U.S. condemns Ethiopia’s expulsion of U.N. officials, warns of sanctions
WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) – The United States condemns Ethiopia’s expulsion of seven United Nations officials, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday, warning that Washington will not hesitate to use sanctions against those who obstruct humanitarian efforts in the country.
The expulsions were announced by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs two days after the world body’s aid chief said that a government blockade of humanitarian aid had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in the northern region of Tigray into famine.
“The U.S. government condemns in the strongest possible terms the government of Ethiopia’s unprecedented action to expel the leadership of all of the United Nations organizations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations,” Psaki told reporters at a regular news briefing.
“This is a stain on our collective conscience, and it must stop.”
Psaki called on the U.N. Security Council and other countries to take urgent action to make clear to the Ethiopian government that impeding humanitarian operations is unacceptable.
Washington has repeatedly called for a negotiated end to a conflict in the northern region of Tigray between federal forces and those aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the political party that controls the region.
Since the conflict erupted in November, thousands have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes. Fighting spread in July from Tigray into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
Psaki warned that absent clear and concrete changes, the United States will impose sanctions.
She said President Joe Biden’s administration is preparing to take “aggressive action” under an executive order issued earlier this month that allows Washington to impose sanctions on parties to the conflict if they obstruct humanitarian access, commit serious human rights abuse or prolong the conflict.
“We must see meaningful steps within weeks to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, allow unhindered humanitarian access and ensure respect for human rights. Absent significant progress, we’ll take action – and we have the methods to do that,” Psaki said.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Alexandra Alper and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)
UN shocked by Ethiopia’s decision to expel top officials
The UN has expressed its shock at the expulsion of seven of its senior officials by the Ethiopian government.
Secretary-General António Guterres said it was engaging with the government “in the expectation” the affected staff could “continue their important work”.
Ethiopia earlier declared the seven “persona non grata” and said they had 72 hours to leave the country.
The UN has raised concerns in recent weeks about a “de-facto” blockade of aid to the war-torn region of Tigray.
UN aid chief Martin Griffiths earlier this week said he assumed there was now famine in Tigray and urged the Ethiopian government to “get those trucks moving”.
Ethiopia’s UN mission in New York said claims of a blockade were “baseless”.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray in November 2020.
He said he did so in response to an attack on a military base housing government troops there.
The escalation came after months of feuding between Mr Abiy’s government and the TPLF over the reforms he was pursuing.
Ethiopia has declared the TPLF a terrorist organisation, while it insists that it is the legitimate government in Tigray.
The expulsions announced on Thursday include the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the head of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Ethiopia. It is not clear what the allegations are against them.
Washington has condemned “in the strongest possible terms” Ethiopia’s “unprecedented” decision.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US “will not hesitate” to impose sanctions against “those who obstruct humanitarian assistance”.
Mr Guterres, in his statement, said “the UN is delivering lifesaving aid – including food, medicine, water, and sanitation supplies – to people in desperate need.
“I have full confidence in the UN staff who are in Ethiopia doing this work,” he added.
The Ethiopian government and its aid partners acknowledge there is a crisis in Tigray and have previously made efforts to work together to get relief into the region, the BBC’s Africa correspondent Catherine Byaruhanga notes.
But the decision to expel senior UN officials shows just how bad the relationship is between both sides, and how much more diplomatic work needs to be done to get emergency assistance to those in need, she adds.
The UN said earlier this month that of 466 trucks that entered Tigray between mid-July and mid-September, only 38 had made the return journey.
Both the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the northern region, blame the other for this.
The TPLF say truck drivers are provided with only enough fuel for a one-way journey into Tigray and complain of violence and intimidation at checkpoints manned by the Ethiopian federal forces.
The Ethiopian government has rejected the suggestion that a shortage of fuel is stopping the trucks. It has also accused aid organisations of supporting the TPLF.
Mr Griffiths told Reuters earlier this week that a UN assessment in June had predicted there were 400,000 people in famine-like conditions “and the supposition was that if no aid got to them adequately they would slip into famine.”
“I have to assume that something like that is happening,” he said.