Source: Lord Alton
War In Tigray: Peers today pressed for access to be given to Tigray to assess allegations of War Crimes and to ensure the safe arrival of urgently needed humanitarian aid and the protection of refugees.
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement by the government of Ethiopia on 30 November that military operations in the northern Tigray region are complete, what assessment they have made of the situation in that region; and what access they have (1) requested, and (2) been granted, to the region to establish (a) humanitarian needs, and (b) any evidence of war crimes.Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as the vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, an initial Tigray humanitarian preparedness plan has been prepared by the United Nations. A comprehensive assessment of the humanitarian needs across Tigray has not yet been possible. We are encouraged that an assessment mission co-ordinated by the UN is scheduled to commence later this week, and this follows efforts by the UK and others to press for implementation of the assessment. We have also contributed to the UN guiding principles presented to the Government of Ethiopia on humanitarian access, with a view to the delivery of assistance for civilians.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can I press him further on the issue of the humanitarian corridor? Will this conform to United Nations principles of neutrality, and will access be granted to our diplomats to visit Tigray? Secondly, how do we intend to hold to account those who have been responsible for the torture of refugees, the forced return of refugees and some pretty barbaric acts which have been carried out against some of those who have escaped from Tigray?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, of course the situation at the moment does not allow for a full assessment. But let me assure him of this: we will certainly continue to press that any perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice. On his point about humanitarian corridors, we are liaising closely with the UN humanitarian organisations to establish what, if any, additional support is needed to press for diplomatic channels in particular—which we have been doing—to allow for the principles that he has articulated. It is integral to the principles laid down by OCHA, which the UK supported the development of.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a real prospect of the Ethiopian conflict getting right out of control, especially given the Horn of Africa’s strategic importance, with Gulf countries, China, the US and others jockeying for influence, or even becoming a Libyan nightmare of war crimes, war lords and ethnic cleansing? Can the Government redouble efforts to broker negotiations through the United Nations, the African Union and the EU?
My Lords, first let me assure the noble Lord that I share his concern, when we see the challenges faced in neighbouring countries, about the importance of containing this and seeking a peaceful settlement. On the channels he has mentioned, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary discussed co-ordination with our EU partners on 23 November, and we are in discussions with key African partners, including Uganda, Somalia, Kenya and, importantly, South Africa. At the UN, we also participated in the Security Council debate on 24 November.
My Lords, given the risk to stability in the region, does the Minister agree with former US ambassador Carson when he said yesterday that the battle cannot be won militarily, and that it is vital that neighbours do not become embroiled through the use of their bases or airspace? Could he spell out which EU countries the United Kingdom is working with to secure these aims via the UN?
On the noble Baroness’s two questions, I can say yes and yes. We are working specifically with the likes of Germany and France in this respect, which also have important equities in that area.
My Lords, all too often, women and children are the greatest victims of conflict. The UK is leading the way in the implementation of UN Resolution 1325, which recognises the importance of women’s involvement in peacekeeping. I visited and saw first-hand the UK contribution to the Peace Support Training Centre in Addis but, in light of recent events, is now the time to increase our commitment to that centre?
My noble friend speaks with some insight and, of course, great expertise. I share his view that one of the real successes has been the women, peace and security programme run by the Ministry of Defence and the FCDO. On his specific question on whether we increase capacity, obviously the situation at the moment is very fluid on the ground, but he makes a very important suggestion, which I will certainly take back and update him on accordingly.
My Lords, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the Ethiopian premier’s assertion in Parliament on 30 November that his forces “have not killed a single civilian” during the conflict in the Tigray region? That followed a statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross on 29 November that Ayder Referral Hospital in the Tigrayan capital was “running dangerously low” on stocks and body bags due to an influx of wounded people, and that 80% of them had suffered unspecified trauma injuries. What can be done to help the supply of medical equipment much needed for that hospital?
My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that I have been speaking directly to UN agencies, as have other colleagues within the FCDO. I share the important point she raised right at the end of her question, and we are pressing for unfettered humanitarian access. The number of fatalities is unclear, but there is clearly also a high level of internally displaced people. I assure her that we are using all good offices and lobbying directly with the country, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has done, to ensure unfettered humanitarian access to the region.
Picking up the last point the Minister mentioned, on the number of internally displaced people, has there been an assessment of how many there are? Have conversations taken place with the Governments of Sudan and Eritrea over the support that could be given to refugees at the border as well?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, the short answer is yes. We have raised it on a bilateral basis, as have international agencies. One figure I can share with him is that we now estimate that more than 45,449 people have fled Ethiopia for neighbouring Sudan—that is the latest figure I have. That is an example of the figures we have been able to make an assessment on.
My Lords, given that this is, in essence, a political and economic conflict, and given also that the Chinese Government are the biggest economic investor in Ethiopia, are Her Majesty’s Government working with the Chinese Government to see what influence they can bring to bear to calm matters and to bring about a potential negotiation between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
The noble Baroness makes an important point. We too are one of the leading international donors to the country, and I assure her that we are using, in particular, our discussions at the UN in pursuit of that aim.
Prior to the conflict, Tigray was a safe haven for Eritrean refugees afraid to return home because of fear of persecution. With Eritrea’s rumoured involvement in the conflict against the TPLF, what assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the validity of claims that the Eritrean military are forcing refugees into trucks and abducting them back to Eritrea?
The right reverend Prelate is right to raise those concerns. This too is part of the conversations that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has had with the Eritrean Government. They, of course, refute any such programmes or policy, but we continue to raise our concerns directly with them.
My Lords, I first visited Ethiopia with the Commons International Development Committee. We had a long meeting with Meles Zenawi, who was very impressive, and was often described as Tony Blair’s favourite African dictator. He, of course, has been gone for many years. However, when I visited last year, although there was greater prosperity there was still grinding poverty. Can my noble friend assure me that henceforth, when we pour in billions and billions of pounds in aid, as we have done in Ethiopia, for humanitarian reasons and for education and health, we will also look at what is happening to the defence budgets of such countries? I am afraid that what has been happening is fungibility. We have been giving aid for education and health—they have been spending money on arms.
My noble friend raises an important point about transparency in development spending. That is why the new structure at the FCDO will pursue that very point, ensuring that development support is intended for those who are suffering, and gets directly to them.
In answer to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the Minister said that the Government were in touch with France and Germany. Are the Government in touch with any power in the region itself that might be an influence for good, and what response have they had from the African Union about the role that it might play?
Let me assure the noble and right reverend Lord that yes, we are in touch with some of the countries I have already listed, such as Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and South Africa. We are dealing with those countries in the region at the most senior levels of government.
My Lords, may I ask the Minister about local women being asked to be at the peace table, on both sides, from now on? It is only with local women at the peace table that we will get real peace.
I totally agree with the noble Baroness. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of involving women peace mediators. Indeed, we have launched several initiatives, and I agree that when women are involved in bringing about peace and sustaining it, peace agreements last much longer. The evidence is there for all to see.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked, and that brings Question Time to an end.12.52pm