Administrator Power at the U.S.-EU High Level Roundtable on the Humanitarian Emergency in Tigray

Speeches Shim

Thursday, June 10, 2021

ADMINISTRATOR POWER:  Thank you, Nima, so much, not only for your introduction but for lending your precious time and your voice to draw attention to the tremendous suffering in Tigray.  I also want to thank my friend Linda, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, for her remarks and all she has been doing to move heaven and earth in New York so we can force action in Ethiopia.  And Linda, I will say having had your job once, I've lived through great frustration on the Security Council when we were blocked and can't secure, for example, a tough resolution on an issue of grave concern.  I don't know that I've ever lived through what you're living through, which is people not even being willing to come together to put an issue of this gravity on the agenda, an issue of such severity.  Not even to have a formal meeting on something of this enormity, it's shocking, truly, and will go down in history, really, as a very shameful period.

Really grateful to my Commissioner co-hosts, Janez and Jutta.  I had a chance to meet with both of them yesterday and I am grateful for the leadership they have consistently shown to raise the alarm since the conflict began in November.

It's so easy when discussing humanitarian emergencies, even one of, again, the scale and scope of the catastrophe we face in Tigray, to get lost in the scale of the suffering.  So, I want to start by sharing with you the story of a Tigrayan woman I'll call Atsede.  Atsede is 35 years old, a mother of four children who is now pregnant with her fifth, who lived in Tigray.  On November 9th of last year, her neighbor came to her to warn her that armed groups allied with the Ethiopian government were close by.  But by the time the soldiers arrived the next day, it was too late; she tried to flee, separated from her family, but soldiers captured her and put her on a bus.  She was taken to a nearby village where, a week later, more soldiers arrived, and more chaos followed.   Soldiers began calling out names of the captured Tigrayans, separating the men and women and sending them off to yet another village.  But Atsede's name was not called.  Instead, after the buses departed, she was left behind with several other women, tied up to a pole, and this young woman, separated from her family, was raped by five soldiers before passing out from the trauma.

Atsede's story is heartbreaking, but it is not unique.  Since the conflict erupted last fall between forces of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and those allied with the Ethiopian government, reports of the systemic attempt to use rape and gender-based violence as weapons of war have been almost too grim and too rife to bear.  The scale of those crimes, and the reports of the soldier's conduct and testimony, suggests that the Ethiopian military, together with their allies in the Eritrean military and forces from the Amharan region, have launched a campaign to shatter families and destroy the reproductive and mental health of their victims.  And many survivors have nowhere to turn for help.  Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has frequently cut off power and mobile phone access to the region, we know that the forces allied to the Ethiopian government have damaged and looted health facilities, leaving only an estimated 16 percent of them still working today.  Soldiers have also razed factories to disrupt the local economy, and even damaged some of the oldest mosques and churches in all of Africa. There are widespread reports of massacres.  And sadly, things may soon get worse.

As we've heard, a famine is looming in Ethiopia, the first in over 30 years, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands.  In fact, it may have already begun.  An estimated 5.2 million people in Tigray are in desperate need of food assistance, in a state of just 6 million people.  And hundreds of thousands of them are facing catastrophic food insecurity.  Make no mistake; again, as has been said, this famine is man-made.  In addition to destroying critical cultural and economic infrastructure, the armies of Ethiopia and Eritrea have laid waste to Tigray's food supply.  In order to feed their families, farmers need to plow their fields and sow seeds ahead of the annual June rains, which are beginning now.

But the Government of Ethiopia's military allies have burned and looted seeds and farm equipment and slaughtered oxen to ensure the fields lay fallow.  So determined are they to eliminate livelihoods, that some have reportedly crushed baby chicks under their boots.  These same forces have threatened, intimidated, detained, and even killed aid workers attempting to feed the hungry.  I spent much of yesterday speaking with the leaders of humanitarian organizations working in Tigray, some of whom we'll hear from in the panel that follows.  Many of these individuals are veterans of decades of devastating food crises and conflicts.  And yet, nearly all of them told me the same thing: that the nature of this conflict, the combination of gender-based violence, widespread conflict, and the threat of starvation and famine has led to the worst humanitarian conditions they have ever witnessed.

It is time, it is well past time, for action.  In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end Ethiopia's longstanding war with Eritrea. But unless he ends the violence, ensures the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, and allows humanitarian workers unfettered access to people in need, revisiting famine upon Ethiopia will be his legacy.  The United States recently announced visa restrictions and limits to economic and security aid to the Government of Ethiopia, a serious step against a long-standing partner.  And yesterday, we announced $181 million in new humanitarian aid, bringing the total that we've supplied since the start of the Tigray crisis to nearly half-a-billion dollars.  But none of this is enough; more resources are needed, and condemnation requires a chorus.  That's why today's event is so important: so that we can all speak with one voice about our commitment to the people in Tigray, so we can demand together that Prime Minister Abiy bring an end to the suffering in the region.  As Linda mentioned, the member states of the U.N. Security Council, particularly its African members, must move to support putting this crisis on the Council's agenda to pressing Abiy to agree to a ceasefire, to rein in Ethiopia's Eritrean and Amharan allies, to remove the physical and bureaucratic roadblocks that currently leave one million people beyond the reach of humanitarian aid.  In addition to complete access, aid workers also need long-term visas and telecommunications equipment, and they need to carry out their life-saving work free of harassment and violence.  And ultimately, all parties involved must agree to a negotiated peace that finally ends this catastrophe.  My colleague, Jeff Feltman, our special envoy, will speak to this at the close of today's proceedings.

Atsede, the young woman I spoke to you about, has luckily reached safe harbor.  She's currently in a facility in Tigray run by Save the Children, where she can receive the medical attention and psychological care that she needs.  But she, like many of Tigray's residents, is adrift, unsure of where her husband is and whether all her children are accounted for.  She's also about to deliver a child on her own.  As she put it, "I assume my husband and two other children are in Sudan, but they may also be dead," she said. "I don't know.  I don't know." All of us here today, we will never get to say, "We don't know." We know what is happening in Tigray, despite the complex nature of the conflict and the attempts at obfuscation by the Ethiopian government. And with that knowledge comes a duty to do all we can to end it, for the sake of long-term peace and stability in the region, for the people of Tigray who have seen such suffering, for the sake of women like Atsede.  Thank you, so much.

Virtual

Last updated: August 04, 2021

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