Live

Watch CBSN Live

"Tragedies of historic proportions": U.N. confronts Ethiopia as famine grips Tigray region

Humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray region
Humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray regi... 08:18

United Nations — At a long-stalled U.N. Security Council meeting on Tigray, Ethiopia on Friday, U.N. officials warned of increased starvation and the threat of further violence despite a unilateral cease-fire declared by the government last week. 

"One of the most distressing trends is an alarming rise in food insecurity and hunger due to conflict," the U.N.'s acting humanitarian coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham told diplomats. "More than 400,000 people are estimated to have crossed the threshold into famine and another 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine."

Months of fighting left the region devastated and will make it harder to get aid to those in need.

On Saturday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said he was deeply concerned with the present situation in Tigray, and stressed the importance of a ceasefire. 

"It is essential to have a real ceasefire paving the way for a dialogue able to bring a political solution to Tigray," Guterres said. "The presence of foreign troops is an aggravating factor of confrontation. At the same time, full humanitarian access, unrestricted humanitarian access must be guaranteed to the whole territory. The destruction of civilian infrastructure is totally unacceptable."

"Basic services to support humanitarian delivery are absent. Mekele [Tigray's capital] has no electrical power or internet. Key infrastructure has been destroyed, and there are no flights entering or leaving the area," the U.N.'s Under Secretary General Rosemary DiCarlo said. 

"There must be accountability for the grievous human rights violations committed during the conflict, including acts of sexual violence against children and adults and mass killings," DiCarlo added, warning,"there is potential for more confrontations and a swift deterioration in the security situation, which is extremely concerning."

President Biden's U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. called for the open Security Council meeting because, as U.N. officials have warned, "tragedies of historic proportions" are taking place in Tigray.

"It's the first opportunity for us to show that African lives matter as much as other lives around the world. But an open meeting is not enough. What we need to see is action on the ground," she said.

Child in Tigray waits to receive food aid
A child who fled the violence in Ethiopia's Tigray region waits to receive food during a food distribution organized by the Relief Society of Tigray in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, on June 22, 2021. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

At the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield laid out what the U.S. says must happen next: "We need to see a cease-fire that is permanent; that all of the parties agree to. We need to see the Eritrean troops return to their own border. We need to see unfettered access for humanitarian workers. We need to see accountability for the atrocities that have been committed."

"Ethiopia has tried to avoid this meeting for months," Richard Gowan, U.N. Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank, told CBS News. "The fact that the U.S. and its allies have secured this meeting is itself a signal that Ethiopia has lost some credibility … and it opens up the possibility that the Council will take further action down the road."

"The meeting is the message," said Gowan.

The fighting broke out in November 2020 when Ethiopian government troops moved against forces in the Tigray region. Neighboring Eritrea sent troops across the border to help the Ethiopian regime fight Tigray's former governing party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). 

In mid-June, then-U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told Security Council members that Eritrean soldiers were "using starvation as a weapon of war." And amid the worst famine worldwide in a decade, other atrocities were taking place.

"Rape is being used systematically to terrorize and brutalize women and girls. Aid workers have been killed, interrogated, beaten, blocked from taking aid to the starving and suffering and told not to come back," he said. 

But then the military balance shifted, and Tigray's forces retook its capital. The Ethiopian government, faced with the turn of fortunes, declared a unilateral cease-fire to try to rein in a war that has destabilized Africa's second most populous country.

DiCarlo said Eritrean forces have withdrawn to areas near the border, but that Amhara regional forces from Ethiopia remain in western Tigray.

"A meaningful cease-fire deal would affirm the redeployment of forces and the complete withdrawal of Eritrean troops and Amhara regional forces," Thomas-Greenfield said.

In a briefing to reporters earlier this week, Russia's Ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia said the "unilateral cease-fire that the Ethiopian government announced gives us a light glimmer of hope. … There is no solution to this crisis by military means, only a political solution will work." 

But since the cease-fire declaration, the famine has only gotten worse, U.N. officials said Friday. 

The World Food Program said that a key bridge across the Tekeze River — essential for the delivery of humanitarian aid — was destroyed and humanitarian aid blocked.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, affiliated with Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who follows Ethiopia closely, said that the risk of the international community not sending a strong message is that "ethnic violence … could lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia."

Ethiopia's U.N. Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie on Friday questioned the purpose of the meeting and accused Tigrayan forces of atrocities, but he also appeared to have gotten the message from world powers at the meeting. He said those responsible for atrocities will be held responsible and spoke of "national dialogue." 

Ireland's Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, one of the first co-sponsors of calling the meeting along with the U.S. and U.K., said "Council members have an opportunity to send a clear message to the parties on the ground: this conflict must end." 

Asked by CBS News what the U.S. hoped to get out of Friday's meeting, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield replied, "The parties to the conflict know that we are watching them, and we're watching them closely."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.