[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings. Given the recent outbreak in Parliament, I expect to see everybody wearing a face covering if they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray.
I am delighted to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I am very pleased that Members have come to debate the humanitarian situation facing Sudan, Ethiopia and Tigray. The debate could not be better timed for the news that we have had today and in the last few days. I will open with a few reminders of the size of the humanitarian crisis facing people in that area.
In Sudan at this very moment there are 60,000 Tigrayan refugees, who have crossed the border from the fighting in Tigray, and there are still in Sudan, which is not a wealthy country, 1.1 million refugees from historical conflicts in Darfur and other places. As all Members will know, Sudan suffered a coup recently. Huge protests are going on in Khartoum and other cities, the elected Prime Minister is under house arrest and the military are patrolling the streets and trying to restore the previous regime’s methods. I wish the people of Sudan well in their demands for democracy, and I send a message of support to the demonstration that was held outside Downing Street last Saturday.
Ethiopia can now be described only as a country in a state of war. The Prime Minister has gone on national television to ask people to be mobilised to defend the capital, and the society as a whole, and is busy enlisting large numbers of often very young people—he is complaining that they are ill-trained—into the armed forces in order to continue the conflict. That was preceded by—indeed, it continues—many people from Tigray or other parts of Ethiopia who have made their homes in Addis Ababa being attacked, arrested and persecuted by the authorities. There is a whole popular mood against the people of Tigray, who are seen as separatists within the country of Ethiopia. I say that as somebody who is a friend and an admirer of the amazing history of Ethiopia—the one country in Africa that never became part of the European colonisation system.
In Tigray, 2.1 million people are displaced, 5 million are food-insecure, which is about 80% of the population, and at least 400,000 are literally starving, but because of the conflict, aid trucks, relief trucks and support simply cannot get through. Only 15 minutes ago, before I came to the debate, I was watching Michelle Bachelet of the United Nations. She is a wonderful woman and an old friend of mine; I have known her ever since the dark days of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, before she became the President of Chile. A report that I have just received states:
“Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that ‘all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.’”
She is a very intelligent and normally very cautious person. She does not throw those kinds of allegations out willy-nilly. They are very serious indeed.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful opening speech. He is talking about the Tigrayan situation, which I think we would all agree amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. He mentioned starvation and so forth, and I just want to highlight the issues facing young women and girls. There have been reports that many have been subject to rape, gang rape and other forms of sexual mutilation and torture. Does he agree that, while there is a potential breach of international law, our Government must also show some leadership in bringing an end to what is happening?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention—I was actually going to come on to that point next—and she is absolutely right. The abuse of women and girls by the forces in Tigray has been abominable and appalling. The crime of rape has been used as an act of war, and multiple rapes, sexual slavery and the abuse of women have been the order of the day. It is utterly disgraceful, and I hope that when the conflict is over, and all conflicts have to be over eventually, there will be the most thorough investigation of every one of those cases. We have seen rape as a weapon of war in so many places—in Congo and many other parts of Africa, as well as in many other wars around the world—and I hope there is the most thorough investigation and that prosecutions will follow as a result.
To return to the account I was quoting, Michelle Bachelet has said:
“The investigation recounts a report of a massacre of ‘more than 100 civilians’ in Axum, Tigray by Eritrean forces”—
note: the Eritrean forces—
“on 28 November 2020. The victims were ‘mostly young men’ but one witness told the joint investigation team that others were targeted too. ‘EDF soldiers took a 70-year-old man and his two sons out of their homes. They took them to the nearby water tanker, ordered them to lay on the ground and shot all three of them in the head,’”
and so it goes on about a series of other occasions. Again, note that the Eritrean defence forces have become involved in the conflict as well, which is more than unfortunate in the sense that it indicates the danger that the war is about to spread.
Is the right hon. Gentleman as confused as I am about the reports of the involvement of Eritrean forces? There are very strong reports that they are indeed involved and committing some of the worst atrocities, but at the same time there is also a denial that they are in that country.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. The reports of Eritrean forces being involved are very disturbing because that clearly internationalises the conflict. Verification is obviously difficult when the Ethiopian occupying forces and the conflict itself make it impossible for independent investigators to get there to understand exactly what is going on. One plea I am going to make at the end of my contribution is that international observers be allowed in, so that they can assess what is on.
If I may, I think we should put this in the context of the tragic history of Ethiopia. It has been through all kinds of things, right back to the Italian fascists’ invasion in the 1930s and their removal by British and other forces during the second world war. It has been a party to the cold war, and there has been a massive flow of armaments into Ethiopia from the Soviet Union, the United States, Europe and arms dealers all around the world. It is a country that has seen the most appalling conflict and the most appalling humanitarian disasters, such as the famine of the 1980s.
I pay tribute to the International Development Committee for its report on the humanitarian situation in Tigray. I am delighted that its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), is here, and I hope she is going to speak in this debate. If I may say so, I think the Select Committee puts the history of Ethiopia in summary form very well, and of course the enormous conflict that took place before Eritrea gained its independence and the further conflict that went on during the border dispute.
For goodness’ sake, there has been enough death, wars, conflict and loss of development opportunities without there now being a descent into a massive civil war across Ethiopia. It is always the most vulnerable and the young people who die as a result. The points in the Select Committee report about gender-based violence, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) intervened earlier, are so apt and well put. I hope they become centre stage in any UN human rights investigation into the causes and continuation of this conflict.
The most immediate response to this conflict is the two events of 2019, when the Government of Ethiopia were pursuing a more democratic and participatory course and getting a lot of international support for it. There was then, effectively, the break-up of the Government by a change in the ruling party and by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—removing itself from the Government. The Government in Addis then delayed the election that was to be held in Tigray. The TPLF in Tigray then decided to hold its own election, which it did.
It was claimed that this was illegal under the terms of the Ethiopian constitution and the whole thing descended very rapidly into armed conflict. We then get the deaths, rape and occupation, and huge refugee flows as a result. That is the immediate tragic history that Ethiopia and Tigray have descended into. I hope that in our debate today we can, at least, find out what the British Government think about this and what action they are prepared to take.
The issues we face are four-fold. First, we need to somehow or other get an immediate ceasefire in this conflict so that the food aid, medicine, water and all the other things can get in and so that the thousands who have gone mainly to the Sudan—and some who apparently have also gone to South Sudan, although I am not sure of the numbers—can return home.
Secondly, we need to recognise the consequences for those countries of the massive refugee flows. At the start of my contribution, I gave figures for the numbers of people who are refugees in Sudan—60,000 in Tigray and 1.1 million from Darfur. The media in this country complain about a few hundred refugees coming in across the channel. I am talking about a poor country hosting more than 1 million refugees without the infrastructure or wherewithal to cope with them. That, sadly, is the story of so many poor countries around the world.
Thirdly, who is going to be the interlocutor to bring about a ceasefire? The UN obviously must and should have a role in this. The African Union must and should have a role in this, but it appears that the degree of mistrust, particularly by Tigrayan forces towards the African Union, which is housed in Addis anyway, is one of the problems in bringing about a meaningful ceasefire. I do think there has to be involvement with the African Union, perhaps brought about by the UN itself. It is extremely important that we send that message today.
Fourthly, the arms sales to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigray are not huge on the global scale of things—I am not pretending there are massive arms sales—but nevertheless, in a conflict of this nature, rapid-fire machine guns and all those kind of armaments are the instruments of war. We are not necessarily talking about planes and drones and things, but more about those things. The UK sells quite little to Ethiopia. According to the figures I have from Campaign Against Arms Trade, UK arms exports approved to Ethiopia in the last three years amount to only £58,000, and most of that was related to armoured vehicles. Those questions were put. The three known military export applications are from Safariland Group, Harrington Generators and Boeing. I look forward to the Minister saying that there will be no further exports there. EU arms exports to Ethiopia over the last three years are more considerable, amounting to £36 million. I hope we put pressure on the European Union not to allow those arms sales to continue.
The urgent need, as I said, is for food aid to get through. Hundreds of thousands—nay, millions—are suffering from malnutrition or lack of food. There is a huge lack of medicines all across the country, as well as the war crimes investigations and all the rest going on. The situation is that well-armed and presumably well-fed and watered soldiers are able to kill each other in Tigray. Forces of the TPLF are active in Ethiopia and Ethiopian forces are active in the conflict against them. Arms are available for soldiers to kill civilians in a conflict that has to be resolved by a ceasefire and a coming together, so that people may decide their future in peace. All those soldiers are passing starving people—babies who are dying because of malnutrition; women who have suffered the most abominable abuse by those very same soldiers—and the war carries on with the arms that come from God-knows-where, from all around the world. It is the poorest people who suffer, in the worst possible situation.
I hope that we can send a message: we will give all the necessary aid and support that we can to get through this and, above all, we will take the political initiative and support Michelle Bachelet in her determination to bring about a ceasefire and some hope for the future. I am pleased that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the all-party parliamentary human rights group and the all-party group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity are meeting tomorrow afternoon at 2 o’clock to go through all the issues. I urge Members to attend that meeting, which I understand will be online. It will be helpful for us to be better informed.
My purpose in calling the debate was not necessarily to blame the British Government for the whole situation there, but to thank the International Development Committee for what it has done and to ask our Government to give what aid is necessary and, above all—I repeat this—to use our political clout, whatever we have and wherever we have it, to get a ceasefire, to stop the killing, to stop the refugee flows and to let the people of Tigray, the rest of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan decide their own future in peace. That is the best message that we can give.
Before I call Members, I have requested that the temperature be turned up, because I am conscious that it is very cold in here. I intend to call the Opposition spokespeople, including the shadow Minister, and the Minister from 3.28 pm, depending on the votes that we are expecting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship again today, Ms Bardell.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) not only on securing the debate and his kind words to the Select Committee, but on the fact that he will not let this go. We need to keep raising the atrocities happening in the region, particularly in Tigray, again and again, because too often the news just moves on while the people stay and the desperation gets worse. I thank him personally for calling the debate.
A peaceful resolution of the conflict seems far off, with fighting intensifying and a state of emergency declared overnight. As my right hon. Friend said, the Select Committee has been monitoring with increasing concern the deteriorating situation in the region and the escalation of humanitarian needs as a direct consequence. Earlier this year the International Development Committee published a report on the situation in Tigray, which included moving evidence from agencies working in the region to address the increasingly complex humanitarian situation. We heard shocking reports of the impact of the conflict, including killings, the systematic use of sexual violence and the use of hunger as a weapon of war. In our report, my Committee urged the Government to use the combination of the UK’s diplomatic clout and development funding to seek a peaceful political resolution to the conflict, and to ensure that aid reaches communities in the region that are in such desperate need for it.
I was pleased to receive the Government’s constructive response to the report, which set out the FCDO’s commitment to working with regional partners in seeking an end to the conflict and focusing on getting humanitarian supplies to Tigray. It is with great sadness that I note that the scale of the challenge in Tigray seems greater than ever. Alongside a deteriorating military situation, the humanitarian crisis is becoming acute and the consequences of inaction increasingly catastrophic.
A constituent of mine has been unable to contact her family since the beginning of the conflict. Their stories are terrifying and upsetting. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government should outline not only how they will provide aid to the people there, but how to communicate with relatives living in the country?
I completely agree. Many of us, if not all, have constituents with family members over there, and hearing their stories makes it so real and such a live issue for us all; one cannot fail to be moved. Trying to get reliable information is one of the big problems we have had all the way through this conflict.
The UN estimates that at least 5.2 million people need emergency food assistance, with almost half a million people in Tigray living in famine-like conditions. The UN reports indicate that just 1% of those in need of food are being reached, with only half of those receiving more than two food items a week. The UN says that an alarming number of children are suffering with severe acute malnutrition, with numbers increasing by the day, because just a fraction of the humanitarian aid needed in Tigray is reaching that region. Fuel shortages and limits on access to cash have forced a reduction of what remains of humanitarian assistance, with barely $800,000 of the $6.5 million needed per week getting through. Ongoing restrictions on entering the region and an escalation of fighting means that trucks simply cannot get in. Each day, Tigray alone needs around 100 trucks of fuel, food and other supplies, but since 18 October not a single truck has entered. The UN Humanitarian Air Service has been suspended. The situation in Amhara grows more alarming by the day due to the large-scale displacement of people, with reports that electricity and communication lines have been cut.
The international community and Ministers must press the Ethiopian Government and regional partners to ensure that humanitarian agencies have unimpeded access to Tigray despite the current state of emergency. The longer the delivery of aid is obstructed, the deeper and more complex this humanitarian emergency will be to solve. Communities will continue to be decimated by war and hunger will spread. This shows why the Foreign Office must have a robust approach to atrocity prevention. Embassy staff must be empowered to raise concerns about the likelihood of a situation deteriorating and trained appropriately so that they can recognise red flags and escalate concerns before a situation falls into complete disarray. That is why my Committee called on the FCDO to embed an atrocity prevention strategy in its updated country strategy for Ethiopia and neighbouring states.
Our report found:
“A failure to adequately resource the response to this crisis increases the risk of a ripple effect of instability throughout the region.”
The Government identified the east of Africa as a priority region for UK aid spending but cut aid to the region by almost 50%. Aid to Ethiopia has been slashed from £240 million to £107 million, and aid to Sudan and South Sudan is set to be halved. That is having a real impact. Failure to support communities in the region, combined with the lack of an inclusive political settlement, is compromising hard-won gains in security, stability and prosperity in Ethiopia. We are seeing the impact of that failure, with refugees fleeing to Sudan, itself in the grip of a military coup. The Government are right that the east of Africa should be a priority, but it is time they backed their words with action and engagement. We must step up, mobilise and work with partners in the region to meet the humanitarian needs of communities and prevent the further spread of instability. If we fail to act now, we will count the costs for years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell, although it is very depressing to be addressing this subject again. I asked an urgent question on the issue awhile ago and took part in the debate led by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia, I thank the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for introducing this debate and for his continued interest. I have spoken with him and have attended debates with him. I know he approaches the debate as a friend of Ethiopia, as does the hon. Member for Rotherham.
The situation is very depressing. I am very pleased that the new Minister for Africa is with us today to reply to the debate. All too often we see the media and the world focus on other conflicts, understandably perhaps—in Syria, or the Balkans or other areas of the world. Conflicts in Africa tend not to be focused on. They tend not to be reported as much as those in other areas.
I remember feeling ashamed in 1994 of the fact that the world stood back and watched 800,000 people killed in Rwanda. I visited Rwanda shortly after. I do not want to be too graphic, but I walked through the bones of some of the people who had been slaughtered in that terrible conflict. The world stood and watched. We cannot do that again—we cannot just watch, as we see the crisis growing and the tragedies increasing. We have heard reports of forces moving through Ethiopia towards the capital, Addis Ababa, just recently. The report produced by the Joint Investigation Team highlights the most horrific crimes that are taking place. We have to focus on what is happening—we have to concentrate—so I am glad that this debate is being held today, with the Minister present, but it is not easy to know what to do.
As I said in my intervention, reports are conflicting. For the reasons that the right hon. Member for Islington North gave, it is very difficult to know exactly what is going on, who is to blame or how we stop it happening. There is, however, a growing humanitarian crisis, and it is also heading towards an economic crisis. The right hon. Gentleman touched on the problems that Ethiopia had in the mid-’80s. Since then, the country has made great strides and is far more resilient, but millions of people are still dependent on food aid every year. That situation is likely to get so much worse, the more the conflict grows.
I have the privilege of being the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Zambia and Angola. On my recent travels, I have spoken to companies who want to invest in Ethiopia. They have told me they will not and cannot do that when the conflict is raging—indeed, getting worse. That situation will make people in Ethiopia even poorer than they are now. We cannot simply stand by and watch that happen.
It is difficult to know what to do. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Ethiopia’s past. It has a troubled past, but also a very proud past, as I said in the debate led by the hon. Member for Rotherham. Sizeable Christian and Muslim populations have lived peacefully together for many years. There are more than 80 tribes and 80 languages in the country, which have not in themselves led to problems. The country has enjoyed a great deal of peace, and economic growth that is the envy of the western world. It has so much going for it; it is seen as a country with huge potential. There is an awful lot in favour of Ethiopia and the way it can develop as a country. However, as we have so often seen—the right hon. Member for Islington North expressed great exasperation and frustration at this—we see the descent into war, which cannot benefit anybody. Even the victors, if there are any victors in this conflict, will not win overall; they will lose, too. That message must get through to all the players in this conflict in Ethiopia.
I do not have any solutions, but I repeat the questions I have asked before. Could the United Nations be doing more? I am not an expert on this, but is it time for a peacekeeping force to be sent by the United Nations? I really do not know the answer to that question, but I put it to the Minister: is that what we should be looking at now, before the situation becomes unmanageable? Could the African Union be doing more to bring about peace and a ceasefire in this conflict? Could more pressure be put on the Eritrean Government to withdraw any forces they have in Tigray? As we have heard in previous debates, many of the worst atrocities are being laid at the feet of people coming in from Eritrea.
Can we somehow find a way to get aid to the people who so desperately need help? We often hear people say that we should not be giving aid to countries that are dictatorships—actually, we do not, but it is important to note that the people in greatest need in the world are those in war-torn countries. The secret is to get under the radar and try to help those people as best we can.
The right hon. Member for Islington North also mentioned the arms that are getting through to the sides in Ethiopia. There was a very brief BBC report last night, showing what I think were rebel groups, who seemed so well armed. Who on earth is providing arms at such a level to those people? That needs to be addressed.
This is a deeply worrying situation. I do not expect the Minister to have any easy answers or to come up with any solutions today. All I ask of her—I know she will do it—is to speak to our Prime Minister and the Cabinet to see whether there is more that we can do to try to bring about the ceasefire that the right hon. Member for Islington North correctly called for, before this situation becomes an absolute catastrophe.
Ethiopia is a great country and one I am very proud to be a friend of. I have visited it many times and I want to visit again as soon as possible. I do not want to see Ethiopia disintegrate into an absolute shambles. We do not need that. There are more than 100 million people in that country, and they need some help. They need us to do everything we can to help them. That is not easy, as I say, but I know the Minister will do everything in her power to raise this matter at the highest levels of Government in this country, and hopefully we can try to find a way through.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, albeit on a very sobering topic, as has been outlined by the speakers we have heard so far. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this opportunity to consider the issue again.
We considered the conflict back in September, and one of the messages of that debate was the risk of deterioration of the situation. In fact, one of the questions I asked was:
“What if the worst has yet to come?”—[Official Report, 8 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 95WH.]
The speeches we have heard and the evidence that has been presented, particularly the findings today from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, show that the situation has got considerably worse, and that must be of real concern to us. Bringing the issue back to the Floor of Westminster Hall keeps it alive and gives a new Minister an opportunity to respond and to think again, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) has just said, about what opportunities there might be for the UK to exercise some influence.
I spoke in the last debate about the particular challenges in Oromia. They have become more acute as a result of the developments in recent weeks and months. I have a constituent who is from that area and who is passionate about the right of the people there to have democratic self-determination and the kind of political autonomy that regions, countries and nations in our part of the world enjoy. However, we enjoy that peacefully and democratically. We resolve our differences in forums like this, not by taking up arms or through the horrific war crimes being reported. Even people who hold those genuine aspirations ought to live up to the standards that they are seeking.
That also speaks to the deep-seated and historical regional and tribal tensions across the whole of Ethiopia and the wider regional context. As the right hon. Member for Islington North said, Ethiopia was never a colony in the way that many African countries have been, but that does not mean that it has not been affected by the colonisation and map-drawing that went on in the continent all those years ago. That is why the issue of Eritrea keeps raising its head.
Not long ago, I was in the right hon. Member’s constituency for the photo exhibition by Eritrea Focus, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the political imprisonment of journalists and politicians in that country, the deterioration and ending of democracy in any meaningful form, the militarisation of the country, the influence that it still apparently seeks, and the destabilising effect that appears to be having in the conflict in Ethiopia. I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who we will hear from, was also at that important event.
I would draw the Minister’s attention—I think I sent it to her predecessor, and I will certainly send it to her—to the report produced by the Oromia Support Group detailing the atrocities and extra-judicial killings of the people of that region, mostly by the national Government, by their assessment. However, it is very clear, from other reports and today’s debate, that all sides must take responsibility for the violence that has been experienced.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury said that he saw the BBC report; I heard it on Radio 4, because the BBC these days multitasks in that way. It was incredibly sobering, and very worrying to hear of the spiralling effect that now appears to be happening. Violence is begetting violence. There was a woman who had to flee because her son had been brutally murdered.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Hearing any story from mothers, like that one, is heartbreaking. She is right; women are affected—they are victims, if she wants to use that word. Women could also be a big part of the solution. If women’s voices were heard more frequently in these debates, in the peace forums and in the democratic institutions—such as exist—in those countries, perhaps we would not be seeing this level of violence. I think that is an incredibly important point.
As I said, violence is begetting violence; the attempts by the Ethiopian Government to root out the Oromo Liberation Army lead to further resentment of the central Government and less willingness to engage with processes. That leads to displacement across the region and into neighbouring countries, including Sudan, which is also a topic for this debate. It is increasingly clear, as others have said, that there needs to be an external brokering of peace. Whether that is the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union or some other body, the UK is a key player—either directly, as a member of some of those institutions, or through important relationships to them—and it must play its role.
I want to echo some of what the Select Committee Chair said about aid. The Library briefing shows—even before the aid cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP—the decrease in overall bilateral aid since 2015 to Ethiopia, but within that, the increasing amount of money being spent on humanitarian response. That is a very stark lesson in basic development theory: if we stop spending money on long-term development projects—on long-term peacebuilding, infrastructure, education and so on—then all of a sudden we find ourselves spending money on humanitarian relief, on trying to resolve the problems of conflict and war, and at the end of the day, the problem is not being resolved; it is spiralling.
The Government must look again at their budget. It is all good and well for the Chancellor to say in the Budget that we will get back to 0.7% before the end of this Parliament; but that will not undo the damage that is already being done. Every time the Government say that they will increase support to Ethiopia, that is great, welcome and necessary but it means that, by definition, somewhere else is suffering; somewhere else is experiencing a cut because the overall budget has declined. It was going to decline anyway because GDP had gone down as a result of the pandemic—we all understand that—but this is adding to that unnecessarily.
At a time when the Government are supposed to be showing global leadership, which we are all calling for in this debate, the stark facts are there for anyone to see who has picked up the Library report or reports by the International Development Committee. Sadly, I will not be able to make tomorrow’s APPG being organised by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), which the right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned, but I am looking forward to reports from it. I strongly encourage the Minister to pay attention to that. When we had a briefing before the last Westminster Hall debate, some very useful points, with strong and clear recommendations, were made, and I suspect some of those will be heard.
This has been an important opportunity to consider these issues, especially given how rapidly the situation is changing. We appreciate that the opportunity for the UK Government is limited, but that does not mean that it does not exist. I very much hope that the new Minister will be willing to look at this afresh and I look forward to hearing what she has to say in response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell, and to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate. It was only a couple of months ago that we last talked about this region and it is timely to talk about it again. Every day the news is getting worse, and the situation is extremely worrying. We need to give as much airtime as possible to what is happening in the region, because it is truly shocking.
I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow North that Ethiopia is a beautiful country. I have been to Addis Ababa and enjoyed great hospitality there. While it is already a beautiful country, it also has potential. We want it to have a better future—that is our hope for the people of Ethiopia, Tigray and Sudan.
I speak as a member of the all-party parliamentary groups on Ethiopia and Djibouti and on Sudan and South Sudan, and I am also chair of the APPG on the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. I am delighted that there have been two advertisements for our meeting tomorrow, at which Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, will speak. What she will have to say will be very pertinent to the current situation.
The eyes of the world are not on Ethiopia, Tigray and Sudan, but they should be. It is an important time to put on the record what is happening right now, and to hear from the Minister what the Government are doing about it. I welcome her to her new role and look forward to hearing about the meetings she has been holding and what has resulted from them; what visits she has planned to the region and what she hopes to get out of them; and her plans for aid. We have been talking about aid cuts and the false economy they create. There are different decisions to be made about aid to the region.
As a country, we were so proud at the time of Live Aid to stand up together to support the people of Ethiopia in their time of crisis. We want to do the same again. We want to know what is happening in the region, with which we have a great bond. Like other Members, I have constituents with family members in the region. On Monday I spoke to a Tigrayan constituent who is very concerned about her family. She has not been able to hear any news for so long because of the blackout, which must be very worrying. As we stand here today, we know that many people in this country are concerned about their relatives in the region.
The UN Secretary-General has said of Tigray:
“A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes.”
It could be argued that the previous Foreign Secretary took his eye off Afghanistan, but I hope to hear from the Minister today that that is not the case with Tigray. More than 5 million people in Tigray require immediate humanitarian assistance. At least 54 organisations are providing aid and services. I join other Members in paying tribute to the brave humanitarian workers on the ground right now, in very difficult circumstances, at great risk to themselves.
However, there are significant gaps in assistance, which disproportionately affect Ethiopian women and girls. I echo what we have heard in today’s debate: it is women and girls who are disproportionately the victims of war. Rape is being used as a weapon of war and we need to know more about that. They have virtually no access to livelihoods, often living in insecure environments.
We are also witnessing a refugee crisis because of the violence. In December 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 46,000 Ethiopian refugees had arrived in Sudan since the start of November and they were continuing to arrive in their hundreds. It is hard to imagine what that is like. If we could see it more clearly, if we knew more about the situation, I am sure there would be more demand for more action to be taken.
The numbers are now estimated to be more than 60,000, including Eritrean refugees. More worrying still, a famine is looming. According to the Tigray external affairs office, 150 people died of hunger in August. The UN believes that around 400,000 people are facing famine-like conditions. Millions are also on the brink of hunger in the Afar and Amhara regions, which share a border with Tigray. UNICEF recently alerted that more than 100,000 children in Tigray could suffer from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in the next 12 months, which will affect them for the rest of their lives. That constitutes a tenfold increase to the annual average.
Deaths are also occurring due to sickness that could previously have been treated or prevented. Prior to retreating, Eritrean forces had looted Tigrayan infrastructure extensively and destroyed clinics, equipment, medicines and medical records, putting years of development back instead of forward. In March, Médecins Sans Frontières reported that 70% of the 106 medical facilities that its teams had been allowed to visit had been looted and only 13% of them were functioning fully, undermining medical treatment for those in need. That is truly frightening and it is happening on our watch.
As mentioned earlier, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that
“all parties to the conflict in Tigray have…committed violations of international human rights…and refugee law, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Those crimes need to be investigated. We need to know we have the strong evidence to bring to justice those who are committing these crimes. We cannot let this go untried. The justice we need means that we need to get the evidence, so independent investigators need to be there on the ground.
Turning to Sudan, I am distressed at the graphic reports of the use of excessive and lethal force against protestors, the arbitrary detentions, their enforced disappearance and torture, and other forms of ill treatment. Those patterns of violations are consistent with Sudan’s long and extensively documented history of abuses against protestors, human rights defenders and perceived political opponents. Sudanese forces have regularly used excessive force, including beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against protestors, including during the transitional period.
When the new country of South Sudan was formed, the world cheered. It was exciting to have a new country with a proud future looking forward to peace. That long conflict had been put to one side; the peace process had won out. I want to put on the record that it had been led by a lot of local women, who were successful in winning that peace. The joy at which South Sudan was welcomed was amazing to see, but it is so disheartening and worrying that the instability in the region is now threatening that peace.
I want to hear from the Minister that the UK is stepping up and leading on Sudan. The Government need unequivocally to call on the Sudanese military to immediately end the arbitrary detention of all detained political leaders, journalists and human rights activists, and refrain from torture and other forms of violence against protestors; to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for the coup and for ongoing human rights violations; and to demonstrate global leadership at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council by calling for an independent UN fact-finding mission on Sudan.
As I have made clear time and again in this House, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister need to have their eyes firmly fixed on what is unfolding in Ethiopia and Tigray. In particular, I call on the Minister urgently to consider the imposition of sanctions on the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who bear ultimate responsibility for human rights violations committed with impunity by their respective armed forces. No one come out well form this conflict. Atrocities are definitely being committed by both sides—I want to be clear about that—and we need to make sure that their leaders are investigated and stand trial.
We need to lead international efforts, including at the UN Security Council, to ensure an immediate cessation of hostilities, the complete departure of Eritrean forces, and unimpeded access to Tigray for local and international aid agencies—those lorries must get through.
As was said earlier, we need an atrocity prevention strategy at the heart of our funding for those countries. We need to stop the aid cuts. What meetings has the Minister had with civil society groups working in the region, the African Union and leaders in Sudan, Tigray and Ethiopia? Finally, I urge the UN Human Rights Council to mandate a truly independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Tigray and to secure justice.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North again for securing this debate. I pledge to do all I can to keep what is happening in Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray on the global agenda. Millions are suffering. We cannot forget them. We must act now.
I thank Members for being so succinct. I am conscious that the temperature has dropped further, so if Members or staff need to don further layers, they have my support. I call the first of our Front-Bench speakers, the Scottish National party spokesperson Brendan O’Hara.
It is a genuine pleasure to see you in the Chair for today’s extremely important and particularly timely debate, Ms Bardell. I also thank the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate and for the manner in which he opened the proceedings this afternoon, on the day that the joint report of the United Nations Human Rights Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission joint report has been published. And as we have already heard from several Members, the debate falls on the first day of the anniversary of the start of the armed conflict in Tigray.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), this debate also gives us the opportunity to discuss last week’s military coup in Sudan and the consequences it will have not just for the unfortunate Sudanese victims but for the region as a whole, which seems to be descending further into conflict and violence.
As the right hon. Member for Islington North said, the joint report of the UN Human Rights Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was published this morning. It points the finger of blame at all sides, saying unequivocally that all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, and of humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also says that most violations in the period covered by the report were committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but recently there have been increased reports of violations by Tigrayan forces as well. No one emerges with clean hands. As always, it is innocent civilians who suffer at such times.
Over the past 12 months, the people of Tigray have had to endure unimaginable horrors as war has raged through their country. Tens of thousands of people have died, millions have been displaced, and reports of crops being destroyed, property looted, massacres and summary executions of civilians are all too common. Almost inevitably, as the hon. Member for Putney said, there have been reports of widespread humanitarian abuses, including the use of rape and sexual violence against women and girls as a weapon of war. In the words of Sir Mark Lowcock, the former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, it is being used
“as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”
Six months ago, the UN reckoned that around 22,500 women would require support as a consequence of conflict-related sexual violence. Therefore, we have to assume that today, sadly, many more Tigrayan women and girls are going to have to seek help. They join that depressingly long list of women and girls from just about every part of the world who have been raped and abused by men carrying guns.
What is worse, those men carrying guns act in the almost certain knowledge that they will never be held to account for their actions. At the very least, the women and girls who have suffered those awful crimes deserve justice and those perpetrators not being allowed to believe that they act with impunity. I urge the Government to work with the UN, the non-governmental organisations and other international partners to ensure that all countries have legislation to ensure effective prosecution of sexual violence as a stand-alone international crime.
Despite the Ethiopian Government’s attempted communications blackout, reports continue to filter through of appalling crimes being perpetrated against the civilian population. We have heard that about all sides—let us be clear that all sides are responsible—but in particular about Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. In May this year, the US-based Catholic News Service ran a piece on the testimony given by an Ethiopian Catholic priest, who said that killings, abduction and rape by Ethiopian soldiers and their Eritrean allies were commonplace. The priest, who for obvious reasons did not want to be identified, accused the Ethiopian troops and their allies of ethnic cleansing:
“They want to annihilate Tigray. By killing the men and boys, they are trying to destroy any future resistance. They want to make sure that nobody can question their actions in future…They are raping and destroying women to ensure that they cannot raise a community in future. They are using rape and food as weapons of war.”
His observations echo those of the Patriarch Mathias, head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who accused the Ethiopian army and its allies of the highest form of cruelty and brutality in Tigray.
War and conflict, however, do not exist in a vacuum. As the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said, on top of everything else people have suffered, they now face the prospect of famine. Ninety per cent. of the Tigrayan population are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, including 400,000 people who face famine-like conditions already. Millions are on the brink of hunger, food stocks that ran out at the end of August are not being replaced, fewer than one in 10 of the trucks required to carry food and fuel to the people of Tigray has made it through, and 100,000 children in Tigray are suffering from life-threatening acute severe malnutrition and could die in the next 12 months.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) was absolutely right to draw a parallel between what is happening in Tigray and what happened in Rwanda in the ’90s. We cannot allow history to repeat itself. By any measure, this is a deep humanitarian crisis. As the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September, it is a “stain on our conscience”.
Similar to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), I ask the Minister in her response to the debate to tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of the Government’s cut to the overseas aid budget on the situation in Tigray. Also, what initiatives have been taken by her Department to support the United Nations and other agencies to prevent the humanitarian crisis from deepening? What have been the most recent discussions between the FCDO and the Governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea to bring the conflict to an end? What is her Department doing to ensure that those who use or encourage rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war are brought to justice?
At the start, I said that the crisis took a turn for the worse last week when there was a coup in Sudan. The military dissolved the transitional Government and seized control, arresting and imprisoning Government members and putting Prime Minister Hamdok under house arrest, in chilling echoes of the oppressive regime of Omar al-Bashir. It is extremely worrying that members of the former Government have now found themselves in hospital. We have all seen or heard reports of excessive illegal force being used against civilian protestors, with at least three people killed last week. Exact numbers remain unknown, as a result of an internet blackout. Sudanese doctors have reported a series of other injuries from beatings, suffocation on tear gas and being run over. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Thank you, Ms Bardell. It is a pleasure to be back. Picking up where I left off, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Islington North, the types of human rights violations that we are currently seeing in Sudan are entirely consistent with that country’s long and documented history of abuses against protesters, human rights defenders and those perceived as political opponents of the regime. In addition to the questions I asked regarding Tigray, I would appreciate if, in replying to the debate, the Minister would tell me what contact, if any, has been made with the leaders of the military coup regarding the detention of the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet. What assessment has her Department made of the impact of the coup on the stability of the region as a whole? Has she or her Department had any contact with Sudan’s nearest neighbours about the potential impact they think this coup will have on them? Would she clarify the current position on UK arms exports to Sudan and if and how, in light of the coup, that will be reviewed? Likewise, on the levels of military support currently being provided by the UK to the Sudanese army, how does she see the coup affecting that?
To follow up the point from the hon. Member for Putney, what use is the Government planning to make of Magnitsky sanctions against military leaders in Sudan? If I could add to that Ethiopia and Eritrea as well, which are complicit in these appalling violations of human rights, both in Sudan and Tigray. Finally, I want to thank once again the right hon. Member for Islington North for securing this debate and the hon. Members for Rotherham, for Tewkesbury and for Putney for their contributions. It is vital that this debate is not allowed to slide off the agenda and lose public attention. People are depending on us to keep it in the spotlight. I am glad to be part of that this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who have contributed to an excellent and timely debate on recent events in both Ethiopia and Sudan, and the first anniversary of hostilities in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
These issues have, sadly, received far too little attention globally. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who could not be here today, and other Members for all that they have done to raise awareness of these issues, challenging the UK Government on their response over many months. I cannot emphasise enough the moment of peril we face in the region, or the ordinary civilians who, as ever, bear the brunt of instability and conflict and, indeed, of the wider risk to peace, prosperity and stability in a crucial region of Africa.
We have a long and complex history and responsibility with both Sudan and Ethiopia and a strong interest from the British people in both countries. The human-made famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s is seared in the hearts of the British people, as stated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North. Sudanese and Ethiopian communities across the UK are right to be deeply frightened and concerned by recent events and what they may mean for their loved ones, as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, who is Chair of the International Development Committee. The Labour party stands in solidarity with them for peace, democracy, human rights and the humanitarian principle, and urges the UK Government to do all they can to ensure that that is upheld, rather than cutting our aid, our influence and our international leadership at such a crucial time.
I begin with the situation in Ethiopia, in Tigray and beyond. I am deeply concerned about events in recent days that appear to suggest a further descent into conflict and instability, which can only harm the people of Ethiopia, regardless of their politics, ethnicity or regional origins. Reports of the conflict widening, a state of emergency and the risk of conflict reaching the capital, Addis Ababa—the home of the African Union—should be a wake-up call to the world.
I want to state, as I am sure the Minister will, our desire to see, first, a return to peaceful dialogue; secondly, full humanitarian access and an end to attacks and restrictions on humanitarian personnel and operations; thirdly, urgent, full and independent investigations into the atrocities that have been committed, and the full force of international justice brought to bear on the perpetrators, whoever they may be, including the use of targeted UK sanctions under the Magnitsky regime.
It is nothing short of a tragedy, and we need an immediate ceasefire. Ethiopia had been a global success story, moving towards a democratic society, lifting millions out of poverty and acting as a bastion of stability. Ethiopia had been one of the largest recipients of UK aid, which has grown steadily along with our partnership in trade and other areas.
It is approaching a year since the clashes broke out in Tigray between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the federal Government. Ethiopia now risks falling into a lethal civil war, undoing decades of peace and prosperity, especially for those in the regions of Tigray, Afar and Amhara. Tens of thousands of refugees have already spilled over the border into Sudan, whose own Government have now been hijacked by a military coup, or have been coerced back into Eritrea, the very country so many were running from, given the history of conflict between the two countries. I am also deeply alarmed by reports of disappearances and targeted attacks on Tigrayans outside of Tigray.
This comes on top of existing economic and health crises and a growing food crisis, with tens of thousands facing the risk of famine. Thousands of Tigray’s children face life-endangering acute malnutrition, a condition that will likely affect their development if they survive. 100,000 could die from the condition in the next year alone. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently stated that in one week in early October, only 52,000 people were reached with food, or 1% of the 5.2 million
“targeted population in Tigray, in which half of them received only one or two food items.”
Some 400,000 people in northern Ethiopia are now facing famine-like conditions, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney. In addition, thousands face the prospect of no banking services: no cash, and complete disruption to commercial activities. Little fuel has gone into Tigray since August; organisations cannot work without fuel as they cannot travel to more remote areas. Medicines have not been going into the region either.
I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement that they have increased aid to Ethiopia by another £29 million, but the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that it still faces a funding gap of some £270 million. Staggeringly, UK aid to Ethiopia has in fact decreased by 64.3% between 2018 and 2021 estimates, as stated in the FCDO budget reports.
Would the Minister say what financial assistance the UK has provided to Ethiopia since the onset of the crisis? Has that support been part of the regular official development assistance budget? Will the Government further increase their support, given the worsening situation? As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has repeatedly asked Ministers, has total support for Ethiopia gone up or down?
We have also heard shocking reports of 10,000 rapes—an estimate that does not take into account the past several months—in a region where only around 9% of health facilities are functional; of those, only a third have the capacity for clinical management of rape. Amnesty International’s recent report on sexual violence in Tigray is damning. It highlights the sadistic brutality that is being inflicted on women by parties to the conflict, including members of the Ethiopian national defence force, the Eritrean defence force, the Amhara regional police special force, and Fano, an Amhara militia group. In the report, Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, says:
“It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray. Hundreds have been subjected to brutal treatment aimed at degrading and dehumanizing them,”
Yet this is only the start of the crisis facing Tigray and other affected regions.
Ethiopia is also facing the fifth largest covid-19 outbreak in Africa. OCHA reports that only 3% of Tigrayans have been reached with essential sanitation and hygiene messages. Since Members last met to discuss this disaster, little has changed in terms of the human suffering other than that its extent has worsened. The UN recently stated that, from 18 to 28 October, no trucks with humanitarian supplies were able to reach Tigray, and from 1 July to 28 October, only 15% of the trucks needed were able to enter the region. Senior UN staff have been denied access, including the country heads of UNICEF and the head of OCHA. The UN recently announced that it has cancelled flights to the capital, Mekelle, and suspended aid delivery activities as a result of Government-led airstrikes in the area. UN aid chief Samantha Power has said:
“This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the Ethiopian Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access.”
I ask the Minister what assessment she has made of humanitarian access for civilians caught up in this conflict, and what consideration is being made of the growing evidence of serious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity? How is evidence such as that brought to public attention by the BBC World Service and human rights organisations being used to ensure that those responsible do not escape justice? She will know that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now released a joint report with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission that investigated abuses between November 2020 and late June 2021. Given the continued gravity of this situation, we call on the UK urgently to support the establishment of an independent investigation by the UN Human Rights Council.
As we all know—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North raised this—the Sudanese transitional Government have been hijacked by a military coup, and I welcome the common view across the House and the international community condemning these events. For Labour, I repeat our complete condemnation of this coup, joining the Government, the UN and other international partners. This is nothing short of a betrayal of the hopes of the Sudanese people after decades of repression and the denial of human rights.
This comes at a critical time for the people for Sudan, after reports that heavy rainfall has led to hundreds of thousands of people being affected and that relief stocks, especially of WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—products, are depleting. The country currently has 9.8 million severely food-insecure people and 1.1 million refugees. In addition, we know of at least 60,000 refugees from Ethiopia who have fled a war zone to those famine-like conditions. Can the Minister comment on the condition of those refugees, and what humanitarian support and assistance is being provided?
Last Monday, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took power from the Sudanese transitional Government and declared a state of emergency. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against this attack on democracy, and reports suggest that several people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes with armed forces in the capital. Live ammunition has reportedly been used on civilian protesters. Can the Minister confirm whether contact has been made with the general since the urgent question last week, and what action is being taken?
While UK overseas development aid depends on the recipient country upholding its people’s rights—and this military Government have not done so—millions are in need. It is shocking that the UK Government have in effect cut Sudan’s aid by £580 million for 2022, based on estimates, so will the Minister now reconsider those cuts to vital humanitarian assistance for both Sudan and Ethiopia? What assessment has the Minister made of the risk to international judicial processes against former President Bashir for crimes committed in Darfur and elsewhere, as well as against those responsible for more recent massacres?
While the Government pivot to the Indo-Pacific, cut our development budget and weaken our alliances and influence, the situation in east Africa and the horn of Africa goes from bad to worse, with consequences reaching far beyond the regional environment. If we are to avoid catastrophe for the ordinary women, men and children of Ethiopia and Sudan and avoid a descent into even worse consequences across the region, the Government must end their retreat from the world stage, step up, and show some desperately needed moral and political leadership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate, and I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.
The situation in Ethiopia is truly dire. It is worsening and very fast moving. In recent days, we have seen a further expansion of the conflict to the town of Dessie and beyond, and states of emergency have been called, first, in the Amhara region and, yesterday, nationwide. The provisions of those measures are deeply concerning; increased military powers place restrictions on gatherings and call for civilians to bear arms. We updated our travel advice last week, and again last night. We are reviewing this continually; British nationals in Ethiopia should check the gov.uk website to make sure that they have the most current advice.
We should remember that this has been going on for a very long time. We are at the first anniversary of the start of this conflict. Right now, 7 million people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions need humanitarian assistance—the highest number of people in catastrophic food conditions since the 2011 famine in Somalia. The risk of widespread loss of life is high. Furthermore, humanitarian operations in Tigray are effectively suspended; no food or cash has been able to enter Tigray since 18 October. There have been no fuel deliveries since the beginning of August. There are currently 369 trucks trying to get aid, including medicines, into Tigray. On top of this, Government of Ethiopia airstrikes over the last three weeks are reported to have killed more than 20 civilians, including six children, and injured more than 70. This appalling ongoing situation is causing acute human suffering.
Before the violence had even started, Ethiopia was already suffering from the impacts of climate change and ecological issues—the issues we are discussing in Glasgow this week, and I just got back overnight. We should be focusing our attention right now on combatting these long-term climate impacts and on how we can use our £2.7 billion adaptation budget—about half of which will go into Africa—to help countries such as Ethiopia. Instead, we are seeing increased conflict, which is simply compounding human suffering. Today, children in Tigray are dying from malnourishment.
The response to the humanitarian crisis continues to be hampered, not only by the intolerable blockade, which in itself is intolerable. At the end of September seven key UN officials were expelled, and in October an airstrike took place while a UN humanitarian air service flight was in the air, putting humanitarian workers in grave risk. That should never have happened. Shockingly, 23 humanitarian workers have been killed in Tigray this year, including staff working on UK-funded programmes. The UN and NGOs are now withdrawing their staff from the region.
In seeking this debate, hon. Members are right also to consider the impact of what is happening in Sudan, which is facing significant internal challenges. I visited Sudan two weeks ago and I met representatives from many different parts of the Government, but also from civil society, including women activists, entrepreneurs and community leaders. I saw at first hand how the UK school feeding programme is enabling children, and especially girls, to attend school. That was before the coup. As I made it clear to the House on the day of the coup d’état in Sudan, the UK strongly condemns the arrest of civilian members of Sudan’s transitional Government by the military.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) asked what we were doing with international partners. With them we are absolutely continuing to maintain public, international pressure on the military to restore the democratic transition. I personally commended the African Union’s leadership in its decision at a joint AU-UN Security Council meeting on 28 October to suspend Sudan from all activities. Together with partners we are also seeking a special session of the UN Human Rights Council as soon as possible to discuss the situation and maintain pressure to return Sudan to the democratic transition. Its people demand it. Furthermore, as part of our engagement with Gulf countries we are looking to release a statement with partners shortly. Our position is very clear; we continue to call for the military to release all unlawfully detained civilians and fully restore the civilian-led Government. Violence against civilian protestors must stop.
The right hon. Member for Islington North suggested that 60,000 Ethiopians have fled from conflict in Ethiopia to Sudan. It is actually more than 80,000. Refugee camps are struggling to absorb so many people. I also want to make it clear that the crisis in Ethiopia is man-made. It has been caused by human actions and decisions. There is no military solution. We have consistently called on all the warring parties to end hostilities and seek a political dialogue and a peaceful solution. We have made these points repeatedly to the Ethiopian Government and the Tigrayan authorities. We have also called for Eritrean troops to withdraw. When I became the Minister for Africa, I prioritised meeting the Ethiopian ambassador as my first meeting with a London-based ambassador. During the meeting, I pressed the need for urgent humanitarian access and an end to hostilities. The British ambassador in Ethiopia saw the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister last week and reiterated that call.
The UK has been very active on the world stage. We led the call for the first Security Council discussion on the conflict in November last year, and we have kept a spotlight on this at the UN. There have been six closed meetings and two open meetings of the Council to date. The Government have also called for consistent action at the Human Rights Council. In October, the UK led a joint statement signed by 43 partners, calling on the Ethiopian Government to reverse their decision to expel seven senior UN officials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) pressed the need for the Ethiopian situation to have focus at the highest levels, and I reassure him that that is happening. The Foreign Secretary joined her international counterparts, including Secretary of State Blinken, in conversation with AU special envoy Obasanjo on 12 October. I also discussed the situation with Kenyan counterparts, including President Kenyatta, yesterday at COP and with a number of African leaders during my two days in Glasgow. It is a principle of the African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, that African solutions should be found to African problems. It is, of course, right that African partners are taking the lead on trying to find an end to the conflict, but I want to be utterly clear that the UK is working to fully support them in their efforts.
The right hon. Member for Islington North mentioned arms sales. I reassure him that there are no exports of arms from the UK on available records. The UK Government will not grant an export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with the consolidated EU and national export licensing criteria, which have respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. Arms for the conflict are sadly likely to come through formal arms sales and some smuggling routes. We are concerned about reports of arms arriving in Ethiopia and continue to push all international partners to call for an end to the conflict and support the peace effort.
The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), asked about atrocity prevention. The FCDO is committed to atrocity prevention in all contexts. FCDO staff can draw on the expertise of a new FCDO conflict centre, which was announced in the integrated review in March. We are in the process of fully establishing that centre. It will draw on expertise from across Government and beyond to develop and lead the strategic conflict agenda, harnessing the breadth of conflict and stability capabilities and working with partners to increase our impact. It will work on thematic issues, including preventing sexual violence in conflict, sanctions, women, peace and security, girls’ education, children in armed conflict, and freedom of religion or belief.
I will not take interventions until I clear a few more important lines.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned our commitment to long-term projects in Africa. This week, right at the outset of COP26, the UK demonstrated our long-term commitment to the continent. We have mobilised international support and finance from donor countries to protect the Congo basin. I remind the hon. Member that many parts of the Congo basin have long suffered from conflict. We are committing new funding to support African countries in rolling out critical projects to adapt to climate change, and in partnership with South Africa, the USA, the EU, Germany and France we announced the ambitious Just Energy Transaction, which is mobilising $8.5 billion to support decarbonisation efforts in South Africa—a big project for South Africa’s stability and the future of our planet.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) mentioned prioritising humanitarian aid. As a result of last week’s Budget, we were pleased to announce that we will be increasing our funding for our highest priorities, including using more bilateral investment. That means spending aid money directly on our priorities, including lifesaving humanitarian aid, and especially prioritising the UK’s world-class organisations and our own frontline work. That is absolutely a focus for the Foreign Secretary.
On 16 October, the Foreign Secretary and I announced a further £29 million of humanitarian aid for northern Ethiopia, taking our commitment to more than £76 million. The UK is the second-largest donor there, and our finances provided water, healthcare and nutrition to hundreds of thousands of people facing famine. It is truly heartbreaking to see the continuation of this terrible conflict, which is also pulling resources away from the long-term development areas that Ethiopia had started to make such impressive progress in.
I really want to get my important statements out. I will come back to the hon. Lady at the end.
As many hon. Members have mentioned, the conflict has been marked by intolerable levels of sexual violence. They are appalling, and we are appalled and outraged at them. The UK is delivering essential services to survivors of sexual violence and to those at risk of sexual violence in northern Ethiopia. Our programmes provide individuals with critical support and care, including support for emergency mental health services. However, without sustained humanitarian access, these vital programmes for those horrifically abused women and for women at risk of abuse cannot be delivered.
We have strongly supported the joint investigation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Their report was published just a couple of hours ago; we are studying it carefully and will push for justice and accountability as the situation demands.
All sides must protect civilians and put humanitarian needs first. That means prioritising negotiations over military activities. I call again on all parties to allow humanitarian supplies to flow. Without that, we fear that many thousands of people will die. When the UK ambassador spoke to Deputy Prime Minister Demeke and Prime Minister Abiy in recent days, he made it clear that we must see an immediate improvement in humanitarian access and meaningful engagement in peace efforts. The expansion of hostilities by the TPLF and now the Oromo Liberation Army are displacing hundreds of thousands more people and further destabilising the country.
I call on all parties, in particular the TPLF, the Government of Ethiopia and the Oromo Liberation Army to stop fighting. The continued advance of TPLF and OLA forces must stop. They should not enter Addis Ababa.
I want to ask the Minister about the Sudanese aid funding. The Department for International Development was a long-term investor in the Sudanese peacebuilding process. That funding was entirely cut. Will she look into that cut and commit to returning to funding peacebuilding in Sudan, given what has happened recently?
The UK has not only been a significant funder in Sudan, but has provided the bridging loan to help Sudan clear its arrears with the African Development Bank as part of that restructuring. We are a leading donor to Sudan. In addition to humanitarian assistance, our support had been focusing on the Sudanese Government’s twin priorities of the economy and peace. Importantly, we were putting support into the family programme, which helped to support those on the lowest incomes.
We really need to stabilise the situation in Sudan. Right now we need to see a return to civilian Government and the stabilisation of the situation, and we need to see aid coming through. We have spoken to the UN food programme today to see whether it is getting food aid, because of the blockade in Port Sudan. That is the key priority.
To sum up, we are under no illusions about the gravity of the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia. We will continue to provide aid to those who need it, and we call for that aid to be able to be delivered. We keep pushing the Government in Ethiopia, the TPLF and all—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).