Ethiopia said Thursday it is kicking out seven United Nations officials whom it accused of “meddling” in the country’s internal affairs, as pressure grows on the Ethiopian government over its deadly blockade of the Tigray region.
The expulsions are the government’s most dramatic move yet to restrict humanitarian access to the region of 6 million people after nearly a year of war. The U.N. has become increasingly outspoken as the flow of medical supplies, food and fuel has been brought to a near-halt.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by the announcement and expressed “full confidence” in U.N. staff, saying they are guided by impartiality and neutrality. In a statement, Guterres said the U.N. is engaging with Ethiopia’s government “in the expectation that the concerned U.N. staff will be allowed to continue their important work.”
Ethiopia’s government has accused humanitarian workers of supporting the Tigray forces who have been fighting its soldiers and allied forces since November. Aid workers have denied it. Thousands of people have died in the conflict marked by mass expulsions and the destruction of health centers, with witnesses often blaming Ethiopian soldiers and those of neighboring Eritrea.
The U.N.’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, this week told The Associated Press that the crisis in Ethiopia is a “stain on our conscience” as children and others starve to death in Tigray under what the U.N. calls a de facto government blockade.
Just 10% of needed humanitarian supplies have been reaching Tigray in recent weeks, he said.
The remarks represented one of the most sharply worded criticisms so far of the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade.
The AP, citing witness accounts and internal documents, last week reported the first starvation deaths since Ethiopia’s government imposed the blockade in June in an attempt to keep support from reaching Tigray forces.
The people expelled include five with the U.N. humanitarian agency, including deputy coordinator Grant Leaity, one from the U.N. human rights office and the one UNICEF representative in the country, Adele Khodr. A spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and some of the individuals expelled didn’t immediately comment.
Findings from a joint investigation into the war by the U.N. human rights office and the government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission — a rare setup that has drawn concern and criticism — are scheduled for release on Nov. 1. It wasn’t immediately clear if the probe will be affected by the expulsion of a U.N. member of the joint team, Sonny Onyegbula.
The government is so wary that humanitarian workers boarding rare flights to Tigray have been told they couldn’t bring such items as can openers, multivitamins and medicine, even personal ones, as well as the means to document the crisis, including hard drives and flash drives.