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Refugees International Urges UN Action to End Violence, Famine in Tigray'

FILE - An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.
FILE - An Ethiopian woman argues with others over the allocation of yellow split peas after it was distributed by the Relief Society of Tigray in the town of Agula, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on Saturday, May 8, 2021.

30 international and local organizations issued an open letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the permanent Security Council members asking them to take urgent action to end violence and famine in Tigray.

The letter said that since November 2020, civilians in northern Ethiopia had been cut off from assistance, banking, and communications, leaving almost a million people to experience famine.

VOA's Jackson Mvunganyi spoke with Hardin Lang, the Vice President of Refugees International, one of the UN Letter's signatories, about what many described as a deliberate blockade of aid going to the region.

The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: What is the humanitarian situation inside of Tigray?

Lang: Inside of Tigray itself, what we've seen is a continuation of the blockade, what amounts to a blockade by the government of Ethiopia. And there, the situation for over five million people living inside, hunger remains an incredibly acute condition with a million plus people living in something approaching famine conditions and the number of an amount of humanitarian assistance that's getting in, is still just a fraction of what's required.

VOA: ​30 organizations including yours issued an open letter to the to the UN secretary general. Can you tell us a little bit what this letter calls for?

Lang: In particular, what we're looking for is first, a humanitarian cease fire of some form, and that's not just the government of Ethiopia and forces allied with it, that's also the Tigray defense forces who are at the moment the ones who have the initiative on the battlefield not only merely outside Tigray but also some of the surrounding region. But in addition, we want to see some humanitarian monitors deployed to be able to watch what's happening inside of Tigray and watch the aid being delivered and really encourage finally as a final step, more increased sort of an inclusive political process that will bring all the parties to the conflict to the table across Ethiopia.

VOA: Are their efforts to engage with militia groups operating without control from the central government?

Lang: So now what you see is the conflict beginning to generate its own momentum and the different actors need to come to the table and there're needs to be a very concerted effort by the international community, the African Union, United Nations, key donors, and regional stakeholders to get the parties of the conflict to the table to begin to talk about not only a cease fire but the broad outlines of a political solution.

VOA: What kind of influence can the UN exert on the Ethiopian government to make it comply with these demands that you're making in this letter?

Lang: I think the pressure comes in a couple of different forms. The first thing is that the Security Council really needs to take ownership of this issue...We believe that the crisis in Ethiopia is going to appear formally on the calendar in October for discussion. We're also grateful to see the members of the Security Council and the secretary general are increasingly beginning to use some more pointed rhetoric in talking about who is responsible. At the end of the day, the UN simply needs to hold to account the parties to the conflict and the government of Ethiopia. But then countries like the United States, which exert more direct pressure, need to work in concert with the UN and the other members of the Security Council...For example, we've seen the U.S. put into place or seek to establish the authority to exercise sanctions over individuals responsible for human rights abuse, atrocity, and then keeping humanitarian aid from flowing into areas where it's needed. Now they haven't put those sanctions into effect yet. They simply said that they've got the authority to do it. And they say if we don't see behavior change in a couple of key areas, they're going to put those into place. And so what needs to happen is those sanctions need to be married with a political strategy to get the various parties to the conflict to the table under the threat of sanctions. But with the United Nations and the African Union convening to begin to look at sort of workable and concrete solutions to improve the situation on the ground.