Ethiopia told seven senior United Nations staff members to leave the country within 72 hours for allegedly meddling in its internal affairs, a move condemned by the UN chief and US officials, who raised the threat of sanctions on the Horn of Africa nation.
The government said the UN officials were going beyond their duties in the country, which has been engulfed in conflict since late last year when federal troops retaliated to an attack by regional soldiers on an army base.
“They were found engaged in activities that contradict the law and they operated out of their mandate,” Dina Mufti, spokesman for Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, said of the UN officials, without providing details. “They know the law and they should not fail to obey it.”
The decision follows a similar move last month, when Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of only a handful of international charities providing frontline health care to people in conflict areas, said it was asked to cease operations by the government. The Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides assistance to nearly 600 000 people in six regions across Ethiopia, was given similar orders.
Those suspended on Thursday included Marcy Vigoda, head of the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and Adele Khodr, the head of the UN’s children’s fund. Vigoda declined to comment and Khodr did not respond to a text message seeking comment.
UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “shocked” by the news that the UN staff members had been asked to leave.
“In Ethiopia, 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,” Guterres said in a statement. “We are now engaging with the government of Ethiopia in the expectation that the concerned UN staff will be allowed to continue their important work.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the decision “is a stain on our collective conscience, and it must stop.” And she warned that President Joe Biden could put further pressure on the government in Addis Ababa unless meaningful steps were taken within weeks to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, allow humanitarian access and ensure respect for human rights.
“President Biden signed an executive order earlier this month, enabling the US government to impose financial sanctions on those prolonging the conflict in northern Ethiopia,” Psaki told reporters. “We’re preparing to take aggressive action under this executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a range of individuals and entities.”
Since the violence exploded last year, conflict has spilled into the neighboring Afar and Amhara regions as Tigray forces seek to push back against their adversaries following gains in June and July.