[Relevant Documents: Tenth Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, The humanitarian situation in Tigray, HC 1289, and the Government response, Session 2019-21, HC 554.]

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Good morning and welcome. Bore da. Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with the current Government guidance and what the House of Commons Commission has prescribed. Please would Members also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room? Members should send speaking notes by email to hansardnotes@parliament.uk. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers. Without further ado, it is my great pleasure to invite Sarah Champion to move the motion.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Tigray.

As ever, it is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship, and also to see so many Members here, which shows the significance of not just the debate but what is happening in Ethiopia at the moment.

The situation in Tigray is truly horrific. This could be a debate about conflict prevention, regional stability or foreign policy in the horn of Africa, but it is the dreadful humanitarian situation and the terrible conditions the people in Tigray are having to endure that must be our focus today. That dire situation motivated the International Development Committee, which I chair, to produce a short report. I am grateful to the Government for their response to the report, and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister shortly.

Let us be clear: it is conflict that has driven a worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray. Against a backdrop of deteriorating political relationships between the regional Government in Tigray and the federal Government in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian national defence force started security operations in Tigray in November 2020. The Tigray regional security forces have fought against it, retaking the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle in June. Local militia and unidentified troops are involved. Eritrean troops are fighting in Tigray and are alleged to have committed human rights violations and abuses.

I do not want to dwell too long on the causes and the nature of the conflict, save to note two things. It is clear that there have been abuses by all parties to the conflict and that all parties are using propaganda and misinformation to advance their cause. All the time, it is the people who suffer—people whose lives were already difficult; people whose livelihoods were under threat from climate change and the worst desert locust infestation for decades; people who were already hosting populations displaced by previous conflicts in the region.

I would like to set out briefly some of the key humanitarian challenges, before going on to talk about some of the grave violations of human rights that have been reported. I want to focus on women and girls because, like in so many other conflicts and crises around the world, women and girls are disproportionately impacted. We must find a way to end the heartbreaking and unimaginable horrors that some women and girls have had to endure and continue to face in the form of gender-based violence and sexual violence.

The first issue that arises in conflict is the risk of injury or death. People fearing for their lives and those of their families flee areas of conflict. An estimated 2.1 million people have been displaced by the conflict. In Tigray, many people have fled rural areas, and thousands of displaced people are being hosted in communities in large urban areas. These communities are themselves already stressed by the effects of conflict, shortages of food and water, and a lack of access to essential services. People are not always safe once they have fled. The unpredictable nature of conflict means that fighting often erupts unexpectedly. People have to flee fighting more than once. The effect on their lives and livelihoods is devastating, sowing the seeds of problems that will endure for years.

Access is another major problem. The conflict has prevented humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need. They have been unable to access areas to deliver vital supplies, while the lack of access has also made it much more difficult to assess need. The latest situation report from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that no trucks have entered Tigray since 20 August. Since 15 July, only 321 trucks with humanitarian supplies have entered the region, providing only a fraction of the assistance needed by the 5.2 million people in need. The reality is that 100 trucks a day are required to meet the demand.

It is true that there have been some improvements in access, and at the time we were preparing our report it looked like agreements had been secured, but the situation is not yet good enough to meet the needs of the people affected by the fighting. Parts of Tigray remain problematic to this day, with fighting still disrupting access routes and belligerents on all sides failing to recognise permissions granted to humanitarian agencies. I pay tribute to the extraordinary work the humanitarian agencies are doing in the face of terrible difficulties and huge personal risks. Tragically, some humanitarian workers have been killed. Worse, it seems that they have been deliberately murdered.

Thousands of people in Tigray have not had the access they need to food and water. Over 400,000 people are suffering catastrophic levels of hunger and more than 4 million—around 70% of the population—are experiencing high levels of food insecurity. Combatants have blocked food aid from reaching its destination, it has been looted by soldiers and there are reports of food silos being contaminated.

Beyond these immediate life-sustaining needs, the conflict has brought about a collapse of essential services. Communication was cut off in the early part of the conflict, there have been power shortages, markets have closed, the internet is down making bank transfers extremely difficult, banking has been disrupted and essential services have collapsed, but to talk simply of a collapse of essential services would be to hide the shocking and awful truth that schools, hospitals and the means of production have all been deliberately and systematically targeted, vandalised and destroyed. Where schools have not been vandalised, they have been occupied either by the combatants or by displaced people seeking some kind of refuge.

With markets closed and limited access for food deliveries, finding adequate nutrition is a real problem. An estimated 45,000 children under five are suffering from malnutrition, while health centres are reportedly running out of stocks. It gets worse because farmers, where their farms and machinery have not been vandalised, are unable to plant crops. Only 25% to 50% of cereal production will be available this year. Soldiers are reported to have beaten people they have seen ploughing fields, and harvests have been destroyed and livestock looted, all in a part of the world that was already severely stressed by changes in climate and the effect of desert locusts. There is a real prospect of famine and the creation of yet another cycle of aid dependency, in a part of the world that has suffered so much in the past and that had hoped to leave this sort of problem behind it.

Then we turn to the atrocities: the mass killings and the chilling sexual violence. We know there have been massacres, including the cliff-top killing of 25 to 35 civilians near Mahbere Dego, the killing of 160 people in Bora village in southern Tigray and the massacre of 100 people in Aksum in November by Eritrean soldiers. We know there have been extra-judicial killings. In March, Médecins sans Frontières staff witnessed young men being pulled off buses and killed.

We know that women and girls have been raped. In February, a young mother was abducted and over 11 days repeatedly raped by 23 soldiers, who at the end of her ordeal forced a rock and nails into her vagina. Twelve women, five of whom were pregnant, were raped in front of family members, including their children. We know that some women have been held captive and repeatedly raped by soldiers and militias.

Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, acknowledged this after a Reuters investigation found that women and girls as young as eight were being targeted. It is brutal, dehumanising treatment. That the perpetrators cause these terrible acts to be witnessed by family members suggests they intend the effect to be terrorising, and clearly points towards the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Since February, 1,228 cases of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported, yet we know that for every rape and sexual violence case that is reported, there are many more that are not. The UN Population Fund estimates that there might be 22,500 survivors of sexual violence who will seek clinical care this year. Let me note at this point that the UK Government have slashed funding to UNFPA by an astonishing 85%. I dread to think of the impact this will have on women and girls in humanitarian crises like that in Tigray.

We know a lot about what the survivors of atrocities and sexual violence need to recover. Sadly, we also know that with much of the healthcare system in Tigray in tatters, there is little prospect of the survivors getting the support they need. The stories emerging via these organisations are horrifying. Many of the survivors will go on to suffer long-term debilitating physical and mental trauma. It may well be years before health systems are recovered to the point where women and girls will be able to get the support that they need.

It is important that the world bears witness to what is happening in Tigray, and the international system must do all that it can to bring the perpetrators to justice. I commend the work being done by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate. I ask the Minister to try to allow access to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. At the moment, it is suffering difficulties trying to get in and carry out its investigation. It is vital that evidence of human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties in Tigray is secured and investigated properly. It is important for the victims that that happens. It is important as a warning to others.

In the Select Committee’s report, we said that

“the situation in Tigray is an early test of the UK’s commitment to the principles and approach of the UK as a ‘force for good’ as set out in the Government’s Integrated Review.”

It still is. We recognised the Tigray crisis as

“a test of the FCDO’s desire to combine ‘diplomacy and development’ and to establish an integrated approach to conflict and instability. Failing this early test could damage the credibility of the UK’s new strategy.”

My Committee welcomes the Government’s response and their acceptance of the key points that we made about ending conflict and preventing it from spreading, ensuring that humanitarian needs are met, finding a sustainable political solution and supporting a process for reconciliation. I welcome the work of Nick Dyer, the UK special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, and the support that the Government have provided to humanitarian agencies working in Tigray, but let us be clear that the biggest challenge in UK development policy is that the cuts to overseas development assistance are likely remain for the remainder of this Parliament and very much longer. The tests that the Government have set for the return to 0.7% are, potentially, impossibly hard to meet.

The Government’s response claims that

“HMG has been at the forefront of the international response throughout the conflict”.

UNOCHA reckons that the current gap in funding for the situation in Tigray is $170 million. There is a very real risk that the Government’s wholly unnecessary cuts to ODA will undermine our response.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her comprehensive description of both the scale and the brutality of the conflict, but one issue that she has not referred to is the potential use of chemical weapons by the Ethiopian forces, on which I tabled a written question to the Minister in June. I understood from the response that the Government were seeking to verify the truth of those allegations, but is my hon. Friend also concerned about those reports, and does she agree that they should be part of the issues that the Government are seeking to address?

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The problem that we have is the verification. I saw the pictures of the chemical attack. I have no doubt from seeing those pictures that that is what happened, but unless we are able to get people on the ground to capture that data and are then able to verify it, it is incredibly difficult to encourage the Government and the international community to take a more robust response. That is why it is so important that we, as parliamentarians, keep raising the issue of access to gather data and to get the evidence to hold people to account, and keep it on our Government’s agenda-.

I have several questions that I hope the Minister will be able to address. First, how will the cuts in the UK’s ODA affect Ethiopia and in particular the humanitarian situation in Tigray, and what does being

“at the forefront of the international response”

mean for the UK’s response to the current shortfall in funding? Secondly, what steps will the Government take to put pressure on belligerents to end the fighting, and will the Minister also press the UN to act on the issues of rape and hunger being used as weapons of war? Thirdly, will he update the House on the deployment in Tigray of experts from the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and what assessment have the Government made of the impact of aid cuts to programmes such as the United Nations Population Fund on supporting survivors of sexual violence in the long term?

Fourthly, what steps has the Minister taken since the Government’s response was issued in July to prioritise Tigray, and what recent discussions has he had with aid agencies, the UN and other actors in the region? Fifthly, has the delivery of aid improved significantly since the Government published their response to our report, and what are the next steps if the delivery of aid is to be further improved? Sixthly, what steps is the Minister taking to put pressure on the Ethiopian Government and regional authorities to improve access and communications? Seventhly, how concerned is he about the safety of humanitarian workers in Tigray, and what can be done to better protect them?

Finally, what is the Minister’s latest assessment of the conflict spreading in Ethiopia, and what impact is the fighting in Amhara, Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia having on the work of the UK Government in Tigray? Will people displaced by those conflicts depend on the same pot of money as the people in Tigray?

The last month has been dramatic and traumatic in equal measure, but with attention focused on Afghanistan it is easy for the crisis in Tigray to slip from our collective consciousness. Even without Afghanistan, Haiti may have pushed Tigray off the news cycle, and we hear precious little day to day about what is happening in Ethiopia. The reports are there if we look for them but, as a real crisis, it does not get the level of attention it should. It is clear that the violence in Ethiopia has spread, and the risks we identified of conflict spreading further are still very real.

In closing, let me just say this: we must not lose sight of the situation in Tigray. The level of human suffering and the risk of conflict spreading demand it.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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I thank the Chair of the International Development Committee. We have nine speakers, which, according to my mathematics, means that they have about four and a half minutes each. I invite Andrew Mitchell to speak first.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your benign sway today, Mr Davies. I congratulate the Chairman of the International Development Committee on so ably leading this debate and on all the work that she and her Committee do. I join her in praising hugely the humanitarian actors who are in harm’s way in Tigray today.

I went with Bob Geldof, who probably knows more about the situation in this part of Africa than most people in Britain, to see the Foreign Secretary some months ago at the start of the crisis. I was extremely impressed that the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary were absolutely on top of what was happening. With so much else going on, there is a danger that public attention on what is happening in Tigray, so eloquently described by the hon. Lady, is missing. There is not enough public attention. I urge the media to ensure that attention increases greatly. There is a lot else going on.

There is a massive deterioration in the position on the ground. At least 7 million people need urgent assistance. The position was set out yesterday on the BBC website, which reported that 150 people had starved to death. That really matters to us in Britain. In 2011, the development programme in Ethiopia was the biggest anywhere in the world. It is a big country and there have been huge development gains in health and education, particularly among girls, and in the rights of women. There has been enormous progress in that respect.

Britain has huge strategic, commercial and security interests there. Ethiopia, for example, is pulling troops out of Somalia at the moment, which creates space for al-Shabaab to do its evil work there. There are huge flows of desperate people across the border in Sudan, a fragile country where millions of people are displaced. The whole thing destabilises the region. Ethiopia is being pulled apart by the conflict. Liberation movements and alliances are growing in strength. At the best of times, Ethiopia is a very fragile democracy with 110 million people. A major collapse there will have far more impact than Syria, Libya or Yemen, and we need to bear that in mind.

So what should we seek? First, we need to seek a cessation of fighting on all sides. Secondly, we need humanitarian access, which is grossly inadequate at the moment. It needs to be led by the international community, drawing on British expertise, and by the United Nations and the World Food Programme, which is doing an enormous amount of good work there at the moment. However, its funding has been cut from £21 million last year to £9 million this year, and that needs to be put right. We need to recognise that people are starving to death in Tigray and that there is massive violence, as set out by the hon. Lady, so I will not repeat that. Britain has a big strategic interest. Whether we care about development or not, Britain has a huge strategic interest in this part of the world, especially in Ethiopia, where millions and millions of taxpayers’ money have been spent on the ground to massive and real effect. That is why this debate matters so much, and why the issues that we are discussing are so important.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Thank you for your brevity. I invite Navendu Mishra, who is a member of the International Development Committee, to contribute to the debate.

Navendu Mishra Portrait Navendu Mishra (Stockport) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my colleague on the International Development Committee, for securing the debate at a critical juncture for millions of Tigrayans. I also note the briefings from Oxfam, Amnesty International and Protection Approaches. As we have heard today, the escalating tensions in Tigray are deeply concerning and the international community must act urgently to put pressure on the Governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Tigrayan authorities to bring an end to this latest conflict, which has now lasted almost a year and cost thousands of lives.

The UK Government must do all they can to de-escalate the rising tensions, investigate the reported war crimes and put pressure on all sides to allow non-governmental organisations to access the thousands of Tigrayans who are the victims of this conflict. Their lives remain at risk and they will continue to suffer unless urgent action is taken to permit vital aid to enter the region.

More than 400,000 people in Tigray are experiencing famine-like conditions. To put that in context, that is more than the rest of the world combined. Furthermore, the Red Cross has estimated that almost 6 million people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara are going hungry, while an additional 1.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict. It is clear that we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis unfold before our eyes in Tigray.

I am a proud member of the International Development Committee. Earlier this year we urged the UK Government to intervene in the crisis to bring a swift end to the conflict and help facilitate humanitarian access. Since then, there has been a deterioration in the humanitarian situation, while the ability of non-governmental organisations and aid organisations to access the region has diminished. For example, Oxfam told Members of this House that aid organisations are struggling to transport the 100 trucks a day of food supplies that are required into the region. It is vital that the UK Government apply pressure to ensure that there is unfettered, unimpeded access to Tigray to enable that lifesaving aid to be delivered to thousands of citizens.

Given our historic relationship with the region, we should do all we can to help. Amnesty International has raised concerns that attacks and mass killings have continued unchecked since the conflict started in November 2020, with crimes against humanity taking place on both sides, between the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments and Tigrayan rebels. Worryingly, a report this week by The Daily Telegraph revealed that, since July, soldiers occupying parts of Ethiopia’s Tigray region have been involved in what has been described as an ethnic purge of native people, who are being thrown into concentration camps and massacred by the dozen. Witnesses in the northern city of Humera, near the border with Eritrea, have claimed that soldiers from Amhara province have been conducting Taliban-type door-to-door searches for ethnic Tigrayan people, the result of which is that thousands of residents have been forced into makeshift detention centres.

Such scenes followed reports, which have since been corroborated by the UN, of Eritrean troops systematically killing hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Aksum over a two-day period in November 2020, which saw open shooting in the streets. Amnesty International has said that could amount to a crime against humanity and has also described it as just the tip of the iceberg, given the mass killings that followed. The charity has also heard shocking reports of gang rapes of people held in captivity, which they have described as sexual slavery, as well as clear examples of sexual mutilation of survivors, which is a crime under international law.

The toll on all citizens in the region has been unbearable. Since the beginning of the conflict there have been widespread and systematic campaigns of destruction and looting, including the theft of farm animals, which has significantly affected harvesting across Tigray, compounding the famine and starvation of the population.

It is clear that the UK Government cannot delay action any further. We must not lose sight of this crisis and the fate of thousands of Tigrayans while the eyes of the world are on Afghanistan, and we must continue to add pressure to allow organisations such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to have access to Tigray to investigate the situation further and carry out a thorough assessment of the impact of this conflict.

The charity, Protection Approaches, which works to tackle all forms of identity-based violence and mass atrocities, has rightly stated that the UK Government have a legal obligation to prevent further conflict in the region under the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.

It is also a matter of national interest and, left unchecked, the financial and human cost will be enormous. Much would be in keeping with what Tigrayans have already called for, which is a commitment to a negotiated end to the war. The UK should help facilitate that. Failing to support them in that endeavour would lead to an ongoing conflict that will cost tens of thousands more lives.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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Thank you for calling me, Mr Davies. I declare my interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Eritrea. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) not only for securing the debate today and her graphic speech, but for chairing the pre-briefing, which the APPG on Eritrea co-hosted yesterday.

We must do all that we can to fulfil our international obligations to prevent mass atrocities of the nature occurring in Tigray. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports on worrying indications that atrocity crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity and possible genocide—may have occurred and could still be under way in Tigray. In the words of a priest from the Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, interviewed at the height of the occupation,

“They want to annihilate Tigray. By killing the men and boys, they are trying to destroy any future resistance…They are raping and destroying women to ensure that they cannot raise a community in the future. They are using rape and food as weapons of war.”

By June 2021, researchers at Belgium’s University of Ghent had documented 10,000 deaths and 230 massacres, with many more incidents yet to be fully investigated. No one, anywhere, should be targeted on account of their religion or beliefs, yet in Tigray clergy and worshippers have been targeted and killed in large numbers.

According to a statement in February from the employees of Mekelle diocese and the administrators of 45 monasteries and churches, almost every monastery and church and religious school in Tigray has been bombed by drones or heavy weapons.

“A lot of clergymen, deacons, congregation members of Sunday schools, religious students and children, especially those clergymen who were on religious service, were massacred like animals.”

The indiscriminate bombing and destruction of ancient churches, mosques and other religious institutions, and the extensive looting of irreplaceable historical artefacts and manuscripts, appear to be part of a multifaceted campaign that involves cultural cleansing. Not only do those actions violate international humanitarian law but, according to the Rome statute, intentionally directing attacks against religious buildings and historic monuments can also constitute a war crime.

In 2019, the Government published a good policy paper, “UK approach to preventing mass atrocities”. In places such as Tigray now we need to see actions to match the strong words from that document, such as:

“The UK supports the deployment of all appropriate tools available to the UN in dealing with potential atrocities and conflict such as sanctions (diplomatic, travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and commodity interdiction), and is a strong advocate for securing accountability and justice for atrocities committed.”

“Development/programmatic support aims to foster environments where atrocities are less likely to take place—by addressing the root causes of conflict and drivers of instability, through tackling corruption, promoting good governance, improving access to security and justice, and inclusive economic development.”

I hope that in his closing remarks the Minister will elaborate on how those words are being applied now to the UK’s approach to the conflict in Tigray and the wider region, not least to help de-escalate tensions.

I also note the recommendation of the Select Committee on International Development for atrocity prevention training. In addition, the Truro review, a manifesto commitment of this Government, states at recommendation 7:

“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, through activities such as setting up early-warning mechanisms to identify countries at risk of atrocities, diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes, and developing support to help with upstream prevention work. Recognising that the ultimate determination of genocide must be legal not political and respecting the UK’s long-held policy in this area, the FCO should nonetheless determine its policy in accordance with the legal framework and should be willing to make public statements condemning such atrocities.”

Colleagues can be assured that, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I am working closely—indeed, daily—with the FCDO in order to ensure that we implement this and all 22 recommendations of the Truro review in full by their required completion date of July 2022.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), on securing the debate. It is so important to keep this issue on the table in the face of so many other global challenges taking place today. It is so concerning, disappointing and worrying to hear the kinds of stories and testimonies that we have already heard, because Ethiopia looked like a bit of a success story several years ago. It was quite a stable country, food security was increasing, and Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Unfortunately, it is not the first time in recent years that the Nobel Committee seems to have jumped ahead of itself slightly and given awards that, in hindsight, it maybe should have taken a bit more time to think about.

I echo the thanks of right hon. and hon. Members to those who supported the Oxfam briefing yesterday, which was incredibly helpful. It informed a lot of what we have heard today. We have heard the statistics again: it is estimated that 2 million people have been internally displaced, with 61% facing acute food insecurity. Some 600,000 are already over the threshold into famine, and another 2 million are on the brink of what the Oxfam rep who spoke to us yesterday described as the risk of catastrophic hunger. As we have heard, there are multiple, complex and overlapping causes, which require multiple, overlapping interventions—the huge displacement, the lack of infrastructure, the destruction of roads and bridges, which simply makes getting aid to where it is needed almost impossible, and the communications blackout, which has come up time and again in the briefings and evidence. It is a military tactic that is completely undermining humanitarian relief, which should be delivered, over and above whatever is going on in terms of conflict.

There is dreadful use of hunger as a weapon of war, and we have heard stories about the deliberate destruction of crops and livestock. There are particular concerns around ethnic tensions and tribal loyalties, which have fuelled the conflict and political division. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) spoke about the serious risk of regional overspill, the influence of Eritrea, and the displacement of over 60,000 refugees into Sudan already.

I want to touch briefly on the situation in Oromia. I have a very active constituent who is originally from Oromia and who is part of the Oromia Support Group, which has identified extra-judicial killings going back to October 2018. Of the more than 2,000 victims, 1,612 were identified as being from the Oromo group. The Oromia Support Group and its colleagues are calling for an inclusive dialogue between all the factions, with a view to ending any domination of one group over another. I will send the Minister the information that I have, and I encourage him to look at it very carefully indeed.

There is a challenge here for the Government. How will they live up to the standards that they have set for themselves in being proactive about atrocity prevention? How will they use their convening powers and diplomatic influence? If they want to be a soft power superpower, will they start by properly supporting agencies on the ground? We must support multilaterals, the United Nations and NGOs such as Save the Children, which, in very difficult circumstances, are maintaining a direct presence. What will be the impact of the aid cuts? Time and again in Westminster Hall, we hear practical, real-life examples of the effects of that completely unnecessary cut. It is having an impact practically, in terms of what can be delivered, and it is having a diplomatic effect as well, because it undermines the UK’s stance on the world stage. There is a need to work with all the agencies and partners and to recognise the Government’s obligations under international law.

One of the most sobering questions that was posed yesterday was: what if this is not the worst? What if the worst has yet to come? Too often we have stood by, when we should have learned the lessons of the past. The UK has to assess, it has to intervene, and it has to work with others and make sure that we avoid even further and more rapid deterioration.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
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As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti and somebody who has visited Ethiopia many times, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and the very moving way in which she described the terrible situation in Tigray. I thank her for her and her Committee’s continued interest in Ethiopia. I also thank the Minister for his willingness to provide briefings and attend meetings regularly on this subject, and for his ongoing involvement.

I asked an urgent question on 14 June, and sadly the situation, if anything, has deteriorated since, but it need not be this way. As has been alluded to, Ethiopia is a great country. It claims to have been the origin of coffee. Lucy, one of the world’s oldest human beings—4.4 million years—was found there. It has been independent for longer than any African country. I am not quite sure of the claims about the Queen of Sheba, but I do know that Ethiopia is one of the west’s oldest Christian civilisations. That is one of the tragedies: Christian and Muslim populations, sizeable as they are in Ethiopia, have lived peacefully together. More than 80 tribes and probably as many languages have managed to co-exist peacefully since the overthrow of the Derg in 1992.

I am told that Ethiopia has enjoyed world-record growth in the past 15 years; certainly, it is one of Africa’s outstanding success stories in that sense. It really is ironic that trouble has flared since the appointment of the outward-looking, modernising Prime Minister, who, as has been said, won the Nobel peace prize for making peace with Eritrea after a very long-standing dispute, but the rumblings of discontent started before he took office and have sadly increased since.

Ethiopia has suffered recently because of the unusually warm weather. The attack of locusts and, of course, covid have not helped. It is important to recognise that millions of people in Ethiopia each year depend on food aid. I am really rather struck by what World Food Programme people have said this week: up to 7 million people are in dire need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia alone. Their food stocks in Tigray are running perilously low, and they need $140 million to expand their northern Ethiopian response.

I will not go into the details of the conflict, which the hon. Lady covered ably, but I will ask a few questions. As far as the Minister knows, has the conflict spread as far as Lalibela—a town I visited on my last visit to Ethiopia? It really would be tragic if it had got that far. Could the United Nations be doing more, beyond helping refugees, which is a very important thing for it to be doing? Could the African Union be doing more, especially in speaking to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Eritrea, to make sure its troops are all withdrawn from the country? During the urgent question, the Minister said he had diverted aid to Tigray. Did that have any effect, and if so could that practice be repeated?

I also ask that other donors do not turn away from Ethiopia because of the conflict. People living in war-torn areas are often the most in need. I want us to continue with our aid programme. We need to target the aid and we need to require transparency. If possible, we should use it as a lever to bring about peace, but we should continue it.

As a very long-standing friend of Ethiopia who has stood in this Chamber and the main Chamber and defended Ethiopia as a friend, when perhaps it was questionable to have done so, I call on all the parties there to resolve this conflict very quickly and peacefully.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Thank you so much for your words. I will be calling the Front Benchers at 10.28 am. We are keeping good time, so without further ado, over to you, Helen Hayes. I look forward to hearing from you.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate.

November will mark one year since the onset of violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It started in retaliation to an attack on the Northern Command by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This is a complex conflict, with many different actors on the ground, but the reports of the conflict have consistently included evidence of mass executions, the targeting of Tigrayans by ethnicity, the destruction of crops, livestock and machinery, and the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tigrayan women and girls have been raped since this conflict began.

The conflict has led to a humanitarian disaster in Tigray, and non-governmental organisations are continuing to report difficulties getting into the region. The latest reports indicate that Tigray is still facing siege-like conditions, and a recent UN aid convoy was held at a checkpoint for two days, after which only nine of the trucks were allowed to proceed. Some 5.5 million people are facing crisis levels of food insecurity, and 350,000 are at catastrophic risk. There are sickening accounts of Tigrayans being held in prison camps near the Sudanese border, with reports from Sudan of corpses floating down the Setit river, clearly identifiable as Tigrayans and showing signs of torture. This conflict contains the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and there are reports of the use of white phosphorus, which, although not classified as a chemical weapon, delivers appalling injuries.

In addition to the problems with humanitarian access, it has been very difficult for journalists seeking to report on the situation in Tigray. Some extremely brave journalists have continued to do so, often placing themselves in grave danger and facing an aggressive smear campaign for their work. I pay particular tribute to Nima Elbagir and Lucy Kassa—brave women who have done so much to bear witness to the atrocities in Tigray.

Despite the horrors unfolding in Tigray, this conflict has remained under-reported and under-prioritised by the international community. I secured an Adjournment debate on Tigray in March, and at that time, five months into the conflict, with 10,000 women and girls at that point reported to have been raped, that was the only debate to have taken place on the issue in any western Parliament. I have constituents with loved ones in Tigray who are in fear for their lives, and constituents working with NGOs in Ethiopia, seeking to deliver aid to Tigray.

The response to the conflict from the UN so far has been insufficiently resourced, and there is an urgent need for additional capacity. In this context, it is also concerning that the Government of Ethiopia appear to be withdrawing from the international community, with reports that as many as half—about 30—of their international embassies are to close.

I hope that the Minister will set out today what the UK Government are doing to secure a stronger response from the UN and ensure that the attention of the international community is focused on Tigray. What are the Government doing to increase the mobilisation of UK-funded aid to support UK nationals delivering humanitarian assistance? What are the Government doing to secure a peace process to prevent this conflict from escalating further, across Ethiopia and the horn of Africa? Will the UK Government prioritise trauma support and healthcare services for women and girls who are survivors of rape and sexual violence, as a first-order priority of their humanitarian response? And will the Minister finally recognise the catastrophic implications of cutting international aid at this time?

The conflict in Ethiopia risks a humanitarian catastrophe potentially as serious as the famine of the 1980s, and there are other, equally pressing priorities across the world, including the 18 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. In the current context of cuts, each time the Minister stands up and says that the Government are committing additional resources to a humanitarian emergency, it prompts the question: at the expense of which other humanitarian priority is that additional aid being delivered? This simply cannot be justified in the face of such unfolding horror.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to be back in Westminster Hall—I almost got lost this morning. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for calling for this important and timely debate and for her opening remarks highlighting the need to ensure that the issue stays on the agenda. With the 24-hour news cycle, it is so easy for major issues, issues of this scale, to be pushed down. With constant refreshing and updating, one could almost forget what is going on, so it is important for us in this Parliament to keep this issue on the Government’s agenda and to look at what clear action and response our Government will be leading to help the situation.

The situation is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis—the war that erupted last year and the horrific human rights abuse. Just this week, there have been reports of thousands of men, women and children being forced into concentration camps and of door-to-door ethnic purging of the Tigrayan people. The International Development Committee highlighted the gendered nature of human rights abuses in Tigray, with sexual violence a key feature of such abuse. Last month, a report by Amnesty International revealed that forces aligned to the Ethiopian Government had subjected women and girls to sexual violence, rape and sexual slavery. If we are committed to ending sexual violence against women in this country, we have to be equally committed to helping women and girls in other countries.

For women with family in the region, such as my constituent who contacted me in March, the war has made contacting their loved ones even more difficult. They are worried—petrified—for their loved ones. Tragically, the isolation has made it so much harder for humanitarian aid to get through to the people who need it the most. Food has run out in many regions of Tigray. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) highlighted, more than 150 people died of starvation last month alone—that should shame us as a country. There can be no mistake about the level of human suffering being a direct result of the conflict, which shows no sign of a peaceful resolution any time soon.

Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I too ask the Minister what additional support the Government will be offering to address this serious issue and to help bring an end to the conflict. Will the Government use their relationship with the Ethiopian authorities to ensure that Ethiopia’s Government protects the affected communities and brings an end to human rights abuses and the gender-based violence?

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to be back under your chairship, Mr Davies, and to be back in the real Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important and timely debate. I agree with many Members that the eyes of the world are not on Tigray as they should be, so this is an important time to put on the record what is happening there right now and to hear from the Minister about our response.

I share the distress and sadness displayed by so many colleagues this morning about what we are still witnessing in Tigray. It is a truly heartbreaking situation. At the time of Live Aid, we were so proud that as a country we stood up together to support the people of Ethiopia in their time of crisis. We want to do the same again. We want to know what is happening in that region. We feel a great bond, as well as having constituents—as I do—who have family members in the region.

The UN Secretary-General has said that

“a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes”.

The Foreign Secretary took his eye off Afghanistan, but I hope to hear from the Minister that that is not the case with Tigray. I was heartened that the Foreign Secretary mentioned Tigray in briefings held during the recess, so I am glad of this opportunity for a Minister to lay out what is happening in the British Government. I also have some questions.

On 4 November 2020, armed conflict broke out in northern Ethiopia between the regional and federal Governments in the country’s Tigray region. That conflict has since spilled over into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. Reports indicate that clashes continue in northern Ethiopia, involving Ethiopian, Amharan and Tigrayan forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in Afar and Amhara, and more than 2.2 million people are now thought to be displaced in Tigray, many to neighbouring countries, as has been mentioned in the debate, including Sudan. It is estimated that more than 6 million people across those areas are affected by the crisis and in need of assistance. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is staggering.

More than 5 million people in Tigray require immediate humanitarian assistance. At least 54 organisations are providing aid and services. I join with other Members in paying tribute to the brave humanitarian workers on the ground right now. However, there are significant gaps in assistance, which disproportionately affect Ethiopian women and girls, who have virtually no access to livelihoods and often live in insecure environments. The harvests are failing right now, and the harvests of November and December are likely to fail as well—there has been no ability to plant—so the crisis is getting worse. Verification on the ground is needed.

For months, Ethiopian troops, aided by Eritrean soldiers, have tortured, sexually assaulted, killed and displaced Tigrayan civilians. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front has also perpetrated human rights abuses and has looted a United States Agency for International Development warehouse. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian affairs reported on 19 August that, while access in large areas inside Tigray is now feasible and secure, other areas remain inaccessible. The extended delays in the clearance of humanitarian supplies, with lorries going in but not coming out again to replenish their stocks, is a major issue right now. OCHA says that it is 50% short of the funding needed to respond now.

When did the Foreign Secretary last speak to the Ethiopian Government to make these points? Has the Prime Minister spoken to his Ethiopian counterpart? What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure the protection of civilians, including women and girls, from sexual and gender-based violence in particular? Will the Minister ensure that aid is prioritised for this crisis and do everything in his power to press the Ethiopian Government for an increase in funding, the cessation of fighting and unfettered humanitarian access? The road through the Amhara region is now closed. What is happening with that? What about the resumption of essential services—water and sanitation, power, banking and communications? We need to challenge the Ethiopian Government on the rhetoric being used against the humanitarian community, which is endangering aid works in the region—many of them British. The targeting and arresting of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa must cease. The eyes of the world must be on Tigray and urgent action must be taken.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Last but not least from the Back Benches, the indefatigable Jim Shannon.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to be back in the real Westminster Hall, as the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, and to be part of this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for setting the scene. We have all said it and we all mean it: she is a champion on these issues and speaks out. Whenever I see her name down for a debate I am attracted to speak on that matter, because I share her concerns and those expressed by everyone today.

It seems that all eyes are on Afghanistan. That is understandable and, perhaps, as it should be. However, this debate reminds us that there are people in need of help and support throughout the world, and the war in Tigray is one such place. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to the historical connections and relationships that the UK has with Ethiopia. We should be able to use those and use our influence. I hope the Minister can tell us what can be done.

I declare an interest as a chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. Since the war in Tigray began last November, over 52,000 people have died and an estimated 1.7 million have been displaced. A report on persecution.org states:

“On March 10, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the US Congress about the ‘ethnic cleansing’ occurring in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. In early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which he accused of attacking a federal army base. Despite official denial, the Eritrean military, as well as forces from an adjoining region, Amhara, have been participating in the offensive and committing war crimes.”

Those crimes have been illustrated by other Members and I do not intend to repeat them. They are horrific to listen to and cause me great grief when I hear them.

The report continues:

“According to witness reports, egregious human rights abuses, such as rapes and mass killings, are being perpetrated by the various actors involved in the conflict… As so often the case, Christians are often caught in the crossfire as ethnic and political conflict accelerates. This year Ethiopia rose from 39th to 36th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries with the most persecution. This change was due an increase of violence against Christians. In addition, Christians were discriminated against in the distribution of government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

International Christian Concern reported in September 2020 that 500 Christians had been killed since June 2020. In late November 2020, approximately 800 people were killed near the St Mary of Zion church in the northern Tigray region.

The situation is dire for Christians, people of all faith and those of none. The fact is, no one is really safe in the Tigray region. The debate highlights the need for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to offer more help to address the reality of living life in war-torn Tigray. Children are living in fear, with no educational or vocational prospects, with insufficient food, and family units are decimated. It is so important to have families, yet they are dispersed, attacked and violated.

Less than 10% of the required humanitarian cargo, 2.2% of the necessary operational cash and 28% of fuel has been able to reach Tigray since 12 July. Only 320,000 hectares of farmland were planted out of 1.3 million hectares available, with a maximum of 13% of typical agricultural yields expected, further exacerbating food insecurity. So much needs to be done. I know that we in the UK can always play our part, but we need confirmation from the Minister that that is happening in every way.

Only 25% to 50% of the normal cereal production will be available this year, as the agricultural planting season has been missed in many parts of Tigray because of food stock depletion. Only 131,000 people received food assistance between 19 and 25 August; it was 547,000 in the previous week. An estimated 1.7 million people are facing food insecurity in the Afar and Amhara regions because of the spillover of the Tigray conflict.

I understand that the Minister will outline the steps the Government have taken, and I welcome those steps. However, my question is simple: can we do more? The answer from everyone here is, “Yes, we can.” Can we offer more support? Can we uplift aid? Can we use local churches and NGOs to ensure that the aid gets through to those who need it most? Minister, can those churches and NGOs be used? If possible, either today or in the future, please tell us what can be done. Will we stand by and watch, or will we be able to say that we did what we could?

I conclude with this, Mr Davies. I implore the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Minister to review the scenario and to source additional support to feed these children, help these people to plant the crops and ensure that there is at least some hope of a future for these people. That is what we all ask for today.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Over to Alyn Smith. If you could keep your remarks to about 10 minutes, that would be helpful. Thank you.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
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Thank you, Mr Davies. It has always struck me that nobody ever criticised a speech for being too short, so I always endeavour to keep my remarks brief. It is a genuine pleasure to wind up the debate and to follow so many consensual speeches. I also congratulate the chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for bringing this very important issue up the agenda. We cannot lose sight of the tragedy that is unfolding.

The first casualty of war is truth, and that is certainly the case in Tigray. There has been wrongdoing on all sides, and it is difficult to calculate what is actually happening on the ground. There have been some very strong contributions to this debate. I was particularly struck by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who gave us the context: that the situation in Tigray is a reversal of the progress that had been made. It did not need to be like this. There has been good, constructive aid spent. There has been progress made. What we are now seeing is a tragedy, in which we are genuinely witnessing sexual violence and starvation being used as weapons of war, while the world is watching.

The scale, as we have heard, is quite staggering: 900,000 Tigrayans are starving; 5 million are on the brink of starvation and experiencing chronic food insecurity; an estimated 15,000 cases of rape in the last seven months have been calculated by Amnesty International; and there are 2.2 million displaced persons so far, with many more in grave danger.

This has been a very consensual debate, and I am glad to hear it, because this is not for party political knockabout. However, where we in the SNP do very strongly diverge from the UK Government is in our deep sadness at the walking away from the 0.7% aid commitment. We cannot do more with less. We see that in Tigray; we see it elsewhere. The cut is a reversal of the UK’s good work on international development, as we have heard, and we regret it deeply. Particularly with so many former Department for International Development personnel being based in Scotland, in East Kilbride, we feel that very personally. We would again urge the UK Government to reverse course on those cuts.

I have a number of concrete questions for the Minister. As I said, I always seek to be brief. What discussions and what success have the UK Government had in their talks with the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments about a ceasefire and about achieving humanitarian access? What emergency food aid will the UK commit to, particularly as winter is approaching? So many people are at the really grave risk of starvation, and we could see a globally significant tragedy.

What assessment has the FCDO made of the risk of the instability in Tigray spreading to other regions within Ethiopia, but also to other countries within the wider region? This could be the focal point of a far wider crisis than even now. The UK has authorised £65,000-worth of military exports to Ethiopia since 2018. That is not huge, but it is surely not appropriate. Can the Minister assure us that there will be no further arms exports to the region? That is surely the last thing that the region needs. On accountability, there have been war crimes committed in this conflict. What discussions has the UK been part of—within the UN in particular, I suspect—to ensure the accountability of war criminals in the region? We must hold them to account.

Tigray is going to need support on many things going forward, and where the UK Government make steps towards meaningful contributions, they will continue to have SNP support. This issue is too important for a party political knockabout.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee, for securing this debate and for the work she and her Committee have done on this matter. I also thank everyone else who has contributed today, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and others. I also want to thank all other Members, because what has been clear today is the level of concern; the comments made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have all illustrated the horrific reports we are getting from Tigray and the wider concerns of this House.

As the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said, this is not a party political issue; this is about concern for the people of Ethiopia and Tigray, and about our wider humanitarian and human rights responsibilities. That is why the Labour Front Benchers and I have repeatedly raised this issue with Ministers and had many discussions with the Minister, as well as with the Ethiopian Government and other parties directly.

I commend all those humanitarian and human rights agencies doing remarkable work on the ground and, as has also been mentioned, the journalists reporting in very difficult circumstances, whose reporting is so crucial for us to understand what is going on in situations such as this. Attempts to intimidate and threaten them have been deeply disturbing.

I have been absolutely horrified by the allegations of abuse on all sides: the reports of ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, attacks on women and children, torture and war crimes—some of this stuff is simply horrific. As ever in these situations it is the civilians who suffer. The tragedy is that we are yet to see full human rights investigations and actions on those who have perpetrated these crimes, we have yet to see full humanitarian access and we have yet to see a sense of humanity break through the fog and the horrors of this war.

I share the concerns expressed by many Members about this becoming a forgotten crisis—we have all been deeply concerned about what is going on in Afghanistan, but we must recognise that crises and tragedies are happening in so many other places, whether that is in Yemen, across the Sahel, in Ethiopia or the disturbing events we have seen in Guinea in recent days. We as a House and, I hope, the Government are keeping a full awareness of all these situations and taking action wherever appropriate.

I want to touch on some of the comments that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood spoke very powerfully in the Adjournment debate earlier this year about the sexual violence we have seen, which I will come on to later. The shocking figure that an estimated 10,000 rapes had happened is simply horrific. All sides have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Secretary-General described the situation in Tigray as “hellish”, and that very much bears out what we have heard today. Thousands have already died; 4.4 million people are now in phase 3 or above of the integrated food insecurity phase classification, with 1.7 million facing food insecurity in the Afar and Amhara regions as well, and 400,000 people in famine-like conditions. We all remember that tragedy of the early 1980s and the consequences of human-made conflict for civilians, which led to absolutely devastating famine.

It is very important that we focus on the experiences of ordinary people living in Tigray, especially women and girls who are facing the consequences of this conflict. The Amnesty International report on sexual violence was particularly damning about the sadistic brutality being inflicted on women by people on all sides of this conflict, with rape and sexual violence used systematically to torture and dehumanise women and, in some cases, children; women being kept as sex slaves; women being subjected to genital mutilation—an act that is, horrifically, often conducted in front of family members to impose further psychological damage. Of course, women and girls are at risk even if they survive these attacks, because only 53% of health facilities have clinical capacity for management of rape and sexual violence, and only one in 10 health facilities overall are functioning, many of which are controlled by—or at least access to them is controlled by—those who have been committing crimes.

In the Amnesty International report, the father of a 10-year-old child who was raped in November 2020—I will not go into the details as they are simply too horrific to read out—said

“he was not able to get his daughter—who suffered terrible physical and psychological damage—to the hospital for four and a half months”.

He said he wanted to take her to the hospital in one location, but the armed forces who committed the abuses were administering it, so he had to seek support at another location, where she did in the end receive medical help, but only after months of trauma. That is utterly horrific. Women often have no way of receiving help for the consequences of these actions.

The area is also experiencing wider famine conditions, because of the impact of locusts, climate change, covid and other diseases. The pressures of this current conflict come on top of all those other issues, because this was already an area with significant challenges. In terms of the wider humanitarian situation, 5.2 million out of 6 million people living in Tigray are now in need of humanitarian assistance and 13.6 million people are estimated to be food insecure across Ethiopia as a result of the conflict, as well as the wider circumstances. According to OCHA,

“only 25% to 50% of the normal cereal production will be available this year”.

I will ask some questions about the situation facing people who have been internally displaced and refugees. There are now 2 million internally displaced people according to USAID, with nearly 50,000 refugees arriving in South Sudan since November 2021. There is a spill-over of internally displaced people into the Afar and Amhara regions as well. We have heard from many Members today about the challenges of getting humanitarian assistance into the region. One of the reports from OCHA said that only 10% of the 3,500 cargo trucks carrying lifesaving materials had been able to enter the region. The USAID chief, Samantha Power, was very clear when she said:

“This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the…Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access”.

I am interested in the UK Government’s comments on her remarks.

There are reports that EDF soldiers forcibly entered World Food Programme and UNICEF offices and destroyed communications equipment belonging to those two agencies. What does the Minister have to say about those recent events, and who does he view as responsible for them?

I mentioned the refugee situation, and I am particularly concerned for the 24,000 Eritrean refugees. Because of the previous conflict, there are many refugees in the region already. The Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in the north-western zone have been cut off from assistance and apparently have not been reached since mid-July. It has been reported that both those camps have run out of food and the refugees are facing violence and intimidation by armed groups. What assessment has been made of the situation of refugees and IDPs, the numbers, the needs and the attacks? There were disturbing reports of people being forcibly relocated from refugee camps earlier in this crisis. What has happened to them? What assessment has been made? What has been the involvement of Eritrean or other irregular forces in attacks in that region?

In the last couple of days we have seen some pretty horrendous information from the UN about the Semera-Abala corridor, which has been inaccessible since 22 August, and that 200,000 litres of fuel are required for the humanitarian response, which is not available. Cash, needed to pay for services locally, has not come in the levels needed to provide those services. UNICEF reported that 100,000 people face severe or acute malnutrition this year.

The acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Tigray, Grant Leaity, said

“all parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to avert this…catastrophe.”

He is very stark in what he says about risks of famine and significant levels of mortality. We heard from colleagues about reports of 150 people allegedly having died directly of starvation. That report is from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and cannot be independently verified, but it tallies with the figures we have heard from the UN and other agencies, which have spoken of 400,000 people already living in famine-like conditions.

I will end by asking the Minister some specific questions. Yesterday, the WFP announced that it faces a funding gap of $426 million for its operations across Ethiopia, to meet the needs of 12 million people in 2021. The US increased its funding to the WFP by $149 million in June. I wonder what the UK will do specifically to support agencies such as the WFP. We have also heard about women’s programmes that have been cut.

We have been clear that the decision to cut the aid commitment from 0.7% to 0.5% was completely wrong, and that is exemplified in situations such as this. I know that the Minister does not want to answer this question directly, but I will ask him again: is our total support to Ethiopia going up or down this year? He has spoken about giving £42.7 million, plus £5 million for refugees in Sudan—obviously that is welcome, with the focus on Tigray—but if the total support for Ethiopia is going down, that money is being diverted from other needs. There are many needs elsewhere in Ethiopia, so that is deeply concerning. I worry that we will find ourselves in a situation similar to Afghanistan, where cuts simply have to be reversed. We need to be putting resource in because the needs are so great.

I have mentioned access issues. Have the Government raised the road access issues for fuel and food trucks in recent days? There seem to have been particular problems in the last few weeks. The Security Council report mentioned that Turkey and Sudan have been attempting to act as mediators, and other regional powers have also been attempting to act as mediators in the conflict. What is the Minister’s assessment of those regional and international efforts? Is the UK offering any particular diplomatic and good-offices support to attempt to reach a peaceful settlement between the parties?

I understand that the Foreign Secretary spoke to Prime Minister Abiy in early August. Has there been further contact with Prime Minister Abiy, Ethiopian Ministers and other parties to the conflict since that time? I welcome that the Foreign Secretary did that, and I am sure that the Minister himself has been in contact with people, but it would be useful to understand who and when. Have we identified anybody for Magnitsky-style sanctions yet? The US Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces for alleged crimes in Ethiopia. Have we issued any sanctions? I know that the Minister will not speak about potential sanctions, but have we issued any? What role have we been playing at the Human Rights Council? What discussions have we had with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

We have a huge responsibility. We have a particular relationship, friendship and history with Ethiopia through our aid programme, and the world has a responsibility to protect civilians in such crises. This House and the British public have a keen interest in the situation in Ethiopia; we all want to see a prosperous, secure and inclusive Ethiopia, but sadly that seems very far from the present situation.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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The Minister has about 15 minutes if he allows two minutes for the Chair of the International Development Committee to respond. With luck, there might even be time for a couple of interventions. Over to you, Minister.

James Duddridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (James Duddridge)
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Fantastic. Thank you, Mr Davies, for providing plenty of time. I know that there is lots of interest in this issue across the House, and it is quite right that we review it. This is a great opportunity both to update the House on what is happening and to answer questions directly, and I am more than happy to take interventions throughout.

The horrific conflict in northern Ethiopia has now entered its 11th month. To make matters worse—to reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others—I am concerned about it spreading not only within the region but across the rest of Ethiopia. I will go into more detail on contacts and activity, which are very much at the forefront of what is happening in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—I was in a meeting with the Foreign Secretary last week reviewing all this. As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Prime Minister Abiy last month, and not a day goes by when I do not engage in this issue, either directly or through other intermediaries, whether they be other countries, regional players or organisations. This is not just a concern for the United Kingdom; it is a concern across the continent and for international bodies.

May I address the issue of money? I know that there is a debate about the 0.5% and 0.7% commitments, but the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth nailed it when he referred to Samantha Power. The real issue is not money and resource in Ethiopia; it is getting access. I will go through some of the detail and the numbers on that access. The next stage will be moving from conflict to mediation, when I am sure there will be resourcing issues, and the points being made now will perhaps be more relevant. I will not focus on the broader debate; hopefully hon. Members will recognise that there is a more immediate problem of access.

Let me get into some of the detail and update the House on what has been happening. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front continues military action, which is going beyond Tigray into the Amhara and Afar regions. That is extending the remit and the nature of the suffering. We have consistently called on all sides to stop the fighting. It is horrific to have to listen to the stories of what is happening, but it is clear that rape, sexual violence and famine are being used as weapons of war. Reference was made to chemical weapons. It is difficult to establish definitively what is being used, but it is clear that civilian populations are being targeted, which in itself is against international humanitarian law. If someone’s child, mother or family dies, how they die may be technically relevant, but their being targeted is the offensive thing that we need to stop happening.

Humanitarian agencies are realistically facing what I would describe as a de facto blockade of aid into Tigray. To avert further humanitarian catastrophe beyond the atrocities we have already seen, we call on the Ethiopian Government to allow unfettered access and start restoring essential services. I will go into a bit more detail in a second.

Eritrean forces are, alas, once again in Ethiopian sovereign territory in significant numbers. They must withdraw, and their failure to do so will lead to a further escalation in this conflict, which simply is not needed. The position that both parties are taking is not helpful. I have been asked about mediation. There have been a number of mediation attempts, and there is a lot of discussion. I will not go into the detail of some of that mediation, but it is fair to say that it is not currently working, so different things need to be tried in different ways.

Since November, more than 2 million people have been displaced across Tigray, and 450,000 have been displaced just in Afar and Amhara in the more recent conflicts. Basically, everything has broken down. Ninety per cent. of hospitals and health centres are not working. There are no banking facilities and no electricity. Communications are down, which makes it very difficult to verify some of the stories. If things open up, which we encourage, no doubt we will find out more and it will feel worse.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi
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On communications, I highlighted that I have constituents who are very worried about their families. If the Minister is saying that communication has broken down, is there anything more the Government can do to help Members who are trying to get that crucial information for their constituents?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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There are things at the periphery that can be done, but the heart is about building that access in the fullest sense of the word. Early in the conflict, we were even finding evidence of satellite phones from aid organisations being taken and used for other purposes, further breaking down communication. There are some parties that do not want open access to communications—they want to finish the conflict, as they see it—on both sides.

On supplies getting through, there is a need for more than 100 trucks every single day to get in. That is a massive logistical effort, even if everybody were behind it. Since 12 July, only about 10% of the required aid has been able to get through, so UN warehouses in Tigray are not being restocked: they are empty. Most people are not eating, effectively, or are not eating enough. There is no private sector provision, so even if one has money there is nothing to buy. Displaced individuals are relying on host communities who are already suffering. The lack of goods means that prices have gone up fivefold, and community resilience is eroding to the point of tipping over to an even more serious and systemic problem.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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The director of Oxfam in Ethiopia yesterday raised the fact that because the internet is down—deliberately—it was almost impossible to get money transfers, which deeply hampers its process. May I echo his plea for the Minister to try to get at least a window of the internet up so that money transfers can occur?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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I will investigate the specific issue of internationals working together to make sure that money comes through. I am in touch with Ethiopian Ministers, including the Finance Minister, and I will raise that issue with him. That is a slightly separate problem from the one that we are discussing.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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In my contribution, I referred to churches and NGOs who are active in the Tigray region. If we have such groups operating there, is it not possible to co-ordinate our relief efforts alongside those people and groups to ensure that when it comes to getting to the people who need it, they can work in partnership? That is just a thought. It is important to use all the avenues that we can.

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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It is a good thought. It is something that we are doing and will do. I will certainly discuss with our envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), how to make it as effective as possible. The networks are really useful to validate informally before we see what is happening on the ground.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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On the point about communications, the Minister is aware that our own CDC and also Vodafone have invested substantial amounts in the new Ethiopia telecommunications partnership. Opening up telecommunications to people in Ethiopia is obviously a good thing for all the people, but, given the issues with money transfers, internet access and telecommunications being cut off, is there not an incongruity here? What will we do through those investments to ensure that we get telecommunications open in Tigray properly?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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Various Members have talked about the size of the population of 120 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the able chair of the all-party group, has talked about a nation of optimism. This is one of the gems at the heart of our east African strategy. It would be a bastion of stability if we could build out and not have to resolve problems. Telecommunications is an essential good. It allows people to trade and allows cash transfers, so the investment is right. It is a long-term investment that we have talked about for years and will be deliverable going forward. It does seem incongruous to talk of Ethiopia as a place of optimism and investment, but we simply have to get back to that place when we get beyond this because that is where development happens.

There are echoes of the ’80s and Live Aid—we did a brilliant job, and Ethiopia has done a brilliant job in bringing itself up. When there has been a natural crisis, it has needed help, but it has also been able to help itself. We need to reset and get back to that position, but we are so far from that point at the moment.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The Minister is right about the massive British taxpayer investment and the huge results that have been achieved. Will he follow my earlier comments and give Members an undertaking that he will look personally at the funding for the World Food Programme, which is absolutely at the critical edge of the humanitarian crisis? Will he look at its funding this year to see what more can be done to meet the need?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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I will. I am already in communication with David Beasley and have discussed food provision in Ethiopia with him. He is an influential figure in the region. Today, my initial issue is getting access: it is not getting food. Until we sort that, no amount of money or WFP extra resource will do it, but there will be a point at which we need to do that and we need to be ready, so I pledge to have another discussion with David Beasley to take the issues forward.

I am concerned to hear reports of press, NGOs, civil society and churches being targeted. We will confirm whether that is happening. If people are being arrested based on their ethnicity, clearly there needs to be stringent following of international human rights rules. I want to reassure hon. Members that we are fully engaged at all levels—locally with those groups and at the United Nations through Lord Ahmad.

Nick Dyer has also been to Ethiopia twice since November with the envoy on famine prevention, and has had access to Tigray. British embassy staff have visited on multiple occasions. I spoke yesterday with our chargé and new development director to get updates. That is a very normal thing, although I would have done that in preparation for this debate—as I say, not a day goes by that I am not doing something on this. That is not to say we are doing enough, but it gives hon. Members an idea.

It is good that President Obasanjo was appointed on 26 August to look at issues in the horn. That is another way of pushing mediation of various descriptions. We are doing a lot through the G7, through discussions with all counterparties. Notwithstanding the fact that money and food are not the immediate issue, we are still the second largest donor to Ethiopia.

On sexual violence, there is some good news. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who is no longer in his place, led a debate on that following his intervention on the Select Committee. We are now deploying two individuals based on the scoping mission into Mekelle.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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Will the Minister give way?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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Very briefly.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair)
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Please leave enough time at the end.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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I have a very short question. The Minister referred to high-level conversations; has the Prime Minister spoken to Prime Minister Abiy?

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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I do not know, so I do not want to say yes or no and mislead. This is very much on his desk, but I do not have a kind of tick-tock of his interactions. The situation is dire and horrific, but there is a nation and a positive relationship we can get back to. We have a long-standing and deep friendship with the people of Ethiopia. Our development partnership has made a major contribution to lifting people out of poverty and to political and economic reform, and had increased prosperity in that country. I talk today about the horrific incidents with great sadness, but we should aim to get back to where we were, progress with that nation and put it back on a more positive path.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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I thank every Member who has spoken, for both the tone and the content. I thank the Minister, who I know is deeply committed to this area. The problem is that this is not going to go away. It is important for us all to keep it on the agenda of the Minister and of the international community. The risks we have highlighted are dire. I cannot see an easy way for them to be resolved without international intervention, to get all the parties round the table and discuss a long-term solution. The threats to the broader region are profound.

I would like to raise one thing with the Minister that came up in the debate: atrocity prevention. It was the one thing in the Committee’s report that the Government pushed back on. I would like to request a meeting with the Minister to discuss that.

James Duddridge Portrait James Duddridge
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I agree. I note the work that has been done on that, but there is still more to be done, and a more nuanced solution. I will arrange a meeting with officials to work out a better way forward following the Committee’s report.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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Thank you.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Tigray.