Expulsion of UN staff from Ethiopia “unprecedented”

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres maintains the expulsion of UN humanitarian workers from Ethiopia’s Tigray region is “disturbing” in the face of “an immense human crisis”.

He urged authorities in the East African country to allow “vital humanitarian work” to continue and focus on saving lives and “avoiding a massive human tragedy”.

Guterres said the Ethiopian government’s decision last week to expel seven senior officials was “concerning because it relates to the core of relations between the UN and member states”.

Following the 30 September decision, the UN wrote to the Ethiopian government, stating that declaring a staff member persona non grata and demanding they leave the territory, is inconsistent with a country’s obligation under the UN Charter.

The diplomatic note explained that should a government have specific issues concerning individuals, the UN should be informed allowing the Secretary-General to take action if and where required.

“In other words, there is a proper, formal procedure and that procedure was not followed,” Guterres said.

The UN will continue to work with government and partners to support millions across the country who need assistance.

“I call on Ethiopian authorities to let us do this without hindrance and facilitate and enable our work with the urgency the situation demands,” he said.

The Secretary-General underlined the magnitude of the crisis in northern Ethiopia after nearly a year of fighting between federal troops and Tigray regional forces.

Conflict between federal troops and Tigray regional forces spilled over to neighbouring Afar and Amhara and some seven million people need food aid and emergency support after almost a year of conflict.  More than five million are in Tigray, where an estimated 400 000 people live in near famine conditions.

Aid levels are currently insufficient to meet needs, amid obstacles such as roadblocks and movement restrictions.  Access to electricity remains precarious and millions are cut off from communications as well as vital services including healthcare.

There are reports of violations by all sides, including gender-based and sexual violence against women and girls. Guterres said humanitarians shared alarming accounts of suffering, including reports of hunger-related deaths.

“I urge government to allow unrestricted movement of desperately needed fuel, cash, communications equipment and humanitarian supplies into all regions in need.

“I appeal to Security Council members to do all they can to support these calls and unify behind UN efforts and its partners in Ethiopia,” he said.

This week, Ethiopia inaugurated a new government and the UN chief urged the administration to “work with renewed determination to be a government for all.”

Ethiopia’s UN Ambassador, Taye Atske-Selassie, also addressing the Council, stated the country is not under legal obligation to provide justification or explanation for its decisions.

“The UN staff Ethiopia expelled side-lined their oath, rules of professional conduct and the principles of humanitarian assistance,” he said, listing alleged transgressions.

The misconduct of a few individuals does not undermine the professionalism of UN teams in the country or elsewhere, he stressed, but “speaks of the serious ethical dilemma existing in the Ethiopian humanitarian operation for the past 11 months.”

Atske-Selassie further said “expulsion was not our primary course of action.”  He said Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister wrote to the UN in July on the issue. “We also summoned some individuals and warned them to halt misconduct. Transgressions continued unabated.”

In response Guterres took the unusual step of asking for a formal right of reply.

He said if there was any written document provided by the Ethiopian government “to any UN institution” about any of the expelled UN staffers, “I would like to receive a copy, because I have no knowledge of them.”

He called on the Ambassador to provide evidence, recalling he had twice asked the Prime Minister to voice concerns about “impartiality” of UN staff without receiving a reply.

The UN chief said the world body had “only one agenda in Ethiopia – the people of Ethiopia – Tigrayans, Amharans, Afaris, Somalis.”