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Ethiopia: Humanitarian and Security Situation

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the humanitarian and security situation in northern Ethiopia.

My Lords, the UK is gravely concerned about the resumption of fighting between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian Government. There is no military solution to this conflict; only political negotiations can resolve it. Thirteen million people in northern Ethiopia are in need now of humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict and the UK is urging all parties to immediately reinstate the truce, allow humanitarian access and begin peace talks.

My Lords, this conflict is responsible for the deaths of half a million or more people already from either war or famine. On 2 August, following a meeting in Addis Ababa and a visit to the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, the US special envoy, Mike Hammer, and envoys of the EU, the UN and the UK called for the restoration of basic, essential services and unfettered humanitarian access, implying that Abiy, who had met them, had agreed to do these things. However, he summarily dismissed their call and maintained the blockade, continuing to use starvation as a weapon of war. Fighting has now resumed, with Eritrea’s re-entry into the conflict, a counteroffensive by the TPLF and lethal air strikes by Abiy aimed at civilian areas, including a kindergarten. Considering the humanitarian, regional and geopolitical implications of increasing instability in Ethiopia, what steps are we taking to end this conflict? What leverage do we have?

My Lords, as I said, 22 months of fighting has shown that the only solution is a political one and we have been very forthright in urging all parties to reinstate the previously agreed cessation of hostilities, begin peace talks and guarantee humanitarian access to northern Ethiopia for basic services. We have supported and continue to support the African Union’s mediation efforts. The African Union is pushing hard for a redoubling of those efforts to avert further escalation. Our view and its view is that Tigrayan forces should leave Amhara and Eritrean forces should withdraw from Ethiopia. We are as dismayed as the noble Lord no doubt is at the recent reports of civilian casualties following a government air strike on Tigray. This is a humanitarian crisis that is growing terrifyingly quickly, affecting vast numbers of people.

My Lords, on a previous Question I raised the concern that this could become a regional pressure point: indeed, with the Eritrean Government forces, it is now an issue on the Sudanese border as well. I declare an interest in that I will be in the wider region at the weekend. The Sudanese authorities have advised NGOs and UN bodies to pull back from the Sudanese border, which will make the situation for those Ethiopians who are fleeing this violence even worse. What direct humanitarian support is the UK providing to these bodies, which are literally providing life-saving services in this border area?

I thank the noble Lord for his efforts in the wider region. The UK is a major humanitarian donor to the East African region. UK-funded activities are making a measurable difference to people’s lives. In the current financial year, we will have provided around £156 million in humanitarian aid across East Africa, £76 million of which has already been spent, and UK aid is helping millions of people access food, water and healthcare right now. We know from history that early intervention saves lives; that is why a few months ago—this year—£24 million in funding was announced for early action and support: a scaling up of assistance in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. In April, we helped to bring states together at the UN drought round table, which mobilised around $400 million in new commitments for the region. The UK is providing a lot of finance, but we are also flexing, wherever possible, our diplomatic muscle and using the networks that we have built up.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea. Does the noble Lord agree that the malign role of Eritrean militias has undoubtedly exacerbated an already grievous situation? The conflict is spreading from Tigray to other ethnic groups and to neighbouring countries, with terrorist organisations such as al-Shabaab exploiting the instability. With an entire population, as the noble Lord has said, on the verge of starvation and death, how has the United Kingdom responded to the bombing of civilian targets, including in close proximity recently to the university in Mekelle, by galvanising the international community to end the weaponising of hunger and famine, rapes and gender-based violence and to bring those responsible to justice? Does he not agree that the scale of what is happening in Africa is directly comparable to the scale of what is happening in Europe, in Ukraine?

The noble Lord has a long track record on these issues and I appreciate the very regular updates I get from him, all of which I transfer to my colleague in the other place in whose portfolio this sits. I know it is appreciated there as well. Millions of people in Ethiopia have been lifted out of poverty in recent years; it was a development success story. We all remember the horrors that created much of what we now regard to be the aid movement, but those gains that we saw are massively at risk today. The reality is that millions upon millions of people are now facing a return to base poverty—actual starvation —so this is of course a priority for us. We are working with all the international bodies that have a role to play, whether that is in preventing sexual violence or alleviating the immediate threats of starvation, and we are working through all the UN agencies. We are and remain an international development leader in Africa, notwithstanding the pressures on the ODA budget in the UK, and Africa will remain a priority for us.

My Lords, would the Minister look again at the situation in the Horn of Africa? There is instability in northern Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, yet Somaliland, which is not recognised as a country—the British Government will still not look at recognising its Government—is after all the only stable place in that region.

The noble Lord makes such an important point. I am tempted to depart from the current line to take on Somaliland, but I will simply say that it is one of the most extraordinary success stories. It is a plucky country and a place that has defied all the odds. It is one of the only countries in the world that has almost eliminated electoral fraud through the use of iris technology. It is a country where, following a democratic election, candidates shake hands and power is transferred peacefully. It is an area in one of the most troubled regions on earth which has managed to rid itself of the problems of al-Shabaab, which were mentioned in a previous question. I cannot think of another country that has succeeded or flourished more against all the odds. In my view, it is a country that we should be supporting, and we should ramp up our support in the months and years to come.

My Lords, can I return to the noble Lord’s initial statement that there is no military solution to the war in Ethiopia? Secretary of State Blinken said recently that talks should resume without any precondition. Of course, the African Union process has faltered, but can he tell us whether the Government and the Foreign Secretary, or the Foreign Office, have been in touch with Secretary Blinken to ensure that we can get talks started without any preconditions, and that we have humanitarian access to those people who are suffering terribly?

HMA Addis Ababa and the UK special envoy to the Horn of Africa met Prime Minister Abiy on 12 May and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke and National Security Adviser Redwan on 16 August. We are continuously pressing for a resumption of peace talks. The Minister for Africa visited Ethiopia in January this year and has been very public on this issue on a regular basis. We are actively supporting the African Union’s efforts to mediate. The noble Lord says that there should be no preconditions, but clearly it is essential that at the very base of those discussions there is an agreement that Tigrayan forces must leave Amhara—that is non-negotiable—and that Eritrean forces should withdraw from Ethiopia. Although I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question in relation to Secretary Blinken, I am absolutely certain that the answer is yes. However, I cannot answer that authoritatively; I will ensure that he has an answer from the Minister for Africa.

My Lords, one of the distressing aspects of this terrible situation is the deliberate destruction of cultural artefacts within Ethiopia, so may I try to link this Question with the earlier Question about cultural artefacts? Even from the Floor of this House, there have been recent calls for the immediate return of 11 religious tablets held in the British Museum that came from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Would it not be madness, given this present situation, to think about doing that right now? Might I encourage the Minister to have a word with his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson—he will not have to go too far to have this conversation—about coming up with a much more grown-up policy about the return of cultural artefacts, which, above all, recognises the incredible part that British museums have played as custodians of these artefacts which otherwise would not be in any museum and would have been destroyed long ago?

The noble Lord makes a really important and valid point. My understanding is that there have been no recent discussions with the Government of Ethiopia on this issue. The tablets are legally owned by the trustees of the British Museum, which is operationally independent of government. Decisions relating to the care and management of its collection are of course a matter for the trustees. But I note the comments of the noble Lord and I am sure his message will be heard loud and clear in the Foreign Office.