Ethiopia: Humanitarian and Political Situation — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 2:30 pm, 19th January 2022

Again, I am grateful for the intervention. I will come to that point, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady and I thank her for raising it.

I am told that, in addition to the 9.4 million people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance, 400,000 Tigrayans face famine conditions. I am advised that there are more people in that famine situation than in the entire rest of the world, which is very, very worrying. The World Food Programme briefing states that

“life-saving food assistance operations in northern Ethiopia are about to grind to a halt because intense fighting has blocked the passage of fuel and food.”

There are also claims that the Ethiopian Government are failing to ensure the safe passage of trucks carrying aid through to Tigray, partly by not issuing permission for the trucks to make the journeys. Of course, the federal Government have also closed off banking services, electricity and the internet. The situation needs to be addressed urgently. The Ethiopian Government can give permission for trucks to pass through Afar and into Tigray to deliver some of the aid that is needed. Countries across the world need to respond to the general food crisis that the country faces, or the harrowing scenes of the mid-’80s will appear on our television screens once again.

Up to 50% of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were found to be malnourished, and the stocks of nutritionally fortified food for these people are now exhausted, with further stocks urgently needed. The World Food Programme is calling for an additional US$337 million to deliver emergency food assistance in northern Ethiopia. I very much hope that countries across the world will respond.

To make matters worse, a drought is affecting the region, which, according to the UN, means that 26 million people—around a quarter of Ethiopia’s population—will require food assistance this year. Normally, the figure is about 6 million or 7 million, but this year it is 26 million. That, together with the fact that humanitarian aid is not getting through to Tigray, means that Ethiopia faces a situation of massive and grave proportions. Again, it is vital that countries respond to the World Food Programme’s wider appeal for an additional US$667 million to help towards that bigger problem.

On the military conflict, Human Rights Watch claims that war crimes are being committed in Ethiopia. It says that Tigrayan forces have executed dozens of people they have captured, and that Ethiopian federal forces have bombed homes, hospitals, schools and markets. Amnesty International claims that troops fighting in support of the federal Government have committed widespread rape against ethnic Tigrayan women and girls, and it further claims that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are responsible for a pattern of sexual violence in Tigray of terrible gravity.

Amnesty International also claims that police in Addis Ababa arrested and detained hundreds of Tigrayans without due process, that journalists and media workers were also detained, and that hundreds of people were in detention with their whereabouts unknown. It is important to point out that the reports suggest that atrocities have been committed by all sides—by the federal Government forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Eritrean troops. That, of course, makes it so much worse.

The Tigray Defence Forces, part of the TPLF, were within reach of Addis before Christmas, but the forces of the federal Government fought back and the TDF have now left Afar and Amhara, and are back in Tigray, though western Tigray is held by Ethiopian forces. Eritrean forces remain there as well.

My recent discussions, however, suggest a ray of light. Many people who were detained have been released and it is hoped that there will be a will on both sides at least for discussions about peace. That is so important, because it would be difficult to address the humanitarian issues that I have outlined if the conflict continues. If the conflict continues, there will be no winners but millions of losers. That cannot benefit anyone.

I have quoted the work of some charities and organisations and I thank them and many more, including officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British embassy for the briefings that they have probably sent all of us. I pay tribute to them for their work in Ethiopia to try to manage and alleviate the effects of the crisis. Sadly, a reported 25 humanitarian workers have been killed because of the conflict, which is a tragic outcome for people who were only trying to save the lives of others. That kind of loss should encourage all of us to do everything we can to help.

As I said, I have been a friend of Ethiopia for a long time. I have defended the country in this House and more widely at times when perhaps I should have been more critical. Over many years, I pressed the UK Government to increase aid to Ethiopia, and I was proud when we did. I have also visited the country a number of times. Sometimes, however, I have found it necessary—as true friends always should—to issue warnings to Ethiopia, for which I have not always been thanked. Now is one of those times.

I have heard it claimed many times by representatives of Ethiopia that the details of the conflict have been twisted by the media and by some international commentators, and that reports are exaggerated. I have no doubt that competing stories about the conflict are coming out of that country. Equally, however, I have no doubt that the situation is perilous and that atrocities have been, and continue to be, committed by both sides. There are far too many reports by independent charities all saying the same thing.