Consequences of Not Acting Now to End Violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region Could Be ‘Disastrous’, Warns Under-Secretary-General, Briefing Security Council
Delegates Welcome Ceasefire, Efforts towards Opening Access, Protecting Civilians
Amid a recent ceasefire in the battled-plagued region of Tigray, Ethiopia, all parties must now immediately open access to humanitarian aid to stave off an impending famine, and work towards peace talks to end the violence, high-level United Nations officials told the Security Council today.
“The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous,” said Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. Ethiopia is at a critical juncture, she continued, calling on the parties to place paramount concern on the protection and well-being of the 1.7 million people who have been displaced by the eight-month-long conflict, including more than 60,000 refugees who have crossed into Sudan. There must also be accountability for grave human rights violations, she added, urging the parties to assist the ongoing joint investigation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
Updating the Council on recent developments, she pointed to the unilateral ceasefire in Tigray, announced on 28 June by the federal Government, and the withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Provisional Tigray Administration from Tigray’s capital Mekelle. However, the Tigray Defence Force, which took control of Mekelle on 27 and 28 June, has yet to agree to the ceasefire, she said, noting that basic services to support humanitarian delivery are absent. Calling upon the Tigray Defence Force to immediately join the ceasefire, she said all parties should seize the opportunity to end hostilities.
In this vein, she welcomed the announcement by Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs that the federal Government will take steps to hold an all-inclusive dialogue once election results are announced. Expressing hope that elections can be held in a peaceful and secure environment, she proposed several areas for concerted international support, including by calling for a permanent ceasefire to be honoured by all parties and urging Ethiopia’s leaders to swiftly restore national unity through an inclusive dialogue and reconciliation process.
Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, highlighted the dramatic worsening of the situation since his last Council briefing on 15 June, with 2 million people currently displaced and close to 5.2 million requiring assistance. An alarming spike in food insecurity and hunger due to conflict reflects one of the most worrying trends, he said, adding that more than 400,000 people have crossed the threshold into famine and another 1.8 million are on its brink ahead of worsening food insecurity expected during the coming rainy season.
The only way to stop the humanitarian situation from further deteriorating is peace, he said. Welcoming the Government’s announcement today, he anticipated working together towards common goals. There can be no reason for the ceasefire to fail and humanitarian convoys to be blocked, he said, voicing hope that the new mechanism can be operational within the next 48 hours with a view to saving lives. He asked the Security Council and those with influence to help humanitarian organizations to do their critical work: saving lives and preventing famine and further suffering.
During the ensuing discussion, Council members welcomed the ceasefire and all efforts towards opening access to aid deliveries and protecting civilians. Many underlined the importance of ending impunity for the more than 1,000 reports of sexual and gender-based violence and other grave crimes.
Some called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops, with several delegates saying their presence posed security threats across borders. Echoing this concern, Estonia’s representative added his own, about reports that Eritrean soldiers were violating human rights.
Some delegates urged the parties to constructively respond to the African Union’s mediation efforts. Agreeing, Kenya’s representative, speaking also for Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, known as the “A3+1”, advocated for the withdrawal of all non-Ethiopian forces from Tigray and the standing down of all militias from neighbouring federal states. He demanded that all parties respect international law including humanitarian principles and the moral codes that are at the core of Africa’s cultures and religions.
Meanwhile, he continued, the Council must take “careful and responsible actions” to encourage humanitarian outreach, and must allow Africa the space to resolve its challenges. “We suffer the most from our challenges and gain the most from solving them,” he said, cautioning against turning today’s debate into a platform that undermines Ethiopia. “Now is the time for careful diplomacy.”
The representative of the United States, noting that the Council has privately discussed the situation in Tigray six times, said that Ethiopia’s Government must show that it intends to use the ceasefire to address the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. The Council can help to turn the ceasefire into a sustainable peace which leads to dialogue, reconciliation and healing. Affirming her delegation’s readiness to help Ethiopia solidify the ceasefire, provide life‑saving aid and resolve the conflict, she invited the Council to follow suit.
The Russian Federation’s representative voiced concern about convening this meeting, which could weaken the position of the Ethiopian authorities. This is an internal matter, he said, adding that the Council’s interference could be counterproductive.
Similarly, Ethiopia’s representative expressed surprise at the convening of this meeting, as his country is undergoing a significant transformation that requires a delicate and context-aware handling of its domestic affairs. Emphasizing that the Government is taking bold steps to meet the needs and well‑being of those people affected by the law enforcement operation in Tigray, he said the ceasefire aims at, among other things, creating an environment conducive for humanitarian assistance and for paving the way towards national dialogue.
Also delivering statements were representative of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Mexico, China, India, Viet Nam, Norway and France.
The meeting began at 3:03 p.m. and ended at 4:45 p.m.
ROSEMARY DICARLO, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said Ethiopia is at a critical juncture. Issues plaguing the country must be addressed in a comprehensive and sustainable way, she said, stressing: “The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous.” Reviewing the latest developments, she pointed to the unilateral ceasefire in Tigray, announced on 28 June by the federal Government, and the withdrawal of the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Provisional Tigray Administration from Tigray’s capital, Mekelle. The Tigray Defence Force, meanwhile, entered several major cities and towns on 27 and 28 June and appears to be in control of Mekelle. As of today, that group has yet to agree to the ceasefire, she said, adding that basic services to support humanitarian delivery are absent.
The ceasefire announcement is an opportunity that all parties to the conflict, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, must seize and build upon, she said, urging the Tigray Defence Force to endorse the ceasefire immediately and completely. A ceasefire observed by all parties would not only facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid, but also be a starting point for political efforts to chart a way out of the crisis. She welcomed the announcement by Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs that the federal Government will take steps to hold an all-inclusive dialogue once election results are announced, saying that such a process could be part of a broader effort to address Ethiopia’s structural challenges, encourage reconciliation and foster consensus on the way forward.
She called on the parties to place paramount concern on the protection and well-being of the 1.7 million who have been displaced by the conflict, including more than 60,000 refugees who have crossed into Sudan. International humanitarian law and human rights law must be respected. There must also be accountability for grievous human rights violations, she added, urging the parties to assist the ongoing joint investigation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The United Nations looks forward to seeing concrete results from the federal Government’s commitment to that investigation. Ethiopia’s neighbours can also play a constructive role, she said, emphasizing that the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be fully implemented.
She hoped that elections can be held in a peaceful and secure environment, adding, however, that the federal Government must also do more to open the political space and facilitate the meaningful participation of all Ethiopians. She offered the expertise and support of the United Nations to Ethiopia, including by assisting a domestically driven mediation and dialogue process. She went on to set out some areas for concerted international support, including by calling for a permanent ceasefire to be honoured by all parties; urging Ethiopia’s leaders to swiftly restore national unity through an inclusive dialogue and reconciliation process; generous contributions by Member States to the humanitarian efforts; and encouraging the federal Government and the Tigray Defence Force to ensure accountability for crimes and atrocities.
RAMESH RAJASINGHAM, Acting Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, noted the dramatic worsening of the situation since briefing the Council on 15 June and outlined the humanitarian situation, with 2 million people displaced and close to 5.2 million requiring assistance. One of the most worrying trends is an alarming rise in food insecurity and hunger due to conflict, as more than 400,000 people are estimated to have crossed the threshold into famine and another 1.8 million people are on its brink, ahead of worsening food insecurity expected during the impending rainy season. There is also a protection crisis in Tigray, he continued, noting the 22 June air strike on a Togoga market. In addition, there are credible and widely corroborated cases of serious sexual and gender-based violence, with more than 1,200 cases reported and more emerging. This is likely to be only a fraction of the actual cases as stigma, shame, fear of reprisals, as well as the lack of health and psychosocial services leads to underreporting, he added.
All parties to the conflict must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, he said. Attacks directed against civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Allegations of serious violations must be investigated and perpetrators prosecuted. Humanitarian workers must never be a target, he said, recalling that three humanitarian colleagues from Médecins Sans Frontières were brutally and deliberately murdered in Tigray last week, following 12 other killings of aid staff since the start of the conflict, including from the Relief Society of Tigray and the International Committee for the Development of Peoples. Despite the challenges, humanitarian actors continue to work tirelessly to reach people in desperate need, providing in the last two months emergency assistance to 3.7 million people. However, it is still estimated that over 2.5 million people in rural Tigray have not had access to essential services over the last six months, including those facing famine.
“We need timely, unimpeded, safe and sustained access” to help, he said, adding that international humanitarian law requires all parties to conflict to facilitate this. Recalling the some humanitarian teams have been able to move towards Abd Adi and Samre over the past few days, “we can only do so for as long as we have something to deliver”, he said, highlighting that at present the World Food Programme (WFP) only has enough food for 1 million people for one month in Mekelle and supplies are running low on health, water, sanitation and other non‑food‑item kits. It is also essential to prevent a cholera outbreak or people dying from other communicable diseases.
Welcoming the Government of Ethiopia’s ceasefire announcement, he urged parties to ensure no further escalation of conflict. All groups must stop fighting to allow humanitarian aid to get through unimpeded and must protect civilians and provide guarantees for safe road access to and from Tigray and remote areas. At this moment, he said, five United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) trucks loaded with life-saving water and sanitation supplies are blocked in Afar, and earlier this week, a convoy of WFP trucks was prevented from entering Tigray. All these trucks must immediately be allowed to proceed along the fastest and most effective routes, he said.
Deeply alarmed by the 1 July destruction of the Tekeze River Bridge and damage to two others, he called on the Government to immediately repair these bridges, which will help to prevent the spread of famine. He also asked the Government to fast‑track aid groups’ requests to use satellite telephones and other communication tools, which are critical for their safety, and to return such confiscated equipment. He further urged the Government of Ethiopia to restore and maintain electricity, communication networks and banking services in Tigray, and allow the free flow of essential commercial goods, including fuel, which is essential to transport food or people will starve.
The only way to stop the humanitarian situation from further deteriorating is peace, he said. Welcoming the Government’s announcement today, he anticipated working together. There can be no reason for the ceasefire to fail and humanitarian convoys to be blocked. Expressing hope that the new mechanism can be operational within the next 48 hours to not waste time and lose more lives, he asked the Security Council and those with influence to help humanitarian organizations save lives and prevent famine and further suffering by ensuring these fundamental requests are fulfilled.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States), noting that the Council has privately discussed Tigray six times already, said that the Government in Addis Ababa must show that it intends to use the ceasefire to address Tigray’s humanitarian catastrophe. “We need access, we need aid and we need to end the conflict,” she said, adding that the Tigray Defence Force must demonstrate that it will abide by international humanitarian law and work towards a peaceful solution. The Council can help turn the ceasefire into a sustainable peace which leads to dialogue, reconciliation and healing. That ceasefire should also see the total withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara Regional Forces. In addition, there must be genuine political reform in Ethiopia in the wake of recent elections. She strongly condemned last week’s killing of three members of Doctors Without Borders and demanded that the perpetrators of such incidents be held accountable. She went on to affirm the United States’ readiness to help Ethiopia solidify the ceasefire, provide life-saving aid and resolve this devastating conflict, and invited the Council to do so, as well.
TARIQ AHMAD, Minister for the Commonwealth, the United Nations and South Asia of the United Kingdom, stressing that the protection of humanitarian workers, their offices and their equipment is a central tenet of humanitarian law, said that such individuals’ work is especially vital in the Tigray region, where 353,000 people are now in famine conditions. Urging immediate action to address this man-made famine, he welcomed the Government’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, called on Eritrean forces to withdraw as requested and said that the international community’s immediate priority must be to ensure humanitarian assistance and access. For its part, the United Kingdom has already allocated £47.7 million to the starving people of Tigray and will support African Union efforts to pursue peace and stability in that location, Ethiopia and the wider region. Further, London is supporting efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations to provide essential services to survivors of sexual violence, and £16.7 million will support accountability for serious allegations of human rights abuses and violations, including the deployment of an expert to advise on the safe collection and preservation of evidence.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland) said the crisis in Tigray is of deep concern. “The Council’s voice matters on this issue,” she said. Ireland called for this meeting because a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding, famine looms and without immediate scaled-up action, many more will die. The evidence is indisputable, and the consequences of inaction are both “chilling and all too predictable”. The international community is ready to mobilize the necessary response, but the political steps needed to facilitate it lay with the parties to conflict. Any declaration of a unilateral ceasefire must include actions that improve the humanitarian situation, she said, calling reports that aid supply routes have been destroyed “deeply worrying, and frankly, shocking”. She urged all parties to cease hostilities, protect civilians and allow for immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access, facilitated by Ethiopia’s authorities. “The next few days are absolutely critical in this regard,” she said. She urged the Government to establish a civilian-military coordination mechanism, immediately restore essential services and reopen air space for aid deliveries. She likewise called for an independent investigation into the reported air strike on Togoga market. Horrified by conflict-related sexual violence described by the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, she said accountability must be ensured for all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
MARTIN KIMANI (Kenya), speaking also for Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Tunisia, known as the “A3+1”, said his delegation is pained by the suffering experienced by brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. Outraged by the sexual violence against women and girls, he condemned without reservation the targeting of unarmed civilians and called for an end to such attacks. To all parties, “we demand that they respect international law including humanitarian principles and the moral codes that are at the core of Africa’s cultures and religions”, he said. As his delegation has argued for expanded, robust humanitarian access, he welcomed the Government’s resourcing for a significant portion of the needs in Tigray, yet expressed disappointment over shortfalls in the international response.
He went on to welcome the interim report of the African Union election observer mission that pre-election and election day processes were conducted peacefully, expressing hope that the election becomes the foundation of a robust national conversation on “peace, cohesion, development and the celebration of diversity and pluralism”. The Council meanwhile must take “careful and responsible actions” to encourage humanitarian outreach he said, more broadly expressing concern about the destruction of the Tekezi River Bridge, and calling on all parties that have not pronounced on the cessation of hostilities to do so without delay, and thus cease all armed operations.
He advocated as well for the withdrawal of any non-Ethiopian forces from Tigray and the standing down of all militias from neighbouring federal states. A ceasefire by all parties will allow for the deployment of the tools available in Africa’s peace and security architecture to help Ethiopia “be at peace with itself”, he said, recalling that most agreements that underpin that framework were forged in Addis Ababa. “Dialogue is strength,” he said. The Council must allow Africa the space to resolve its challenges. “We suffer the most from our challenges and gain the most from solving them,” he said, cautioning against turning today’s debate into a platform that undermines Ethiopia. “Now is the time for careful diplomacy,” he said, also stressing the need for the rapid scale‑up of humanitarian response, appreciation of regional stability and the curbing of misinformation.
ALICIA GUADALUPE BUENROSTRO MASSIEU (Mexico) said that, in addition to the humanitarian crisis, Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia are confronting the triple threat of climate events, a locust storm and COVID-19. The ongoing hostilities could lead to a second interrupted harvest season and a generalized famine. The conflict could also spread to other parts of Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa. She welcomed the Government’s declaration of a humanitarian ceasefire, urging others to cease hostilities, as well, and called for the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. The parties must recognize that there is no military solution and that they must resolve their differences through dialogue. She went on to stress the importance of ongoing regional and subregional involvement and for the Council to help efforts aimed at fostering dialogue.
DAI BING (China), describing Ethiopia as an anchor in the Horn of Africa, said that his country looks forward to a comprehensive ceasefire and political dialogue so that all Ethiopians, including in Tigray, can enjoy peace and stability. For some time, the Government in Addis Ababa has been responding to humanitarian needs, reopening the local economy and getting life back to normal. It has also reopened humanitarian access with positive results. Food aid from China will be arriving in short order, he said, adding that COVID-19 vaccines donated to Ethiopia by China will benefit Tigrayans. He stressed that the Tigrayan issue is by and large an internal affair of Ethiopia and that China believes in the wisdom of the Ethiopian people to find a solution. Going forward, the Council should act carefully and in ways that would help improve the situation, not the opposite.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia), welcoming the ceasefire, said urgent, safe and unhindered humanitarian access is needed and essential services like electricity and telecommunications must be restored to enable humanitarian workers to provide help. An immediate ceasefire is vital for allowing the farmers to plant crops and address the deteriorating food insecurity. Condemning brutal violence against aid workers, he said these crimes must be investigated immediately and the perpetrators brought to justice, as there is no justification for illegally entering the premises of humanitarian agencies and dismantling their communications equipment. Civilians are bearing the brunt of the continuously volatile situation, he said, calling for an urgent investigation into the recent air strike near Mekelle. Equally worrisome are reports of continued violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, he said, welcoming the Government’s commitment to engage with the United Nations mechanisms on investigating these crimes. Expressing concern about violations committed by Eritrean troops, he called for their immediate withdrawal. The end of fighting must be followed by a comprehensive, inclusive and credible political process, aimed at national reconciliation, he said, adding that the issue must remain a priority on the Council’s agenda.
T.S. TIRUMURTI (India), welcoming the announced ceasefire in Tigray and measures taken by the Government to address humanitarian needs, nonetheless said the presence of external armed actors in Tigray hinders a return to peace and he called for an end to it. All stakeholders must respect the ceasefire, allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need and permit regular farming activities to take place. He urged humanitarian agencies and authorities to scale-up and coordinate their efforts, calling for “restraint and engagement” by all in a spirit of reconciliation. The space provided by the humanitarian ceasefire must be used to open communication channels, pursue dialogue and find a peaceful solution. He called on the Government to address the conflict in a manner that serves the interests of all people, in line with the federal Constitution, and to follow up on its pledge to investigate all alleged human rights abuses.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation) regretted to note that the format of this meeting could weaken the position of federal authorities in Ethiopia. This is an internal issue, and the Government of Ethiopia’s ceasefire announcement is a step in the right direction, he said. Ethiopians themselves have a role to play in addressing this domestic conflict. Serious socioeconomic challenges in Tigray must be addressed, he said, encouraging United Nations agencies to assist national efforts. Drawing attention to a report a group of Western countries had submitted to the Human Rights Council on the situation in Tigray, he said the tone was not positive towards the Government of Ethiopia. The Russian Federation stands ready to support the normalization of the situation, he said, emphasizing that the Council’s interference in this internal issue is counterproductive.
DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam), noting the recent killing of three humanitarian workers, an attack on the UNICEF office and the destruction of the Tekeze River Bridge, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. While acknowledging Government efforts to help alleviate the ongoing humanitarian situation in the Tigray region, he said that the conflict is responsible for other systemic issues that may cause further deterioration, including a high risk of famine. UNICEF projects that 56,000 children in Tigray under the age of five will need treatment in 2021 for severe malnutrition, while 33,000 children in inaccessible parts of the region face imminent death without immediate help. Against this backdrop, he called on all parties to fulfil their obligations under humanitarian law to prevent a famine from occurring and stressed the need to ensure safe, effective and efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Tigray region and bordering areas. He also said that such delivery should account for local particularities and be done in consultation with the Government, further calling on the international community and the Council to support all efforts for compromise and resolution while fully respecting Ethiopia’s independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.
MONA JUUL (Norway) welcomed the ceasefire, calling on all parties to move towards a permanent cessation of hostilities. Raising concerns that humanitarian workers are still denied entry into parts of the region, she reiterated the call for their unrestricted and unconditional access. The primary responsibility of the protection of its citizens rests with the State, and the Government must ensure humanitarian access into Tigray. At the same time, impunity cannot be tolerated, she said, condemning recent reported killings of civilians and widespread and systematic acts of sexual and gender-based violence. Welcoming the joint investigation by OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, she expected that findings are used to ensure accountability. As the conflict threatens regional stability, she called on neighbouring States to refrain from aggravating the situation, and on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from Tigray, as their continued presence threatens peace and security in the region. Recent elections alone cannot bring a democratic transition or resolve current political challenges. A meaningful, inclusive national dialogue can help to enable Ethiopia’s democratic development and to reduce conflict across the country. As such, she strongly urged parties in Tigray to work across divides and prepare the ground for a possible dialogue.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), Council President for July, speaking in his national capacity, said that the parties must commit to the ceasefire and end all forms of violence against the population. In addition, Eritrean forces must leave Ethiopian territory and humanitarian access must be restored alongside with essential services. Vital infrastructure to provide aid to the people must be protected. He condemned violence and crimes against aid workers, including the recent killing of three Médecins Sans Frontières staff members. He emphasized that the territorial integrity of Ethiopia must be respected. In terms of reconciliation, he underlined the importance that investigations continue into reports of grave crimes. Raising concerns about the conflict’s impact on the region, he called on the parties to respond constructively to the African Union’s mediation efforts.
TAYE ATSKESELASSIE AMDE (Ethiopia) said that his country is undergoing a significant transformation that requires a delicate and context-aware handling of its domestic affairs. He expressed surprise at the rationale for calling today’s open meeting at a time when the Government is taking bold steps to meet the needs and well-being of those people affected by the law enforcement operation in Tigray. Drawing attention to the Government’s decision on 28 June to cease active military operations, he said that that magnanimous and far-sighted development is an opportunity that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front should not waste. Its aim is to create an environment conducive for humanitarian operations and for paving the way for national dialogue, he explained.
He welcomed the concern expressed by Council members for his compatriots in Tigray who have borne the burden of a law enforcement operation prompted by the cowardly acts of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The Government takes its responsibility for ensuring accountability with “maximum seriousness”. Internal and external factors are both in play, he said, imploring the Council to remain conscious of the external challenges that his country faces. He emphasized that impunity will not be tolerated and encouraged Council members to support the Government in implementing the humanitarian ceasefire.
Hasty unilateral coercive measures are not only unacceptable and a violation of international law, but risk pushing Ethiopia to the precipice, he continued. For Ethiopia, this is a moment of introspection, with the main issue being how to heal its wounds. “We might be poor, but we also have hope,” he said, encouraging Council members to consider the situation with the right perspective, recognize the magnitude of the challenge and acknowledge the important steps which Addis Ababa has taken. Support, understanding and solidarity are what Ethiopia needs from the international community, he said, appealing to international partners to keep scaling up humanitarian support.