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Ethiopia (Tigray): Council Members to Discuss the Humanitarian Situation

Tomorrow (3 February) Council members are expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia under “any other business”, a standing item in closed consultations. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock is expected to brief. The meeting, which will be held via videoconference, was initiated at the request of Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US.

This will be the third time that Council members have discussed Ethiopia since the crisis erupted in the Tigray region on 4 November 2020. All of the meetings have been held under “any other business”. Council members previously discussed the conflict under “any other business” on 24 November and on 14 December 2020. During the 24 November 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. The 14 December meeting focused on the humanitarian situation and featured a briefing by Wafaa Saeed, OCHA’s Deputy Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, who called on the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.

While Council members have met on Tigray, they have yet to take concrete action in the form of a Council product that conveys clear messages or makes requests of the parties. To date, some members have been reluctant for the Council to pursue an outcome on this issue, which is not currently on the formal agenda. At time of writing, it did not appear that a product would be adopted tomorrow.

In tomorrow’s meeting, Lowcock may emphasise the importance of permitting unfettered and safe humanitarian access to the region, protecting civilians, and restoring basic services to those in need. He may refer to shortages of food, medicine, and clean water in the conflict-affected areas, and highlight the dire humanitarian conditions facing those displaced by the fighting. There may also be discussion about the challenges confronting Eritrean refugees in Tigray. On 1 February, at the conclusion of his recent trip to Ethiopia, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said that he met refugees who “spoke of infiltration of armed actors in the camps, of killings, abductions and also some forced return to Eritrea at the hands of Eritrean forces present in the areas”. Reports of sexual violence in the Tigray conflict may also be raised in the discussion; in this regard, in a 21 January statement, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten said she was “greatly concerned by serious allegations of sexual violence in…Tigray…including a high number of alleged rapes in the capital, Mekelle”. She also referred to “disturbing reports of individuals allegedly forced to rape members of their own family, under threats of imminent violence” and reports of women being “forced by military elements to have sex in exchange for basic commodities”.

Council members are likely to want an update on the implementation of the December agreement between the UN and Ethiopia permitting humanitarian workers to work in areas in Tigray under government control. Some members may express concern about impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid. In this respect, there may be interest in possible ways to improve clearance procedures allowing UN actors and non-governmental organisations to conduct their operations in such areas. During his visit, Grandi discussed this issue with senior Ethiopian officials, stating that it is important “to have an access management system, a clearance management system, that is fast, that is efficient and as close to the field operations as possible”. Members might also be interested in how humanitarian workers can best be protected in the conflict, and they may want OCHA’s analysis of areas where humanitarian access may be difficult because of legitimate security concerns.

All Council members have been concerned about the conflict in Tigray and recognise the importance of humanitarian access to the region. In spite of this widespread concern, there is not a unified position in the Council on the most appropriate way to respond. African members have tended to emphasise the importance of regional engagement in finding a solution to the crisis. While the AU has engaged with the Ethiopian government, one challenge has been that the government views the conflict as an internal law enforcement operation rather than a civil war, rejecting calls for mediation.

“Any other business”—the format of tomorrow’s meeting (and the 24 November and 14 December meetings) 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. These are not considered formal meetings of the Security Council, however.

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