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Column 1060should have been overcome had the developed countries invested more money in long-term agricultural projects to regenerate the economy. The Relief Society of Tigray said that it received only 6.2 per cent. of the budget that it requested for agricultural programmes. Wars continue in Ethiopia as a whole. They have reached the stage where Mengistu, backed by the Soviet Union and, apparently, by Israel and North Korea, is spending over 50 per cent. of his national budget on military and related expenditure. Even worse, he is apparently using famine as a weapon of war. He is trying to starve the people into submission. His forces are in control of the Red sea ports of Assab and Massawa, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for food to reach the people who are most in need. The only reasonable alternative is to use the Relief Society of Tigray to get food into Ethiopia from Sudan by means of a cross- border operation. What can the British Government do? I understand that there are those in Government circles, including Ministers, who believe that for diplomatic reasons it is difficult, if not impossible, for the British Government to become over-involved in Ethiopia's internal affairs. That is a strange position for the Government and the Prime Minister to be in. It would be ironic if the iron lady, the erstwhile scourge of Communism, was prepared to stand by while people starved to death because she was afraid of causing offence to a discredited, self-styled Marxist regime.
It is about time that a tougher line was taken in public against the Ethiopian Government. Mengistu should be told bluntly that we are not prepared to stand idly by while thousands of people die. We should get off the fence. We should give financial help and all the other assistance that we can give to the Relief Society of Tigray's cross-border operation from Sudan.
I accept entirely the point about the need to monitor the exercise. There is no hard evidence that the Relief Society of Tigray is using money to buy armaments. If, however, it is feared that the money that has been given to alleviate starvation is being misdirected towards the purchase of arms, efficient monitoring would help to alleviate that fear. It seems to me from our contact with the Relief Society of Tigray, through the Select Committee and personally, that REST has the organisation, the track record and the proven experience to carry that out. Since 1984-85 REST has been involved in the repatriation of 170,000 people from Sudan to their homes in Tigray. It achieved that without riot police with riot helmets, riot gear, truncheons and everything else we have seen in Hong Kong recently under the auspices of the British Government who are treating people like caged animals,
Once again Christmas is approaching and the Prime Minister would have us believe that we are living in a Christian country. Given recent events, it appears that Britain's reputation throughout the world is heading for the gutter. Perhaps we should try to salvage something of that reputation by showing a more humane attitude in our treatment of people elsewhere in the world, particularly in Ethiopia where they are starving. I hope that the message that comes from tonight's debate is that the whole House demands urgent and firmer action from the British Government.
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Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) : I suppose that for all of us occasional sights are so etched in our memories that they will remain with us for the rest of our lives. One such sight for me is the visit I made almost exactly five years ago as Minister for the Armed Forces to the children's hospital at Mekele in Ethiopia at the height of the famine. The press dubbed the children there as the "Belsen babes". For once the press may have indulged in understatement. I suspect that at Belsen the SS, with their grim attention to efficiency, would have ensured that the children there did not suffer malnutrition to the point at which they were no longer able to walk to their deaths.
The children that I saw in Mekele had long since lost the capacity to walk. The malnutrition that they suffered had resulted in the total wastage of their body muscles to the point at which they could no longer move. The worst cases lay there unable to turn over, raise an arm or a hand or even move their heads. Children of 10 and 11 lay there with faces of 70 or 80- year-olds. They were living, inert skeletons. One wondered at the appalling pain and agony that they must have suffered to reach that state of total body decay yet still be alive.
Happily, during the same visit, I saw many other children in a very different condition. Those were the children in the food distribution centres. They ran about, shouted, jostled and played and they had laughter instead of agony in their eyes. For those children relief had come in time. In 1984-85, when the relief arrived, the distribution was carried out extremely well and eventually the food arrived in abundance. I do not accept the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) about the scale of the British contribution when the relief arrived five years ago. Our operation was carried out with conspicuous skill and efficiency by our armed services.
The inescapable fact was, however, that five years ago our contribution and that of every other western developed country came too late for the many who died and for the very many who will suffer permanent handicaps in their bones and joints for the rest of their lives as a result of serious malnutrition in childhood.
What will be the outlook for the children and adults of Ethiopia in the weeks and months ahead? In the early months of 1990, will we see large numbers of so-called "Belsen babes" as I saw at Mekele hospital five years ago, or will we see children who have been spared the ravages of malnutrition as a result of a satisfactory programme of food aid? Hon. Members on both sides of the House fervently trust that we will see only the latter group of children and adults. I urge Ministers to make every possible effort to ensure that the British contribution is sufficient and do everything in their power to ensure that it gets through. In our modern world of affluence in Europe, North America and Australasia, with speedy delivery of food supplies, there should be no question but that famine should be part of the history books. There should be no place for mass famine in the modern world. It is unacceptable and intolerable that any group of people in any country should be allowed to starve to death.
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Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) made an extremely moving speech which was compelling in its honesty and force. I have not seen the sights that he described, except on television, but I can well believe that they must leave a deep scar which nothing can remove. If the right hon. Gentleman had been talking with the authority of a Minister, I would not be contemplating voting for the official Opposition motion tonight. I understand that a fair estimate of the position in Ethiopia is that some 4 million people are at risk of starvation between now and the end of March, and, more urgently, between 800,000 and 850,000 are at risk of starvation between now and the end of January. That is the scale and proportion of the problem. As a number of hon. Members have said, that is pretty horrific.
What can we effectively do? The Minister referred to an article in The Independent today about the statement by President Moi of Kenya that he had
"asked President Mengistu of Ethiopia to accept opening the corridors He has accepted."
The Minister said that the Government have no firm confirmation of that. Obviously, it is difficult to press the Minister further. As an opposition Member, I find it difficult to understand how the Kenyan head of state can be reported as making that categorical statement without our Government being able to confirm whether it is true. Obviously, if it is true, it is excellent news.
Sir Russell Johnston : The report, which inevitably has been abbreviated, said that President Moi had asked the "rebel" leaders in Tigray and Eritrea to do the same--whether one should call them rebels is a matter for discussion. In other words, there would be a ceasefire, as the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said. The overland routes can be opened without a ceasefire.
The Minister of State said, as has the Minister for Overseas Development previously--I hope that the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) will soon recover from her flu--that the Government had been using a lot of diplomatic pressure. On 4 December 1989, the Minister for Overseas Development said that Britain was stepping up "our continuing diplomatic efforts with the United States, the Soviet Union, our European Community partners, certain Arab countries."--[ Official Report, 4 December 1989 : Vol. 163, c. 19.] and so on. How seriously are the Government pursuing those efforts? Are they simply official-to-official talks or are they
Minister-to-Minister talks? What is the objective of this pressure? The Minister was right to say that the Soviet Union was central to the matter. The Soviet Union is in a much more responsive mood than she has been since perhaps the war.
Mr. Jim Lester : When the four of us visited Ethiopia to produce the report, which has been widely quoted, we talked to the Soviet ambassador in Addis Ababa and made the same remarks that had been made consistently year in, year out, about applying pressure to all three protagonists. The ambassador said, "We do all that we can, but you
Column 1063must remember that the Ethiopians are a proud people." No one can instruct a sovereign Government to do what we want, even though all of us are willing these changes to happen.
Sir Russell Johnston : I take that point. The Ethiopians are a proud people and it is not possible to instruct them on what to do. But we can turn off the weapons tap. President Mengistu needs the weapons and he gets them from the Soviet Union. We should remember the involvement of other eastern European countries. As I understand it, the police services are run by the Bulgarians and military intelligence by the East Germans. Other eastern European peoples are involved. The Saudis are the essential people to the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Eritreans. It is a matter not just of having discussions with the individual Governments involved but of finding a way to bring them together. The British Government would make a valuable contribution if they tried to get the interested parties together--the Russians, the eastern Europeans, the Saudis and the European Community--to offer a guarantee on the movement of food into these areas. One should not forget that in 1984 or 1985 a United Nations convoy was blown up by the Tigray forces because they suspected that it was an armed convoy, although it was not.
Sir Russell Johnston : I am sorry--that happened in 1987-88. Although inevitably we are concentrating on President Mengistu, free movement depends not just on him but on the co-operation of others, as the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) said. Obviously, a monitored ceasefire would be much better, but a solution can be found in other ways.
The hon. Members for Cynon Valley and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said that people were determined that the famine would not return after 1984-85, but that it has. The civil war is the main reason--if it is a civil war, because it can be argued that it is a liberation war--but there are other contributory factors, one of which is the British Government's reluctance to use the internal distribution system in Tigray and Eritrea. It has been argued that the money could be used for other purposes and the food used in the wrong way, but the circumstances are such that risk should be taken. Indeed, it should have been taken.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, West said that there was insufficient investment following the 1984-85 famine. Rehabilitation of the areas was inadequate. There was no proper replenishiment of, for example, the oxen stock. I am told--I do not know whether it is right or wrong--that one reason was that the Overseas Development Administration persuaded the European Community not to back any such scheme. If that is true, I should like confirmation.
I believe that refugees are pouring into the eastern region of the Sudan and that the Sudanese commission for refugees believes that 2, 000 people have crossed during the past 11 days. There are supposed to be 1 million refugees in the region, which has a total population of only 4 million. Although aid agencies are helping, United Nations aid has been cut dramatically from £52 million in 1985 to £8 million this year. Are the Government apprised of the situation and what are they doing to alleviate the problem?
Column 1064I am not saying that the British Government have done nothing--that is untrue. In many areas, they have done a great deal. Nevertheless, their response has been inadequate in both financial and political pressure terms--I suppose for all the reasons of the heart which were expressed so vividly by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling. For that reason, we will support the motion.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe) : I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), and I echo every sentiment that he expressed. Some of us have had the sad opportunity to follow the subject of famine in Ethiopia since the first famine there. I well remember scenes similar to those that my right hon. Friend described. I remember the way in which the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs first drafted its report. It is not fair to say that we criticised the amount of money that the Government gave or the way in which they gave it. Our principal criticism of the Government was that that £90 million came from the ODA's contingency fund. We recommended that it should have come from the Government's contingency fund.
We criticised the speed of operation, the inability to co-ordinate, and the European Community's long-winded procedures. I am satisfied that, as a result of those criticisms, we now have a much better system. The report from which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) quoted referred to the way in which famine was averted because things had changed and the delivery systems worked.
Until recently, all four members of the group who went to the area were in the Chamber. The hon. Members for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh), my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and I travelled widely in Tigray and Eritrea. We saw how a food distribution system can work on a sensible basis. People were encouraged to collect food on a once-a-month basis and stay in their villages, so that they could take advantage of the upturn when it came. As the hon. Member for Cynon Valley quoted, we warned in stark terms that this was only a temporary position and that it could only be a temporary position. We also warned that another famine would occur because of the reasons that we spelled out in that telling paragraph.
As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) said, we use the relief organisations of both the Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front. They are the people who receive the food that comes down the route from Port Sudan. We are talking not about the fact that they have food to distribute, but about the fact that we are not giving them money to buy food within their own communities unless we can monitor it satisfactorily. It would be wrong, therefore, to say that we do not use every possible method to meet the need.
In our first report, we gave the greatest credit to the Overseas Development Administration, and especially to its disaster relief operation, because of its knowledge and its ability to move quickly. I am sure that that ability has become greater rather than less recently. I reject the criticism that we are not competent, that the ODA cannot move quickly enough and that we do not care. We care
Column 1065enormously about ensuring that the mistakes of the past have been learnt and that we can operate quickly and efficiently.
We saw food distribution as it should be carried out in 1987-88, but we warned that nothing had changed basically and that if nothing changed, there would be a greater famine in future years. It is a great tragedy that we now see that prospect. However, some things have changed. There has been an overall change in the strategic position, as other hon. Members have mentioned, and the rains have failed for three years out of the past four. However, in Tigray and Eritrea, one basic element has not changed. I want to draw the attention of the House to our last report in which we said that the three protagonists made the relief operation second to their military and political objectives. That remains the most critical matter. However much the world bleeds and however much we try to find ways to get food to distribute, until that is changed we are doomed to difficulty.
The hon. Member for Falkirk, West and I travelled on the aeroplane from Mekele to Asmara. There was an available road and there was food in store coming from Massawa to Asmara, but the last bit of road was part of the war zone. The international community mounted at enormous cost--with money that could far better have been spent in rehabilitation, in building micro dams and in helping the local community to grow food--a massive airlift. We sat on the aeroplane that was bringing food down so that Mekele would not starve. Mekele is now part of the TPLF territory, as is the whole area. It is not possible to mount such an operation again.
We are all anxious to know whether there has been a breakthrough as a result of the efforts of President Moi. I want to pay a special tribute to the President of Kenya and to his officials who have done a great deal of background work to try to bring the talks in Nairobi to a successful conclusion. We should try to do everything we can to assist and to build on what President Moi said, so that we can see whether corridors can be created through which to bring food. From what has been said already, I understand that none of us has up-to-date information, but I am sure that President Moi would not have made a statement if he had not achieved something.
I talked to representatives of the EPLF yesterday. It was a difficult interview because of the suspicions, the qualifications and the issuing of counter-reports, which are always in their minds, and the situation is still fraught with suspicion. We have only to consider the efforts of ex- President Carter in Nairobi. He achieved a declaration, the establishment of a co-chairman and the establishment of seven observers, but immediately after he had achieved all that and made an announcement, one of the protagonists issued a counter-statement saying that he did not agree with everything that he had just signed with ex-President Carter. I use that example to show how fraught with difficulty the problem is and how the suspicions run deep among the three protagonists.
The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber mentioned the convoy. We saw the convoy that was supposed to be being used by the Ethiopian Government as a military convoy. The convoy consisted of white lorries with the United Nations flag painted on the doors. The convoy could not have been used--or even been seen to
Column 1066have been used--for military purposes, yet it was shot up and the food was burnt for purely military, tactical reasons. Nobody can claim that that was a mistake or that the Mengistu Government were using those lorries for false purposes. I use those examples to show that, however much we care and however much money we vote, the position on the ground, the degradation and the problems of the infrastructure are still the major difficulties in solving the problem.
I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that one of the ways in which we might make progress is to use the International Red Cross, which has done sterling work in Ethiopia. If it was not for its efforts, the problems of the first famine in Eritrea and Tigray would never have been met. The International Red Cross was quiet about it and we still have to be careful about such sensitive matters, but it carried the principal weight and fed the cross-border operation.
The irony is that in the potential second famine, which was averted, the International Red Cross saw that the best place from which to operate to feed the people was on the other side of the border. As a result, it was immediately called a traitor and condemned. How can anyone say that of the International Red Cross? It has done a marvellous job in the Sudan in a similar civil war, with the help of James Grant. I hope that if we cannot bring about a ceasefire, which is a dream in a sense, we can at least, following the initiative of President Moi, achieve an agreement on food corridors and for food to be carried by the International Red Cross. No one in the world could imagine that the International Red Cross would be allowed to be used for tactical or military advantage.
I am sure that the Government and my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers, whom I recognise to be involved and caring people, will do all that is necessary to match the British effort to the need. I am sure that the fact that our own ambassador in Addis Ababa co-ordinates the European effort is important. He has been there a long time and he is incredibly knowledgeable. I am sure that we shall meet the need in every possible way that we can within the physical limitations.
However, we must bring home clearly the fact that, however much we realise, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, that nobody should starve in our world of plenty, we cannot rely consistently on the most costly form of relief which is, of course, the cross-border operation involving bringing food into Port Sudan, shipping it down through the Sudan and carrying it over the most immensely difficult terrain that anyone can imagine. If any hon. Member had seen the Mercedes lorries that had been driven for only six months in the relief operation, he would have thought that they had been driven for 600 years as a result of the battering in the terrible terrain which they had to cross.
We cannot rely consistently on providing the most costly form of relief while the protagonists carry out an internecine war with military objectives that override their people's welfare. That is the real message of the Select Committee report, and that is the real message that we should still pass on to the three protagonists, whatever and from wherever the diplomatic effort.
I know that, as a result of our previous report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent out about 35 telegrams to try to mobilise all possible international diplomatic effort to bring the three groups together, as we now know, in two separate parties. When we were in Rome
Column 1067only 10 days ago, one of the major subjects that we discussed with Senator Agnelli, who is responsible for this area, was how the talks would be conducted in Rome between the TPLF and the Mengistu Government.
We have seen a change in the British aid effort as a result of our report. Until we went in 1987-88, we had a firm policy of giving no assistance other than humanitarian relief. Our report suggested that that was a nonsensical approach. The lack of water was the main reason why agricultural communities could not grow food. We said that, if we could guarantee that the money would not go to the Government or to the protagonists, it made a lot of sense to support non-governmental organisations in building micro-dams and in small projects to bring relief to communities. I am happy to say that the Minister accepted that argument and we have been pursuing that policy ever since--subject, of course, to the overall military consequences of bombing and fighting, which undo the work of the communities, who build the dams themselves, realising that it is in their interests to do so.
There are two other causes for concern in Ethiopia. The first is the situation of the Somali refugees in Hararghe in the south-east. Their circumstances have become increasingly difficult and their state increasingly unsatisfactory. The second is the plight of the Sudanese refugees in the south-west. Some of us have visited the camps there and have been greatly disturbed to find 350,000 people living in such inadequate conditions.
This is an important debate, and its message is a good message--that we are genuinely concerned. I do not join the hon. Member for Cynon Valley in her criticism of the Government and their operation. I am sure that they have learnt a great deal and that this debate will ensure that they are very much on their toes as events unfold. I have one last message to leave with the House. One of Ethiopia's tragedies is that is has remained one of the five poorest countries in the world, just as it was one of the five poorest countries in the world in 1960. Yet, given a civilised Government with the desire to liberate the talents of their people, Ethiopia would have tremendous potential. In spite of deforestation and the terrible problems in the north, 82 per cent. of Ethiopia is capable of profitable and full development. It is on such development--and away from the internecine war-- that we should try to focus the Ethiopians' attention. 8.42 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : I sympathise with the Minister of State, who is not in his place at the moment, because this is the second time in just a few weeks that he has been dragged to the House to defend the indefensible. On the first ocasion he sought to defend the Government's policy in Cambodia, which we regard as beyond belief. On this occasion, he is defending the Government's response to the famine, which could be described as "too little, too slow." I shall deal in detail with the extent to which it is too little and too slow, but first I give the Minister my sympathy, because his is one of the more acceptable faces in this hard-faced Government. That is why he is dragged out to do the dirty work, in the hope that he may be able to place some kind of gloss on the situation.
In response to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), let me say that this is in no sense a criticism, of the Minister for Overseas Development, still less of the
Column 1068officials at the Overseas Development Administration. The Minister and her officials do their very best within the prison of parsimony in which the Government's hard-faced approach has them well and truly incarcerated. Let no one say that we are criticising the fine officials in the ODA who are doing their best within severe limitations to put all hands on deck.
Like the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), I am a veteran of the previous famine in Ethiopia. I went to the Library to dig out some articles that I wrote for the Spectator and The Sunday Times on my return from a visit to Ethiopia. Only then did it strike me that it is virtually five years to the day since I walked among the carnage that that famine visited on those in the killing fields not only of Ethiopia but of Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Mali and other countries in the belt of Africa that suffered the drought of 1984-85. The memory of those events is seared on the mind of anyone who has stooped and held the hands of children who have died for want of a crust of bread a matter of hours later. It is a greatly humbling experience.
Let me make a positive point. I hope that one of the effects of this debate will be to concentrate the minds of the British public and the media on the desperate need to give in this Christmas period. Whatever the Government's response may be, we shall need the public to dig as deeply into their pockets as they have in the past if we are to ensure the necessary response.
As I reread the articles that I had written, I was struck by the dreadful and grim familiarity of the events that are now unfolding. We have the same place names, the same dreadful routes down which aid lorries have to trundle in the night to avoid the bombing and strafing that the war involves. We have the same numbers of people, and we hear of the same crops being necessary. There is a grim sense of deja vu for anyone who was involved in 1984-85.
There seems to be some surprise--I suspect that it is feigned--from Conservative Members at the fact that the Opposition have tabled a motion that is critical of the Government. I believe that that motion should be supported because it is fully justified. The Minister made much of the figures--whether £2 million extra or £13 million--and of what had been done in a particular week after a particular point of order had been raised. The Government say that they have presided over what the former Chancellor used to call an economic miracle. A Government who make such a claim must find it difficult to come to the House and justify a steady reduction in the percentage of our GNP that we are giving in oveseas aid. Any Government who seek to pay off the national debt and give tax handouts to the best-off in our society, as this Government have, must find it difficult to justify giving such small sums--whether £2 million or £13 million--when millions of people are in danger of dying of starvation.
It is useful to look at the figures. Last year Ethiopia received a grand total of $15 per head of population in development assistance from the world community. Compare that with Botswana, for example, which received $92 per head of population and Somalia, which received $94 per head. Yet those countries can hardly be regarded as rolling in money or as being over -generously treated.
Ethiopia is a special case in a number of ways, one of which is the abysmally low level of development assistance that it has received from the international community. The Minister rightly praised the response of the public to the
Column 1069previous famine. It is true that people voted with their cheque books for Africa and Ethiopia during that famine-- in unprecedented numbers and to an unprecedented extent. But, at the same time, the Government voted with their parliamentary majority steadily to reduce the percentage of gross national product that goes in overseas aid. That is a disgrace.
Other hon. Members have sketched the scale of the danger, and I shall not reiterate their remarks except to say that it is estimated that by January- -only a few short weeks from now--4 million people will be in need of emergency food. Some 600,000 tonnes of food aid is required, but only a third of that has been pledged. Wealth and food in abundance exists in the North and West and the situation must be tackled urgently.
The need for trucks has been mentioned. Some 700 trucks will be needed to carry food, and I hope that the British can do something about that. In the past, they have been generous. I hope that we can step up that aid.
Above all, we must stop the flight away from the land, over the borders and into refugee camps. One of the worst scenes that I have ever witnessed was at the refugee camp at Wad Kowli in Ethiopia, near the Sudanese border. I visited the camp twice in 1985. Some 40,000 people were living and many were dying there. It was a sea of tuberculosis, coughing, disease, malnutrition and death. When people fled from their land in the hope of receiving some meagre relief in such camps, the seeds were sown for such disasters, or rather the seeds were not sown, because they had fled from the land. If water came, nothing could be done with it because the people who husbanded the land had been forced to flee to survive.
During the last famine, I was the general secretary of War on Want. That organisation was one of the most strident voices in the whole world, saying that we should lay a substantial proportion of the responsibility for those events at the door of the Mengistu regime. That remains true today. The disastrous policies of the Dergue and its failure to resolve the outstanding questions of nationalities and the Eritrean people are a major cause of the problem. However, the Dergue is not the only cause.
I should like to disabuse some of my hon. Friends, because the columns advancing on Addis Ababa under the banner of the TPLF are not knights on white chargers who will radically alter the course of events in Ethiopia for the better. The political programme of the TPLF is, if anything, worse than that of the Ethiopian Government. In an excellent report in The Independent on 28 November 1989, Richard Dowden was told by the chairman of the TPLF that the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries have never been truly Socialist :
"The nearest any country comes to being socialist as far as we are concerned is Albania".
Anyone who thinks of swapping the Stalinist school of agriculture of President Mengistu for the Albanian school of agriculture and economics of the TPLF is making a serious mistake. Peace and negotiations are needed in Ethiopia. No one should be giving blank cheques of any kind to the TPLF.
The Eritrean case is different, as it is not a civil war. Ethiopia is occupying the territory of Eritrea and it should be given independence as soon as possible.
I am conscious of the need to be brief, so I shall bring my speech to a close with a couple of reflections. While
Column 1070Mengistu and drought are major problems, the fundamental cause of the famine, as in the rest of the Third world, is not dictatorships or the weather, but grinding poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said, one quarter of the world's population is afflicted by what the United Nations describes as absolute poverty. I read a striking article in The Guardian entitled "Children die as money goes on debt and arms' ", which said that, in its annual statement on the world's children, UNICEF--the United Nations Children's Fund-- reported :
"40,000 children are dying each day--nearly one every two seconds. Of those, nearly 8,000 die because they have not been immunised, nearly 7,000 from dehydration caused by diarrhoea, and nearly as many again from pneumonia."
At the same time Third world countries are paying out enormous sums of money on armaments to fight petty grim little wars, which are often fuelled by the superpowers--or less than superpowers like us--who sell them the armaments and on debt payments.
It is worth remembering that in the year of Band Aid Third world countries paid back more in interest than they received in total overseas aid from all the Governments and all the people of the world.
Grim, unrelenting fatally desperate poverty afflicts Ethiopia and is a fundamental problem in the Third world. Until we solve that problem we shall return to debates like this time and again. 8.55 pm
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : This debate has been characterised by the fact that almost everyone who has taken part has spoken with real knowledge of the subject and some first-hand experience of Ethiopia. I welcome the opportunity to take part as I went to Ethiopia in 1985 with the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). We went under the auspices of the Save the Children Fund and Oxfam. Like anyone who visited Ethiopia that year, and like my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), I was struck by the need to express the dimensions of the catastrophe which faces thousands of people in Ethiopia. However, I am not confident that we can find the right words to express the disaster that they face.
Anyone who visited Ethiopia during the last famine has memories that are for ever etched on their minds. For me, the picture that almost gives me nightmares is a plain which, as far as the eye can see, is brown and arid, covered with rocks rather than green and verdant. The plain is not empty but full of people who are literally bones and rags. Thousands of them were camped out on the plain at Mekele with little or no food or shelter. During the day, the sun beats down remorselessly, but at night it is near freezing. There is an even more poignant and horrific memory. UNICEF has had a feeding programme in Mekele for a long time. It had enough food only for a limited number of children, who were kept in a compound and fed daily. Outside a large number of children looked over the wall, watching the children who were part of the feeding programme. The children outside the wall were without food, shelter or comfort. That memory was not a nightmare--unfortunately, it was the truth, and it was called Mekele.
As we have heard today, those circumstances will almost certainly return, and thousands of men, women
Column 1071and children will die unnecessarily of starvation. When we went to Mekele, Cardinal Hume by chance was with us, and I remember him, or perhaps someone else, saying as we looked numbly at that plain full of people :
"The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but these people have absolutely nothing."
Some two million people are again threatened with famine. It would be comforting to be able to assert that the problems could be solved by a massive injection of food aid in the short term, and by further increases in development aid in the longer term. Heaven knows, Ethiopia's problems are bad enough when the harvest does not fail--even in a year of good harvest there is a substantial food shortfall. Per capita food production has declined steadily as the rate of population growth has substantially outpaced improvements in agriculture. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, if not the poorest. Food production lags further behind food needs. Even when the harvest succeeds, Ethiopia has problems. Worse than that, not only is Ethiopia gripped by famine, but it is gripped by civil war, and by a cruel twist of fate the area where the civil conflict is worst is the area where the drought is most intense. There have been total crop failures in large parts of Eritrea and Tigray this year.
It would be comforting in such circumstances to look for heroes and villains. Mengistu is a tyrant who has spent more than 80 per cent. of his country's pitiful income on ever more arms to prosecute civil wars. Some £3 billion worth of arms has been bought from the Soviet Union in the past few years. It is worth contemplating that figure. Insanely, ports such as Massawa and Assab, which could be used to import food, are closed on Mengistu's orders. The Ethiopian air force Mig fighters regularly bomb and strafe the roads to Tigray and Eritrea--the very roads on which the relief convoys should be travelling. This is not a story of villains and heroes because, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) said, the other protagonists in these conflicts are not completely innocent. Tragically, all the protagonists in the internal conflict have used food aid as a military and political weapon.
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs produced an excellent report which I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will read. It went to Ethiopia in 1988 and reported 1,500 men of the EPLF attacking a United Nations convoy carrying food supplies on the road from Asmara. The trucks were clearly marked and painted white, but they were destroyed by grenades and rockets and the food was burnt. That and other attacks were clearly carried out to tie the Ethiopian army to protecting the roads and to attempt to force the United Nations and other relief agencies to accept the EPLF's proposals for carrying out relief work in Eritrea. The same can be said for the TPLF, which wants to demonstrate de facto control over certain areas by the use of food aid, just as the Ethiopian Government want to use hunger to force people out of what they regard as rebel-held areas. No headway can be made until the civil wars come to an end. No side can hope to achieve military victory. Using food as a political weapon will not provide any solutions. Tragically, the Ethiopian army, the EPLF and the TPLF have all put politics before relief, and the prospect of military advantage ahead of the lives of their own people. It is time to end that insanity.
All possible civilised international, diplomatic and political pressure must be brought to bear, through the
Column 1072United Nations, from the Soviet Union and from the European Community, to prevent further arms sales to the protagonists in Ethiopia, to persuade the Ethiopians to open their ports and adapt an open-roads policy which would allow the free passage of food throughout Ethiopia, and to enable the United Nations world food programme and the relief agencies to get food as urgently as possible to those who need it.
I appreciate that it is the role of the Opposition to oppose, but by tabling the motion that they put down for this debate they have chosen the wrong target and the wrong arguments. Through bilateral and Community channels, Britain's emergency food aid to Ethiopia has totalled more than £54 million since January 1987 and more than £138 million since January 1985. So far this year, 17,000 tonnes of food aid have been pledged. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed that further emergency contributions would be made in response to the worsening situation.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) sought to make play of a letter published in The Independent from the director of the Save the Children Fund. I am president of the Banbury branch of the Save the Children Fund and a keen supporter of its work. When I read that letter in The Independent I was disappointed because, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development made clear to the House on 4 December, it was in the offices of the Save the Children Fund that she and representatives of other non-governmental organisations drew up their contingency plans for how the Save the Children Fund and other members of the Disaster Emergency Committee could help in the unfolding situation in Ethiopia. I recently met the secretary of the Disaster Emergency Committee at the annual meeting of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society and there was no scintilla of criticism about the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Overseas Development Administration had been handling the situation so far.
As my right hon. Friend made clear on 4 December, Britain has been at the forefront of numerous diplomatic initiatives to improve the situation in Ethiopia. My right hon. Friend has clearly taken every opportunity here, in Rome, in Washington, in Brussels and in Paris to seek to persuade the international community to act together. That was reinforced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the recent summit in Strasbourg where the Community Heads of Government made it clear in their communique to the Soviet Union that they very much hoped that the Soviet Union would use all its power and influence and apply pressure in Addis Ababa to help to end the civil conflict and to stem the flow of arms to the protagonists. The problem cannot be solved by Britain or any one country alone. It has to be solved by the whole international community. I very much hope that, having heard the debate, the Opposition will decide not to divide the House because this is not a subject upon which we should be divided. The subject is so tragic and horrific that the House should be united. If the House is united, the various diplomatic and other initiatives that this country takes will have a far greater chance of succeeding. If we are seen to be divided, it will be far easier for those in Ethiopia and elsewhere who choose to be deaf to what we say to turn a deaf ear to what we want to tell them. We want to
Column 1073tell them and the world that there is no reason on God's earth why, in the latter part of the 20th century, millions of people should face starvation.
I cannot go along with the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) in his defence of the Government. It seems indefensible for the Government to have been cutting the proportion of our gross domestic product that goes in overseas aid. I find it extremely difficult to justify that to my constituents or to anyone else in the civilised world. If the Government want us to have any sympathy with their problems, they should take the earliest possible opportunity to restore the proportion of our aid at least to its 1979 level, and should steadily aim towards the United Nations' target.
I accept that the hon. Member for Banbury was in Ethiopia at the same time as me. I recognise the pictures that he has recounted to the House, as I did those drawn by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). I still have nightmares about the scenes I saw in Ethiopia at the height of the famine. I have another memory. I also went to Ethiopia in 1981. I went up to the north, in Karin, and visited the British war graves there. Like most war graves, they reminded me of those who lost their lives in the second world war. I was struck by the fact that they were scarred by bullets from further conflicts. Since 1981, those graveyards in Karin have been fought over another four times. Ethiopia has suffered 60 years of almost continuous conflict. It is scarred by famine, but it is also scarred by those 60 years of war. Almost all those wars have been not totally Ethiopian affairs but affairs encouraged by people outside Ethiopia. Large world powers have fought out their battles in Ethiopia. It is one of the tragedies of Ethiopia that so often the wars fought there have been fought either directly by world powers or in proxy for them.
I hope that we can bring some relief to the people in Ethiopia. However, the only possible relief for Ethiopia will be if we can bring peace to that country. When a war is being fought, it is impossible to persuade people to fight nicely so that they do not use starvation as one of the weapons. Starvation is just another nasty example of the weapons of war.
My message is firm : the only way to improve the position in Ethiopia is to achieve peace. I would argue strongly that the Government should place much more emphasis on diplomatic efforts to bring about peace in Ethiopia. We should try to ensure that there is an arms embargo. No country should be prepared to supply arms to any of the protagonists.
We cannot apportion blame or virtue to any of the people in Ethiopia. They are all to blame, because at some point each group of people in Ethiopia has had the opportunity to negotiate for peace. However, almost every time, some group has felt that it was on the verge of
Column 1074outright victory and has therefore been reluctant to participate in negotiations. Then the tide of war has swung against it, and it has been in no position to negotiate.
We must find a solution in Ethiopia which produces some federal forum to give all groups the opportunity for independence and self-government for their part of the country, but also gives them an overall pattern to establish a position in which the three or four major groups can live peacefully without resorting to conflict, and without people from outside encouraging conflict. I hope that the Government will use all their powers to encourage an arms embargo and will encourage in every possible way the talks that are taking place between the three protagonists to bring about a lasting peace. If the open-road initiative that was announced by the President of Kenya is embarked upon, we must see it only as the first step to a lasting peace. If that open-road policy is accepted by all the parties, it must be backed by getting food through quickly. As my hon. Friends have said, it is important to encourage people to stay in their own villages and not to go to camps or elsewhere in search of food. The only way to encourage people to stay in their villages is to convince them that food will arrive. The only way to do that is for people to see the food being moved quickly. If the open-road policy is implemented, it should be possible to move food quickly by road. The world powers will also have to look at the possibility of an air lift, at least in the short term, in order to convince people that food will arrive.
Ethiopia is a beautiful country ; as Conservative Members have said, it has great potential ; but while it suffers from war and famine, there will be no opportunity to realise that potential. The first priority is to stop the war. When that is done, there will be a chance to tackle the famine in the short term. After that, we must look at long-term aid which can release the potential of the country.