This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.
By Habte Hagos and Martin Plaut
As the fighting in Tigray began the diplomatic effort to try and contain and then halt the dangerous conflict got underway. It would rapidly involve all the facets of the international community: from the African Union based in Addis Ababa to the European Union in Brussels and the UN in New York. In addition to these multinational initiatives, there were interventions from individual states. The scale of this involvement was justified: the conflict threatened far more than Ethiopia; it puts in jeopardy the whole of the Horn of Africa.
6.1 UN Security Council and the African Union
UN Security Council held the first of several meetings on 24 November. No formal statement was issued and the meeting only went ahead at the insistence of the European members, with African states reportedly refusing to facilitate the discussions. “South Africa asked for time so that the envoys can conduct their consultations and refer the matter to the African Union. A statement could complicate the situation,” an African diplomat declared after the session. In May 2021 President Ramaphosa was still hoping that the former African presidents whom he had nominated as peacemakers might be able to proceed with their work, but without any indication that the Ethiopians would accept the proposal. South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, posed the possibility that the mission might be rejuvenated once the Ethiopian elections, scheduled for June 2021, were out of the way.
While the African states prevaricated, the European Union began to increase the pressure on Prime Minister Abiy. The EU had provided Ethiopia with €815 million for the 2014-2020 budgetary period, plus more than €400 million from the EU Trust Fund for Africa. These funds gave officials in Brussels hope that this might persuade the authorities in Addis Ababa to de-escalate the conflict. An EU official said a political decision would be made in the coming weeks on whether or not Addis Ababa should continue to qualify for budgetary support from Brussels. “We are keen to have a common EU position on this,” the official said. “There will be consultation between the capitals and there could be a decision to stop budgetary support.”
The United States, among Ethiopia’s most important foreign partners, quickly expressed its concern about the war. But the Trump administration had never much engaged in African matters, and at the outset of the conflict it simply endorsed the Eritrean and Ethiopian view of things. In addition, the conflict erupted just as the US was caught up in one of its most bitter presidential contests in recent times: the electoral race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which culminated in balloting on the very days that the war began. Trump instantly disputed the Biden victory, leading to a crisis in domestic governance – possibly the gravest since the American Civil War – and to many additional weeks of diplomatic disarray. In a word, American attention was focussed elsewhere. As the Biden administration began forming in preparation to assume office, however, it not only turned head-on to addressing the Tigray conflict but reversed the U.S. position – to one highly critical of Ethiopian and Eritrean conduct. At this writing, the U.S. remains keenly critical, keenly engaged, and perhaps cautiously hopeful of progress toward a solution.
The European Union followed up its warnings to Ethiopia by suspending $107 million worth of aid until humanitarian agencies were granted unfettered access to Tigray. The EU’s senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed now needed to act. “We are ready to help, but unless there is access for humanitarian aid operators, the EU cannot disburse the planned budget support to the Ethiopian government,” Borrell said. To reinforce its concerns Europe sent the Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto to Addis Ababa, to try and gain access to Tigray for aid. The initiative did not go well. On his return, he said the crisis appeared “out of control”. “You have come to the situation which is militarily and human rights-wise, humanitarian-wise very out of control,” Haavisto told journalists in Brussels. Ethiopia reacted furiously. Hirut Zemene, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the EU, rejected the Finland’s foreign minister’s claims that the violence and suffering were “out of control”, describing them as “erroneous”.
6.2 The United States of America
The U.S. and Eritrea have had a somewhat hostile relationship for over a decade, but Ethiopia is a different matter. U.S. friendship toward, interests in and strategic reliance upon Ethiopia have been profound, enduring, and seemingly graven in stone. Ethiopia has served as not only a loyal U.S. ally but a somewhat stable anchor in the volatile Horn. It has also served as a partner in the struggle against militant Islam – which, among other things, in 1998 claimed U.S. embassy targets in Kenya and Tanzania. Ethiopia is also proximate to important U.S. markets and security interests in the Middle East, as well as the vital shipping channels of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. But clouds have appeared. Increasingly, for the U.S., Ethiopia has become a theater of Chinese economic and diplomatic competition. In addition, after an impasse appeared in the U.S. mediated negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD), the U.S. took the side of its other ally Egypt. Most specifically, on 23 October, 2020 – virtually the eve of the Tigray war – President Trump tweeted that Egypt might and probably should “blow up” the dam, and Ethiopia responded with outrage. The American response to the war in Tigray must be viewed from all those vantages. Whether the U.S. can sufficiently navigate its own national needs while facilitating a just, secure and humane outcome in Tigray will be a twin test of America’s conscience and its resourcefulness.
At the outset of the war, within the U.S. government, congressional voices were perhaps the first to publicly react. On 5 November, the day after the start of the war, the ranking (i.e., senior minority) member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives (the lower American legislative house) – a Republican – voiced his concerns. The following day, six Democrats in the House expressed theirs. On 12 November, the Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate (the upper legislative house) followed in kind. On 18 November, that committee’s leading Democrat did the same. Bicameral, bipartisan congressional statements proceeded to gather force, growing more outraged at Ethiopian and Eritrean behavior as the weeks wore on and as atrocity reports mounted. Such was a rarity in the fraught American political discourse at that time, as it continues to be as of this writing. Altogether, to this date, several dozen members of Congress have weighed in, through dozens of joint and individual statements.
What motivated the members of Congress? No broad, grass-roots awareness of or concern for Tigray had arisen. Rather, some members likely were responding to calls for action by their constituents of Tigrayan and Eritrean descent. Such “ethnic” inputs have long figured in the formulation of U.S. foreign affairs – e.g., in Poland, Ukraine, Cuba, Taiwan, Israel, and quite recently India. Affected legislators have felt duty-bound to serve constituent interests, to serve their own re-election prospects, or both. In the matter of Tigray, however, many or most who spoke out probably acted from general principles – that is to say, through leadership, even absent broad popular concern. The first aim was to calm a potential melt-down in the Horn, which would not serve the U.S. well. The second was America’s vision of itself since the end of World War II as leading the march toward global human rights and democratization – a vision that remains deeply embedded in Washington, notwithstanding the country’s many failures in that regard, and notwithstanding the Trump administration’s four-year abandonment of that calling almost entirely. The memory of American and global failures relative to such human rights calamities as Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda also seems fresh for some in that city. Those who serve on congressional foreign relations and foreign affairs committees have seemed particularly committed to the post-World War II vision, and in their tasks for their respective committees they seemed at least somewhat resistant to the hyper-partisanship of the Trump era. Of note, in the early weeks of the conflict in Tigray, Congress appeared to be ahead of the administration in sensing the gravity of what was unfolding, and it found itself urging administrative action. Even after the administration became fully engaged, and fully critical of the atrocities occurring in-theater, congressional statements continued – although by then, conceivably, not so much to urge diplomatic action by the administration as to support and amplify it, by lending the imprimatur of the popular (congressional) will.
The administration’s early public statements, however, conveyed the opposite – a nonchalance, and a seemingly blurred perception of what was occurring. Even before the polls had closed on 3 November, the president himself was fully engaged in contesting what he claimed was a stolen election. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was distracted as well, possibly in part by the sudden change in his personal fortunes. On 4 November, Pompeo used Twitter to condemn the TPLF’s attack on the ENDF’s Northern Command base. On 15 November, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, also by Twitter, condemned the TPLF’s alleged missile attack on Asmara. On 17 November, Pompeo again blamed the TPLF, and went so far as to praise renegade Eritrea for its forbearance from retaliating against the Tigrayans. The administration clearly perceived villains in the fray, but they weren’t Eritrean or federal Ethiopian forces.
What was missing from this perspective? Tigrayan refugees were already flooding into Sudan. On 12 November, Amnesty International had reported a massacre at Mai Kadra. On 13 November, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had warned of chaos, heavy casualties, mass displacement and the commission of war crimes. On 19 November 19, a group of 17 senators wrote to Pompeo, expressing fears of a humanitarian catastrophe. The senators also urged Pompeo to engage directly with Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy, with a view to pursuing an immediate ceasefire, protection of civilians, humanitarian access, and respect for international humanitarian law. On the same day, President-elect Biden’s incoming (but not yet confirmed) secretary of state, Antony Blinken, tweeted about the humanitarian crisis and regional risks. By 20 November (if not earlier), reliable reports were emerging that Eritrea was participating in the war and that the Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray were under attack. On 23 November, Chris Coons – a leading Democratic senator and a personal friend of President-elect Biden – telephoned Abiy, presumably at Biden’s request. On 25 November, the incoming (also not yet confirmed) national security adviser Jake Sullivan Tweeted about war crimes and humanitarian needs. By then Abiy appeared to have been misleading, and believed by, some of the most senior officials at both the U.S. and the U.N.: about the progress of the war, about humanitarian access, and about Eritrea’s participation in the fighting.
Not until 30 November, did Pompeo call Abiy to express his “grave concern,” then Tweet that he had urged of Abiy an end to the fighting, a start of dialogue, and allow unhindered humanitarian access. On 23 December, the State Department announced that it was providing new funding for humanitarian assistance, calling for unhindered humanitarian access, condemning violations of international law, and urging the protection of Eritrean refugees in Tigray.
At the same time, the domestic U.S. crisis in governance was still aflame. President Biden was nevertheless inaugurated without incident on 20 January 2021. It soon became apparent that Biden as determined to get to grips with the crisis in the Horn: both the war in Tigray and the controversy over the Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – which was causing such consternation in Khartoum and Cairo.
Within days, the State Department reiterated its call for an end to the fighting and for unhindered humanitarian access; but now it added calls for Eritrea to leave Tigray, and for human rights investigations to begin. On 26 January, Antony Blinken was confirmed as secretary of state, and – with something approaching lightning speed, on 4 February – he called Abiy and urged humanitarian access. On 19 January, at his congressional confirmation hearing, Blinken had already expressed his dismay about Tigray and about the safety of Eritrean refugees there. He also had noted that the U.S. was now engaged, rather than “being AWOL” – a pointed rebuke, it appeared, of the preceding administration.) On 19 February, the U.S. said that it would tie further economic assistance to Ethiopia to that country’s conduct in Tigray. The State Department on 25 February again condemned the human rights violations, again called for the protection of refugees, and again asked that Eritrean forces be withdrawn. On 26 February, The New York Times reported (presumably by way of a deliberate leak) that the U.S. government had determined that Ethiopian federal forces and allied militia fighters were conducting a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. On 27 February, Blinken again condemned the atrocities and the humanitarian crisis, reiterating the call for a ceasefire, humanitarian access, and human rights investigations.
State Department denunciations of the atrocities continued. On 1 March, Biden’s new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, decried what she referred to as “conflict-induced starvation.” On 2 March, Blinken called Abiy, pressing for the protection of civilians, an immediate end to hostilities, the withdrawal of Amhara and Eritrean forces, and the commencement of independent human rights investigations. At the U.N. Security Council, on 4 March, Thomas-Greenfield called for a halt to the atrocities. On or around that date, Blinken reportedly called Abiy again. On 10 March, he publicly told Congress that ethnic cleansing was occurring, that a reconciliation process and an independent human rights investigation were essential, and that Eritrean and Amhara forces needed to leave. The following day Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council starkly that the hunger crisis in Tigray was “man-made.”
In the end (although in truth it was only the beginning), the Trump administration’s distraction, credulousness and nonchalance had been fully reversed by its successor administration. By several accounts, the U.S. diplomatic engagement with the war in Tigray had become one of its most serious priorities in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the endeavor was stymied. Abiy was simply not responsive to American or to any other diplomatic pressure. The State Department, meanwhile, was not yet adequately staffed, having been impeded in that project by the Trump administration during the presidential transition, and now further impeded by the avalanche of domestic crises besieging the White House: including the coronavirus pandemic. Short-staffed and departing from protocol, Biden requested that Senator Chris Coons, an old friend, to visit Abiy in Addis Ababa on his behalf. Coons arrived on 20 March. The move seemed hopeful and bold. Afterwards Coons claimed some progress: that Abiy had agreed to international dialogue and had condemned the ongoing human rights violations. In addition, within days Abiy publicly acknowledged the presence in Tigray of Eritrean forces  – a seeming predicate to agreeing to remove them from his country. But that was all. Nothing more eventuated, and Coons soon expressed disappointment – no ceasefire, no acknowledgment of ethnic cleansing. And no international dialogue began. A sense of disheartenment and deflation appeared to emanate from the U.S. government.
But presently momentum returned. On 16 April, Thomas-Greenfield challenged the Security Council with these words: “Do African lives not matter as much as those experiencing conflict in other countries?” On 22 April, China and Russia allowed a Security Council resolution calling for “a scaled-up humanitarian response and unfettered humanitarian access” as well as “a restoration of normalcy.” The resolution also expressed “deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls”; and it urged “investigations to find those responsible and bring them to justice” together with “full compliance with international laws.” It was a start. Ireland had drafted the resolution. Thomas-Greenfield, who appeared to have done much of the heavy lifting, was plainly thrilled. As of 20 April, the U.S. had committed some $305 million in humanitarian assistance for Tigray.
On 23 April, Biden appointed Jeffrey Feltman, a seasoned diplomat, as Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, with an immediate mandate to engage on Tigray. On 26 April, Blinken again called Abiy, and he again demanded the withdrawal of Eritrean forces. Three days later Feltman left on a tour of the region, which included discussions about the GERD in Egypt and Sudan. On 6 May, Feltman had met with Isaias in Asmara and by 10 May with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in Addis. The Asmara event marked the first high-level meeting between the U.S. and Eritrea in years. During the same period, Coons and another U.S. senator held high-level meetings in Sudan.
Despite these initiatives ethnic cleansing and other atrocities continued. The U.S. (like Europe and the U.N.) appeared frustrated that its efforts were not bearing fruit. Chinese competition and other geo-strategic interests loomed large on the horizon. Russia and China continued to block more direct and effective action at the Security Council. The U.S. did pause most of its non-humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, and it linked a resumption of that assistance to progress on humanitarian matters. It had imposed a range of sanctions against Eritrea and on 23 May, Blinken announced that visa restrictions would be imposed on Ethiopians involved implicated in the atrocities in Tigray, and their families. The Ethiopian authorities – stung by the rebuke – issued a formal statement saying that the measures “send the wrong message” at a time when the country is gearing up for elections.
The sanctions announced on 23 May are clearly not the last measure in the US armory. President Biden is reported to be considering cutting financial support via international organisations, including the World Bank and IMF. Since Ethiopia is the biggest recipient in Africa of U.S. foreign aid, receiving about $1 billion last year, Washington has considerable clout. The U.S. administration plans to ratchet up the measures, with further sanctions planned if the situation does not improve. This was made clear at a Senate hearing on 27 May. The Acting Assistant Secretary of State and head of the Bureau of African Affairs, Robert Godec, made clear in his testimony, that unless human rights were observed, aid was allowed to proceed and Eritrean forces removed “Eritrea and Ethiopia can expect further action.” Godec also said that President Biden’s special envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, would be returning to the Horn of Africa in early June, to try to end the crises in Tigray and on the Nile.
6.3 European Union
The European Union defines its relationship with Ethiopia as that of a key partnership. Not only for the EU but also for many individual member states, Ethiopia functions as a key aid partner in the Horn of Africa. The EU also seeks to have close relations with other countries in the Horn, including with Eritrea, with whom they have sought to implement a ‘dual track approach’ of political dialogue and aid funding through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Only recently, and after persistent criticism from human rights organisations and the European Parliament, has the EU withdrawn most of its aid to Eritrea.
The EU reacted to the start of the conflict with expressions of concern and calls for ceasefire. In addition, the EU started funding for emergency assistance to refugees crossing into Sudan. The European Parliament chipped in on 26 November 2020 with an urgency resolution which mainly reiterated support for the African Union-led mediation efforts of the AU Special Envoys that had been appointed. In addition, the Parliament called for the “EU to continue to use all necessary diplomatic means to engage with the federal and regional authorities, as well as with regional partners and multilateral institutions, in order to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner.”
European Commission representatives, mostly European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič and High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell, gradually started using more forceful wording to express their concern over the conflict. Starting mostly with calls for peace talks and mediation, the main call from the EU gradually started revolving around humanitarian access. In December, the EU warned it would delay budget support to Ethiopia if the situation did not improve. On 15 January 2021, Borrell indicated that “possible war crimes” had been committed in Tigray. At the same time, the EU announced it had suspended budgetary aid to Ethiopia worth 88 million EUR, until Ethiopia would grant access to humanitarian organisations to deliver aid to Tigray.
Around that same time, in the middle of January, EU representatives started to openly acknowledge the presence of Eritrean troops in Tigray. However, it only called for Eritrea to withdraw its troops after the US had done so.
The EU followed up the halting of budget support and the calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw by a renewed attempt at diplomatic engagement in the form of an EU special envoy: Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto. Haavisto had experience and contacts in the region. Haavisto visited the region in early February 2021, going on a Horn-tour starting with a visit to refugees who had fled the conflict. He debriefed EU Ministers on 22 February 2021. In comments in the days following the debriefing, Haavisto led on that he saw the situation as “out of control” and relating that Ethiopia’s government had not provided a “clear picture” during his visit. The Ethiopan embassy in Brussels sent a letter to DEVEX in complaint of the wording used by Haavisto, who had stated Ethiopia was ‘in denial’ over Tigray.
Despite Haavisto’s strong words, EU Ministers delivered a mixed message in the European Council conclusions of 11 March 2021. This is hardly surprising, given the diverse nature of the EU and how keen some states are to retain links with Ethiopia for trade and commerce. It was also difficult for diplomats to make a sharp U turn; from regarding Abiy as an exemplary leader and Nobel Prize winner to a war-monger, responsible for the so many atrocities. The EU leaders firstly stressed “Ethiopia’s important role as a strategic partner and a key multilateral actor,” and reiterated their “great concern regarding the situation in the Tigray region and the wider region” after. The Council concluded that the EU wished to pursue a constructive dialogue with the Ethiopian government on these concerns. Many analysts saw the Council conclusions as a failure of the EU as a whole to decisively follow up on its words.
EU envoy Haavisto made another visit to the region in early April. This included a visit to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and he was also able to visit Mekelle. After the second visit, he warned the situation was dire. However, Josep Borrell indicated the EU wanted to send an election observation mission if the situation allowed.
The EU has continued to stress the need for de-escalation and has threatened to impose sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, if UN workers would be blocked from delivering aid. Key messages of the EU remain: unrestricted aid access, investigation of human rights violations, withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers, ceasefire, and the start of discussions. It has also halted Eritrean development aid, partly due to the Tigray conflict, instead re-routing some of that funding to help refugees fleeing the Tigray conflict. At the same time, the EU seems to struggle with taking a firm stance, while not alienating a key partner in the region, Ethiopia, too much.
The EU fails to take a lead in making a stance, as shown by weak Council conclusions; this ensures that stronger EU calls fall on deaf ears. In addition, although EU countries such as Ireland are making a push for action in the UN Security Council, the EU does not – openly at least – make effective use of strategic alliances to make a stronger call for an end to the hostilities and human rights abuses.
Apart from the African Union, China, Russia and India, all major world players including the UN, the US, EU, G7 and others have condemned the horrific human rights abuses in the Tigray war. Britain, which has a long relationship with Ethiopia, has echoed these calls, but without going very much further. British – Ethiopian (Abyssinia) relations go back some two hundred years or more. During World War II, Ethiopia was under Italian occupation and Emperor Haile Selassie joined the resistance groups. From 1936 -1941, Haile Selassie was exiled to the city of Bath, England and eventually returned to power as emperor of Ethiopia in 1941 with the help of the British. Britain also played a major role in alleviating the terrible famine of 1984-85. Yet London has been remarkably reticent about applying any more than verbal pressure on Addis Ababa to end the conflict.
This is the assessment of the UK’s development department, Dfid, now part of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office [FCDO]: “the UK relies on a stable Ethiopia that is supportive of our foreign policy priorities in the Horn of Africa, particularly in relation to Somalia and South Sudan. Ethiopia is the largest contributor of peacekeeping forces in the world and particularly in its neighbourhood”. The British government’s position is very similar to that of the Ethiopian Embassy in the UK. The Embassy in its political-affairs section reaffirms that: “over the centuries, Ethiopia has enjoyed close economic, diplomatic and cultural relations with the United Kingdom. … Historically, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom have enjoyed rich diplomatic relations covering a range of areas, including, but not limited to, trade, culture, education and development cooperation”.
In return for this close friendship and cooperation between the two counties, the Ethiopian government has received billions of pounds in aid from the UK over the years. In 2019, Ethiopia received the second largest amount of foreign aid from the UK—£300 million – just behind Pakistan which received £305 million and above that given to Afghanistan of £292 million. It is worth noting that while as many as 100 countries had their aid from Britain cut as the UK reneged on its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, Ethiopia was not among them. Eritrea did not have its aid renewed in 2020/21, this was because of a decision not to fund spending on a major road project linking the Eritrean ports and Ethiopia because the Eritreans were using ‘National Service’ conscripts – a form of slave labour. The cut had nothing to do with the war in Tigray.
On 21 December 2020, while the EU was considering withholding aid from the government of Ethiopia due to the Tigray conflict, Lord David Alton of Liverpool asked the British Government, how much aid was given to Ethiopia; (a) last year and (b) over the past decade. In reply, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister of State FCDO, said “the UK is engaging with partners, including the EU, on the implications of the current situation in Tigray on development and humanitarian assistance, which plays a vital role in supporting the provision of basic services and lifesaving support across the whole country. Ethiopia is the UK’s largest aid programme, reaching millions of poor people while supporting UK interests. In Financial Year 2019/2020 [April 2019 to March 2020] the UK delivered £292 million in bilateral aid and about £3 billion over the last ten years”.
In January 2021 and in response to Eritrea Focus, James Duddridge MP, Minister for Africa, stated that the UK provided over £100 million of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia in 2020/2021. This included £19 million on humanitarian assistance to provide food, shelter, healthcare and protection to those affected by the conflict in Tigray. The aid was provided via UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, rather than through the Government of Ethiopia. By June this figure had risen to £22 million.
Although the British government says – repeatedly – that it has raised human rights issues with the Ethiopian authorities “at the highest level” and called for a cessation of the conflict, the authorities in London appear reluctant to go further. Both UK Houses of Parliament have been pro-actively engaged with the crisis in Tigray. In the seven months since the outbreak of the war they have raised the conflict and its consequences on at least ten occasions; six times in the House of Commons and four in the Upper Chamber (House of Lords) raising numerous questions with the government.  The Foreign Secretary has written to and spoken with Prime Minister Abiy and other ministers have also played their part.
On 24 November 2020, two members of parliament, Laurance Robertson and Stuart McDonald, asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Rabb what recent assessment he has made of the; (a) political and (b) security situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The Foreign Secretary provided a length reply along the following lines:
“We are very concerned about the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in terms of both the humanitarian impact and the risk of spill-over and spread through the region… I spoke to Prime Minister Abiy on 10 November. We have made it clear that there needs to be a de-escalation of violence, humanitarian access and protection of civilians. Of course, there are also all sorts of regional implications, which is why I have also spoken to the Prime Minister of Sudan and the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and South Africa. This will require not only regional but international efforts to secure peace and protect the humanitarian plight there. I share the hon. Gentleman’s horror at some of the reports of the civilian casualties. We take this incredibly seriously, energetically and actively at the United Nations. Let me reassure him that UK funding is already helping those in urgent need of assistance. In Ethiopia specifically, the UK funds the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs”.
This answer broadly represents the UK’s position on the war in Tigray. Despite the deepening crisis and the danger of the conflict spreading across the Horn, the British government has refused to take a more robust stand. At present the UK has no financial sanctions against either Ethiopia or Eritrea, despite the mounting evidence of atrocities. The British are essentially awaiting a lead from the Americans, as reflected in this answer given by the African Minister, James Duddridge on 7 June. “The Foreign Secretary discussed concerns about the situation in Tigray with Secretary of State Blinken on 3 May. We continue to closely engage US counterparts on the full range of human rights issues in Washington DC, Addis Ababa and in capital-to-capital discussions, including with the US envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman. We will continue to work closely with the US on this issue.”
The UK has worked to raise the Tigray conflict in the UN Security Council – mostly behind the scenes – but since India, Russia and China have repeatedly prevented any action against either Eritrea or Ethiopia, this has failed to make progress. The March 2021 draft resolution made no mention of sanctions, merely noting “with concern” the humanitarian situation in Tigray, “where millions of people remain in need of humanitarian assistance” and the challenge of access for aid workers. It called for “the full and early implementation” of the Ethiopian government’s statements on February 26 and March 3 committing to “unfettered access.” Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private, said China wanted the statement to focus only on the humanitarian situation, with no reference to the violence in Tigray. India only wanted a minor change, and Russia reportedly supported its ally China at the last minute, the diplomats said.
The EU has cancelled millions of Euros worth of aid to Ethiopia, but the UK has been reluctant to follow this lead, despite calls for it from politicians. This issue was posed in a question by Viscount Waverley in the House of Lords at the start of the conflict: “Is the world going to stand by yet again, knowing that mayhem is seemingly set to unfold, do nothing and then have to deal with the added consequences of regional instability and the combination of Somalia, Sudan and Yemen across the way ripe for Islamist groups or Governments to exploit?” The call for action could not be clearer, but has not been heeded.
At the same time, there has been a considerable effort by the UK’s communities of Eritreans and Ethiopians to try to prevent the war from causing divisions between them. While – as in other locations – there are very different views in and among them, the British diasporic communities have managed to remain on relatively good terms. Demonstrations by Tigrayans in London have been large and supported by a substantial number of Eritreans.
5.5 Arab nations
The relationship between the Horn of Africa and the Arab nations of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa are ancient and deep. Egypt sent expeditions along the Red Sea coast to Eritrea in search of gold, ivory and incense as long ago as 2,500 BC. Egyptians founded the port of Adulis and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches looked to Cairo for spiritual guidance. Arab nations traded across the Red Sea and the Al Negashi Mosque in Tigray is among the oldest in Africa, having been constructed by early followers of the prophet fleeing persecution in Mecca. In more recent times, Cairo was home to Eritrean nationalists pressing for their country’s rights as early as the 1950’s. Ethiopia came to suspect that the Egyptians were supporting Eritrean independence for duplicitous reasons. Ethiopians believed that Egypt was using the conflict with Eritreans as a means of diminishing the Ethiopian state and keeping the country poor, so that Addis Ababa was unable to use the waters of the Blue Nile, upon which Egypt was so dependent.
One element of the relationship with the Arab world was therefore distrust. Another was reliance. The Eritrean independence movement depended on Arab states for support as they fought the Ethiopian state. Arab nations from Syria to Yemen gave Eritrean movements training, some military equipment, financial and diplomatic support. Somalia provided diplomatic assistance. These relationships only increased Ethiopian concerns about the motivation of their Arab neighbours.
It is possible to see both elements at play today.
Eritrea’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE
President Isaias is nothing if not pragmatic about his foreign relations and he is willing to drop friends and change direction if it suits his purposes. His ties with Iran illustrate the point. In 2007 the President began cultivated his relations with Tehran. He made positive statements about Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, at a meeting of the Non-Aligned movement. In May 2008, President Afwerki met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Tehran to bolster cooperation between the two states. The Eritrean government granted Iran access to Assab Port, providing Tehran with a base from which to conduct maritime operations in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Iranian warships began to visit Eritrean ports. There were even suggestions from Eritrean opposition sources that Iranian arms were being supplied to Houthi rebels in the Yemen.
Yet Eritrea also turned its back on its long-term relations with Iran when it did not suit them. Qatar took the lead in wooing Eritrea away from Iran. Qatar mediated a ceasefire between Eritrea and Djibouti in their conflict over their border conflict, and, in June 2010, sent 200 troops to the Eritrea-Djibouti border to monitor the settlement. Eritrea transferred its allegiance to the Saudis and the UAE – on the opposite side of the Sunni-Shia divide. President Isaias has been a visitor to Riyadh since 2015. In return the UAE and the Saudis have been allowed to build bases in the Eritrean port of Assab and to use Asmara airport for attacks on Yemeni forces. It is quite possible that these links go further, but this much at least is known.
In 2016, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported on “the rapid construction of what appears to be a military base with permanent structures” at Assab. According to security analysts, the base includes its own port, airbase, and a military training facility, where the UAE has trained elite Yemeni forces, according to the Middle East Institute. The UN Monitoring Group also reported that the base has “expanded to encompass not only personnel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also Yemeni troops and other troops in transit.” In return, the Eritreans are reported to have received aid from the UAE to upgrade their infrastructure. Human Rights Watch accused the UAE of torturing Yemenis on Eritrean soil.
The UAE has been reportedly supported the Eritrean war effort in Tigray. It has been repeatedly claimed by the Tigrayan military that drones were flown from the UAE base to attack their troops and to hit their heavy artillery. This has not been supported by careful research by the open-source analysts, Bellingcat. As they concluded: “In sum, the claims made by the Tigray forces are not impossible, but so far they seem improbable. Satellite imagery confirms the presence of Chinese-produced drones at the UAE’s military base in Assab, but that is all it confirms. There is currently no further evidence that these same drones have been involved in operations in support of the Ethiopian air force, though there have been confirmed sightings of Ethiopian jet fighters in the conflict zone.”
Facilitating the Eritrea – Ethiopia alliance
Many nations and initiatives were involved in ending the bitter ‘no-peace, no-war’ stalemate that followed the 1998-2000 Ethiopia-Eritrea border war.
Some of the first moves came quietly from religious groups. In September 2020, the World Council of Churches sent a team to see what common ground there was on both sides. Donald Yamamoto, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and one of America’s most experienced Africa hands, played a major role. Diplomatic sources suggest he held talks in Washington at which both sides were represented. The Eritrean minister of foreign affairs, Osman Saleh, is said to have been present, accompanied by Yemane Gebreab, President Isaias’s long-standing adviser. They are said to have met the former Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, laying the groundwork for the deal. Yamamoto visited both Eritrea and Ethiopia in April 2018. Although next to nothing was announced following the visits, they are said to have been important in firming up the dialogue. But achieving reconciliation after so many years took more than American diplomatic muscle.
Eritrea’s Arab allies also played a key role. Shortly after the Yamamoto visit, President Isaias paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia in April 2018, meeting King Salman. Prime Minister Abiy also made a trip to see the Saudis the following month. Formerly, little was revealed about the visit, with the bald official statement that “The Prime Minister held talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual concern. It was Abiy’s first visit outside of Africa, and he followed it up with a visit to the UAE. Abiy is reported to have taken an important initiative during his time in Riyad.
“He said while in Saudi Arabia he has asked the crown prince to help to bring peace between the two countries. PM Abiy told the participants, after he promised the crown prince that Ethiopia will abide by the Algiers Agreement if the regime in Asmara can sit down to talk on other issues, the crown prince tried to call Isaias Afeworki. The call was not returned but he is hopeful with Saudi and US help the issue will be resolved soon.”
The door to peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea was beginning to swing open, with the Americans, Saudis and the UAE playing critical roles. On 3 July 2018 President Isaias, following PM Abiy’s footsteps, visited the Emirates. There are suggestions that large sums of money were offered to help Eritrea develop its economy and infrastructure.
What was discussed in confidence in the UAE has not been revealed, but less than a week later, PM Abiy arrived in Asmara for the first visit by an Ethiopian leader since the border war ended eighteen years earlier. On 14 July, President Isaias made a return visit to Addis Ababa: the hostility and enmity of nearly two decades was at an end. The relationship was sealed with a formal peace deal, signed – significantly – in Saudi Arabia, on 16 September 2018.
While the Arab nations and the Americans had played key roles, others had no doubt been supporting. Behind the scenes, the UN and the African Union were encouraging Ethiopia and Eritrea to resolve their differences. This culminated in the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, flying to Addis Ababa in September 2018 – just hours after the joint declaration. Guterres told reporters that in his view the sanctions against Eritrea could soon be lifted since they would soon likely become “obsolete.” It was an impressive combined effort by the international community, who had acted in unison to try to resolve a regional issue that has festered for years. However, as the conflict in Tigray has escalated, with no end in sight, there are suggestions that the UAE is changing tack. The United States has gone out of its way to consult its various Arab allies, including the UAE and this appears to be bearing fruit. On 10 June 2021 Africa Confidential reported that: “…UAE, which has been supplying weapons, money and diplomatic support to Addis, seems to be changing tack, cutting its associations with Ethiopia’s military after prodding from Washington.”
The dramatic ending of the years of bitterness between Eritrea and Ethiopia obscured the fact that there was a third party in this relationship: Somalia. In July 2018 – in the same month as Prime Minister Abiy visited Asmara to seal the peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia there was a three-day visit to Asmara by Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi ‘Farmajo’. President Farmajo’s trip to Eritrea was the first by a Somali leader for fifteen years. A spokesman for the Somali president, said on Twitter that the country “is ready to write a new chapter of its relations with Eritrea.” Economic and security concerns are at the top of the agenda, as well as “regional issues of interest to both countries,” Eritrea’s information ministry said. There were further bilateral visits in August 2018 and April 2019. This culminated in a summit between the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia on 27 January 2020 held in Asmara. The formal statement spoke of the three leaders agreeing to: “bolster their joint efforts to foster effective regional cooperation” while co-operating on security questions.
When the Tigray war began in November 2020 the immediate impact on Somalia was the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops who had been fighting al-Shabaab. As Bloomberg reported: “Ethiopia is redeploying about 3,000 troops to help with the Tigray offensive, the people said, asking not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak to the media. The troops being withdrawn are Ethiopian National Defence Force soldiers and don’t fall under the command of the 5,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, they said.” 
This re-deployment caused immense problems for the Tigrayan members of the Ethiopian contingent in Somalia. Between 200 and 300 Ethiopian troops who were ethnic Tigrayans found themselves forced to hand in their weapons. Reuters was sent an explanation of this decision by the Ethiopian authorities. “The peacekeepers are not being disarmed due to ethnicity but due to infiltration of TPLF elements in various entities which is part of an ongoing investigation,” said a text message to Reuters from the State of Emergency Taskforce, a body set up to deal with the Tigray conflict. No further information was given.”
By January 2021 reports were emerging that young Somalis had been sent to Eritrea to be trained to fight in Tigray. Voice of America reported that the Somalis had been transported to Eritrea as early as November 2019 – a year before the war in Tigray broke out.
“Maryam Ahmed is the mother of a Somali soldier sent to Eritrea over a year ago. She says mothers like her haven’t heard from their boys since they left for training. Ahmed says their sons are missing since November 2019 and they have no contact from them since then. We don’t eat, drink or sleep due to their unknown situation, she says. We urgently need their information, says Ahmed and are calling on the president, the prime minister and all government officials to tell us where our sons are and whether they are dead or alive. The parents’ concerns were raised after former deputy of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency Abdisalan Yusuf Guled this month claimed more than 370 Somali troops had died fighting in Tigray.”
The parents of the troops protested in Mogadishu, calling on President Mohamed
Abdullahi Farmaajo’s government to provide information on their whereabouts. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Somalis had officially been recruited by Somalia’s government to work in Qatar, only to later find out they had been sent to Eritrea and forced to serve as soldiers. Families of soldiers who were killed in these operations were offered up to $10,000 in compensation. They had been told they were going to work in Qatar – only to find the destination was Eritrea. The Qatari government reacted angrily. The Gulf state “condemns any abusive and duplicitous recruitment of any individual who was falsely told they were moving to Qatar for employment opportunities. The State of Qatar stands against such practices and urges all governments to investigate such abuses.”
Since this story broke there has been relatively little news of the Somali involvement in the war in Tigray. But the New York Times published a story in April 2021 which confirmed the continuing involvement in the conflict.  “Critics say Mr. Mohamed appears to be taking his cues from Eritrea’s autocratic president, Isaias Afwerki, who has become a close ally in recent months. The two leaders regularly speak on the phone, according to several Western officials and a former senior Somali government official, and Mr. Afwerki’s military recently trained a contingent of about 3,000 Somali soldiers who were expected to return home recently.” It is stories like this that underline President Isaias’s continuing ability to influence events across the Horn to his advantage.
Sudan, Egypt and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Tigray conflict can be seen in a wider context. The Somalis were by no means the only nation drawn into the war; the Sudanese were immediately affected. As we have seen, the first major offensive by Ethiopian and Eritrean was into western Tigray – to capture the town of Humera and cut the Tigrayan forces from access to Sudan. To supplement the troops at his disposal, Prime Minister Abiy withdrew forces that had been occupying territory that was contested between Sudan and Ethiopia. Sudanese media reported this – and the Sudanese reaction. “The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) have reportedly taken control of the area of Khor Yabis in eastern El Gedaref on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia…the army recovered Khor Yabis in El Fashaga El Sughra, off Barakat Norein, after 25 years of absence.”
The Fashaga triangle has a long and tangled history, dating back to the early years of the twentieth century and treaties in which Britain, Italy and Ethiopia all had a hand. Suffice it to say, the area was claimed by both Sudan and Ethiopia, but that for many years large areas of this fertile and well-watered triangle had been inhabited by Ethiopian farmers. Many were Amhara and they had been guarded by Ethiopian forces, which had been withdrawn to fight in Tigray. As they left the Sudanese seized their chance and established control of the land, a development which was greeted with fury by the Amhara farmers. There was an attempt by Amhara militia to re-capture the area on 12 December, leading to clashes with the Sudanese, who had reinforced their positions. Local Sudanese farmers swore that they would never give up the territory.
Since then, there has been a tense stand-off, with occasional clashes between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces. In March 2021, the Bloomberg news agency, quoted UN sources as saying that the Ethiopians had been reinforced by Eritrean troops who had crossed into the Fashaga area. ‘“The conflict along the border between Sudan and Ethiopia remains active, with Sudanese Armed Forces and Ethiopian — including Amhara militias — and Eritrean forces deployed around Barkhat settlement in Greater Fashaga and clashes reported since early March,” the UN said …in its latest situation report on Ethiopia.’
This was by no means the only issue that divided the nations. As soon as the war broke out Tigrayans began flooding across the Sudanese border, with Khartoum playing the role of host to the refugees, as it has done down the years. Camps were established by the UNHCR and its associated partners. By April 2021 these were home to over 63,000 men, women and children, most of whom were Tigrayans, but with some Eritreans and other ethnicities. The number would probably have been considerably higher, had the Ethiopians not deployed troops along the border to try to prevent the refugee flight. As the Sudanese media reported in January 2021.  “The Ethiopian army began closing the borders with Sudan, deploying troops, patrolling the border and building a fence to prevent refugees from reaching Hamdayet camp,” an eyewitness told the Sudan Tribune.
A third, and potentially most difficult question, bedevils relations between Sudan and Ethiopia. It is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, situated inside Ethiopia, just 45 kilometres from the Sudanese border. This is not the place to rehearse the long and complex dispute over the project, which divides Ethiopia from its neighbours downstream. Sudan worries that a flood of water could wash away farms if the water is released to rapidly while Egypt (which relies almost exclusively on the Nile for its water) is afraid that its people will be left without this vital resource. For these reasons Egypt and Sudan would like a binding treaty to govern the dam and its waters. Ethiopia, on the other hand, argues that that the dam is only to produce hydroelectricity and will therefore not deprive Cairo’s residents of their water. Moreover, Addis argues, the rains feeding the Blue Nile fall on its mountains and it can therefore use the water as it wishes. As a result, Ethiopia rejects binding treaties or international monitoring, preferring to try to have the African Union mediate between the three nations. This issue has bedevilled relations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt for years and shows no sign of resolution. Indeed, President al-Sisi has signed military co-operation treaties with Sudan and warned that Egypt would not accept any diminution of its Nile water. ““I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water, and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”
The Arab nations clearly have an interest in the Horn and a stake in its future. Through their wealth the Gulf states and the Saudis also have considerable influence. But it is a complex relationship. The Eritreans are rarely open to persuasion – although they are not immune from it. Ethiopia is so deep in crisis it would appear that Prime Minister Abiy’s primary objective is survival and he has little time to concentrate on external concerns. Egypt and Sudan have their own agendas which do not necessarily coincide with those of their Arab brothers and sisters. Overall, the situation is as complex and hard to read as any other aspect of the current conflict.
By the end of June, the collective pressure exercised by the international community through diplomatic pressure appeared to have made little impact on the situation in Tigray. The war was continuing, humanitarian access was still limited with large areas remaining inaccessible and the UN officially declaring a famine. Journalists and international observers were regularly refused permission to travel through the region. The G7 meeting by the British seaside in Cornwall adopted a statement which was no more than previous resolutions adopted by the EU, US or UK. The British government – when challenged in the House of Commons – did little more than play for time, with the Minister, James Duddridge, hoping that once the 21 June Ethiopian election was out of the way a “pivot point” would have been reached, enabling Prime Minister Abiy to take more radical steps. He may be correct, but at present there is little to indicate that he will be proved right.
The most important steps required to ending the war include the withdrawal of Eritrean troops, the opening of talks between the Tigrayan authorities and the Ethiopian government and – flowing from such talks – a mutually acceptable ceasefire, leading to a long-term solution. All sides know this, and know that if this was done, and a vast humanitarian push was allowed to get under way, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved. Prime Minister Abiy and President Isaias appear currently to be joined at the hip: their mutual fates resting on inflicting a decisive defeat on the Tigrayans; an outcome that presently appears unlikely to be achieved. The future of both governments, and the Horn of Africa as a whole, looks uncertain unless a lasting peace settlement can be agreed by all parties.
 https://apnews.com/article/eritrea-coronavirus-pandemic-africa-ethiopia-kenya-83b90a145d271eb39d664726bd5acbe5; https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-egypt-humanitarian-assistance-ethiopia-kenya-e3f47fc14084da52daea64fe078deaa6
 https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210304-un-alleges-war-crimes-in-ethiopia-s-tigray-urges-eritrea-pullout ; https://usun.usmission.gov/remarks-by-ambassador-linda-thomas-greenfield-at-the-un-security-council-virtual-stakeout-following-security-council-discussions-on-ethiopia/ .
 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-diplomacy-blinken-ethiopia-idUSKBN2B22M3; https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/10/politics/blinken-tigray-ethnic-cleansing/index.html ; https://news.yahoo.com/blinken-condemns-ethnic-cleansing-ethiopias-220414116.html
 https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/18/biden-chris-coons-senator-ethiopia-tigray-crisis/; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-biden-idUSKBN2BA21F l https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/18/biden-dispatches-us-senator-to-ethiopia-over-humanitarian-crisis
 https://www.wral.com/us-envoy-in-sudan-in-a-bid-to-resolve-ethiopia-s-dam-dispute/19665662/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-envoy-in-sudan-in-a-bid-to-resolve-ethiopias-dam-dispute/2021/05/07/33d2e160-af34-11eb-82c1-896aca955bb9_story.html
 by Fred H. Lawson, GCC Policies Toward the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and Yemen: Ally-Adversary Dilemmas
 by Fred H. Lawson, GCC Policies Toward the Red Sea, op. cit.
 Eritrea maintained the base in Assab until early 2021, when it was dismantled, as the UAE pulled back from the war in Yemen. https://apnews.com/article/eritrea-dubai-only-on-ap-united-arab-emirates-east-africa-088f41c7d54d6a397398b2a825f5e45a
 Africa Confidential, Vol. 62, No. 12, ‘Muddled Meddling by the UAE’, 10 June 2021