European Union Suspends Foreign Aid to Ethiopia and Eritrea Amidst Unfolding Humanitarian Crisis in Tigray

In January 2021, the European Union announced that it had suspended 88 million euros worth of financial aid to Ethiopia on a conditional basis until the nation would permit humanitarian relief organizations access into the Tigray region to offer assistance to vulnerable communities. EU diplomat Josep Borrell stated that “we are ready to help, but unless there is access for humanitarian aid operators, the EU cannot disburse the planned budget support to the Ethiopian government.” He additionally urged the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Admed to take all measures whatsoever to end the ever-worsening conflict in Tigray.

In November 2020, Prime Minister Ahmed authorized a military offensive into the Tigray region against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front; he had claimed that, in order to properly unify the country, the authority of the federal government must increase while the autonomy of regional governments must be reduced. Since the initiation of the offensive on 4 November – and in spite of Prime Minister Ahmed’s intentions of a “bloodless campaign” the human rights atrocities waged against civilians in Tigray are endless: extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and rape, looting, shelling of towns. A preliminary investigation by the United Nations reveals that such human rights violations may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and it is estimated that upwards of 4.5 million people are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.

Making the announcement of the aid suspension in a blog post, Josep Borrell further explained:

“The situation on the ground goes well beyond a purely internal ‘law and order’ operation. We receive consistent reports on ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes. More than 2 million people have been internally displaced. And while people are in dire need of aid, access to the affected region remains limited, which makes it very difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance. When I spoke to the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen last week […] I also stressed that, under the current circumstances, in particular in the absence of full humanitarian access to all areas of the conflict, we have no alternative but to postpone the planned disbursement of €88 million in budged support.”

The situation in Tigray has only been exacerbated as a result of the involvement of the Eritrean forces, who have similarly waged atrocities against civilians in the region. Eritrean troops have massacred men, women, and children as young as 13 years old; shot indiscriminately; and slaughtered adult men while their pregnant wives were forced to watch. Survivors reported that, while Ethiopian soldiers occasionally participated in the brutality waged by the Eritrean forces, sometimes they would sit back and watch as their fellow Ethiopians were killed by the masses; “It was painful. I thought the Ethiopian military stood for Ethiopia and its people… but they did nothing as Eritrean forces looted and killed. They just kept silent.”

Partly in response to the worsening situation, the EU once again announced an aid suspension, this time de-commiting €100 million worth of aid for development projects in Eritrea. Such a decision was not solely based on the atrocities taking place in Tigray, though they did play a noteworthy role. The EU cited “lack of interest expressed by the Government on EUTF-funded projects and, more generally, on development cooperation with the EU.” The aid suspension, announced in late April 2021, was further justified by the fact that road building projects would likely be undertaken by forced labor conscripts, and that “Eritrean troops are not withdrawing from Tigray, and human rights violations continue.”

The EU’s decision to suspend aid and development assistance to both Ethiopia and Eritrea – though recognized by many human rights organizations as belated due to credible early reports on the atrocities in Tigray – is commended by the international community as a major step towards holding the two nations accountable. Human Rights Concern Eritrea, an organization based in the UK, issued the following response:

“This decision by the European Commission may be long overdue, but it is very welcome. It finally recognises that so-called ‘positive engagement’ with a regime like that of President Afewerki is ineffective, since it has produced absolutely no improvement in human rights, nor has it furthered democratic accountability, and is unlikely ever to do so. It is encouraging to note the realism now evident in EU policy toward Eritrea, including the recognition that the Eritrean military regime has been involved in the most appalling human rights abuses and war crimes in Tigray.”

Cover image by Rod Waddington on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)