The United Nations has rebuffed Ethiopia’s decision to expel seven senior UN officials as the country’s war-torn northern Tigray region descends into famine, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday.
Ethiopia declared the officials, who are responsible for coordinating critical humanitarian assistance, “persona non grata” on Thursday, just days after the UN’s aid chief warned that hundreds of thousands of people were starving due to the government’s blockade of aid deliveries.
Guterres told the President of the UN Security Council on Friday – in a letter seen by CNN – that the UN would push Ethiopia “to permit these critical UN staff to resume their functions in Ethiopia and grant them the necessary visas.”
“If the current trajectory continues, I fear for the future of many Ethiopian lives, and indeed for the stability of the country and the region. Political dialogue and a ceasefire are urgently needed. It is still not too late to take steps to improve the situation, and I urge Council members to support efforts in that regard,” Guterres said.
But an emergency UN Security Council meeting held behind closed doors on Friday ended without reaching any formal agreement on how to respond to the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia or the government’s decision to expel senior UN officials, a UN diplomatic source told CNN.
“This is a turning point, not just in this conflict, but for how the world responds to conflicts and humanitarian crises around the world. The UN needs to be strong, and they must have the absolute backing of the Security Council, influential leaders in the region, and the entire international community,” the UN diplomat told CNN.
Among those ordered out of Ethiopia are officials from the UN’s Children Fund (UNICEF) and UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), organizations coordinating aid to the region, which has been racked by war with the Ethiopian government for nearly a year.
UNOCHA has frequently detailed government actions that have obstructed humanitarian aid delivery in Tigray, and UNOCHA chief Martin Griffiths has toughened his stance on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Griffiths delivered one of the sharpest criticisms yet of the Ethiopian government’s hand in one of the world’s worst hunger crises in a decade.
“This is man-made, this can be remedied by the act of government,” he said. “We need the Ethiopian government to do what they promised to do which is to facilitate access,” he added.
In a Twitter thread breaking down the factors fueling the expulsion of UN officials, William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group, said that with renewed military confrontation and intensified fighting on the horizon, the government “may want to remove UN voices speaking out and thus intimidate those that remain.”
The Ethiopian government has repeatedly rejected allegations that it is blocking aid.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the officials of diverting aid and communication equipment to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), failing to demand the return of aid trucks deployed to Tigray and spreading misinformation.
The war between the Ethiopian military and forces loyal to the TPLF, which controls Tigray, broke out in November. Eleven months on, the fighting has left thousands dead, forced 2 million to flee, fueled famine and given rise to a wave of atrocities.
The UN denounced Ethiopia’s decision to eject its officials from the country on Friday, and vowed to continue its humanitarian work.
“It is critically important that the humanitarian operation continues, and it does,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told a Geneva briefing.
If the Ethiopian order goes ahead, it would mark one of the most significant expulsions of senior UN humanitarian officials from any country.
International criticisms have been growing over the deteriorating conflict in Tigray and the role of the government in restricting access to aid.
On September 17, US President Joe Biden threatened to impose broad new sanctions on Ethiopian officials and other parties to the conflict unless they stopped fighting and opened up humanitarian access.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the US condemned the expulsions and would not hold back from using sanctions against any group obstructing aid efforts.
“It must stop,” Psaki said. “The action follows the release of reports warning that hundreds of thousands of people are starving to death in northern Ethiopia. We’re deeply concerned that this action continues a pattern by the Ethiopian government of obstructing the delivery of food, medicine and other lifesaving supplies that most to those most in need.”
Earlier this month, UNOCHA said there was a “de facto humanitarian aid blockade” into Tigray, where at least 400,000 people are facing famine conditions, according to the agency’s latest figures.
Since July, only 606 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies have managed to enter Tigray – a small fraction of what is needed to bring humanitarian assistance to 5.2 million people, according to UNOCHA.
The UN estimates 100 trucks a day are needed in order to meet the demand. Medical supplies continue to be denied entry into the region by the Ethiopian government, according to the UN.
The UN has cited “logistical and bureaucratic impediments including long delays for clearance of humanitarian supplies,” severe fuel shortages, and reported harassment of drivers as reasons for restricted passage.
A highly anticipated joint investigation into alleged atrocities carried out in Tigray, launched by the UN in conjunction with the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in March, has also been stymied by the security situation.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council on September 13 that deployments to east and central Tigray, including to the holy city of Axum, where witnesses have accused the Ethiopian military and allied forces from neighboring Eritrea of some of the worst abuses, “could not proceed.”
Bachelet said that the team was thwarted “by sudden changes in the security situation and in the conflict dynamics.”
On Saturday, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) issued an “urgent” plea for immediate aid in northern Ethiopia, warning that humanitarian needs are “rising dramatically.”
“Our convoys need to roll! WFP urgently requires trucks, fuel and cash in order to put food into the hands of millions of people,” WFP chief David Beasley tweeted. “It must happen immediately. Not in a month, not in a week, NOW.”
CNN’s Bethlehem Feleke in Nairobi and Caitlin Hu in New York contributed reporting.