The use of starvation and rape as weapons of war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, have been highlighted in the Dáil as Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney expressed grave concern about the intensifying conflict.
Mr Coveney also said there were “really worrying accounts” that a crowded market was deliberately targeted in an air strike on Wednesday which killed 60 people and wounded hundreds of others.
This “may well turn out to be war crimes and undoubted breaches of international and humanitarian law”, he said. “There is a real crisis on the ground and we must shine a light on it,” he added, also expressing concern about attacks on humanitarian workers.
Mr Coveney will next month visit the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and war-torn Tigray where the conflict with the federal government of prime minister Abiy Ahmed started last November, shortly before the harvest season.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced and 5.2 million people need emergency food aid.
Eritrean troops, accused by human rights groups of massacres, remain in Tigray fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), despite a pledge to leave the country.
Ethiopia is the largest recipient of funding from Ireland’s overseas development arm Irish Aid which has provided €3.2 million to support the humanitarian response in Tigray “and the refugee response in neighbouring Sudan through our UN and NGO partners on the ground”. Additional funding is under consideration.
The State has consistently raised the conflict at the United Nations Security Council including a recent meeting when member states were told of “disturbing reports of the use of starvation as a weapon of war”, the Minister said as he answered foreign affairs questions in the Dáil.
The first crucial requirement is to reach a ceasefire and full access for humanitarian aid, Mr Coveney said.
The Government has highlighted sexual violence in the conflict at council and EU meetings and Mr Coveney said he underlined “our real concern” about rape as a weapon of war at the EU foreign affairs committee meeting earlier this week. EU foreign ministers will discuss the conflict again in July.
Mr Coveney described as alarming the reports from UN and humanitarian agencies that 350,000 people in Tigray are suffering from famine, with several million more threatened by acute lack of food.
“There are grave concerns about levels of malnutrition, particularly among young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.”
Unicef has said 33,000 children are in imminent danger of death. “I repeat that we are talking about 33,000 children,” Mr Coveney stressed.
He was responding to Sinn Féin foreign affairs spokesman John Brady who said the region "is in the grip of a man-made famine at this point" as he called for a ceasefire in Tigray and full access for humanitarian agencies to provide aid.
Mr Brady said it was unfortunate the UN Security Council statement on the conflict “did not go far enough” and did not demand the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from the region or “mention the Amhara influence and involvement in ethnic cleansing” in Tigray.
The Minister told him “there are no easy answers in the context of the overall political challenges for Ethiopia. Consequently, we are treading carefully here but we are also strong in our language in highlighting the plight of people on the ground.
“This desperate situation involves potential famine and starvation. The use of sexual violence as a tool of war has been documented also. We will continue to focus on this until we get - we hope - a permanent ceasefire and a political dialogue, which is what is needed.”