Millions at Risk as Ethiopia Expels UN Officials

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An organizer asks displaced Tigrayans to queue as they wait to receive food at a school in Mekele, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, May 5, 2021.
© 2021 Ben Curtis/AP Images

The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting today to consider its response to yesterday’s decision by Ethiopia’s federal government to declare seven senior UN officials as “persona non grata,” unwelcome in the country.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The government’s expulsion of people leading the humanitarian response in the country and documenting human rights abuses and war crimes, comes only days after the UN chief for humanitarian relief warned that the Tigray region would “slip into famine” and was a “stain on our conscience.” Over five million people in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region are dependent on humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands have been living in famine conditions, and millions of others are in need of assistance across the country.

For nearly a year, warring parties in Tigray have pillaged towns and villages, destroyed crops and critical infrastructure, and massacred civilians, among other serious abuses. Humanitarian agencies have been hamstrung by the Ethiopian government’s de facto blockade of Tigray in recent months. Medicines were last allowed into Tigray at the end of July, and continued government restrictions since have affected basic and critical supplies, including fuel, cash, and food. Last week, the Associated Press reported that deaths from starvation had occurred in several Tigray districts.

But Tigray isn’t Ethiopia’s only region at risk. In recent weeks, the humanitarian needs in the Amhara and Afar regions have grown, with thousands of people displaced as the Tigray conflict has spread.

The expulsions reflect a broader trend of government hostility toward aid agencies and obstruction of humanitarian assistance in violation of international humanitarian law. The Ethiopian government had already suspended Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Norwegian Refugee Council, two organizations leading medical and humanitarian operations in Tigray. Senior government officials have also dangerously accused aid workers of “arming the other side” and complained about “inaccurate” reporting by UN agencies.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to Ethiopia’s announcement by saying he was “shocked.” Several embassies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, called for the expulsions to be reversed. The Biden administration in the US threatened sanctions. Its recent executive order allows for targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on those responsible for obstructing humanitarian aid in Ethiopia in a manner that would not harm the general population. 

It’s critical that the UN Security Council takes action today. Another closed door meeting won’t be enough. Demanding that Ethiopian authorities reverse course on their decision to expel the UN officials is a good start, but the council – along with the African Union, the European Union, and other concerned governments – need to keep up the pressure. They should do so by imposing targeted sanctions of their own, pressing the Ethiopian government to lift its chokehold on desperately needed humanitarian aid and authorizing an international investigation into rights abuses.

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