UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned the Security Council the conflict in Ethiopia has spread beyond the Tigray region and “a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes”.
“Inflammatory rhetoric and ethnic profiling are tearing apart the social fabric of the country,” he told the 15-member council on Thursday. “All parties must immediately end hostilities without preconditions and seize that opportunity to negotiate a lasting ceasefire.”
Guterres said more than two million people have been displaced from their homes, and millions more are in immediate need of life-saving humanitarian assistance – including food, water, shelter and healthcare.
“The human price of this war is mounting by the day … At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions,” the UN chief said.
Meanwhile, Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of Tigray forces that the government attacked in November, expressed his group’s commitment to a “negotiated end” to the nine-month war.
In a letter to Guterres, Debretsion said the Tigray side requires an impartial mediator, among other conditions.
“The aim is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death,” his letter alleged.
He warned the African Union, whose headquarters is in Ethiopia, “cannot provide any solution to the war” that the continental body “endorsed” early in the fighting. That complicates the AU initiative announced on Thursday to appoint former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as its special representative to the Horn of Africa.
The prospect for talks between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigrayan leadership, which dominated the national government for 27 years before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, remains deeply challenging.
Ethiopia’s government earlier this year declared the Tigray People’s Liberation Front a “terrorist group”. The United States told Thursday’s meeting the government has “not responded positively” to calls for talks.
The conflict has spread in recent weeks into Ethiopia’s Amhara and Afar regions, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, while Abiy’s government has called all able citizens to war, urging them to stop the Tigray forces “once and for all”.
The heated rhetoric on both sides has led to growing international calls for an immediate ceasefire.
The further the resurgent Tigray forces advance outside the Tigray region, “the greater the harm” to the ethnic Tigrayans for whom they act, Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani told the Security Council meeting, while urging Ethiopia to be prepared to lift the “terror” designation.
He also encouraged the African Union to step up.
What began as a political falling-out now threatens to destabilise Africa’s second most populous country, while abuses have been committed by all sides in the mix of armed groups that include those from neighbouring Eritrea.
The world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade continues to worsen.
Guterres criticised the “de facto humanitarian blockade” of the Tigray region of six million people, with food warehouses there now empty, and the United States warned “if these impediments continue, large numbers of people will starve to death”.
“With sadness and disbelief, we are once again discussing the possibility of a man-made famine in Tigray,” Norway’s Deputy Ambassador Trine Heimerback said, referring to Ethiopia’s catastrophic starvation crisis in the 1980s.
Ethiopian Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie told the meeting his country is improving the process for the delivery of aid. Ethiopia’s government has accused Tigrayan forces of looting and impeding the delivery of aid.
“The TPLF is standing between Ethiopia and peace,” he said, accusing it of being “bent on destabilising” the country of 110 million people. “We are open to working with all well-intentioned partners,” he added.
The war that began in November has affected all Ethiopians and “has already drained over a billion dollars from the country’s coffers,” Guterres said.
But the Security Council appears largely powerless to take significant action on the crisis, as permanent member China expressed its opposition to external interference in Ethiopia’s affairs.
Both China and Russia warned that sanctions by individual countries, as the US imposed this week against the chief of staff of Eritrea’s defence forces, would only worsen the conflict.