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Prospects for an end to the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray remain dim.

Reports of horrific human rights abuses, mass internal displacement, and significant humanitarian needs have prompted ever stronger calls by the UK, the US and the EU for parties to cease hostilities and allow immediate and unfettered humanitarian access. An estimated 350,000 people are at risk of famine

The conflict has raised questions about the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 only a year after taking office. Ethiopia holds national and regional elections on 21 June 2021. Voting will not take place in Tigray because of the lack of security. 

Risk of region-wide famine

Serious food shortages have raised fears of famine in the northern region and humanitarian agencies face difficulties accessing people in need.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported visible signs of starvation amongst people in the central zone and warns of an impending famine:

Levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, which are already at catastrophic levels in some areas, will deteriorate further to the risk of substantial famine, if not addressed immediately.

In June the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis (a global, multi-partner initiative comprised of UN agencies, regional and international NGOs) warned 350,000 people are facing catastrophic conditions in northern Ethiopia. This means they are at risk of famine. 

In a debate in Parliament on 14 June 2021 on the situation in Ethiopia, James Duddridge, the Minister for Africa, told MPs a region-wide famine is “now likely” if conflict intensifies and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid continue.

Atrocities and sexual violence

Reports of atrocities and the use of sexual violence and rape began filtering out of Tigray shortly after the conflict began, but media restrictions imposed early in the conflict have also hampered the flow of information out of Tigray.

The UK and UN officials are calling for an independent investigation of allegations of human rights violations in Tigray. In June 2021 the African Union launched a Commission of Inquiry into allegations of violence. 

UN OCHA says “extremely concerning” reports of atrocities against civilians have emerged, including killings, lootings, and sexual violence. Senior UN officials are also raising concerns about ethnic-based violence across the region. 

Eritrean involvement

Both Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have confirmed the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray. 

The head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, says Eritrean soldiers “are using starvation as a weapon of war.

Eritrean forces have been accused of committing atrocities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have chronicled the killing of scores of civilians in the historic town of Axum in November 2020, allegations corroborated by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

UK Government response

The Government has repeatedly called for all parties to bring an end to the fighting, prioritise the protection of civilians, respect human rights, avoid civilian loss of life, and for authorities to allow unfettered humanitarian access. It is also calling for an independent investigation into allegations of human rights abuses.

MPs discussed the situation in Ethiopia following an urgent question on 14 June 2021.

This Commons Library briefing paper was first published in February 2021. It sets out the situation in Tigray, discusses the UK Government and international response and briefly the background to the crisis.

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