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Tigray

Volume 810: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the impact of the conflict in Tigray upon the stability of the Horn of Africa region, and (2) the implications of that conflict for their Overseas Development Assistance policy.

My Lords, we are concerned about the impact of the conflict in Tigray on the humanitarian situation and wider regional stability. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary urged all parties to bring an end to fighting, prioritise the protection of civilians, allow unfettered humanitarian access and preserve regional stability when he met Prime Minister Abiy on 22 January. As a result of the conflict, the UK is considering its safe delivery model in Ethiopia. Our priority remains to support Ethiopians in need, which we will do by supporting the most vulnerable in the country.

My Lords, I welcome last week’s agreement allowing the UN access to Tigray, whereas some refugees are reduced to eating tree bark as a result of the Ethiopian Government blocking humanitarian access. What specific action will the UK take during its presidency of the UN Security Council to resolve the crisis in a country which is the fourth-highest recipient in the world of UK aid?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very pertinent point. The situation on humanitarian access remains dire in country, as was emphasised by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary during his visit. Regarding the UN Security Council point, on 3 February, UN Security Council members under the UK presidency discussed the humanitarian situation. At that time, we also heard from Sir Mark Lowcock, who heads up humanitarian affairs at the UN. The situation remains very challenging, but we will continue to implore all sides to allow unfettered humanitarian access.

My Lords, although in receipt of budgetary support, the federal Government can find resources to carry on this war, and allegedly are using starvation as a weapon of war. In 2019, we gave Ethiopia £300 million in bilateral aid, which was then the second-highest amount, after Pakistan. Does this give us any leverage at all in this conflict, and will we and the international community be expected to pick up the vast bill for the reconstruction of Tigray?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise bilateral support. Ethiopia remains one of the largest recipients of UK support, although, as I said in my original Answer, we are reviewing, particularly with an eye on Tigray, whether that support is getting through. The noble Lord also raises a valid point about the leverage that this provides. I assure him that we are talking directly to the Ethiopian Government about the support that we give to the most vulnerable, to ensure that it reaches those most in need.

My Lords, in January 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees learned of additional military incursions consistent with open-source satellite imagery showing fires and other signs of destruction at two Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray. Have Her Majesty’s Government made any representations on an independent investigation into human rights violations in those camps?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to raise those camps. We have raised concerns directly. Our ambassador on the ground has also raised concerns with the Eritrean authorities. I assure the noble Baroness that the issues of violence in this conflict, particularly gender-based violence and sexual violence, are at the forefront of our approach and challenges, and once the situation settles, we must ensure that perpetrators are held fully to account.

My Lords, the UN interagency response plan for this crisis is less than 60% funded, and the UK has an important role to play here, but nearly three months on from the announcement that the Government will cut £4 billion from our overseas development budget, we have yet to see any details of how these cuts will be made. Will they come from UN agencies, which are doing such vital work in Tigray, or from bilateral programmes such as our important nutrition work in Ethiopia? Can my noble friend the Minister tell us when any information on these cuts will be made available to Parliament?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that we are focused very much on ensuring that the most vulnerable are supported in this conflict, particularly those in Tigray, and our funding—whether through multilateral or bilateral support—is focused on that. On the specifics of future funding, we are currently reviewing our ODA budget for this year, and I will, of course, share that with my noble friend as soon as that decision is made.

My Lords, the BBC reports that an immense tragedy is unfolding in Tigray. Has anyone from the British embassy, other members of the diplomatic community or one of the four African Union special envoys been able to visit Tigray to make an independent assessment of the situation? Do the UK Government have firm evidence of the involvement of Eritrean forces in Tigray?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s final point, we need to ensure that all the facts are fully available before any assessment is made, but undoubtedly the Eritrean forces have been present. We continue to call for full cessation and the allowing of humanitarian access. That is why we have continued to emphasise that some NGOs are operational, specifically in Tigray. When the Foreign Secretary visited Ethiopia, he called for unfettered access into the region. I will continue to update the noble Baroness as further details unfold.

My Lords, in order to ensure that our aid to the Horn of Africa reaches the right people, is it still Government policy to give aid to charities that are reliable and transparent, such as the Tropical Health and Education Trust, CAFOD and others in the same league that are free from somewhat dubious political activities?

My Lords, apart from the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, what actions are being taken to protect the key strategic trade routes to the Horn of Africa? In the knowledge that the region is highly vulnerable to climate change and water security issues, and with Ethiopia controlling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, what measures are being taken to address tensions relating to trans-boundary water relations?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises extremely important points, particularly in respect of strategic locations. This is why we have taken a very strong approach through a direct intervention by the Foreign Secretary in country. The matters he raised in terms of both the situation in Tigray and the wider implications were very much part of his discussion with Prime Minister Abiy when he was in country.

My Lords, I pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, on the impact of some of the cuts in our bilateral programmes, but also in our multilateral programmes. As food security is obviously a critical issue in the Horn of Africa, will the Minister tell us whether we will make food security a priority at the G7 summit, which will take place later on this year?

My Lords, there are many elements in the G7 discussions, but the noble Lord is right to raise the issue of food security. In any conflict zone, that becomes an immediate personal priority and I support his view. We have managed in Ethiopia, over many years, to support efforts on sanitation, school education and avoiding famine. However, the situation in Tigray in particular remains extremely worrying, not just with regard to the refugees in nearby Sudan but also with regard to the internally displaced refugees, whose numbers at the moment are very fluid.

My Lords, what discussions have the UK Government, as president of the Security Council, had with the African Union on efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to secure urgent humanitarian access to Tigray?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that there are important discussions to be had. I have already alluded to the UN Security Council meeting. In addition to this, we are talking to key players within Africa, most notably leaders in Sudan and South Africa, among others. We emphasise the important role of the UN and other agencies, as well as the African Union, in finding a resolution to this conflict.

My Lords, with more than 6 million sick and starving refugees from the conflict, does the Minister agree that the first priority must be the cessation of violence and the setting up of a round-table meeting with both sides and UN officials to establish safe conditions for the supply and distribution of urgently needed humanitarian aid?

My Lords, I am sure that the Government are aware that the World Food Programme has already commenced distributing food in the Tigray region to the tune of 20,000 tonnes to support around 1.3 million people. As nearly 3 million need help, will the Government support the UN in its efforts to provide extra aid to extend that supply to the other 1.7 million people?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to raise the issue of the UN World Food Programme, which has provided food assistance for 2.9 million people. He will be pleased to hear that, thanks to this being a priority issue for us, we now have an envoy, Nick Dyer, who covers humanitarian issues, conflict and famine, and who has visited Ethiopia to determine what the current priorities are. As I said to noble Lords in answer to previous questions, the situation in Tigray itself remains very fluid. A lot of the details are unknown, which is why we will continue to press, as the first priority, for unfettered humanitarian access to the region.