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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:09 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 3:09 pm, 19th January 2022

Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Bone. I thank Mr Robertson for his very good work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti, which does what all-party groups on different countries should do, making sure that Parliament takes issues seriously, debates them and sees what we can do to assist, if appropriate.

I share the view of Jim Shannon that it is disappointing that such a small number of Members are here today. This is a major conflict and humanitarian disaster, and there are huge issues at stake, but far too often, when issues relate to African conflicts or anywhere in Africa, there is very little interest across this House. Those of us who are here have to try to make up for that.

I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind words earlier about intervention in human rights issues. I am pleased he got the text this morning about the dress code that both of us must follow in the debate. He is the most assiduous attender of debates raising issues of human rights and religious freedoms.

There are many histories of Ethiopia, and they are absolutely fascinating. It is the one country in Africa that was never colonised. It is the one country in Africa that is the beacon for African unity, as the centre for the Organisation of African Unity. It is the beacon for so much else about African culture and civilisation. When it was invaded by the fascist Government of Italy in the 1930s, people in this country took up the cause very strongly, and no one more so than Sylvia Pankhurst, the great suffragette. She ended up going to Ethiopia in, I think, 1942 and spent the rest of her life there, extolling the history and culture of Ethiopia. Indeed, there is a street named after her in Addis Ababa. Not only did she spend a lot of time in prison in HMP Holloway in my constituency, but she ended up in Ethiopia with a street named after her. We should be proud of her contribution.

The history of the wars of Ethiopia and the famine and the poverty is absolutely huge. There are obviously huge strategic issues facing Ethiopia—not just food supply and food production, but water supply, energy supplies and so on. I hope an agreement can be reached with Sudan and Egypt so that Ethiopia does not end up with another conflict further down the road about the use of the Nile waters. That has to be resolved. The rivers are for everybody. Water has to be for everybody. The war with Eritrea was brutal, bloody and violent and ended up with greater Ethiopia losing its access to the sea. That war eventually concluded, but with a massive loss of life.

The conflict that is now going on with Tigray, and to some extent with the Oromo people as well, is almost a copy of what went on over Eritrea. It is devastating when a civil war is going on in a country and massive human rights abuses are taking place—probably on all sides in this conflict. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend Sarah Champion said about rape being used as a weapon of war. Rape is systematically carried out against women in Tigray.

There is also the rise of racism in Addis Ababa against anyone from Tigray or anyone speaking the lingua franca of Tigray. It is absolutely appalling. We have witnessed hurt and horror, and beatings and imprisonments, and the Ethiopian Government have apparently refused to allow international bodies into Tigray and other places to investigate those human rights abuses. I hope that is going to change.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said is very important. If evidence is not collected very quickly, it will be concealed and will disappear. I am not saying that it will go altogether, but it will be much harder for prosecutions to take place down the line. I hope we in this Chamber today can appeal to the Ethiopian Government to allow the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch unfettered access to all aspects of society there. They have not taken sides in the conflict. They have not issued a view on the conflict. They have issues a demand for peace and the protection of people against systematic sexual violence.

There is a danger that, following the retreat that the Tigrayan forces performed after they could not get completely into Addis and went back to Tigray, there will be a push for the Ethiopian armed forces, which are huge and considerable, to go in and completely occupy Tigray. That is a temptation that I am sure the military commanders are looking at. The danger is that, once they occupy it, they may not want to leave, and that could be the spark that leads to conflict in the future. There has to be a coming together of some sort and an understanding of the federal nature of the country.

As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pointed out, this is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. The figures are horrendous: 9 million people are short of food and at least 400,000 are starving. There is a lack of medical supplies, and trucks are being prevented from getting into Tigray with food, medicine and all the other necessities of daily life for the people of Tigray. Many will die as a result, and children’s growth and development will be stunted. The resentment will be there for all their lives towards those who stopped the necessary aid getting in.

Solving this conflict also helps prevent the conflicts of the future. There has to be an appeal for a ceasefire as soon as one can be arranged. The UN has to perform well on this, because the history of international organisations and Ethiopia is mixed at best. The League of Nations failed to prevent the Italian invasion in the 1930s and that is not forgotten by many people. UN support for problems in Ethiopia has been patchy at various times. If the UN and the African Union are to mean anything, they must be able to promote dialogue, debate and discussion that not only bring about an immediate ceasefire and get urgent aid into all parts of the country that need it as quickly as possible, but lay the ground for a peaceful future where there is not just another war coming down the line.

I am not opposed to the aid going in—I hope we can give more aid—but aid will work only if there is a political settlement on the ground that allows it to be delivered to the people who need it. Otherwise, we will have the ridiculous picture of aid stacks being built up in various places that simply cannot get to people not that far away who desperately need them. I hope we can make that clear.

All conflicts have to be resolved politically in the end. In every war, when it finally exhausts itself and the killing fields become so full that people start to look for an alternative, that alternative has to be found. Can we not do that and find it more quickly?

We should also look at the arms supplies that are getting into Ethiopia. There should be a complete arms embargo on Ethiopia, which should extend to other countries that are supplying the conflict, either through Eritrea or other places. Particular arms sources appear to be Turkey, the United Arab Emirates—to which the UK is a big arms supplier—Russia and other countries. There has to be an arms embargo. It will not stop all the fighting and bring about peace tomorrow, but it will help reduce the levels of conflict in the future. I hope we are able to get that message across in the debate today.

Please let us have a ceasefire and a future for all the people—people in Ethiopia, the Oromo people, and people in Tigray and elsewhere in the region. We should pay far more attention to issues facing people in Africa than we do. If this conflict had been in almost any other continent in the world, this hall would have been full, but it is not. I am sorry about that. Those of us who are interested and who care—including all those here today—will ensure that the issue does not go away and we will keep it at the forefront as best we can.