EU envoy says Ethiopia in 'denial' over Tigray

Pekka Haavisto, Finnish minister for foreign affairs. Photo by: Laura Celmiņa / Ārlietu ministrija / Latvian Foreign Ministry / CC BY-NC-ND

When it comes to the conflict in northern Ethiopia, the federal government in Addis Ababa has no common understanding of events and is in “denial” over the scale of the problem, said Pekka Haavisto, European Union envoy, on Tuesday.

With negligible humanitarian access to the Tigray region since fighting broke out in November, Haavisto, Finland’s foreign minister, traveled to the region recently to assess the situation on behalf of the EU. He met with Ethiopian government ministers and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and he visited the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan.

On Monday, he reported to EU foreign ministers in Brussels, and the bloc’s foreign service will now prepare a document outlining the 27 member states’ common position.

“Almost four months into the conflict, 80% of the Tigray population of 6 million people remain unreachable,” Josep Borrell, EU high representative for foreign affairs, told reporters after Monday’s meeting. Borrell also reiterated calls for full humanitarian access and investigations into alleged human rights abuses.

“When you are in the middle of crises, usually people say things cannot get worse. But unfortunately, they can get even worse.”

— Pekka Haavisto, European Union envoy and Finnish foreign minister

Describing his meetings with top Ethiopian government officials, Haavisto told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that “in the public domain, there is still also some kind of denial of the magnitude of the problems in the country.” Asked whether the state of denial was also reflected in his private conversations, Haavisto said that there were varying accounts on the issues of humanitarian access and human rights violations, even within the federal government.

“My picture was that even the government themselves do not have a clear picture, particularly areas controlled by Eritreans, probably areas controlled by Amhara militias,” he said. “This is the problem: That the picture, even in Addis Ababa, on what has happened, is missing. And of course, we have to admit that we don’t know exactly what has happened. [The] rumors, anecdotal evidence, is very concerning.”

Haavisto added that the EU could be useful in supporting a necessary “national dialogue” in Ethiopia where the country “would address properly the future of the Tigray area, the needs of the Tigray people after this law enforcement operation, because there is a lot of bitterness.” His description of a “law enforcement operation” — the term preferred by the Ethiopian government — contrasted with Borrell, who said at the Monday press conference that “we can call it a war.”

In December, the EU postponed €88 million in budget support to the Ethiopian government in protest of the conflict, with Jutta Urpilainen, EU commissioner for international partnerships, saying last week that the payout of a further €100 million ($120 million) due this year was also in doubt. However, some EU member states have continued their own bilateral support to the Ethiopian government.

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters last week that that discrepancy would be “on the table” at Monday’s meeting. “I think it is one of the subjects that we have to discuss openly among member states,” the official said.

Haavisto said Tuesday that he supported the postponement of EU budget support as a “wake-up call” to the Ethiopian government and that “if things start getting from bad to worse,” then “I’m sure that then of course everybody has to look at their support and analyze it.”

He added: “When you are in the middle of crises, usually people say things cannot get worse. But unfortunately, they can get even worse.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.