The United Nations has warned of “unprecedented” malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region, in a report published hours after the government ordered the expulsion of several senior UN officials from the country.
The latest situation report from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) posted online late on Thursday, also described “alarming” malnutrition among children as fears of mass starvation grow nearly 11 months after conflict erupted in northern Ethiopia.
“Of the more than 15,000 pregnant and lactating women screened during the reporting period, more than 12,000 women, or about 79 per cent, were diagnosed with acute malnutrition,” the report said.
The level of moderate malnutrition among children under five years of age “is also exceeding global emergency threshold of 15 percent, at about 18 percent, while cases of children with severe malnutrition is 2.4 percent, above the alarming 2 percent level”, it said.
It came after Ethiopia announced it would expel seven senior UN officials for “meddling” in its affairs, including the local heads of the UN children’s agency UNICEF and its humanitarian coordination office.
The UN officials were given 72 hours to leave the country.
The UN informed Ethiopia on Friday that it has no legal right to expel the seven officials.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said a diplomatic note sent to Ethiopia’s UN Mission and conveyed to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday stated the UN’s “longstanding legal position” that the doctrine of declaring someone “persona non grata” – or unwelcome – does not apply to UN personnel.
“The application of this doctrine to United Nations officials is contrary to obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and the privileges and immunities to be afforded to the United Nations and its officials,” he said.
The doctrine of declaring someone persona non grata applies between states, Haq said. “We are not a state.”
Earlier on Friday, the UN decried Addis Ababa’s announcement to expel its senior officials, voicing concern for the millions in Tigray region who are in need of urgent assistance.
“It is critically important that the humanitarian operation continues – and it does,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing. “Until now there is no indication that it (Ethiopia’s decision) stops the operation.”
On Tuesday, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths had said a nearly three-month-long “de-facto blockade” has restricted aid deliveries to 10 percent of what is needed in the region of some six million people.
Grant Leaity, the deputy humanitarian coordinator for OCHA who was among those declared persona non grata by the Ethiopian government, warned this month that stocks of relief aid, cash and fuel were “running very low or are completely depleted” and food stocks had run out in late August.
In turn, Ethiopian authorities have accused unnamed aid workers in the country of favouring and even arming Tigrayan forces, although they have provided no evidence to back their allegations.
Earlier, the government suspended the operations of two major international aid groups – Doctors Without Borders and the Norwegian Refugee Committee – accusing them of spreading “misinformation” about the war.
Prime Minister Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray last November to topple the regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a move he said was in response to TPLF attacks on army camps.
Fighting ground on for months before Tigrayan rebels retook the regional capital Mekelle in June, government forces largely withdrew from the region.
Since then, the Tigrayan forces have launched offensives into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions.
Tigray itself is receiving only about 10 percent of the aid it needs, and in July the UN warned that 400,000 people across the region had “crossed the threshold into famine”.
Federal officials blame the TPLF for obstructing deliveries, but a US State Department spokesman told the AFP news agency last week that access to essential supplies and services was “being denied by the Ethiopian government” and that there were “indications of a siege”.