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The Interview: “Our concern was always to the vulnerable people impacted by war, not pressuring one side”-UK’s Ambassador to Ethiopia

Ambassador Alastair McPhail (PhD). Photo: Personal Blog

Ambassador Alastair McPhail (PhD) is the current ambassador of United Kingdom (UK) to Ethiopia and Djibouti (non-resident) and Permanent Representative to the African Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa since January 2019. He sat down with Addis Standard’s MOLLA MITIKU, to discuss UK’s intervention in ending Ethiopia’s devastating war, prospects of the Pretoria peace pact, conflicts elsewhere in the country and peace and security issues in the entire Horn of Africa region.


Addis Standard: Could you first brief us where bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Ethiopia stand currently?

Ambassador Alastair: We have a long-standing friendship, which goes back to more than 100 years. The UK is one of the first countries to open an embassy in Addis Abeba. We have had our largest development programs in the world here in Ethiopia in recent decades, providing some specific help to Ethiopia on development side, for instance, since 2015 the UK is directly supporting 1.2 million children to get education, in fact, we have to increase that. We have given to over three million people access to clean water and sanitation facilities and worked with Safaricom Ethiopia Telecom license. But more than that I would say we have an excellent people to people and amazing government to government contacts.

Addis Standard: As we all know, there has been a devastating war in Tigray, which later on expanded to Amhara and Afar, covering northern Ethiopia over the past two years, tell us about what UK’s involvement was in ending the war and bringing warring parties to negotiation?

Ambassador Alastair: First that we welcome the willingness of the government and TPLF’s side to reach an agreement on 02 of November in Pretoria to end the conflict. We have always been concerned about the impact on the people of the northern Ethiopia of this conflict. We welcome, in fact, that the AU has led the negotiation and others are willing to contribute. From the very beginning of the conflict on 04 November 2020, we have been in constant contact with all sides, with the government and the TPLF, to urge an end to the conflict, to urge protection of civilians and to make sure that the vulnerable are not targeted; to address questions of human rights violations and atrocities and emphasize that there is no military solution to political problems. I had given that message repeatedly to the government here and to the TPLF in Mekelle or wherever they happened to be.

Ambassador Alastair McPhail (PhD) in Mekelle. Photo: Dimtsi Woyane (DW)

It was my pleasure to go to Mekelle to witness the launching of the monitoring mechanism and of course to speak to people face to face last week. I was lucky enough to be able to go during the conflict to directly speak to the TPLF side last year. We have kept constant communication with both sides to encourage peace, emphasizing that the political issue, which may have been part of the conflict to begin, only got worse as the result of the conflict and that a military victory at the end doesn’t resolve the political issues and they will still have to be addressed and further issues are arising out of the conflict, which also need to be addressed. So the great deal of work thought to be done was the peace deal.

Addis Standard: There were complaints from both sides during the course of the war that on the one hand the federal government accuses Western countries, including the UK, of undue pressure, whereas authorities in Tigray on the other hand were complaining that the international community turned a deaf ear to what was happening there. What is your reaction to these complaints?

Ambassador Alastair: I can’t speak for the other countries you just mentioned but for the UK, as I have just described, we were encouraging all parties in the conflict to stop the fighting, to protect the civilians, to address the violations that have been committed during the conflict and to try and reach a peaceful solution.

any pressure that the international community was applying was to stop the conflict, to stop the fighting, to protect civilians, to protect the vulnerable…”

As we have been saying from the very beginning, there is no military solution. Any pressure that the international community was applying was to stop the conflict, to stop the fighting, to protect civilians, to protect the vulnerable. I would disagree with those who said that we were applying a pressure on one side or turned a deaf ear to those who were complaining about those things going on. Our ministers criticized and called out all atrocities which were confirmed in our parliament. So, it is not like favoring one or the other, what we are trying to do all the way through was urging the parties to stop the conflict. Our approach was different from other countries for we were very clear with both sides. The concern was the impact on the country, the people and indeed the international law. So, it was not a matter of trying pressuring on one side to harm the other, our concern was always to the vulnerable, for the people impacted by the war.

Addis Standard: We are hearing some positive developments mainly the past few days following the peace agreement, but there are still unsettled issues regarding unfettered access to humanitarian aid, the continued presence of the Eritrean army and other non-ENDF forces and of course the human rights abuses. Are there any engagements from your end to resolve these bottlenecks?

Ambassador Alastair: I think what has been agreed on in Pretoria and Nairobi is not the end. There will be more political negotiation. Most of the negotiations so far have been about stopping the conflict, like what to do with the forces, what to do with the heavy weapons, etc. There will be more negotiations that happens at political level and this will need to be in accordance to what has happened in the country as a whole. In terms of our support to the implementation of the peace agreement, we will look very carefully at what needs to be implemented, what provisions of the agreement are and there is a monitoring mechanism to monitor, verify, and issue compliance. The parties are, by and large, doing well at compliance, what they have signed and it is important, I believe, to support them in that.

“In terms of human rights violation etc., we do believe that there should be accountability, and there should not be impunity for the atrocities, and equally we don’t think the presence of external forces particularly those of Eritrea will make easier to implement the peace deal.”

We are also worried on the impact on civilian population, you mentioned humanitarian assistance, availability of medicine etc, that the UK was the first to provide 54 trucks to World Food Program (WFP) to get aid and medicine flowing to Northern Ethiopia. But when it comes to moving forward, we will look [into] what has been agreed by the parties, to assess them and see where we can support. In terms of human rights violation etc, we do believe that there should be accountability, and there should not be impunity for the atrocities, and equally we don’t think the presence of external forces particularly those of Eritrea will make easier to implement the peace deal. In fact, when it comes to the withdrawal from Tigray, others wouldn’t do better to influence. We will encourage as possible as we can the government here to urge the Eritrean forces to withdraw. I think it is important that for this to be resolved by Ethiopians that the foreign forces to withdraw from Ethiopia. This becomes genuinely an Ethiopian issue that should be resolved by Ethiopians.

Addis Standard: You said you attended the launch of AU Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mission in Mekelle. What did you observe there? And do you believe that the signed peace agreement will become a reality?

Ambassador Alastair: I think that the peace has to be a reality. They, the Tigrayan forces and the ENDF, have stopped fighting each other. I don’t think the presence of external forces helps the stability of the region. The peace agreement was vulnerable just when they have signed it, so the important thing was to demonstrate to everyone to stop fighting will improve peoples’ lives. We all have a role to play. But having spoken to both, the government and the Tigray authorities, both are committed to the peace agreement. They may not have the same reason for wanting the peace but I do believe they want peace; they want to move forward and that there are other issues for both and as I said earlier there is no military solution to political problems; it doesn’t resolve the issue. There are big issues which will need to be addressed and there is a huge issue facing the country. Ethiopia is a huge and important country not only to itself but to other countries in the region so Ethiopia’s stability matters to everyone. Therefore, the more we can do on peace, stability and security in Ethiopia of course development will be the better.

“When I arrived four years ago, I received a briefing on conflict hot-spots in the country and there were at least six of them and they were in Oromia as well as elsewhere.”

Addis Standard: Having assumptions that the peace will hold, the next phase would be rehabilitation and reconstruction of war affected areas. How do you plan to assist in this regard?

Ambassador Alastair: Well, we want to see what the plans are. The part of the problem that we have at the moment is that it has been almost impossible for any of us to visit Tigray. For many months it has been impossible to go and understand what damage there is and therefore to know what support is required. I think, it is impossible for anyone to say accurately right now what support will be needed to rehabilitate Tigray. We look forward that there will be greater access so that experts and those who will support the rehabilitation or reconstruction of Tigray are unable to go and see what is required.

“It (resolving the conflicts) will need political bravery, political will, people of vision and skill to see these through, but the future of the country depends on it.”

We have already provided support to UNICEF for emergency education and cycle social support for children affected by conflict in Tigray, Amhara and Afar. We are providing nationwide support on health and education. In Tigray, we need to have a proper assessment of what is required before we can even consider what support is needed by international and national institutions and organizations.

Addis Standard: Are you optimistic about full-fledged peace and stability in Ethiopia because despite the peace deal in the North, there are other conflicts in different parts of the country, mainly in the Oromia region?

Ambassador Alastair: I certainly hope so. There have always been conflicts in the country to be honest. When I arrived four years ago, I received a briefing on conflict hot-spots in the country and there were at least six of them and they were in Oromia as well as elsewhere. These conflicts have gotten worse as the conflict in the North [did]. So, I hope that the government and others, or the politicians, the people of Ethiopia can come together to address these various conflicts. It (conflict resolution) will need to have political bravery, political will, people of vision and skill to see these through that the future of the country depends on it. It is the only way the country is going to be a backer to the spectacular development path which it owned before. It was the fastest developing economy in the world for more than a decade and to come back to that, these issues need to be addressed.

Addis Standard: You earlier said peace in Ethiopia is important to the other countries in the region. How so? And what is your assessment and observation about the current security and stability in the Horn of Africa?

Ambassador Alastair: Like so many places in the world, peace and security is under pressure in the Horn. What we see on a regular basis, and again, this is why it is important that Ethiopia can find peace and security in its own borders so that it can be common anchor again in the volatile region. Borders are not hermetically sealed, so a lot of issues of peace and security go across borders. They don’t respect borders that we have seen last year Al-Shabab coming into Ethiopia. We have insecurity in Somalia and the UK has contributed to funding of the AMISOM, the AU mission in Somalia [now replaced with the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS)]. We do help promote peace and security in the Horn of Africa because there are many challenges to it. I think, there will need to be regional approaches rather than approaches addressed individually in countries because so many of the threats to peace and security are cross boarder and do involve cross border groups. Therefore, some of the political leaders have been trying to address these. But there will be greater cooperation and coordination not only among countries but also among partners, African Union, Regional organization in trying to address this regional treat not just a single country.

Addis Standard: Why does this concern the UK and what interest does the UK have in the Horn of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular?

Ambassador Alastair: We have a number of interests usually about how we can build partnerships and friendships with countries. There are a great many challenges in this country and this region. Look at the failed rains for a number of years, which brought drought and food insecurity. In this region there are a lot of vulnerable people. The UK has had its largest bilateral program here in Ethiopia for a number of reasons. One of the major interests here is improving life opportunities for the vulnerable Ethiopians. As I have said repeatedly in this interview security and stability of Ethiopia is critical to the wider Horn and that interests us. But of course, we have also a legal commitment actually in the UK to help reduce poverty that reducing poverty does bring security and stability to those countries and there is a mutual shared interest in this because we know that we will benefit from security in other countries. That is what we have seen from the recent Telecom deal we have involved with. We want to make more business in Ethiopia and for that peace will help. We want to move from relationships which are about tackling problems whether that is drought or conflict, to partnerships which are about positive things.

…the way to make the most of this amazing country with huge potential is through peace, economic and political reforms as well as by creating a genuinely inclusive national dialogue…”

Addis Standard: If you have final message you would like to convey to the leaders, people of Ethiopia?

Ambassador Alastair: Well, I think my message is that this is an amazing country with huge potential and the way to realize this potential is to be a country at peace. And we recommend sustaining its amazing development which it owned before. Therefore, I would repeat that there are no military solutions to the political issues which need to be addressed, all the issue of poverty, all the issue of frustrated ambitions… the way to make the most of this amazing country with huge potential is through peace, economic and political reforms as well as by creating a genuinely inclusive national dialogue in a way that everyone feels they have a stake in the future. The less the conflicts in the country, the more the people will engage with each other because the diversity of this country is spectacular and to harness it would be amazing. AS

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