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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:29 pm on 19th January 2022.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 3:29 pm, 19th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Bone.

I thank Mr Robertson for securing a debate on this crisis and for his powerful candour about the situation as a long-standing friend of Ethiopia. I agree with him that it is disappointing that the issue has not received more attention in the House. I have raised it nearly 50 times since the start of the crisis, through questions and in debates, alongside many other Members. However, it has not received the attention it deserves, either in this country or globally, not least given the level of atrocities, suffering and chaos, and the wider implications for the region and the world. The crisis is very much human-made, just as we saw in the 1980s, and that gives it particular tragedy.

We have heard some powerful and shocking testimony today, from a range of Members, who all made powerful points. I hope that the Minister will give us far greater assurance than previously about the priority that the UK Government give to the crisis and about how we work with others in the international community, in particular given our role as a P5 member and on the UN Human Rights Council, and not least because of our particular historical development and trading relationships with Ethiopia.

I hope that the Minister will start his response by giving us an update on diplomatic efforts to secure a peaceful settlement, which is crucial. That point has been made multiple times in the debate—securing a ceasefire is key to achieving progress. We saw some steps over the Christmas period, but they appear to be limited and have not been matched by changes on the ground.

It is deeply depressing to be here again, nearly 14 months since the conflict started. The humanitarian situation has steadily but surely deteriorated, with thousands of deaths and millions suffering, in particular in Tigray but also in neighbouring regions, such as Afar, Amhara and beyond. Civilians have faced indiscriminate large-scale massacres, arbitrary arrest, false disappearances, looting and violence. They have been denied the rights to food, shelter, healthcare and education, and we have heard about despicable sexual violence and rape targeting women and girls. There is clear evidence of crimes against humanity and of war crimes.

Since we last discussed the issue, the crisis has worsened for many people across Tigray and those other regions. The UN has warned that its food distribution operations are on the verge of grinding to a halt. In recent days, too, we have seen allegations that the Ethiopian air force hit displaced civilians with air raids. It is not known how those attacks were carried out, but we know that they occurred. In just the past few weeks, it is believed that more than 100 have been killed and nearly 100 injured.

On 5 January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that three refugees, including children, were killed by airstrikes in the Mai Aini refugee camp. Five days later, a similar attack occurred on Mai Tsebri. I do not understand how such attacks can be taking place when humanitarian facilities and internally displaced person locations are designated and known to those involved in the conflict. An attack on an IDP camp in Dedebit resulted in the massacre of 59 and the wounding of 27 others. That camp was situated around a school and many of the victims were children. What assessment has been made of those shocking incidents?

We have also seen Abiy Ahmed’s Government revoke the rights of key humanitarian NGOs, expel seven senior UN staff and block vital aid to areas faced with famine. Evidence has emerged of senior political and military figures using very inflammatory and inciting language. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referenced Rwanda and other past tragedies; such language has all the sinister hallmarks of encouraging ethnic violence, at worst. We know where that leads, as we saw tragically in Rwanda and Bosnia.

I note the rare rebuke issued last week by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That is not a normal step for it to take, but it underlines the seriousness of the situation. Will the Minister tell us what concerns we have expressed directly to the Ethiopian Government in recent weeks, in particular about action against humanitarians and the language used by some figures? I encourage our Government to work with the utmost urgency towards finding a ceasefire between all the parties to the conflict, so that the humanitarian response can operate fully.

The humanitarian situation has worsened in every way: 9.4 million people are in need across the key regions, up from 8.1 million just before the House adjourned for the western Christmas, and an increase of 2.47 million on just four months ago. That is a drastic increase in a very short period, and it is now thought that 90% of Tigrayans are in need of assistance.

I was shocked to read in a report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs that 283 severely malnourished children under five stopped receiving life-saving treatment in one area. OCHA warned that unless fuel enters Tigray as soon as possible, nutrition interventions will cease fully. Michael Dunford, the WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa, who has already been quoted, said:

“We’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving”.

What awful choices to have to make.

Malnutrition interventions are needed for an estimated 1.6 million children under five years old and pregnant and lactating women in Tigray, an estimated 1.4 million in Amhara, and an estimated 80,000 in Afar. Those are shocking figures. We are talking about women and children who are directly at risk of death if we do not intervene in the weeks ahead. Even with intervention, developmental complications as a result of malnutrition at that crucial stage of life and development risk leaving lifelong scars, as we saw in previous tragedies and conflicts in Ethiopia.

We have all heard the estimate that more than 10,000 rapes were committed earlier this year. Shockingly, the clinical management of rape is still massively lacking in Ethiopia, where only 30% of the very few clinics able to offer care to victims of such sexual violence are open. Plan International says that across the key regions there are only five one-stop centres for rape survivors to receive support. Will the Minister tell us what the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has reported on the situation and what actions we are taking to support women and girls who have been affected in that horrific way?

Humanitarian organisations need a massive boost in funding to deliver emergency aid. The UN estimates that it needs an additional $1.2 billion in funding for response in northern Ethiopia. The WFP has warned that, notwithstanding the access issues, it is set to run out of food and nutritious supplies across Ethiopia in February because of

“an unprecedented lack of funding.”

In debates on the situation in Ethiopia, I have repeatedly asked Ministers a question that they have yet to answer. There have been individual announcements about UK support to the region, which are of course welcome, but what I and others want to know is whether total UK Government support will go up or down this year. That is the crucial question. When the need is so great, support should be increasing, not reducing. The Government have cut the development budget—I have opposed those cuts on many occasions—but surely, when the need is so great and we see such suffering, our total support should be increasing. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul by taking from one part of the country to give to another. This crisis affects many people in many regions, and failing to do our fair share and work with other donors to plug the gaps would be a huge dereliction of our moral duty.