Ethiopia (Tigray): Informal Interactive Dialogue on the Humanitarian Situation
Tomorrow (15 June), Security Council members will hold an in-person informal interactive dialogue (IID) on the humanitarian situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Ireland requested the meeting. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock and WFP Executive Director David Beasley have been invited to brief. Representatives of the Ethiopian Government may also participate.
Council dynamics on Tigray have been difficult, and the format of meetings on the issue has been a topic of discussion and division among Council members. Thus far, five Council meetings were held on Ethiopia under “any other business” (AOB), a standing agenda item in closed consultations. The AOB format is often used when an issue is not on the Council’s agenda or when members want to have a more discreet discussion of an item already on the agenda.
In recent weeks, several Council members have expressed the wish to raise awareness of the situation in Tigray by discussing it in a formal public meeting. It appears that initially several members wanted to link the briefing to resolution 2417 of 24 May 2018 on conflict-induced food insecurity to address the reported rising level of food insecurity in Tigray. In resolution 2417, the Council requests the Secretary-General to “report swiftly to the Council when the risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity in armed conflict contexts occurs” and expresses its intention to “give its full attention to such information provided by the Secretary-General when those situations are brought to its attention”. Since the resolution’s adoption, OCHA has alerted the Council to risks of famine in conflict situations through several white papers, including in a September 2020 white paper on the situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen, which led the Council to meet on the issue on 17 September 2020.
On 25 May, OCHA provided Council members with a white paper referencing resolution 2417, which contained updates on food security risks in Tigray. The white paper, which was not made public, apparently estimates that 20 percent of the population in the Tigray region is in a state of emergency food insecurity and establishes a link between the levels of food insecurity and the ongoing hostilities. It notes that Ethiopian authorities estimate that over 90 percent of the harvest for 2020 was lost due to looting, burning or other forms of conflict-related destruction, while some 80 percent of livestock was looted or slaughtered. The paper also lists other drivers of food shortage in the area, such as recent below-average rainfalls, locust infestation, and the adverse economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The white paper apparently also notes that although cooperation with Ethiopia regarding humanitarian access has improved following the shift from an approval to a notification system for humanitarian assistance in March, humanitarian operations continue to face attacks, obstruction, seizure of cargo and delays. Military movements, fighting and non-cooperation of armed elements have also been impeding aid delivery. It seems that the white paper contains several recommendations for member states on possible steps to address the situation, including pressuring parties to the conflict to end violence, pursue a political solution and respect international law. It further suggests that the international community scale up funding and support for humanitarian assistance.
This account is echoed in regular updates by OCHA on the humanitarian situation in the region. An OCHA update from 3 June reported acts of violence against civilians, including incidents of arbitrary arrests, beatings and other forms of ill-treatment and conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated against the Tigray population. It stated that critical civilian infrastructure requires rehabilitation or repair, as many schools and hospitals have been looted, destroyed, or used as shelters or barracks for soldiers. UN officials further report that Eritrean troops remain in Ethiopia, despite the Ethiopian government’s announcement of their withdrawal in April. In a 10 June interview with Reuters, Lowcock reportedly maintained that Eritrean troops are blocking food supplies to more than one million people in areas outside of government control.
While some Council members sought to have an open session on the Tigray region and to connect it to resolution 2417, other members, including the “A3 plus one” (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), China and Russia apparently prefer less Council involvement on the issue. These Council members emphasise Ethiopia’s efforts to address the situation, especially following the switch from an approval system to a notification system for humanitarian access and the announcement of the withdrawal of Eritrean troops.
It seems that the option of holding a private meeting was also considered. While this would have been a closed meeting, as a formal meeting of the Council it would have placed the issue of Tigray on the Council’s formal agenda, and some members were not comfortable with this option. The “A3 plus one” apparently preferred an informal closed format. It seems that among the suggested options, an IID, which is an informal, closed setting that allows for frank discussion among Council members and the country concerned, was the most acceptable option to the “A3 plus one”, prompting Ireland to eventually call for an IID on 9 June.
One possible option for members who wanted to hold either an open or closed formal meeting would have been to request a meeting on the humanitarian situation in Tigray and to call for a procedural vote if there was opposition to holding the meeting. (Procedural votes require nine members in favour to be adopted and cannot be vetoed by a permanent member.) However, it does not appear that this suggestion was seriously considered.
At tomorrow’s meeting, the European Council members and the US are likely to call for improved humanitarian access and protection of humanitarian workers, the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Eritrean forces in accordance with the Ethiopian government’s April announcement, and investigations into reported violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Other members, including the “A3 plus one”, China and Russia, may stress the need for increased regional cooperation, and might seek further details on the Ethiopian government’s efforts to address the humanitarian situation. China and Russia are likely to emphasise the importance of state sovereignty in the context of humanitarian aid delivery.
The divisions among members over Council engagement on Tigray were also reflected in attempts to agree on a Council product on the situation. After failing to agree on a press statement following the Council’s meeting on 3 March, Council members were able to issue a press statement following the Council’s 15 April meeting. In the press statement, which was issued on 22 April, Council members acknowledged the efforts by the Ethiopian government to provide humanitarian assistance and increased access, called for a scaled-up humanitarian response, expressed deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, and urged full respect for international law. It appears that some members would have preferred stronger language relating to the human rights situation and that a reference to the presence of Eritrean forces was omitted due to opposition from some members.
With the Council divided on how to address the situation in Ethiopia, Council members in favour of strong involvement have explored other options to discuss the situation in Tigray, including outside the UN, to increase pressure on Ethiopia and Eritrea. One example is the US-organised open “US-EU high-level roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray”, which took place on the eve of the G7 Summit on 10 June. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in her statement during the event, deplored the lack of consensus on a public meeting and called for “meaningful action to address the crisis”.