, including on a refugee camp.
The highly respected Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation released a report in November 2022 that concluded that data suggests Ethiopian and allied forces committed conflict-related sexual violence on a widespread and systemic basis in order to eliminate and/or forcibly displace the ethnic Tigrayan population. The UN Human Rights Council has found action taken by the Ethiopian legal justice system to be wholly inadequate in terms of numbers of prosecutions and lack of information about prosecutions and convictions. It is a dire situation that demands the attention of the world.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I know that he has a personal commitment to see peace in Ethiopia. I ask him to set out what actions the UK Government are taking over atrocity crimes in Ethiopia, both through direct interventions with the Ethiopian Government and through the UN. Will the Government invite representatives from Tigrayan civil society and other diaspora communities in the UK affected by conflict-related sexual violence to their Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict conference? What actions are the UK Government taking to progress and support investigations on the reports of genocide in the Tigray region of Ethiopia? Finally, what actions are the UK Government taking to help to secure humanitarian access into Tigray to meet the urgent needs of the population there?
My constituents, and all those whose families are affected by this terrible conflict, need to know that the UK Government are doing everything possible to work for peace, justice and humanitarian access.
Having spent as long as I did in the European Parliament, where 90 seconds was a long speech, I am well used to brevity, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing a debate on this important issue. I am glad that we all welcome the ceasefire and peace agreement in Tigray. Brokered by the African Union, it has been a real achievement for the South Africans. We should give them their due in this; it was in danger of becoming a frozen conflict before their involvement. African diplomacy has gone a long way towards resolving the conflict.
With the Minister in his place, we should look towards the future and what we can do to help the people of the region enjoy a durable peace. I will focus on the durability of the agreement that has been struck, the accountability for crimes and justice for victims, and the food insecurity that I am deeply concerned will set the conditions for a relapse into further violence in the region.
The durability of the agreement was hard won. Even as the ceasefire was being announced, one side referred to the “terrorist” Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the other side to the “fascist clique”. Eritrea was not a formal signatory to the agreement, but it clearly was involved. We have not seen any disarmament thus far under article 6 of the agreement. What assessment have the UK Government made of the prospects for disarmament on the ground, particularly in terms of how the verification of the withdrawal of the Eritrean forces is going to be checked? We have already heard concerns about the access of international observers. What sort of access are we going to be pushing for to verify that the agreement, particularly article 6, is being implemented?
We are all united in believing that accountability for war crimes is integral for a just peace going forward. That is something that we really are in a position to assist with. It concerns me deeply that no side of the conflict has accepted that any war crimes were committed by their side. I am not sure the conditions for accountability and honesty are necessarily there yet. I can see why accountability would not be foreseen within a ceasefire agreement, but surely the international community cannot lose sight of the need for accountability mechanisms.
Again, I ask what the UK Government are doing to assist those accountability mechanisms. The African Union is doing a great deal of work on that, as are the UN authorities, but their access has been hindered. That can be usefully taken forward by the UK Government to ensure access and give financial support—even in terms of lending personnel to the investigators. Those war crimes need to be properly explored and people held to account.
On food insecurity, the point is wider than just Tigray, Ethiopia or the horn of Africa, but the numbers facing food insecurity in that region are very stark. According to the World Food Programme, there are 13 million people across northern Ethiopia alone who are in real danger of food insecurity, including 5.4 million people in Tigray, 7 million in Amhara and 1.2 million in Afar. There are millions of people in real danger of starvation right now. Aid was not able to get through, but now it is, which is one of the big advantages of this ceasefire.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has classified Ethiopia as a whole at its highest alert level for hunger and starvation. That is a real challenge to the international community and a challenge, as well as an opportunity, to the UK Government to step up. Now that aid can get through, we all need to consider how we can best help to prevent the conditions for a relapse into violence from occurring.
The Minister well knows the SNP position on the return to the 0.7% aid criteria; he has his own well-documented thoughts on that. I appreciate that he has collective responsibility today, but surely in the case of Ethiopia and the horn of Africa there is a real need for more aid than we have seen. As well as reinstating the 0.7% aid—and even if we are short of that—I would make a plea today for increased UK Government aid, particularly to combat food insecurity in that region. I would be glad to hear about that. Otherwise, I fear that the conditions exist for the bad guys to come back. The peace is fragile. Of course the agreement is significant, but it needs help, and I think we are all united in that effort.
It is a real pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Sir Gary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing the debate and opening it so brilliantly. I thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; it has been an excellent debate.
The devastating conflict in Ethiopia has lasted for two very long years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury stated, some estimates suggest that as many as half a million people have died, including hundreds of thousands of civilians. The ceasefire agreement could simply not come quick enough and Labour is deeply grateful to the diplomats who have worked to secure it, most of all the African Union and its representatives. We need to face the reality that the chaos in the Conservative party over recent months has weakened the UK’s international voice, but now we need to look forward. I hope the new Minister will tell us how the Government will deepen the UK’s support for African Union mediation, peacekeeping and peace-building work over the coming years.
East Africa was named a priority region by this Government in their “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”. Now we need to understand how that commitment will be implemented to support peace, security, inclusion and accountability. The first priority, as we know, must be to support humanitarian access for the people of Tigray. In August, 89% of the population in Tigray were assessed as food insecure, and 29% of children under five and half the pregnant women and breastfeeding women were malnourished. That situation will inevitably have worsened since then.
Over the past two years, many people have been descending into deeper desperation in the absence of aid. That in itself is sure to have fuelled the conflict, because if the only way people can eat and survive is by signing up to fight, why would they not do that? That desperation puts women and children at massively increased risk of abuse and exploitation, so what progress has been made with humanitarian access right now to all parts of Tigray? Let us face it: demand for assistance is extremely high in many parts of Ethiopia and across the region because of the terrible drought. Are we confident that aid agencies have enough resources to take full advantage to deliver life-saving help quickly?
The Minister has rightly said in response to my written questions that the UK stands ready to support the peace process—that is fabulous—so now I would be grateful to understand how. Will he tell us if discussions are ongoing with the Government of Ethiopia and the African Union? Like my hon. Friends, I have several constituents who have been agonisingly out of contact with their families in Tigray for many months now. Surely we can expect a rapid and final end to the communications blackout and the restoration of services.
Like my hon. Friend, I have constituents from Tigray, Oromia and Ethiopia as a whole, and they are going through the most awful stress. There is a lack of communication, but they want to send help and aid in support. Does she think we could do more to facilitate information, to give the families some sense of security about what is happening to their relatives? The community in this country is also very keen to send whatever help it can.
My right hon. Friend has known me long enough to know that I agree entirely with what he just said. As my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury, for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), have highlighted, there have been many credible reports of repeated war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.
It is unacceptable that the UN-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia has been so heavily restricted in its work. Despite those restrictions, the commission has set out damning evidence of horrifying abuses by all parties to the conflict. Because of the lack of access for journalists and human rights defenders, the violations we know about may well be only the tip of the iceberg.
It would be good to know how we are preparing for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative conference in two weeks’ time. There have been many reports of women, children and men being subject to horrific sexual violence, including repeated rape and torture. Many seem to have been targeted, based on their identity, with sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the UK is working to support survivors through access to specialist services, including mental and physical health support, and access to justice.
For many of the survivors who have been displaced it is not currently safe to return home. Many are in camps in Sudan as well as across Ethiopia. I am sure we all understand that specialist support needs to get to where they are now, and quickly. I genuinely struggle to see how the enormous divisions in Ethiopia will mend without proper accountability. That is about security as well as justice for the victims.
I am struggling to understand how we can have confidence in a sustainable peace, if there is not healing and inclusion in Ethiopia. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the approach that he will take to support credible accountability for the countless victims of abuses in this war. I want to ask the Minister about some of the pitfalls, as it would be devastating to the people of Ethiopia and damaging to UK interests if the agreement fails.
First, the agreement excludes Eritrea, and it is not clear how the rapid withdrawal of all Eritrean forces will be ensured. The Government have failed to mirror previous US sanctions against Eritrean entities involved in the conflict, so I hope that the Minister will consider that as a lever that he might have to deploy.
We know that there are significant border disputes, particularly around western Tigray. Many of the alleged systematic abuses, including ethnic cleansing, relate to that area. A pathway will need to resolve those disputes fairly and peacefully. The ceasefire does not end the need for close and consistent engagement by the UK—far from it. Let us be clear: the UK has much to gain from a just peace.
Ethiopia has made an enormous contribution to sustainable development and to the pan-African vision and its institution. The potential of the people of Ethiopia is even greater than their history. I believe that our partnership and collaboration could be much stronger if the UK supports the peace to hold, and if justice is done and seen to be done for the peoples of that very great country.
Thank you, Sir Gary. This is the first time I have had the privilege of performing under your eagle eye. It is my third time in government, since I first became a member of the Government in 1992, but I have never taken a debate in Westminster Hall before, so I hope you will treat me gently on this occasion, as I am a bit of a debutante.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this debate. I thought that she led and framed it with humanity, wisdom and knowledge, and the whole Chamber will be grateful to her for doing that. I am also grateful to other hon. Members and right hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, and I will try to respond to as many of the points that were raised as I can. I will come directly to the important points that were raised at the end of my remarks if I do not cover them in the speech that I am about to deliver.
After two years of brutal and bloody conflict, today’s debate takes place at a moment of hope. There is finally a path towards peace and prosperity for the people of Ethiopia. During two years of fighting in the north of the country, thousands of people have been killed. There have been human rights violations and abuses on an appalling scale, as has been set out during this debate, and some 13 million people have been left in need of humanitarian aid. It has been one of the world’s most destructive conflicts.
The peace agreement signed on 2 November by the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is an opportunity to bring a permanent end to this conflict. I recognise the achievement of both parties in taking this step towards peace. I particularly commend the role of the African Union and its envoy—the former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo—who led mediation efforts, with support from South Africa and Kenya.
This weekend, there was further cause for optimism. On Saturday in Nairobi, senior military commanders from both sides in the conflict signed a further agreement that maps out implementation of the peace process. At the forefront of this agreement is a rapid return to full and unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, which, as Members have made clear today, is absolutely vital. The peace agreement provides for a permanent cessation of hostilities, the disarmament and demobilisation of Tigrayan forces, and the restoration of services across Tigray. It also provides for a restoration of the constitutional order and the presence of federal authorities within the region.
This is a comprehensive agreement which, if implemented in full, can be the basis of a lasting peace. However, its implementation is far from certain. It will require sustained, magnanimous and restrained leadership on all sides, and support from Ethiopia’s friends across the international community. The UK Government have offered our support to the Ethiopian Government and the African Union. So far, the early signs are promising. Since 2 November, we believe that fighting has largely ceased, and the agreement signed on 12 November demonstrates commitment to implementation.
Humanitarian access is desperately needed. The UN estimates that 13 million people in northern Ethiopia require assistance, which includes millions of people in Tigray whom humanitarian agencies have been unable to reach since August. Humanitarian access has been one of our chief concerns throughout the conflict, and I know that that concern is shared by many in this Chamber. The UK Government have consistently called for humanitarian agencies to have unhindered and unfettered access to northern Ethiopia.
My predecessor as the Minister with responsibility for development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), raised this issue when she met Ethiopia’s deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, on 22 September at the UN General Assembly and she followed up that meeting with a visit to Ethiopia on 19 October, when she again held talks with the deputy Prime Minister.
In both those meetings, our message was clear: stop fighting, start talking and ensure that all those affected by the conflict can access humanitarian aid and essential services. We therefore welcome the commitment of the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF to enabling humanitarian aid to enter Tigray and to the restoration of essential services. It is crucial that this agreement rapidly makes a difference on the ground.
Turning to the issue of drought, the conflict has taken place in the context of a wider humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. In the south and east of the country, there have been four consecutive seasons of failed rains, which is unprecedented. This has led to a devastating drought. In October, my predecessor visited a region in Ethiopia that has been impacted by drought, and she witnessed one of the largest and most severe humanitarian crises in the world. As many as 24 million people have been affected in Ethiopia alone. In the past 18 months, the UK Government have allocated nearly £90 million to support communities in the Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions of Ethiopia, which have all been affected by conflict and drought.
The issue of human rights has been raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. The peace agreement affirms the principle of respect for fundamental human rights. It commits to the creation of a comprehensive and national transitional justice policy aimed at delivering truth, accountability, redress, reconciliation and healing. Throughout the conflict, there have been appalling records of human rights abuses and violations. The civilian populations of Tigray, Amhara and Afar have endured the most terrible suffering.
Throughout the conflict, the UK has consistently called for an end to human rights abuses and violations, and for accountability for those found to have perpetrated them. We have raised this issue frequently with all parties to the conflict through our embassies in Ethiopia and Eritrea, through my predecessor’s engagement with Ethiopian Ministers, and at the Human Rights Council. The UK was a co-sponsor of the resolution of the Human Rights Council that established the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, and we are also providing direct funding to support the important work of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am not confident about that, but we are pressing in every way we possibly can, and we must move forward optimistically. I will come to his specific point in a moment, when I address some of the comments that have been made during the debate.
In my contribution, I mentioned the issue of religious attacks. I know the Minister will come back to that, but I also want to press him on the issue of access to humanitarian aid for the Christian groups in Tigray, which are not getting the access to aid that they should.
If I may, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s comments later.
The presence and conduct of Eritrean forces in Tigray has fuelled the conflict and made its resolution more challenging. The Eritrean Government were not party to the peace agreement, but will inevitably be crucial to its success. We have consistently called on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from Tigray—I repeat that call today, and urge the Eritrean Government to support the peace agreement. We recognise that a durable peace in the horn of Africa depends on mutually acceptable security arrangements, which must include Eritrea, and we encourage those in the region to find solutions through dialogue.
I want to make a couple of points about our development assistance. Before the conflict, our development partnership with Ethiopia—one of the best in the world—had lifted millions of people out of poverty. Indeed, the results of spending British taxpayers’ money in Ethiopia were truly stunning, and helped Ethiopia to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. We want Ethiopia to return to more prosperous times, and the peace agreement calls on international partners to support its implementation, to help build infrastructure and to support economic recovery, although the UK will play its part in that. The UK Government have already provided 54 trucks to the UN World Food Programme in the region, and we are working with partners to remove the logistical barriers that prevent them from operating at full capacity. If the peace deal holds, we will encourage international financial institutions to support Ethiopia’s recovery.
If the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about these matters, will bear with me for a moment, I will come specifically to the issue of money.
This may be a moment for optimism. There is an opportunity to end one of the world’s most destructive conflicts, but that opportunity must be comprehensive and nurtured by everyone. The prize is a return to peace and prosperity for a nation of over 100 million people, and the UK stands ready to do all that we can to assist with that.
I will comment briefly on a number of points that were raised during the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for what he said. He is one of the experts, having had a relationship with Ethiopia and its people for many years. The House benefits greatly from his expertise. The former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), raised a number of important issues. He asked about the delivery of aid to the conflict areas. Yesterday, for the first time, two trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross got through to Mekelle. Nothing has got through for so long, so I hope that that may be a significant breakthrough on which we can build.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Edmonton—
I do apologise. The hon. Lady the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who always takes a great interest in international development, asked specifically about the figures for aid, and made three very interesting recommendations. Others, too, asked for these figures. In the last 18 months, the UK has provided nearly £90 million of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. Our support has reached people in Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Somalia and Oromia, and last year UK funding in Ethiopia provided nutritious food for over 200,000 malnourished women and children; emergency health supplies for 1 million people; clean water to over 200,000 people; and child protection services to over 40,000 children affected by the conflict.
In August, the UK provided an additional £6 million to the Ethiopian humanitarian fund, and in October the former Minister for Development, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford, announced £14 million of support to assist 150,000 women and children affected by conflict and drought. Those contributions are part of a wider £156 million UK commitment to humanitarian support for crises in east Africa this financial year. The hon. Member for Edmonton will recall that when I had responsibility for these matters at the Department for International Development I was always keen to demonstrate what results we achieved for that expenditure of British taxpayers’ money, so alongside the figure that I have given her I stress the number of people we are reaching with that sort of aid.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked about religious freedom. To amplify what I said earlier, at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council we co-sponsored a resolution to extend the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, and we have added £4.5 million to help to build the capacity of Ethiopia and the Human Rights Commission. That does not directly address his point about religious freedom, but I am sure that he will understand that it goes hand in hand with human rights. We are very conscious of the importance of the issue that he raised.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked about PSVI. I want her to know that we have invited a range of representatives, including from civil society groups. She also talked about the role of journalists. We are very conscious of that, and she will know that the Government have made a particular point of trying to support press freedom overseas through the work of the Foreign Office. She asked whether people would be held to account for what they have done. I stress as strongly as I can that we will do everything that we can to ensure that there is no impunity for war crimes and those who have committed human rights abuses.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).