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Tigray Conflict: Axum

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports of a massacre at Axum in Tigray, which Amnesty International said may amount to crimes against humanity.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.

My Lords, we believe that the allegations about human rights violations in the Amnesty report are credible. Over recent weeks, multiple reports, including from Human Rights Watch and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, have begun to document the scale of possible abuses and human rights violations in Tigray. Since the conflict started, the UK has called consistently for an end to the fighting, and I reiterate those calls today, as well as the need for urgent independent investigations into the atrocities in Tigray in order to end impunity.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. With vast numbers of Tigrayans having been displaced and 4 million now facing a manmade famine, reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch underline the allegations of crimes against humanity at Axum and allegations of an unfolding genocide. What are we doing to hold those responsible for this to account, including Nobel laureates? Why did we not jointly table last week a resolution with Ireland to the United Nations Security Council, despite China and Russia threatening to block it, along with supporting the international calls there for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray? Surely this is a prerequisite to ending the depredations in Tigray.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the situation in Tigray is dire. Since the conflict began, the UN Security Council has now discussed Ethiopia on four occasions. During the most recent discussions on 4 March, to which he referred, there was a clear consensus that the situation in Ethiopia, particularly the humanitarian situation, was of deep concern. It is regrettable, as he has pointed out, that certain members of the UN Security Council are continuing to block further discussion, and indeed public discussion, in the current sessions. However, we continue to press for actions in this respect.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister has said, but obviously there is more to do. Those of us who were involved in trying to negotiate peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea a decade ago are dismayed by the fact that they are now united, but in the suppression of Tigray. Crimes of concern to humanity are being committed every day and it is no accident that there are highly organised and disciplined militaries on both sides. Can the Minister add to his comments about approaches to the United Nations and tell us what we are doing with the African Union, which can often be a very significant force for installing peace? Can he also comment specifically on the fact that many of the leading Tigrayans who have served in the Ethiopian Government have been absolutely vital to the UK’s interests in securing peace in Somalia and the northern Kenyan regions? They are eager to be in places where they no longer fear for their lives. They want to continue with their education and are keen to continue with their charitable work—

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, there are currently no concerted efforts at dialogue between the conflict parties. Regrettably, while I agree with him that the efforts of the AU are important, they have not picked up yet again. We will continue to call for Eritrean troops to leave, and to work with the AU as well as other partners to ensure peace in Tigray.

My Lords, I strongly endorse the comments of the two previous noble Lords. In view of the more than three months of communications blackout, along with continuing reports of the killing and rape of civilians, the destruction of harvests and medical facilities, widespread looting and starvation, do Her Majesty’s Government agree that what has taken place in Axum is almost certainly being repeated across Tigray and that there is enough evidence to suspect that ethnic cleansing is taking place in the province? In the light of the adoption by the UK of the responsibility to protect commitment of the 2005 UN World Summit, including paragraphs 138 and 139, what further steps do Her Majesty’s Government plan to take to secure the protection of the Tigrayan population?

My Lords, the situation in Tigray is both challenging and dire, as I have just said. Our most recent efforts have included the formation of a joint humanitarian political team from the British embassy, which on 4 and 5 March visited Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray. The team met the provisional administration of Tigray and humanitarian agencies. Our efforts are both political and humanitarian in this respect.

The reports that several hundred civilians have been massacred in Axum have been confirmed by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, contrary to the claims of its own Government. However, within the unfettered access that we apparently now have been granted in the region, will the Government press for evidence of the deliberate destruction of crops and intentional starvation? Will this be a test case for the UN special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs? Finally, what support are the Government giving Ireland, our closest neighbour in this context and a newly elected member of the UN Security Council, in its campaign to raise the situation in Tigray at the council’s meetings?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, we continue to work with Ireland and indeed, on 15 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke with the Irish Foreign Minister. On the issue of unfettered access, unfortunately, while commitments have been made, that is not the case. Access to Tigray remains very challenging even for humanitarian agencies.

My Lords, the 24 Hours for Tigray global lobby started at noon today and either is hearing or is about to hear from young women discussing the trauma of rape being used as a weapon of war. Given the statements in the Amnesty International report about the extent of this war crime, and with International Women’s Day very much in everyone’s mind, what assurances can the noble Lord provide that the many reports about the alleged rape of women in Tigray as part of the war will be taken up and that there will be justice for them?

My Lords, as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, I say that this remains a key priority. We are deeply concerned about the credible reports. I was pleased to see the statement from SRSG Pramila Patten showing that teams are already working on the ground collecting evidence to ensure that those who have committed these crimes do not escape punishment.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a founder and current trustee of the Band Aid/Live Aid Trust—hence my interest in the subject. This is clearly a human tragedy. These territories have long been troubled by famine, war, et cetera. What action are the Government considering taking—for example, targeted sanctions, including economic sanctions? There is a lot of talk and discussion, but very little action. Also, does it make complete sense to cut the 0.7% spend on development in the middle of the pandemic, a time when the chair of the G7 should be setting an example? This might help in the region.

My Lords, the Government’s response to my noble friend’s second question is already well documented, but I agree that we must ensure change on the ground. He mentioned sanctions and I assure him that we will consider the full range of policy tools at our disposal.

My Lords, the Minister said that we must stop people acting with impunity in violating human rights. How are we responding to the call by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for an objective independent assessment? Also, how are we working with our allies on the dire humanitarian situation in terms of opening up corridors and getting aid into this very difficult area?

My Lords, there is a lot of work being done on the second question that the noble Lord raises, about opening up corridors, but, as I have already said, while declarations have been made, most recently by the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the Human Rights Council, including his acceptance that there must be international investigations into allegations, we are yet to see this in practical terms. However, we are working very closely at the HRC, including with the office of the High Commissioner.

My Lords, does the Minister share my feeling that these dreadful events at Axum are reminiscent of medieval barbarism, involving as they do the deliberate destruction of crops and the pillaging of the hospital and the pharmacy? What international assistance is available to assist this community to rebuild itself?

My Lords, the first step, as I am sure the noble Lord agrees, is to help the thousands of internally displaced people. Getting humanitarian access to them in terms of medical supplies and food remains a key priority. I agree that we should then look at medium-term planning, but that cannot come until there is peace in Tigray. On the issue of crops being destroyed, I also know full well that there are also historic sites. The Axum site was an ancient historic city, rich in traditions of faith and in churches that allegedly have also been plundered. So there is a lot to do on the ground, but the priority must be access to Tigray to ensure that civilians get the support that they urgently need.

Sitting suspended.