What's In Blue

Posted Fri 2 Jul 2021

Ethiopia (Tigray): Open Briefing

Today (2 July) in the afternoon, the Security Council will convene in person for an open briefing on the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Ireland, the UK and the US requested the meeting, which will be the first open Council session on Tigray since the crisis erupted in November 2020. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo and Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham will brief. A representative of the Ethiopian government is also expected to participate.

Since December 2020, Council members have met six times to discuss the situation in Tigray—the first five meetings were held under “any other business”, and the most recent one was held on 14 June as an informal interactive dialogue in which Ethiopia participated. They also issued a press statement on the situation on 22 April. Today’s session comes following a push by several Council members, including Ireland, the UK and the US, to have an open formal meeting of the Council on Tigray. However, the “A3 plus one” (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), China and Russia have not been supportive of this initiative, arguing that an open session is not the appropriate format to discuss the issue. Instead, these members seem to maintain that Ethiopia should be allowed some space to address the situation internally.

Today’s meeting follows several key recent developments regarding the situation in the region. On 22 June, an airstrike on a market in Togoga, close to the Tigrayan regional capital Mekelle, killed over 60 people and wounded approximately 180. The airstrike came amidst fierce fighting in the region and during a politically sensitive period, as the country had held legislative, regional and municipal elections the prior day (21 June). Several regions, including Tigray, did not participate in the vote because of either ongoing conflict or logistical challenges. The postponement of the election day—which was originally scheduled for 29 August 2020 and delayed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic—was one of the causes for the outbreak of violence in the Tigray region last year, when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main political party in the region, held its own regional election in September 2020.

On 28 June, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) retook Mekelle. On the same day, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire to address the humanitarian needs in the region. The TDF reportedly also took the cities of Adigrat, Adwa, Axum, and Shire. Despite the announcement of the ceasefire, fighting reportedly continues in some areas of the region and electricity, telecom, internet and banking services have been disrupted across Tigray. According to the International Rescue Committee, the Tekeze bridge–one of the main supply routes into the Tigray region—has been destroyed, further complicating ongoing relief efforts.

Council members are likely to welcome the announcement of the ceasefire as a positive development at today’s meeting. It appears that the members who requested the meeting saw this development as a window of opportunity to hold an open session of the Council on the issue. These members seem to feel that the Council needs to publicly call for an end to the violence, a sustained and negotiated ceasefire and for an inclusive dialogue to address the situation. Other Council members, including China and Russia, however, appear to be of the view that following the ceasefire declaration, Ethiopia should be given space to build upon and solidify this new development and address the situation internally.

The humanitarian situation in the region is likely to be another key focus of today’s meeting. Speakers may emphasise the need to allow the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance and express concern about recent incidents which affected the work of aid organisations. On 25 June, three staff members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were killed in Tigray by unknown assailants. On 28 June, members of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) entered the UNICEF office in Mekelle and dismantled its satellite equipment. OCHA reported that as at 22 June, some 5.2 million people in the Tigray region need humanitarian aid, with food assistance being the largest component of the relief efforts. It further noted that access for the delivery of humanitarian aid remains a serious challenge. In addition, approximately 1.7 million persons are internally displaced, and 60,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring Sudan, according to UNHCR figures.

The deliberations surrounding the convening of today’s meeting reflect the continued divisions among Council members over Council engagement on Tigray. As the humanitarian situation deteriorated, several members, such as the US, have become more vocal about the unfolding humanitarian crisis and worsening human rights situation. The “A3 plus one” have been reluctant to have the Council address the situation publicly, but over the last few months appear to have agreed to hold closed meetings. Some members, including China and Russia, have consistently argued that the matter should not be discussed by the Council. In a 30 June press conference, when asked about a possible open meeting on Tigray, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia (Russia) responded that it remained to be seen whether the situation constitutes a threat to international peace and security or should be treated as a domestic affair. In a 29 June press briefing, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry noted that the Chinese government welcomed the ceasefire, adding that “we believe that Ethiopia has the wisdom and capability to properly handle its internal affairs”.

These divisions also led to a disagreement over the agenda item under which the meeting would take place. It appears that initially, Ireland, the UK and the US wanted for the upcoming meeting to be held under the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict” agenda, as they wanted to keep the focus on the humanitarian situation. However, it seems that following pushback from the “A3 plus one”, it was agreed that the discussion would take place under the “Peace and Security in Africa” agenda item. These members apparently preferred not to have the discussion under the wider protection of civilians umbrella. There had been concerns that if there was strong pushback against holding the meeting, a procedural vote could be called for by members who disagreed with the agenda item. (Procedural votes require nine members in favour to be adopted and cannot be vetoed by a permanent member.) However, it appears that members now believe that this is less likely to happen.