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Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 14 June.

“I congratulate my honourable friend on securing this Urgent Question, and I thank him for his work not only on Ethiopia but on Zambia and Angola, where he serves as a trade envoy, and for the excellent work he does on the Business Council for Africa.

The Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Ethiopia. Our greatest concern is the rapidly growing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Tigray. We are now more than seven months into the conflict in Tigray, and there is no sight of an end. It has taken a terrible toll on the people of Tigray. More than 350,000 people are assessed to be in famine-like conditions in total—more than anywhere else in the world—and, sadly, this is expected to rise. A region-wide famine in Tigray is now likely if conflict intensifies and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid continue. This crisis has been caused by insecurity, an ongoing lack of humanitarian access and the deliberate destruction of agricultural equipment and medical facilities. It is a manmade crisis.

Officials from our embassy in Addis Ababa have visited Tigray five times to assess the situation and guide our humanitarian response. The UK’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, Nick Dyer, visited Tigray last month. Our ambassador is due to visit this week. During these visits, we have heard many harrowing reports of atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict. This includes extrajudicial killings, and widespread sexual and gender-based violence. It is simply unacceptable, it must stop and the perpetrators must be held to account.

The head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, has said the humanitarian disaster is in part due to the presence of the Eritrean troops in Tigray. He says they are using hunger as a weapon of war, and we therefore need to see the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray and Ethiopian soil now. The Government of Ethiopia have said this will happen, but it has not yet happened. I am particularly shocked about reports that Eritreans are dressing up in Ethiopian uniforms and committing atrocities.

The concern of the G7 nations about the situation was set out in yesterday’s communiqué, following the leaders’ summit this weekend. The G7 leaders called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access to the area. I am pleased that all G7 nations in the EU, along with a growing number of other nations, including Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Belgium and Poland, have joined the UK’s call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. His Holiness the Pope expressed his concerns and also called for an end to fighting this weekend. It is vital that that happens to allow life-saving aid to reach the hundreds of thousands in need.

The international community response to this crisis needs to be scaled up urgently. That will involve co-ordination to ensure aid gets in.”

My Lords, the new data from the World Food Programme has shown that a total of 350,000 people are suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger in Tigray. WFP is mounting emergency food assistance, but some areas are difficult to reach. What steps are the Government taking to support humanitarian access? On the peace process itself, last week the US representative to the UN called for the Security Council to meet publicly to discuss the crisis. What steps is the UK taking within the Security Council to help bring the conflict to an end?

My Lords, first I welcome my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Senior Deputy Speaker, to the Woolsack. It is testimony to his punctuality that today we saw him arrive a tad early. It is great to see him on the Woolsack—it is certainly the first occasion on which I have done so—and we all wish him well.

I will come on to the substance of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins. On the second point he raised, about the UN Security Council, we have certainly been among a few countries calling for an open debate. I am sure that he acknowledges that we made a specific statement on this during our presidency. We have made sure that we keep tabling the issue under any other business, to keep the focus of the Security Council. On his earlier question, we are working with UN agencies on the ground, including supporting additional funding to ensure that the likes of OCHA have access. We are also working with key organisations such as UNICEF on the ground.

My Lords, Ethiopia has made huge strides as a developing nation, in which relationships with the UK have played a significant part. Today I am wearing the tie presented to me when at the African Union in Addis Ababa by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Dlamini-Zuma. We are all shocked to see the images of starving people, and reports of civilians being murdered or displaced—reminiscent of the appalling war and famine in the 1980s. We have donated £16.7 million in response to this crisis, but how does this relate to the huge cuts in UK aid? Will Ethiopia’s elections next week offer a solution? They will not be held in Tigray, the EU has withdrawn its observation mission, and the team of American senators has called for elections to be postponed. What is the Government’s view?

On the noble Lord’s first question about support from the UK, we have actually given £47.7 million since the start of the crisis. My honourable friend the Minister for Africa announced an additional £16.7 million yesterday. On the political crisis, the noble Lord is right of course—there is an election due. The challenge remains that many parties from within the region impacted are not participating. We continue to use all diplomatic levers to ensure access for full-party participation during the elections. I think there will be little movement on the political settlement until the election has been held.

My Lords, I last visited the beautiful country of Ethiopia about 18 months ago, just before the pandemic. Now we find a third of a million people at risk of famine. Billions have been given in aid by the UK taxpayer, including some money via the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. How much influence has our huge aid programme had in encouraging peace and stability in the region? Did our aid allow any money from the Ethiopian Government to be diverted into armaments from health and education?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s second point, of course there are stringent measures in place to ensure that development aid support is for the purposes intended. I believe it has had an impact on the ground, as 1.2 million children have gained a quality education. Of course we continue to have a positive impact; we support aid programmes in-country but, equally, the political situation is dire and we need to reassess what level of support we can give over the longer term to ensure opportunities for the people of Ethiopia.

My Lords, this is clearly a manmade crisis that can be solved only by political negotiation and compromise, rather than a military solution. What is the African Union doing to foster a rapprochement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Federal Government?

My Lords, we are working with all key partners, including key players in Africa. The Minister for Africa has discussed the situation in Tigray with the AU’s peace and security commissioner. The Foreign Secretary has also discussed the situation with President Kenyatta of Kenya and PM Hamdok of Sudan, and will continue to work with African partners as well as others to bring about a resolution of this conflict peacefully.

I wonder if the Minister would comment on whether Her Majesty’s Government have been able to validate allegations that white phosphorus was used against civilians in Tigray, despite the categorical denial of the Ethiopian Government.

The right reverend Prelate raises an important point. We are awaiting, and certainly support, the full investigation. Various UN agencies, including OCHA and the UNHCR, are working to establish the facts of that very incident.

My Lords, we know the effect that malnutrition has on babies and children—from a baby’s gestation right through to the child turning three. It affects their lungs and it affects their life for the future, and it will affect the livelihood of that country. What are we doing to ensure that the food on the ground is the correct food, particularly for babies, toddlers and pregnant mothers?

Our UK aid is focused on that very issue, among various priorities, and 5.6 million children under five, women and girls continue to be reached through nutrition-related interventions on the ground in-country.

My Lords, I see from the UN report that the special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea has been unable to get into the country. What are the Government doing to try to get things sorted out on the ground? Seventy-five years of independence in Ethiopia seems to have left just a tragic mess, and we appear to be on the point of a failed country and continent. What do HMG think they can do to help?

My Lords, I will not agree with my noble friend on the fact that it is a failed continent. I think there are many successes across Africa but, as I alluded to earlier, we are working with key partners and through UN agencies both on the ground and through political engagement to ensure that we bring about a peaceful resolution of this conflict.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, which will be addressed this afternoon by the United Nations special rapporteur on Eritrea and will focus on Tigray. How do the Government intend to respond to his findings of appalling human rights violations by Eritrean militias in Tigray? Did the Minister discuss it when he met the Secretary-General of the United Nations last week? Are we working with Ireland, which is proposing to raise this in the Security Council this week? Are we considering joining Belgium, which is using universal jurisdiction to bring prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity?

My Lords, yes, I did discuss this with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres last week when I met him. We are awaiting a full report of that joint investigation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which is currently under way. We will continue to work with key partners on the UN Security Council, including Ireland, to find further resolutions and we continue to lobby for a full debate at the UNSC.

My Lords, looking longer term, in the view of the Government, which of the outside bodies is best placed to play a peacebuilding role—the UN or the EU? Does the Minister agree that the causes of instability in conflict must be tackled and that these include the insupportable population explosion from 18 million in 1950 to about 110 million now, and projected by the UN to be 190 million by 2050 and 250 million by the end of the century? Does our aid include family planning?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the issue of population growth must be addressed, not just in the region we are currently talking about but across the world. We believe that prioritising girls’ education for 12 years is part and parcel of finding that long-term resolution. We are working with all agencies to find a resolution and the African Union, as well as the UN, has an important role to play.

My Lords, yesterday in the other place the Minister for Africa stated:

“a high level of sexual violence is being directed at children”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/21; col. 41.]

in Tigray. This comes on top of the report about barbaric gender-based violence unleashed against the Tigrayan population as a whole. Can my noble friend tell the House, eight months later, how many of the UK team of experts set up to collect evidence of sexual violence, in precisely these kinds of situations, have been deployed to Ethiopia or to neighbouring countries to ensure that evidence is collected and perpetrators are eventually brought to account?

My Lords, I apologise as I did not catch the whole of my noble friend’s question because of the connection, but I picked up the main gist. As the Prime Minister’s special representative on PSVI—preventing sexual violence in conflict—I can assure her that we have prioritised this. On identifying personnel from our team, we are currently looking to formally deploy directly on the ground in the coming weeks. We have been working with agencies on the ground, including UNICEF, Red Crescent and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. Thus far, although the situation is dire, we are currently supporting 545 survivors— 542 women and 3 men— directly with case management services. The proportion of people impacted internally and through allegations of sexual violence is far greater, so there is further work to do and this is a key priority for me as the Prime Minister’s special representative.