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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:51 pm, 19th January 2022

It is not very often in Westminster Hall that I am called to speak first, so I am rather surprised to be called now, but also very pleased. I had thought that there might be more participants in this debate than there are.

First, I congratulate Mr Robertson on securing this debate and on his outstanding presentation of the issue, which comes from his knowledge of it. I have been involved with him before on this issue and I have always acknowledged that he has an expertise on, and indeed a real love for, the nation and the region. Therefore, I greatly appreciate what he has said today— to be fair, I think that we all greatly appreciate it—because it has set the scene from a knowledgeable and evidential point of view.

It is always a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty, in Westminster Hall. Even when he was not the shadow Minister, he and I were together in debates such as this one all the time. So, it is good now to see his elevation, so that he can promote his interest in this issue at another level.

It is also nice to see the Minister. We are running well together. Last night, we participated in the Adjournment debate in the main Chamber and here we are in Westminster Hall today. So we are really together in many things. To be fair to the Minister, I do not think that this issue is really his ministerial responsibility; I think I am right in saying that. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Vicky Ford, who has ministerial responsibility for Africa, is away on a visit. This issue would be in her portfolio. None the less, I am sure that the Minister who is here today will be more than able to address some of the concerns that we have.

I have a very straightforward point of view on this issue and I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have a heart, and a burden, for those people across the world who do not have the opportunity to express themselves from a religious point of view through their beliefs because of persecution. I will give some statistics in relation to that, as well.

Also, although Jeremy Corbyn and I are politically very distanced—I say that very gently to him, by the way—we are very often on the same page when it comes to human rights issues. We were for many years when I first came here, and he has been a lot longer than I have, and these are issues that resonate with us. We speak on behalf of our constituents, who ask us to do so, but also because we think the same way, too. That is important.

The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia and the severe drought in the south-east of the country mean that millions of people are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. It is absolutely horrifying to watch some of the footage that we have seen, showing the hunger there. Here we are in an affluent society. We have our three meals a day and a choice of meals, but some people do not even have a meal for one part of the day, or maybe not even for a week.

The World Food Programme estimates that some 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in dire need of assistance. Some of the background information refers to a famine of biblical proportions and that is perhaps how I would describe it, too. That gives people an idea of just how important this issue is. The International Rescue Committee ranks Ethiopia second on its list of the 10 worst humanitarian crises expected in the world in 2022, so now is the time to do something about where we are. We have seen those terrible pictures of Yemen, as well, and I think that every person who sees those pictures is moved by the hunger they see. I know that I am, and I am quite sure that everyone else is the same: I am no different from anybody else when it comes to compassion, understanding, and wanting to help. As such, I look to the Minister for assistance. Maybe he could give us some indication of what has been done in relation to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, and how we can address it.

I also noticed something in the background information that, to be fair, I already knew through the APPG. By the way, some 145 Members from the House of Commons and the House of Lords participate in that APPG, and many of those Members—who are very aware of the issue of human rights and persecution of people for their religious beliefs—are sat in this Chamber today. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the widespread use of sexual violence, torture and forced displacement by all parties since conflict began, and it grieves me greatly when I hear of the acts that those armies and groups in Ethiopia are carrying out against women and young girls—such depravity, viciousness and violence, to a degree that particularly upsets me. In his contribution, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that in a very graphic way. I know that Sarah Champion takes a particular interest in these issues, and I always look forward to her contributions, so I hope to hear some things today from the hon. Lady that can add to this debate.

I would also like to draw attention to the terrible situation faced by Christians in Ethiopia. In 2019, the situation for Christians in Ethiopia was looking optimistic—I think the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to how things were changing. There was optimism for the future, and it looked as if things were going to get better. They did get better for a short time, but unfortunately, it has all fallen apart again. Open Doors’ world watch list is on Zoom today at 3 pm, promoting the same issue that I am here to talk about, and I thank Open Doors for all it does. I also thank Theresa Villiers for promoting that today in a very strong way.

Open Doors’ 2020 world watch list showed a sharp decline in violent attacks against Christians, with governmental and societal prejudice against Christians seemingly improving, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to earlier. When in October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded a Nobel peace prize for helping to end the conflict with Eritrea and promoting reconciliation, solidarity and social justice, many were optimistic—were confident about a future of change that could lead to normality—but unfortunately, the future outlook for peaceful co-existence in the country is not quite as good as we thought it was. Famine is rampant, and there is also talk of the humanitarian situation. I asked a question of the Minister on 19 November, and other Members of this House have asked questions as well. It is always good to get the background, because it gives us an idea of what we are all thinking; we are probably all thinking the same thing, but we are all looking for the Minister to respond.

We have referred to the vulnerable communities in the region, and to ensuring that Ethiopians are protected from violence. We have also referred to independent monitors being in place to collect evidence of crimes: the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that issue, and I want to make some comments about it, because it is really important that those who carry out despicable crimes and think they are getting away with them are brought to justice. This is a completely different story, which was in one of the papers today, but just to illustrate the issue—things like these probably trouble me more than they have in the past—a wee boy was killed some 30 years ago, but today, the person who killed that wee boy is facing jail. He thought he had got away with it for 30 years. I want to ensure that those people do not get away with it, and that there is accountability, so that at some time, in some place, they will get a tap on the shoulder and we will say “Your day of reckoning is coming”. That is what we need. They need to know that when they do it, there is accountability. I know, as a Christian, that they will be accountable in the next world, but I would like to see them get their accountability in this world, just a wee bit sooner. That is just the way that I see things.

The trend, in relation to Christians has not continued; the hope of opportunities has not continued. It has gotten worse in the last 18 months. Christians have suffered increased violence enacted against them by militias and terrorist groups. All too often, police and Government forces turn a blind eye to those attacks, allowing perpetrators of persecution to act with impunity. Atrocities are happening, and it is evident that religious and belief minority communities are being specifically targeted. Large amounts of misinformation circulating within Ethiopia—from Government forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Eritrean troops—means that even well-documented events are all too easy for perpetrators to deny. Again, it is vital that the atrocities are properly investigated, and that evidence is secured for future prosecutions, so that justice can be delivered for victims. That is what I want to see, as I believe does everyone in this House. I hope that that is what we will find in the future.

The conflict in the Tigray region has affected social harmony across Ethiopia, with many reports emerging of the deliberate targeting of places of worship. Again, it grieves me that, although we can go and worship our God in our churches with freedom, liberty and choice, facing no threats whatever, people there cannot. The crisis in Tigray has been defined by extreme human rights abuses, online misinformation, and by it being overlooked by the international community. I think that the plea from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was to raise awareness on that. I hope that through this debate we can perhaps, in a small way, make a big difference. Again, we will look to the Minister to give us the response that we hope to see.

As the crisis escalates, it is increasingly likely to spread to other regions in Ethiopia. There must be more effective steps to mitigate against the worsening of this crisis, successfully restrict the ability of perpetrators to act, and prioritise the protection of civilians of all faiths and beliefs.

It is alarming that, during the covid-19 crisis, many Christians in marginal communities have been overlooked in the distribution of Government aid and resources, with international non-governmental organisations having to step in to support those vulnerable minority communities. Again, on this specific issue, I ask whether the Department has had any chance to ascertain whether the help that should be getting to the Christian groups through the NGOs is actually doing so.

Considering the above, I wonder whether the UK Government would consider introducing a human rights sanction regime for actors in the Tigray conflict and for individuals or entities that persecute others based on religion or belief. Impunity has prevailed for too long—it is so annoying to hear of it happening with such regularity across the world, this time in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Political fighting has continued in recent weeks. In early January, an air strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Tigray killed 56 people. Aid workers also stated that 17 people working in a flour mill were killed by a drone strike on 10 January. Again, normal life is being disrupted. People are dying, families are grieving, and sadness seems to pervade everything related to this. Why are innocents being exploited, threatened and killed, when they have done nothing? I am coming to an end, Mr Bone; I did not realise that time was flying so quickly.

The background information that we have been given refers to a moment of opportunity. The withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and calls for a cessation of hostilities, in the negotiations in December, combined with the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray, prompted some to see an opportunity to end the fighting and begin talks. A senior US Administration official is involved in that, and he suggests that we need to have a willingness and an ability to seize that opportunity. We look to that moment of opportunity, because we hope that it will deliver for the people of Ethiopia.

I conclude by calling upon the Minister of the FCDO, and the Minister here today, to look at the situation in Ethiopia from both a humanitarian and political perspective, and help ensure that these people have some kind of hope for the future. We did not know it, but those of us in Westminster Hall today are the spokesmen for those people—we are the voice for the voiceless in Ethiopian Tigray. Today, this House does its best for them.