UNSC Watch: On the Tigray Crisis, India Underlines Ethiopia's Territorial Integrity

India’s position on conflict zones like Crimea, Syria, Myanmar – or now Tigray – is framed through the Kashmir dispute, which inevitably leads to underlining a state's territorial integrity.

New Delhi: At the UN Security Council’s first public meeting on the Tigray crisis, there was consensus about the need for humanitarian access to the conflict zone, but divergences remained on the responsibility of the Ethiopian government.

India did not follow Russia and China in terming Tigray as an internal issue of Ethiopia but did emphasise the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. However, India also prescribed the need to follow the federal constitutional principles and withdraw foreign forces, which aligns with the Western position.

Ethiopia is considered as the stabilising influence in the strategic Horn of Africa. Therefore, the break out of the civil war in November 2020 in Ethiopia’s northernmost state has rung alarm bells around the region – and in the wider international community.

After France took over the presidency for July, the first formal meeting was the open discussion by the UN Security Council since the conflict erupted more than eight months ago.

The UNSC has discussed Tigray six times, but all of them in closed format and not recorded formally.

The latest open meeting was called by the US, UK and Ireland, but it came after a bit of closed-door negotiations with other members. Russia and China had opposed an open discussion, with the three African countries in UNSC, known as ‘A3’ also apparently reluctant to have a public airing of the crisis. The Council issued a press statement in April that backed the efforts of the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

According to Security Council Report, there was even a disagreement over the listing of the agenda item. The West wanted the meeting to be held under the agenda item of “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”. However, in the face of opposition from the ‘A3 plus one’, the Tigray situation was finally discussed under the agenda of “Peace and Security in Africa”.

Ahead of the meeting, the US’s envoy to UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, had said that the open session “represents progress”, as it was necessary for the “parties to the conflict know that we are watching them, and we’re watching them closely”.

In the Myanmar crisis that the Council had to deal with this year, the UNSC has handed over the initiative to the southeast Asian regional body, ASEAN. But, the US does not seem to put similar emphasis on the African Union – at least as per its statement at the Council from where it was absent.

Instead, there was a lot more pressure on the Ethiopian government to “demonstrate” that its unilateral humanitarian ceasefire would be functional on the ground. The US envoy also called out Ethiopian government forces for having looted offices of humanitarian organisations as they withdraw from Mekkele, the capital of Tigray.

Ethiopia civil war

The World Food Program (WFP) convoy trucks carrying food items for the victims of the Tigray war are seen parked after the checkpoints leading to Tigray Region were closed, in Mai Tsebri town, Ethiopia June 26, 2021. Photo: Reuters.

In India’s statement, there was no explicit reference to the African Union. During Myanmar deliberations, India strongly backed the ASEAN position and stressed the necessity to let the regional body take the initiative.

Diverging from the West, India’s permanent representative to UN, T.S. Tirumurti, “appreciated” the Ethiopian government for providing humanitarian access and assistance to the impacted population and “commended” the declaration of ceasefire. There was also no specific criticism of Ethiopian government forces for targeting humanitarian workers.

Also read: UN Warns of Worsening Famine, More Clashes in Ethiopia’s Tigray

However, India did call on the “Ethiopian Government to sustain the ceasefire and find a way to address this conflict in a manner that serves the interests of all of its people in line with the federal constitutional provisions”.

Observers have described the feud between Tigray’s leading political party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as largely an ideological issue over the federal nature of Ethiopia. TPLF had been the dominant party in the alliance which set up a federal system based on ethnic groups in 1994.

After Abiy came into power, his political reforms triggered suspicion in Tigray that Ethiopia was moving toward a unitary model of government.

India’s remarks highlighting the federal constitutional provisions could be interpreted as a signal to Addis Ababa to follow the principle of federalism, which is essentially a key talking point of the West.

Out of the 12 UNSC members who delivered statements, at least eight specifically mentioned that Eritrean soldiers fighting the Tigray rebels alongside Ethiopian and Amhara militia should leave the province. Only Russia, China and Vietnam did not mention the presence in their interventions.

India called for an end to the “presence of external armed actors in the Tigray region”, but did not mention Eritrea.

Speaking on behalf of ‘A3’ and St Vincent and Grenadines, Kenyan permanent representative Martin Kimani demanded the withdrawal of “any and all non-Ethiopian forces from Tigray and the standing down of all militias from neighboring federal states”.

Kenya also stated that the Security Council should always “listen to Africa” regarding African issues. “The Council should also allow the continent the space to resolve its challenges with the support of the international community,” said Kimani.

He also reminded it had requested the UNSC to give Ethiopia “space to undertake its most recent elections”.

The Kenyan envoy noted that the Security Council needed to understand that this debate should “encourage and support African solutions”. “Meaning, in this instance, Ethiopian solutions starting in the order of ceasefire, humanitarian delivery, dialogue, reconciliation and responsibility,” added Kimani.

While the US had remained silent on the role of the African Union, France and the UK talked about backing mediation efforts of the regional body.

The ‘A3’ statement also underscored commitment to the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia”. This was also explicitly cited by member states like India, Vietnam and France.

India’s position on conflict zones like Crimea, Syria, Myanmar – or now Tigray – is framed through the Kashmir dispute, which inevitably leads to underlining a state’s territorial integrity.

Last week, Council held a meeting on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), where the top UN official for political affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, urged the US to lift sanctions on Iran. She also called on Iran to facilitate non-proliferation projects at Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the Fordow Facility and the Arak reactor.

India made no explicit mention of the lifting sanctions, but supported “full and effective implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and resolution 2231”.

While Tirumurti said that all JCPOA participants should adhere to their obligations, he urged “Iran to continue to cooperate with the IAEA in the performance of its verification activities and addressing all outstanding issues”.

This week in the UNSC

All eyes will be on the July 8 meeting of the Security Council scheduled to vote on the draft resolution that will renew the mandate for a cross-border aid supply mechanism in Syria. Last year, China and Russia had vetoed two drafts before a resolution was finally passed.

At the last meeting on Syria’s humanitarian situation in June, Russia had indicated that it was not in favour of cross-border mechanisms. There is also a meeting on Syria’s humanitarian situation on Tuesday (July 6), but held behind closed doors.

Besides, on July 7, there is a briefing on the situation in DRC for the Council members. Later in the week, the UNSC’s DRC sanction committee is also scheduled to hold informal consultations.