Thursday, 24 June 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
93. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the urgent measures he will take on the UN Security Council and at EU level to bring pressure to bear on the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments to allow a ceasefire in Tigray and co-operate with humanitarian organisations on the ground (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34136/21]
Given Ireland's long-standing relationship with Ethiopia and especially the Tigray region, and given there has been a terrible onslaught on civilians in the region since November 2020, what urgent measures is Ireland taking at EU and UN Security Council levels to bring about a long-lasting and sustainable ceasefire and access to the region for humanitarian aid? The region is in the grip of a man-made famine at this point.
I thank the Deputy for his question. I am really glad he asked it. I know there is huge interest in the Israel-Palestine question and that is always going to be a big feature of foreign affairs questions but there are so many other really significant issues and conflicts that Ireland is involved in also, particularly in the context of the UN Security Council, and this is one of them.
I am extremely concerned by the ongoing conflict in Tigray. Notwithstanding commitments made, the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Yesterday we heard deeply disturbing reports of an air strike on civilians in a crowded market, which, if deliberately targeted, would constitute a war crime. An immediate ceasefire is urgently required. In this regard, it is imperative that Eritrean forces leave Tigray immediately. They have committed to doing so and it has not happened.
I am alarmed by credible warnings of famine coming from UN organisations. I am also concerned by ongoing attacks on humanitarian workers. There is an urgent need for full humanitarian access, which is being partially but not fully facilitated. Ireland joined recent international calls for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow for planting and to avert the risk of famine.
Ireland continues to work on the UN Security Council to ensure it addresses the situation in Tigray. Most recently, on 15 June, we called an informal meeting of the UN Security Council that focused on the humanitarian situation. In April, Ireland led the negotiation of a council press statement on the situation in Tigray, which was the first time the UN Security Council spoke publicly on the ongoing crisis. We have also used council thematic discussions on conflict and hunger, and on conflict-related sexual violence, to highlight these aspects of the crisis. It is fair to say our role in bringing the crisis in Tigray to the attention of the council has been widely recognised internationally.
Ireland continues to support a strong and constructive EU response to the crisis. I underlined our real concern in this regard at the foreign affairs committee on 21 June. EU foreign ministers will discuss Ethiopia again in July. I continue to engage with key interlocutors on the situation, including in the region; in the Gulf, where I met a number of counterparts last week; and in the African Union. I plan to visit Ethiopia during a visit to the Horn of Africa next month. My Department, through Irish Aid, has provided over €3.2 million to support the humanitarian response in Tigray and the refugee response in neighbouring Sudan through our UN and NGO partners on the ground. Further humanitarian support is under active consideration.
As the Minister is well aware, the UN recently released a report which estimated that 350,000 people are already facing famine conditions in Tigray, some 2 million more are close to that point and another 2 million are facing severe food shortages. We must continue to keep the focus on the situation in Tigray. It is unfortunate that the statement from the UN Security Council, while welcome, did not go far enough. It did not demand that Eritrean troops withdraw from the Tigray region. It did not mention the Amhara influence and involvement in ethnic cleansing in the Tigray region. A number of things must happen now. We must have all war crimes independently investigated. That is something that must happen immediately. Those who perpetrate such war crimes must be held to account. We also need full humanitarian access to the region as well.
It is helpful to put some facts on the record, or certainly as they are understood. Food insecurity continues to be of serious concern. Over 5.2 million people are in need of emergency food aid right now. Alarmingly, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA, has confirmed that 350,000 people are in imminent danger of famine. There are grave concerns about levels of malnutrition, particularly among young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, has warned that at least 33,000 severely malnourished children face death by starvation if there is no intervention. I repeat that we are talking about 33,000 children. We continue to hear disturbing reports of the use of starvation as a weapon of war. One such report came from UNOCHA chief, Mr. Mark Lowcock, at the Security Council discussion on Tigray called by Ireland on 15 June. Ireland has also highlighted the issue of severe food insecurity in Tigray during recent Security Council discussions on hunger and conflict.
There is a real crisis on the ground. We need to shine a light on it, and we are doing so. People need to be held to account. It is a highly complex situation in Tigray. There are no easy answers in the context of the overall political challenges for Ethiopia. Consequently, we are treading carefully here but we are also strong in our language in highlighting the plight of people on the ground. This desperate situation involves potential famine and starvation. The use of sexual violence as a tool of war has been documented also. We will continue to focus on this until we get - we hope - a permanent ceasefire and a political dialogue, which is what is needed.
I thank the Minister. There is indeed continued mass rape, summary execution of youths and men and deliberate destruction of economic, social and religious infrastructure. All of this is continuing at an accelerated pace. We must move beyond the words of condemnation and must now use our influence. We are probably one of the countries that hold the most influence in the region, given our long-standing ties, and we must put that pressure on the Ethiopian Government. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about our engagement with the Ethiopian Government on the issue. We must also move beyond sanctions.
The position is grave and in our engagement with the Ethiopian Government we must apply pressure for full humanitarian access to the region. We must also consider an international arms embargo on Ethiopia. Would the Minister support or advocate for such action at EU and UN Security Council level?
I would like to think we have been one of the most if not the most active country on this matter at the UN Security Council and within the EU. What we understand happened yesterday will increase even more the need for international intervention here. A crowded market seems to have been targeted with an air strike, and where we think up to 60 people have been killed, with hundreds of people injured. There seems to be evidence that ambulances travelling to the scene from a nearby hospital were deliberately prevented from getting there for a period. These are really worrying accounts of what may well turn out to be war crimes and undoubted breaches of international and humanitarian law.
The challenge is first to get a ceasefire and, second, to get humanitarian assistance to people who need it. Third, we need to ensure we have a credible reporting mechanism that is independent and accepted internationally when it comes to establishing facts on the ground. Fourth, the Eritrean troops in Ethiopia and Tigray should go home and not be there. They are either invited to be there or they have invaded; it is one or the other but, either way, they should not be there. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments have confirmed at UN level that those troops will return to Eritrea but that does not seem to have happened.
We must work with the Ethiopian Government and insist on shining a light on atrocities if and when they are happening. We are trying to get that balance right. I will visit Ethiopia and, I hope, the Tigray region in a few weeks.