Addis Abeba, December 20/2021 -The UN Security Council members will discuss the situation in Ethiopia under “any other business” today. The meeting was requested by Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK and the US. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths is expected to brief.
Today’s meeting takes place against the backdrop of continued fighting in northern Ethiopia. The conflict entered its second year in November. In late October, the Tigrayan forces and their allies had taken control of Dessie and Kombolcha—two towns in the Amhara region located on the road which connects Addis Abeba to the Tigrayan capital Mekelle—marking a significant shift in the battlefield. The Tigrayan forces’ rapid advance towards Addis Abeba prompted several countries—including France, the UK and the US—to urge their nationals in Ethiopia to leave the country promptly.
However, the federal government mounted an offensive which led to some strategic gains, including recapturing the town of Chifra in the Afar region in late November, and Lalibela, Dessie and Kombolcha in early December. Analysts have cited the federal government’s use of foreign drones as a key element in its offensive to push the Tigrayan forces back north. Fighting continues in various areas of northern Ethiopia and the situation on the battlefield appears in flux. According to media reports, the Tigrayan forces recaptured Lalibela on 12 December, while the government’s forces announced the capture of the towns of Kobo and Weldiya in the Amhara region from the Tigrayan forces on 18 December. While diplomatic initiatives—notably that of AU High Representative for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo—and contacts among key Ethiopian and international interlocutors are ongoing, there has apparently been no progress towards ceasefire talks between the parties.
It seems that a key focus of today’s meeting will be the humanitarian situation in northern Ethiopia. According to a 16 December OCHA situation report, 9.4 million people need assistance in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. OCHA further reports that continued fuel scarcity in Tigray has led aid partners to suspend operations and has prevented the launch of a measles vaccination campaign.
Council members will be interested in learning more from Griffiths about the status of humanitarian access in northern Ethiopia. On 24 November, bi-weekly flights to Mekelle operated by the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) resumed following their suspension on 22 October. (UNHAS suspended all flights to Mekelle after an incident in which a flight was forced mid-air to return to Addis Abeba because of airstrikes targeting Mekelle.) Between 24 November and 30 November, four convoys consisting of 157 trucks with food and humanitarian aid arrived in Tigray. These were the first UN-organized humanitarian supplies to reach Mekelle through the Semera-Abala-Mekelle route since 18 October. In response to this development, Secretary-General António Guterres said during a 1 December press encounter with Chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat that humanitarian aid has “effectively restarted”. He added that the amount of aid is “probably not as much as we would like” but that this development is “a good signal”. In a 3 December press briefing, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric highlighted that fuel has not arrived in Tigray via the Afar route since 2 August, noting that several tankers are in Afar and awaiting clearance to proceed.
Griffiths may emphasize that challenges persist to the delivery of aid. Council members are likely to express concern about recent incidents of attacks against humanitarian workers and the looting of humanitarian supplies and seek more information about how these have affected the capacity of the UN and its partners to deliver aid in conflict-affected areas. On 8 December, Dujarric announced that “large quantities of humanitarian food supplies, including nutritional items for malnourished children” had been stolen in Kombolcha. He added that the “small-scale theft of food escalated into mass looting of warehouses across Kombolcha in recent days, reportedly by elements of the Tigrayan forces and some members of the local population”. Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq reported in a 13 December press briefing that on 10 December “a group of armed individuals – believed to be either from the Ethiopian National Defense Forces or an affiliated allied military force” had commandeered 18 World Food Program (WFP) trucks. Griffiths may also provide an update on Humanitarian Coordinator for Ethiopia Catherine Sozi’s 12-14 December visit to the Afar region.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to express concern regarding a range of serious human rights abuses and violations perpetrated by both sides. On 16 December, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported that regional police forces and militias in Amhara have carried out “mass detentions, killings, and forced expulsions of ethnic Tigrayans” in western Tigray. On 17 December, the Human Rights Council (HRC) held a special session on the human rights situation in Ethiopia. Opening the session, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif said that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “continues to receive credible reports of severe human rights violations and abuses by all parties”. The session was requested by the EU with the objective of instituting an independent international investigative mechanism to gather evidence and to hold conflict parties accountable. Cameroon, speaking on behalf of the African Group (AG), said that the AG considered the proposed mechanism as counterproductive and regretted the “indifference shown to the regional initiative of mediation on the ground”.
During the session, the HRC adopted a resolution establishing “an international commission of human rights experts on Ethiopia” mandated to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law in Ethiopia committed by all conflict parties, “including the possible gender dimensions of such violations”. Twenty-one HRC members voted in favor, 15 against and 11 abstained. Security Council members China, India and Russia voted against; while France, Ireland, Mexico, and the UK voted in favor. Of the incoming Security Council members, Brazil voted in favor, while Gabon opposed the resolution. In response to the adoption, the Ethiopian government issued a press release decrying the session and saying that Addis Abeba “will not cooperate with the established mechanisms imposed upon it against its consent”. In an 18 December press release, the Tigrayan authorities in Mekelle welcomed the HRC session and noted “with appreciation” the adoption of the resolution instituting the international commission of human rights experts.
At the time of writing, a Council outcome is not expected in connection with tomorrow’s meeting. In mid-November a draft press statement proposed by Ireland failed to garner sufficient support. It seems that China and Russia opposed the draft text, which expressed concern regarding the detention of UN staff members in Ethiopia and about reports of detentions “based on ethnic identity and without due process”.
In a 24 November press release, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs announced that the Ethiopian government had given four of the six Irish diplomats working at Ireland’s Embassy in Addis Abeba one week to leave the country. The press release says that the Ethiopian authorities had cited “the positions Ireland has articulated internationally, including at the UN Security Council” on the conflict in Ethiopia as the reason for its decision. Dispatch . AS