25 March 2021
James Cleverly responds to debate the conflict in Tigray region of Ethiopia

James Cleverly responds to an Adjournment debate on the conflict in Tigray region of Ethiopia and outlines the UK’s desire for a political solution and for investigations into atrocities so that those committing abuses do not evade justice, in the meantime, the priority is to make sure that humanitarian support continues to reach those in desperate need.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing the debate this evening. Normally, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) would have responded, but, unfortunately, he is travelling. I know that he takes the issues that she has raised very seriously, and I shall run through some of the points that he would have made had he been able to be here.

The crisis in Tigray is of grave concern both to Her Majesty’s Government and, indeed, to Members of this House. More than four months on from the start of the conflict, much of Tigray remains incredibly dangerous both for the people who live there and for the humanitarian workers trying to deliver badly needed support, and, as the hon. Lady set out in her speech, the impact on civilians is devastating. Sadly, we are aware that at least five workers—Ethiopian staff working for UK-funded non-governmental organisations—have tragically been killed in this conflict. I pay tribute to them here today for their courage, for their service and, ultimately, for their sacrifice. The targeting of humanitarians is utterly unacceptable.

The conflict has caused the collapse of essential and basic services: health, nutrition, water and sanitation. Life-saving maternal healthcare services and vaccines cannot be delivered, thereby endangering the lives of newborn children and their mothers. Huge numbers of people, likely more than half a million, are in areas beyond the reach of aid agencies. Across the region, as the hon. Lady said, 4.5 million people are now in need of life-saving humanitarian aid. The United Nations assesses that the overall humanitarian response remains “deeply inadequate” compared with the needs that have been assessed on the ground, and the situation is indeed grave.

We have received ongoing reports of egregious human rights violations since the conflict started and, as has been outlined, we are seeing and hearing increasingly harrowing stories, on an almost daily basis, of widespread murder and rape. Armed actors are subjecting civilians to appalling abuses and systematic campaigns of looting, largely with impunity. Eritrea’s role in this conflict is particularly concerning. As such, the UK has called on it to leave Ethiopia immediately. There are numerous reports of atrocities involving Eritrean forces, and their presence is fuelling insecurity.

Since the start of the conflict in November, the UK has consistently called for unhindered and comprehensive access for relief agencies and journalists. One of the greatest defences against the impunity that the hon. Lady has highlighted is the work of the media. We have been clear that the protection of civilians must be a priority, and we have pressed for investigations into the human rights abuses that have been highlighted, as well as for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. There can be no military solution to the problems in Tigray, and we have urged all parties to seek an inclusive political settlement and to restore security and stability.

In January this year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary travelled to Ethiopia and visited a humanitarian logistics hub in Gondar, run by the World Food Programme. He heard first hand from our agency partners about the difficulties faced in delivering life-saving assistance. He also met Prime Minister Abiy, the President and the Deputy Prime Minister. He emphasised to them the need for immediate humanitarian access, and made clear the UK’s serious concerns about human rights violations, media freedom and political freedom.

The Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa have also raised the situation with their counterparts across the continent and internationally. As the hon. Lady suggested, that includes recent conversations with the United States Secretary of State Blinken. I have raised these issues with my counterparts in the Gulf, and the UK has been active in discussions at the United Nations Security Council. Most recently, on 11 March, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth called again for urgent action to be taken to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, during a discussion on food insecurity and conflict in the other place.

The UK has been a generous supporter of humanitarian activities. On top of more than £100 million of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia this financial year, an additional £15.4 million has been provided specifically for this crisis response. Our embassy in Addis Ababa has been working tirelessly and in challenging circumstances to secure humanitarian access, and to press for investigations into the human rights abuses and violations that the hon. Lady outlined in her speech.

A team of UK officials from the embassy travelled to Mekelle, Tigray’s principal city, on 4 and 5 March. United Nations and NGO staff were open about the complexities of operating in this environment and the extent of civilian suffering. At a site for displaced persons, our staff heard harrowing accounts of truly horrendous abuses. They saw a relief effort hamstrung by confused Government systems struggling to keep pace with the needs of the people. It is clear that obstacles to access have weakened the overall response to this devastating situation.

One positive development has been the recent announcement from the Government of Ethiopia on access and their commitment to move to a system of access notification. Under that approach, responding organisations no longer have to wait for approval from Ethiopian authorities to enter Tigray. The UK is working with the United Nations and others to assess whether changes introduced by the authorities result in a demonstrable and positive improvement on the ground. We can also cautiously welcome the improved access for the media in Tigray.

The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) will be interested to know, as he has raised this privately with me, that we also support the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its work is important, and we are glad to see that those staff are planning a joint mission with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

However, it is clear that media workers remain persecuted and at risk of detention. We are also concerned that the proposed joint human rights investigation will not be seen as impartial by the victims of the conflict. The crisis in Tigray comes as Ethiopia already faces huge humanitarian, economic and political pressures. In 2021, relief agencies will assist nearly 18 million people across the country. Covid-19, climate events and devastating locust invasions have already put paid to prosperity in the region. Ethnic violence has increased in many regions and may rise further ahead of the planned elections in June this year. The stakes are very high, and this coming year will need concerted action by the international system and a strong and well co-ordinated United Nations.

Let me conclude by reassuring the House that the United Kingdom will continue to engage comprehensively with Ethiopia and to lead co-ordination with international partners in pressing for a political solution to this conflict that brings about an end to the violence. We will also ensure that investigations into atrocities are robust, unbiased, credible and trusted by the people of Tigray themselves, so that those committing abuses do not evade justice. In the meantime, it is our absolute priority to make sure that humanitarian support continues to reach those in desperate need.