United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has demanded evidence from Ethiopia after seven UN staff were expelled for allegations of misconduct.
“It is my duty to defend the honour of the United Nations,” Guterres told reporters after a rare public exchange with Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie Amde at the end of a Security Council meeting on Wednesday the situation in the country.
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The Ethiopian government last week expelled seven senior UN officials – most of them with the world body’s humanitarian agency – for “meddling” in internal affairs. Selassie expanded on that at the 15-member council, accusing the UN staff of taking sides in the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and inflating the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis.
He alleged the officials had made up data, falsely claiming hunger was used as a weapon of war and that people had died from hunger, and also accused them of supporting the Tigrayan forces who are fighting the government.
“To use their own words, they were looking to create a Darfur-like situation,” said Selassie. “They, suddenly and overnight, created one million victims of health disaster,” he added.
“Ethiopia deeply resents this experience,” the ambassador continued, adding that the government had written to the UN about staff conduct in July.
Guterres then took the unusual step of asking for the right to reply. In his response to the council, the UN chief said he had not seen any information from Ethiopia about these claims and demanded documents that proved the new allegations.
“We believe that Ethiopia is violating international law in doing so,” Guterres said. “And we are ready to cooperate with the government of Ethiopia in relation to any situation in which the government of Ethiopia feels that any member of the UN is not behaving in total impartiality, in total independence, as humanitarian law prescribes.”
Guterres also said he told Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed twice that if there were any concerns about the impartiality of UN staff then the government should share the information so the UN could investigate.
“Twice, I asked … the prime minister. Until now, I had no response to these requests,” Guterres said. “The people of Ethiopia are suffering. We have no other interest but to help stop that suffering.”
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield described the Ethiopian move to expel the UN officials as “reckless,” adding: “There’s no justification for the government of Ethiopia’s action, none at all.”
“The UN is impartial. The UN is neutral,” she told the council. “UN personnel barred from Ethiopia must be allowed to return immediately.”
War broke out 11 months ago between Ethiopia’s federal troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls Tigray. Thousands have died, millions have fled their homes and the conflict has spilled into the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.
Guterres said earlier in the Council up to seven million people in Tigray, Amhara and Afar need help, including five million in Tigray where some 400,000 people are estimated to be living in famine-like conditions.
“Our colleagues on the ground are sharing increasingly alarming witness testimony of the suffering – including growing accounts of hunger-related deaths,” Guterres said, describing the humanitarian crisis as “immense”.
“In locations where screening has been possible, we are seeing acute malnutrition rates that remind us of the onset of the 2011 Somalia famine,” he said.
He called on the government to allow the urgent delivery of aid “without hindrance” and the “unrestricted movement of desperately needed fuel, cash, communications equipment and humanitarian supplies” into Tigray, Amhara and Afar.
“Ethiopian children are starving. People are dying because they cannot access food, water and basic health care. This is not a situation caused by natural disasters. It is caused by those who continue to choose the path of war,” Ireland’s UN Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason told the council.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said Guterres “made it clear he believes a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Ethiopia, and urgent international action is needed. However, the Security Council remains divided”.
Permanent members Russia and China have made clear they believe the Tigray conflict is an internal affair for Ethiopia, which makes any strong action by the Council – such as sanctions – unlikely.
China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun on Wednesday called for “quiet diplomacy in order to prevent a deadlock” over the expulsion of the UN officials.
On Friday, the Security Council could not agree on a statement proposed by Ireland due to opposition from China and Russia.