What's In Blue

Posted Sun 13 Dec 2020

Ethiopia (Tigray): Discussion of the humanitarian situation under “any other business”

Tomorrow (14 December) Security Council members are expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia under “any other business”, a standing item in consultations. The meeting was initiated at the request of Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, the US, and the UK. An OCHA representative is expected to brief.

Background

Conflict between the Ethiopian government and the country’s northern Tigray region erupted on 4 November. This followed months of rising tensions between the central government and Tigray. Many analysts have noted the desire of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to strengthen federal control over Ethiopia’s regions, including Tigray, which has chafed at what it views as an assault on its autonomy. Citing concerns about the coronavirus, the federal government postponed Ethiopia’s August general elections; in defiance of this decision, Tigray held its own regional elections in September. In October, Addis Ababa slashed federal support to Tigray, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (the main political party in the region) rejected the central government’s appointment of a new general to Tigray to take charge of Ethiopia’s northern command.

In this difficult context, Prime Minister Abiy launched a military campaign against the region, after accusing the TPLF of attacking an Ethiopian National Defense Forces base and attempting to steal artillery and military equipment in Tigray. Thousands of people have reportedly died as a result of the fighting since early November, and the humanitarian situation has continued to worsen. Over 50,000 refugees have fled from Tigray into Sudan, and thousands more have been internally displaced.

In addition to refugee flows, there has been further evidence of the conflict’s international ramifications.  On 14 November, the TPLF fired rockets on Asmara, Eritrea, accusing Eritrea of helping the Ethiopian military to stage operations on Tigray. The US also recently accused Eritrea of sending its own troops across the border to support the Ethiopian army in its campaign against Tigray, although Eritrea has denied the allegation.

The AU has thus far led political efforts to resolve the fighting. On 20 November, the AU Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, appointed three high-level envoys to help facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict: Joaquim Chissano (former President of Mozambique), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (former President of Liberia), and Kgalema Motlanthe (former President of South Africa).  These efforts have appeared to gain little traction, with Prime Minister Abiy reluctant to accept external mediation and defining the conflict as a law enforcement operation. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed the UN’s support for the AU’s initiative to resolve the crisis, including in 20 November and 7 December statements attributable to his spokesperson.

Earlier today, following a visit to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced that Abiy had agreed to a summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to address the Tigray conflict.  At time of writing, additional details about a potential summit were unclear.

Security Council Engagement

The Security Council has not engaged actively on the crisis. Although members discussed the conflict under “any other business” on 24 November, the Council has yet to take any concrete action. The 24 November meeting had been proposed by the Council’s EU members and the UK, who called for the meeting after the African members of the Council had withdrawn their initial request for a discussion, maintaining that regional engagement needed more time to take effect and that the high-level AU delegation that planned to visit Abiy had yet to arrive in Addis Ababa. (The AU delegation met with Abiy on 27 November; Abiy reportedly pledged to protect civilians but not to stop the military campaign). During the “any other business” session, members emphasised the importance of de-escalating the conflict, expressed concern about the impact of the fighting on civilians, and underscored their support for regional engagement to resolve the conflict.

Tomorrow’s “any other business” session will depart from the session on 24 November in that a briefer is anticipated and the focus is expected to be primarily on the humanitarian implications of the conflict. Although Abiy announced that the fighting had ended on 28 November, the situation has remained volatile. The OCHA briefer may describe shortages in food, water, fuel, and medical supplies in Tigray. He or she may note that the ICRC-Ethiopian Red Cross Society convoy carrying relief supplies and medicines to Mekelle on 11 December was the first international aid delivery to reach Tigray since the start of the conflict, following weeks of restrictions on international humanitarian access. Abiy has declared that the Ethiopian government is spearheading the humanitarian response in Tigray.

A number of issues are likely to be taken up in the meeting. Some Council members may be interested in OCHA’s views on the prospect of future international aid deliveries to the region. In this regard, they may highlight the importance of permitting unfettered and safe humanitarian access to Tigray.  There may be calls for holding accountable those on both sides that have committed human rights violations during the conflict. Concern is also likely to be expressed about the deaths of four aid workers—including three from the Danish Refugee Council and one from the International Rescue Committee—during the fighting.

Some members might inquire about reports of mistreatment of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. This issue gained heightened attention on 11 December, when Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a statement saying that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its humanitarian partners “have had no access to the four Eritrean refugee camps inside Tigray, putting the safety and survival of the refugees at great risk”. He went on to assert that there had been “an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea” and that “[i]f confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law”.

In general, there appear to be divergent views on how actively engaged the Council should be on this issue. While some members would like the Council to play a more active role, others appear concerned that this could be counter-productive and interfere with regional efforts to resolve the conflict.

“Any other business”—the format of the 24 November meeting and tomorrow’s meeting on Tigray—is one way that members have traditionally kept abreast of developments in situations not on the Council’s agenda. “Any other business” is also generally conducive to discreet discussions of more sensitive matters, as there is no public record of “any other business” topics.