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EU to dispatch humanitarian negotiator to Ethiopia after aid suspension

Source: Devex | Vince Chadwick

The European Union is preparing to send Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto to negotiate with the Ethiopian government as it pushes for unfettered access for humanitarians in the conflict-torn Tigray region.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell raised the possible visit on a Jan. 9 phone call with Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, a spokesperson for the European External Action Service told Devex Monday, adding that the idea was “welcomed.”

The move comes after the EU announced its decision Friday to halt budget support for Ethiopia over the lack of humanitarian access in Tigray.

Haavisto is an experienced Greens politician and former development minister who has acted as a special representative and adviser in Africa for Finland, the EU, and United Nations, notably in Darfur. An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Borrell accepted Haavisto’s offer to act on his behalf in talks with the Ethiopian government due to his high-level contacts and experience in the region.

Haavisto’s precise mandate and mission will be finalized in the coming days, the official said, with the current plan for him to travel to Ethiopia in time to report back to a Feb. 22 meeting of EU foreign ministers. Haavisto’s office declined to comment.

Last Friday, Borrell outlined the EU’s decision to stop sending development assistance directly to the Ethiopian government, citing restricted humanitarian access amid “reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes.”

“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 [$106.7 million] in budget support,” Borrell wrote in a blog post.

The figure includes the suspension of three planned payments: €60 million for regional connectivity, €17.5 million for a health sector transformation plan, and €11 million for job creation.

“We were under circumstances under which by no means we could give a single euro of the EU budget to this government, because of what’s going on,” the EU official told Devex.

A spokesperson for the European Commission’s development department said Ethiopia will have to comply with the following conditions before the EU will disburse future budget support:

  • “Granting full humanitarian access for relief actors to reach people in need in all affected areas, in line with International Humanitarian Law.
  • Civilians must be able to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
  • Ethnically targeted measures and hate speech must stop.
  • Mechanisms to monitor human rights violations must be put in place to investigate allegations of breach of Human Rights.
  • Communication lines and media access to Tigray should be fully re-established.”

The move only affects budget support, which goes directly to the government. Other development modalities, such as funding channeled through NGOs, and humanitarian programs will continue. Last month, the EU increased its emergency aid to the region by €23.7 million.

The spokesperson did not respond to questions on how the suspension would affect the EU’s 2021-2027 development work in Ethiopia, which is currently being programmed.

Ethiopia is one of the top recipients of official development assistance from the EU. It was allocated €815 million for the 2014-2020 budgetary period, plus more than €400 million from the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

The EU official said that the European commissioners responsible for development, humanitarian aid and foreign affairs will discuss in the coming weeks how the current situation could affect the amount and implementing modalities for 2021-2027. However, it would be counterproductive to try to use the programming process as leverage against Ethiopia, the official added, arguing it would only harm the relationship and recalling that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has plenty of other partners.

Stefano Manservisi, the head of the commission’s development department from 2016 to 2019 and now a distinguished non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development, said suspending budget support was an understandable move in the circumstances. But he underscored the need to maintain “constant, daily dialogue” with Abiy and others in order to preserve relations with Ethiopia.

“Here, we are talking about one of our biggest partners and strategic allies in the Horn [of Africa],” Manservisi told Devex. “[Ethiopia is] one of the biggest African states, from which depends the stability not only of the Horn but also of big parts of eastern Africa and Africa at large.”

The United Nations reached an agreement with the Ethiopian government late last year on humanitarian access in government-controlled areas, but EU officials argue that this is insufficient.

“International humanitarian law is not about giving access to government-controlled areas,” the EU official told Devex. “International humanitarian law means giving access to all areas where people need us, and it’s very clear that this is not the case with the current agreement. We have told the Ethiopians that we stand ready to negotiate something different, but what is now on the table is not working.”

A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters Friday that despite some progress, “humanitarian relief operations continue to be constrained by the lack of full, safe and unhindered access to Tigray caused by both insecurity and bureaucratic obstacles imposed by federal and regional authorities.”

A second EU official told Devex that the U.N.’s initial approach — that some access was better than none — had failed. “The government is still claiming that things are getting better, at least where they have control,” the second official said. “It’s not true. It doesn’t work.”

The Ethiopian government did not respond to requests for comment.

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