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

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

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Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 3:19 pm, 19th January 2022

Yes, absolutely. It dismays me that I stand here in this debate so soon after that visit. However, I will press on, and I hope that time is on my side.

Here we are. The past 14 months of ongoing conflict in Ethiopia have been discussed in this House on several occasions, and little is changing. On each occasion, we have heard about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe: millions of people are in need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia, drought is affecting the south of the country and 2 million refugees are internally displaced. We have also heard about the truly horrifying civil war taking place, with stories of forced displacement, mass detention, starvation, torture and—as we heard from Sarah Champion, who is my colleague on the Select Committee—the extensive use of rape and sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war by all parties since the conflict began. Repeatedly, Members from both sides of the House have called for urgent humanitarian assistance to be facilitated to provide life-saving support to these victims of war. Furthermore, we have stressed the desperate need for the ongoing violence to end, with a negotiated, consensual settlement that would allow peace to return to Ethiopia.

Unimaginable anguish has been caused by this conflict, and the country has been brought to the verge of collapse in such a short space of time. However, the withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray needs to be used as an opportunity to bring an end to hostilities and begin work on a peace settlement.

There may be grounds for cautious optimism. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian federal Government announced that they would pardon and release several prominent political prisoners. That was welcomed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called for a “lasting ceasefire” and

“a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process”.

The federal Government in Ethiopia themselves stated that the key to lasting unity is dialogue, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell Fontelles urged all parties to “seize the moment”—and the moment we should seize.

The suggestion of dialogue is arguably the most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020. To move forward peacefully, Ethiopian leaders must find a way to accommodate competing ideological perspectives and build a vision for consensual governance. Any political settlement must address the country’s festering grievances and build a new societal order based on mutual understanding and inclusivity. The Tigrayans must accept that deep grievances from their long period of dominance in Ethiopian politics remain and that most Ethiopians will not agree to their leading the federation again. Both sides can aspire to win the war, and win the war they must together, because neither can hope to win a peace alone.

Ethiopia is a patchwork of 80 ethnic groups, and any potential peace process is likely to be complex. I have a number of detailed questions today, and I hope to hear some responses from the Minister. How will the Government look to support any peace process? For example, will the FCDO use existing expertise from the stabilisation unit to create a clear road map for inclusive, post-conflict reconstruction in Tigray that proactively addresses development needs and embeds peacebuilding in the FCDO’s work in the region? Will the UK work with other key partners, including, as we heard from Jeremy Corbyn, the UN, the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to ensure the engagement of regional leaders and an increased likelihood of successful peace?

This moment of opportunity is a fragile one, and there is no time to waste. This month there have been numerous airstrikes, killing and injuring dozens of children and civilians, including those in refugee camps. The horrific war crimes that have been a feature of the 14 months of this conflict continue without the perpetrators being held to account. The de facto blockade of humanitarian relief in Tigray has meant that no convoy from the World Food Programme—which has done so much in years gone by—has reached the Tigrayan capital since mid-December. They have had no food for the last four weeks. The continuation of this conflict will only deepen mistrust between communities, risk a potential rapid deterioration in the conflict and make peace frankly impossible.

My second set of questions for the Minister therefore concern the political and economic levers the UK is using to help to secure peace. For example, is the UK making its funding to Ethiopia through British International Investment—formally known as the CDC—conditional and dependent on an end to the blockade and violence? With airstrikes in the last few days killing scores of civilians, what engagement has the Minister had to urge parties such as Turkey and the UAE to stop providing drones, other weapons and military support to Ethiopia? Will the UK call for a UN arms embargo? That would be real leadership.

What discussions has the UK been involved in to ensure accountability for the war crimes that have taken place during the conflict? These questions have been asked repeatedly by each and every Member present, but they are important and need to be answered. Will the UK representatives at the UN use all diplomatic capabilities to call for the invoking of Security Council resolution 2417, which explicitly condemns starvation as a method of warfare and the denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations? I recognise that I have asked numerous questions, but they must be addressed if progress is to be made and to ensure that we are not having a similar debate in several months’ time to the ones we have had over the past months.

It is vital that urgent humanitarian assistance is facilitated immediately. There must be immediate guarantees from all parties to the conflict for safe and secure humanitarian corridors via all routes across northern Ethiopia. They must allow movement of supplies across battle lines and allow access to affected populations wherever and whenever needed. As we have heard, an estimated 9.4 million people are in dire need of food assistance as a result of the conflict, yet less than 12% of the supplies required to meet humanitarian needs are reaching Tigray. Supplies of food, fuel and cash, along with humanitarian workers, are unable to reach Tigray as this humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes. The World Food Programme, which does amazing work around the world, is calling for an additional $337 million to deliver its emergency food assistance response in northern Ethiopia. Across the entire country, the World Food Programme has an unprecedented gap of nearly two thirds of a billion dollars in the funding needed to save and change the lives of 12 million people over the next six months.

The UK Government have committed £76 million to the crisis response, making the UK the second largest donor globally, which I am sure is welcomed by everyone in this room. The Minister has previously stated that the UK continues to lobby other countries to increase their commitments. I have a fundamental problem with that: it just goes to illustrate the short-sighted folly—once again—of the Government’s decision to cut aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. How can they expect others to contribute more when we are cutting back? How can it be a good policy to reduce aid spending aimed at proactively preventing conflicts and crises such as the one in Ethiopia when we have to reactively increase our contributions when war, displacement, malnourishment and disease inevitably arise? Fundamentally, where is the credibility? Where is the economics in that? It is a case of penny wise, pound foolish.

Additional flexible funding is needed as a priority, but it will be of no use unless there is unfettered humanitarian access. So what steps are the UK Government taking to facilitate that? Given the killing of aid workers throughout this conflict, what guarantees has the Minister had from the Ethiopian Government on the safety of humanitarian aid workers?

Finally, we cannot lose sight of the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia. The warnings of an impending full-scale humanitarian catastrophe have become a harsh and heartbreaking reality. Like many Members present, I remember the 1985 campaign led by Bob Geldof; as a teenager, I ran in a six-mile fun run to raise money for people in Ethiopia facing mass starvation. Here we are again, much older, seeing the same thing in the same location. It is vital that all parties involved in this conflict begin the long-required dialogue to bring hostilities to an end. The UK Government must do everything in their power to ensure that this is not a missed opportunity that prolongs this brutal conflict.