Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray: Humanitarian Situation (Westminster Hall Debate)

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind): I beg to move, That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray.

I am delighted to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I am very pleased that Members have come to debate the humanitarian situation facing Sudan, Ethiopia and Tigray. The debate could not be better timed for the news that we have had today and in the last few days. I will open with a few reminders of the size of the humanitarian crisis facing people in that area.

In Sudan at this very moment there are 60,000 Tigrayan refugees, who have crossed the border from the fighting in Tigray, and there are still in Sudan, which is not a wealthy country, 1.1 million refugees from historical conflicts in Darfur and other places. As all Members will know, Sudan suffered a coup recently. Huge protests are going on in Khartoum and other cities, the elected Prime Minister is under house arrest and the military are patrolling the streets and trying to restore the previous regime’s methods. I wish the people of Sudan well in their demands for democracy, and I send a message of support to the demonstration that was held outside Downing Street last Saturday.

Ethiopia can now be described only as a country in a state of war. The Prime Minister has gone on national television to ask people to be mobilised to defend the capital, and the society as a whole, and is busy enlisting large numbers of often very young people—he is complaining that they are ill-trained—into the armed forces in order to continue the conflict. That was preceded by—indeed, it continues—many people from Tigray or other parts of Ethiopia who have made their homes in Addis Ababa being attacked, arrested and persecuted by the authorities. There is a whole popular mood against the people of Tigray, who are seen as separatists within the country of Ethiopia. I say that as somebody who is a friend and an admirer of the amazing history of Ethiopia—the one country in Africa that never became part of the European colonisation system.

In Tigray, 2.1 million people are displaced, 5 million are food-insecure, which is about 80% of the population, and at least 400,000 are literally starving, but because of the conflict, aid trucks, relief trucks and support simply cannot get through. Only 15 minutes ago, before I came to the debate, I was watching Michelle Bachelet of the United Nations. She is a wonderful woman and an old friend of mine; I have known her ever since the dark days of Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, before she became the President of Chile. A report that I have just received states:

“Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said there were ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that ‘all parties to the Tigray conflict have committed violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Some of these may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.’”

She is a very intelligent and normally very cautious person. She does not throw those kinds of allegations out willy-nilly. They are very serious indeed.

Intervention from Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making a powerful opening speech. He is talking about the Tigrayan situation, which I think we would all agree amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. He mentioned starvation and so forth, and I just want to highlight the issues facing young women and girls. There have been reports that many have been subject to rape, gang rape and other forms of sexual mutilation and torture. Does he agree that, while there is a potential breach of international law, our Government must also show some leadership in bringing an end to what is happening?

Jeremy Corbyn continues: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention—I was actually going to come on to that point next—and she is absolutely right. The abuse of women and girls by the forces in Tigray has been abominable and appalling. The crime of rape has been used as an act of war, and multiple rapes, sexual slavery and the abuse of women have been the order of the day. It is utterly disgraceful, and I hope that when the conflict is over, and all conflicts have to be over eventually, there will be the most thorough investigation of every one of those cases. We have seen rape as a weapon of war in so many places—in Congo and many other parts of Africa, as well as in many other wars around the world—and I hope there is the most thorough investigation and that prosecutions will follow as a result.

To return to the account I was quoting, Michelle Bachelet has said:
“The investigation recounts a report of a massacre of ‘more than 100 civilians’ in Axum, Tigray by Eritrean forces”
note: the Eritrean forces—
“on 28 November 2020. The victims were ‘mostly young men’ but one witness told the joint investigation team that others were targeted too. ‘EDF soldiers took a 70-year-old man and his two sons out of their homes. They took them to the nearby water tanker, ordered them to lay on the ground and shot all three of them in the head,’”
and so it goes on about a series of other occasions. Again, note that the Eritrean defence forces have become involved in the conflict as well, which is more than unfortunate in the sense that it indicates the danger that the war is about to spread.

Intervention from Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, I will in a second. I do think that we have to recognise the seriousness of the situation we are in at the present time—that is why Michelle Bachelet has said what she has said—and I want to put that into historical context, once I have given way.

Mr Robertson:  Is the right hon. Gentleman as confused as I am about the reports of the involvement of Eritrean forces? There are very strong reports that they are indeed involved and committing some of the worst atrocities, but at the same time there is also a denial that they are in that country.

Jeremy Corbyn continues: I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. The reports of Eritrean forces being involved are very disturbing because that clearly internationalises the conflict. Verification is obviously difficult when the Ethiopian occupying forces and the conflict itself make it impossible for independent investigators to get there to understand exactly what is going on. One plea I am going to make at the end of my contribution is that international observers be allowed in, so that they can assess what is on.

If I may, I think we should put this in the context of the tragic history of Ethiopia. It has been through all kinds of things, right back to the Italian fascists’ invasion in the 1930s and their removal by British and other forces during the second world war. It has been a party to the cold war, and there has been a massive flow of armaments into Ethiopia from the Soviet Union, the United States, Europe and arms dealers all around the world. It is a country that has seen the most appalling conflict and the most appalling humanitarian disasters, such as the famine of the 1980s.

I pay tribute to the International Development Committee for its report on the humanitarian situation in Tigray. I am delighted that its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), is here, and I hope she is going to speak in this debate. If I may say so, I think the Select Committee puts the history of Ethiopia in summary form very well, and of course the enormous conflict that took place before Eritrea gained its independence and the further conflict that went on during the border dispute.

For goodness’ sake, there has been enough death, wars, conflict and loss of development opportunities without there now being a descent into a massive civil war across Ethiopia. It is always the most vulnerable and the young people who die as a result. The points in the Select Committee report about gender-based violence, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) intervened earlier, are so apt and well put. I hope they become centre stage in any UN human rights investigation into the causes and continuation of this conflict.

The most immediate response to this conflict is the two events of 2019, when the Government of Ethiopia were pursuing a more democratic and participatory course and getting a lot of international support for it. There was then, effectively, the break-up of the Government by a change in the ruling party and by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—removing itself from the Government. The Government in Addis then delayed the election that was to be held in Tigray. The TPLF in Tigray then decided to hold its own election, which it did.

It was claimed that this was illegal under the terms of the Ethiopian constitution and the whole thing descended very rapidly into armed conflict. We then get the deaths, rape and occupation, and huge refugee flows as a result. That is the immediate tragic history that Ethiopia and Tigray have descended into. I hope that in our debate today we can, at least, find out what the British Government think about this and what action they are prepared to take.

The issues we face are four-fold. First, we need to somehow or other get an immediate ceasefire in this conflict so that the food aid, medicine, water and all the other things can get in and so that the thousands who have gone mainly to the Sudan—and some who apparently have also gone to South Sudan, although I am not sure of the numbers—can return home.

Secondly, we need to recognise the consequences for those countries of the massive refugee flows. At the start of my contribution, I gave figures for the numbers of people who are refugees in Sudan—60,000 in Tigray and 1.1 million from Darfur. The media in this country complain about a few hundred refugees coming in across the channel. I am talking about a poor country hosting more than 1 million refugees without the infrastructure or wherewithal to cope with them. That, sadly, is the story of so many poor countries around the world.

Thirdly, who is going to be the interlocutor to bring about a ceasefire? The UN obviously must and should have a role in this. The African Union must and should have a role in this, but it appears that the degree of mistrust, particularly by Tigrayan forces towards the African Union, which is housed in Addis anyway, is one of the problems in bringing about a meaningful ceasefire. I do think there has to be involvement with the African Union, perhaps brought about by the UN itself. It is extremely important that we send that message today.

Fourthly, the arms sales to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigray are not huge on the global scale of things—I am not pretending there are massive arms sales—but nevertheless, in a conflict of this nature, rapid-fire machine guns and all those kind of armaments are the instruments of war. We are not necessarily talking about planes and drones and things, but more about those things. The UK sells quite little to Ethiopia. According to the figures I have from Campaign Against Arms Trade, UK arms exports approved to Ethiopia in the last three years amount to only £58,000, and most of that was related to armoured vehicles. Those questions were put. The three known military export applications are from Safariland Group, Harrington Generators and Boeing. I look forward to the Minister saying that there will be no further exports there. EU arms exports to Ethiopia over the last three years are more considerable, amounting to £36 million. I hope we put pressure on the European Union not to allow those arms sales to continue.

The urgent need, as I said, is for food aid to get through. Hundreds of thousands—nay, millions—are suffering from malnutrition or lack of food. There is a huge lack of medicines all across the country, as well as the war crimes investigations and all the rest going on. The situation is that well-armed and presumably well-fed and watered soldiers are able to kill each other in Tigray. Forces of the TPLF are active in Ethiopia and Ethiopian forces are active in the conflict against them. Arms are available for soldiers to kill civilians in a conflict that has to be resolved by a ceasefire and a coming together, so that people may decide their future in peace. All those soldiers are passing starving people— babies who are dying because of malnutrition; women who have suffered the most abominable abuse by those very same soldiers—and the war carries on with the 379WH Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray: 3 NOVEMBER 2021 380WH Humanitarian Situation Ethiopia, Sudan and Tigray: Humanitarian Situation arms that come from God-knows-where, from all around the world. It is the poorest people who suffer, in the worst possible situation.

I hope that we can send a message: we will give all the necessary aid and support that we can to get through this and, above all, we will take the political initiative and support Michelle Bachelet in her determination to bring about a ceasefire and some hope for the future. I am pleased that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the all-party parliamentary human rights group and the all-party group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity are meeting tomorrow afternoon at 2 o’clock to go through all the issues. I urge Members to attend that meeting, which I understand will be online. It will be helpful for us to be better informed.

My purpose in calling the debate was not necessarily to blame the British Government for the whole situation there, but to thank the International Development Committee for what it has done and to ask our Government to give what aid is necessary and, above all—I repeat this—to use our political clout, whatever we have and wherever we have it, to get a ceasefire, to stop the killing, to stop the refugee flows and to let the people of Tigray, the rest of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan decide their own future in peace. That is the best message that we can give.