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Ethiopia: Tigray Region

Volume 816: debated on Monday 22 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Ethiopia about (1) the conflict, and (2) the humanitarian situation, in the Tigray region.

My Lords, we have consistently called on all parties, not just the Government of Ethiopia, to end fighting and protect civilians. On 5 November, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen. She raised our strong concerns about the impact of continued fighting in Ethiopia and the appalling suffering of the civilian population. She set out the need for negotiations to avoid further bloodshed and deliver peace. All sides must agree a ceasefire and allow aid to reach starving people.

My Lords, last week Liz Truss committed to prioritising and funding combating sexual violence in conflict, with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, leading. Tigray must rank as the worst example of the use of sexual violence in conflict, yet there has been no public word about the results of the scoping mission to Ethiopia by the UK preventing sexual violence team. There is a desperate need for services for survivors and to secure legal evidence, much of which is in camps in Sudan. Will the UK back the call from Helen Clark and others on the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal to investigate allegations of sexual violence?

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point and he is right that sexual violence has been a grim feature of this conflict. The deployment by the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative UK team of experts resulted in a review of the needs and gaps in the response, which we are taking forward, including through a specialist role based in the Embassy. We expect that that work to support accountability will begin in January. We are not planning at this stage, I am told, to make the review public, but I am assured, following our encounter just a few minutes ago, that there will be briefings specifically for parliamentarians.

My Lords, this is a very unstable region of Africa. Ethiopia has proved crucial to stability in UN peacekeeping as well. Can the Minister say, first, how any diminution in the Ethiopian contribution to UN peacekeeping is being mitigated or compensated for elsewhere? Secondly, what is his assessment of the refugee crisis caused despite the welcome restoration of the transitional Government in Sudan?

My Lords, as we have just heard, the crisis has taken on an international character, with Eritrea effectively involved in fighting in Ethiopia against the TPLF, which fired rockets on the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Thankfully, recent clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan along their border have been limited. However, we believe that 80,000 refugees have fled northern Ethiopia into eastern Sudan. The stakes are obviously high as the risk of regional spillover escalates. As noble Lords would expect, we urge all parties to the conflict to recognise the dangers of a drawn-out, protracted conflict for the region.

My Lords, under Article 4 of the African Union’s constitution, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has the power to intervene on member states should acts of genocide or other war crimes be committed. To date, the AU has not intervened, other than to send envoys. Does my noble friend the Minister think that perhaps the time has come when it should do so?

My Lords, the African Union chairperson appointed a high representative specifically tasked to engage all parties to the conflict on options for peace. The Peace and Security Council has recognised and supported the important of former President Obasanjo, who is now in Ethiopia, visiting regularly and having productive discussions with both sides of the conflict. Our priority is to support the diplomatic efforts, particularly his efforts, as the form of intervention most likely to bring about a ceasefire and allow humanitarian relief to reach those in urgent need.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is in the interests of everyone in Ethiopia to get all parties to the negotiation table to try to reach some form of compromise? What lessons are the Government drawing from Tigray for the Oromia and Somali Regions? Does the Minister agree that there is a high risk of similar crises in the Horn of Africa? What action can be taken to avert them?

My Lords, there certainly is a high risk of the sort identified by the noble Lord. We regularly discuss the situation in Ethiopia with our G7 counterparts, African leaders and allies in the Gulf. The Minister for Africa discussed the situation with Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Omamo on 1 November and, on 12 October, joined a call of major donors chaired by the administrator of USAID, Samantha Power. On the same day, the Foreign Secretary joined a call on Ethiopia chaired by Secretary Blinken. We are in regular communication with the UN at senior levels and at the technical, working level.

My Lords, while these diplomatic efforts carry on, in Tigray, Amhara and Afar, 8 million people—5 million of them in Tigray— are in desperate need. Rates of severe malnutrition are extremely high. Healthcare facilities have been trashed. Supplies of essential medicines are at zero. Hundreds of thousands of people are cut off from supplies and at risk of starvation today. Every imaginable form of obstruction to humanitarian aid is present, but the main reason for the cut-off is the blockade imposed by the Addis Government. What steps are we supporting to ensure that Ethiopia opens the checkpoints today?

My Lords, the humanitarian needs in Tigray are at catastrophic levels, as the noble Lord said, with 90% of the population requiring life-saving aid. An escalation in violence has huge implications for vulnerable populations right across Ethiopia, potentially impacting on an estimated 20 million people already reliant on humanitarian aid and the 31 million people assessed as living below the poverty line. The humanitarian response in Tigray is at a standstill because of the limited availability of fuel and the fact that relief items have been depleted. Stocks cannot be replenished due to the blockade imposed by the Government of Ethiopia; we are putting particular emphasis on that area.

My Lords, as was referred to, the more encouraging news from neighbouring Sudan over the weekend was tempered by the even more disturbing news from Ethiopia. Are the Government aware of the reports of people being targeted in Addis purely on the basis of their ethnicity and the establishment of new concentration camps near the city, including in a primary school? What firm action are the Government taking, with their allies, to prevent ethnic-based conflict, which, as the Minister said, could be truly catastrophic for the region if it spreads across borders?

My Lords, the UK is engaging with Ethiopia—in fact, with both sides of the dispute—at every level imaginable and at every possible opportunity. We have a frank but constructive relationship with the Government of Ethiopia, which enables UK Ministers and senior officials to raise our concerns and have forthright discussions about the conflict in Tigray with them. We will continue to do this and raise all credible allegations as they are put to us.

My Lords, we have heard horrific allegations of sexual torture and rape in Tigray. Far too often, the perpetrators are just not held to account. I very much welcome last week’s announcement that the Government will host an international conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Government hope this conference will achieve?

My Lords, in 2022, the UK plans to host an international conference to mark 10 years since the launch of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. The conference will bring together partners from all over the world to end violence against women and girls. This will be an important opportunity to review progress, identify challenges and agree further action on sexual violence in conflict, as well on wider gender equity issues. Further information on the conference will be made available shortly.

My Lords, is not part of the tragedy that, in one of the most malnourished and impoverished parts of Africa, both sides—the United Front, with the TPLF, and the Government—can find the resources to wage a bitter civil war? How can the aid community intervene? Is there any real danger that the country might descend into ethnic groupings, as in the Balkans, and destabilise the region?

My Lords, the conflict has the capacity to spill even further out of control and expand beyond the northern region. We have struggled to deploy UK aid for the reasons I described in my answer two questions ago. UK aid was being delivered into and across Tigray before the Government of Ethiopia created a blockade. We are supporting partners so that they can quickly recommence aid delivery should that be possible, and we are putting pressure on the Ethiopian Government to address the blockade and remove it.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that he and the Foreign Office have received representations from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, which I co-chair, about torture, rape and starvation being used as weapons of war and the involuntary repatriation of Tigrayan refugees to Eritrea? Will the United Kingdom follow the United States in imposing targeted sanctions on the perpetrators of these crimes? What is being done to ensure that those responsible for what has rightly been described as a catastrophic, man-made disaster that is destabilising the whole of the Horn of Africa are brought to justice?

My Lords, we are appalled by the reports that we have received on the systematic killing of civilians; widespread sexual violence, including rape and including that of children; indiscriminate shelling; and ethnic discrimination, including the forcible displacement of communities. I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question on the APPG report, I am afraid, but I will ask my colleague, who would have received it, to confirm that that is the case. On sanctions, the UK will consider the full range of policy tools at our disposal to protect human rights and deter violations of international humanitarian law.