EU-Ethiopia diplomatic feud intensifies over Tigray criticism

Ethiopian refugees from Tigray region wait in line to receive aid at the Um Rakuba refugee camp, the same camp that hosted Ethiopian refugees during the famine in the 1980s, some 80 kilometres from the Ethiopian-Sudan border in Sudan. EPA-EFE/ALA KHEIR

Ethiopian diplomats have stoked a growing diplomatic feud with the European Union after the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, and his envoy, Finland’s Pekka Haavisto, harshly criticised the government’s handling of the conflict in the northern Tigray province.

Following last week’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers, Finland’s Haavisto warned on Tuesday (23 February) that the crisis in Tigray appeared to be “out of control”, adding that the Ethiopian government was “in denial” about the scale of the problem.

Haavisto had been dispatched to Ethiopia as an envoy on behalf of Borrell, the EU’s High Representative on Foreign Affairs.

That provoked an angry reaction from Ethiopian diplomats, who complained that Haavisto had not visited Tigray despite being offered the chance and had instead visited a refugee camp in Sudan. The Finnish foreign minister had also turned down the chance to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his ministers.

At a webinar with journalists last week, Ethiopia’s EU ambassador, Hirut Zemene, said her government would register a formal complaint to Borrell.

On Monday, the ambassador tweeted that “It is regrettable that the statement and facts given by Mr Pekka Haavisto about the situation in Ethiopia do not reflect the reality on the ground and contain unsubstantiated claims.”

Borrell then called for “full and immediate humanitarian access to Tigray”, as well as for an investigation of human rights violations.

Abiy Ahmed launched military operations in Tigray in early November after accusing the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, a former member of the government, which now runs the northernmost region of Ethiopia, of attacking a military camp.

Civil society organisations have reported instances of massacres, violence against refugees and mass displacements but difficulty in accessing Tigray makes it hard to corroborate.

Following Borrell’s intervention, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office stated that “humanitarian agencies have now been provided unfettered access to aid in the region.”

The government also welcomed “international technical assistance to undertake the investigations as well as invites the potential to collaborate on joint investigations.”

Ambassador Zemene criticised media coverage of the conflict, accusing several outlets of publishing misinformation and ‘fake news’. Reporters have said that they have been prevented from visiting the Tigray region, though that is refuted by Ethiopian officials.

The conflict has badly damaged Abiy Ahmed’s international reputation, barely a year after he won the Nobel Peace prize and was lauded for his peace deal with Eritrea and domestic reform agenda.

Relations between Addis Ababa and Brussels have become increasingly strained in recent months.

In November, after several weeks of fighting, Ambassador Zemene told EURACTIV that she was “surprised and alarmed” by the EU’s stance on the conflict.

Ethiopian officials say the delayed federal elections will be held this summer and the campaign process has already begun.

Abiy’s government has also been stung by criticism from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said on Sunday he was “gravely concerned by reported atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation” and urged the Ethiopian government to immediately cease hostilities in Tigray.

However, last week the Biden administration reversed a policy of his predecessor Donald Trump, who had cut $100 million in aid to Ethiopia in September 2020.

Conversely, a number of EU member states believe that EU humanitarian funding for Ethiopia should be cut, complaining that around 80% of refugees are not receiving funds.

Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s Commissioner for Disaster Prevention, told reporters last Thursday that there had been no oppression or mistreatment of refugees and that aid was getting through. He also added that the true numbers of refugees is far lower than has been reported.

Meanwhile, attempts by civil society groups to push for an urgent debate at the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the deteriorating’ situation in Tigray met with heavy pushback from Ethiopia.

A communique from Abiy’s office stated that the government was ‘gravely concerned by unsubstantiated and politically motivated misinformation’ by actors ‘whose sole purpose is aimed at undermining the sovereign powers and responsibilities of the government.’

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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