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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:05 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 3:05 pm, 19th January 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I congratulate Mr Robertson on securing this debate and on all the work that he does through the APPG. His commitment to the region, his passion and his understanding have been demonstrated by not only his speech but the work that he does throughout this place. I commend him for it. It is also a pleasure to speak after Jim Shannon, who has always been a champion for the most vulnerable on this planet—it is a pleasure to speak in his wake.

A peaceful resolution to the conflict seems no closer now than it did when we last met here in November, or when the International Development Committee carried out its inquiry and report in the spring of last year. The humanitarian situation is deteriorating, particularly for women and girls, as the use of sexual violence by all sides is becoming systematic. That is what I want to focus my short speech on today.

Over 2,200 cases of sexual violence were reported to authorities in just the first six months after the conflict began. The real numbers are obviously far higher. To get some sense of the scale, consider that visits to health centres following sexual assault have quadrupled since the beginning of the conflict. Half of the reported cases were gang rapes, and some health centres reported that 90% of victims were underage—remember, that is just the reported cases. The UN estimates that a third of incidents against civilians have involved sexual violence, and it will only get worse as hunger spreads, with women and girls being bartered for food—women-led households are acutely vulnerable. With the UN reporting that it will have no more cereal and cooking oil for Tigray after this week, the prospects for women and girls are looking increasingly bleak. The collapse of the healthcare system, with only a third of health centres in Tigray open and just 6% of them with obstetrics facilities, means there is no support in place for women and survivors. That means women and girls dying as a result of injuries from attacks and risky pregnancies amid the crisis of malnutrition and potential famine.

All forces must immediately condemn and explicitly prohibit the use of sexual violence by their troops and allow for the independent investigation of all reports. The UN Secretary General special taskforce must be allowed to investigate. The special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict should be permitted to visit refugee camps to interview survivors and record abuses as per Security Council resolution 1888. The recently appointed Human Rights Council expert panel must prioritise work on sexual violence. The humanitarian blockades must end, with aid convoys urgently being allowed unfettered access, if we are to avert famine and protect women and girls from the prospect of further sexual violence.

The Foreign Secretary has long declared that ending sexual violence in war is a key priority. We all welcome the forthcoming global summit on sexual violence later this year. However, women and girls across Ethiopia need support now. UK leadership on this issue is vital if the summit is to have any credibility. I welcome that this Government have sent out one expert on preventing sexual violence, but given the scale of what is going on, one expert is not enough.

We need to see this Government shift to a focus on preventing atrocity. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we need to be there on the ground, ensuring that the data is gathered so that, hopefully, we can see those criminals brought to justice in the international courts. More important than that, we need to be doing more on prevention. I know that hon. Members will share my frustration that all we have been able to do with the scraps of genuine information that we have is sit and watch and shout to try and prevent this awful hell on earth as it unfolds in front of us.