Ethiopia expels seven United Nations workers, including senior humanitarian officials, triggering outrage in Washington and New York

The Ethiopian government on Thursday announced that it was expelling seven United Nations workers, including senior humanitarian officials, for reportedly ‘meddling’ in the internal affairs of the nation.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave UN officials 72 hours to leave the country. The decision to expel UN officials came only two days after UN aid chief warned that a blockade by the Ethiopian government of humanitarian assistance had likely forced hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray into famine.

Tigray is a region in northern Ethiopia that has been at war with the federal government since November of last year. Images of starving people, including children have recently shocked the world, triggering international criticism, including from the UN.

The seven people being expelled include Mr. Grant Leaity, Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia, Ms. Adele Khodr, UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia, Ms. Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, Acting Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia, Mr. Kwesi Sansculotte, Peace and Development Advisor of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ethiopia and Mr. Saeed Mohamoud Hersi, Deputy Head of Office, UNOCHA.

The White House reacted furiously, vowing at a news conference on Thursday afternoon to respond ‘quickly’ and ‘decisively’, and warning that it was preparing to take ‘aggressive action’ under President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s September 17 executive order authorizing sanctions against people and entities undermining peace in northern Ethiopia.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a Press Briefing on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in the James S. Brady White House Press Briefing Room. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith) 
Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a Press Briefing on Thursday, June 3, 2021, in the James S. Brady White House Press Briefing Room. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

“The U.S. government condemns in the strongest possible terms the government of Ethiopia’s unprecedented action to expel the leadership of the United Nations organizations involved in ongoing humanitarian operations. We agree with U.N. leaders: This is a stain on our collective conscience and it must stop,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington D.C.

Psaki said the expulsion of UN workers follows the release of reports warning that “hundreds of thousands of people are starving to death in northern Ethiopia.”

“We’re deeply concerned that this action continues a pattern by the Ethiopian government of obstructing the delivery of food, medicine, and other lifesaving supplies that most — to those most in need,” Psaki said during a White House press briefing in Washington D.C. on Thursday afternoon. “We call on the U.N. Security Council and members of the international community to take urgent action to make clear to the government of Ethiopia that impeding humanitarian operations and depriving your own citizens of the basic means of survival is unacceptable.”

Psaki noted that President Biden signed an executive order on September 17, enabling the U.S. government to impose financial sanctions on those prolonging the conflict in northern Ethiopia, warning that “We will not hesitate to use this or any other tool at our disposal to respond quickly and decisively to those who obstruct humanitarian assistance to the people of Ethiopia.”

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed © Donat Sorokin/TASS Host Photo Agency 
SOCHI, RUSSIA – OCTOBER 22, 2019: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed welcomed at Sochi International Airport as he arrives to take part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit. Donat Sorokin/TASS Host Photo Agency Ðîññèÿ. Ñî÷è. Ïðåìüåð-ìèíèñòð Ýôèîïèè Àáèé Àõìåä, ïðèáûâøèé äëÿ ó÷àñòèÿ â Ñàììèòå Ðîññèÿ-Àôðèêà, ïîñëå ïðèëåòà â àýðîïîðòó ãîðîäà. Äîíàò Ñîðîêèí/ôîòîõîñò-àãåíòñòâî ÒÀÑÑ

Asked by Today News Africa’s Simon Ateba why the Biden administration was not imposing sanctions right away since there has been no movement on the ground since President Biden signed his executive order on November 17, Psaki said, “Well, absent clear and concrete changes, we will.”

She added, “We’re preparing to take aggressive action under this executive order to impose targeted sanctions against a range of individuals and entities. What we’re communicating to the parties on the ground is that we must see meaningful steps within weeks to initiate discussions to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, allow in an unhindered humanitarian access, and ensure respect for human rights. Absent significant progress, we’ll take action. And we have the methods to do that.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also condemned Ethiopia for the decision to expel UN workers.

Secretary Antony J. Blinken participates in a virtual U.S. Embassy London meet and greet, in London, United Kingdom, on May 4, 2021. State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary Antony J. Blinken participates in a virtual U.S. Embassy London meet and greet, in London, United Kingdom, on May 4, 2021. State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha

He wrote in a statement, “The United States strongly condemns the Government of Ethiopia’s stated plans to expel seven United Nations officials and calls for an immediate reversal of this decision.  The officials to be expelled from the country include the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), whose work is critical to the ongoing humanitarian relief effort.  This announcement comes just days after OCHA Chief Martin Griffiths warned that a man-made famine is taking hold in Ethiopia.  The expulsion is counterproductive to international efforts to keep civilians safe, and deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance to the millions in dire need.

“On September 17, President Biden issued an Executive Order establishing a new sanctions regime that authorizes the imposition of targeted economic sanctions in connection with the crisis in northern Ethiopia.  We will not hesitate to use this authority or other tools to respond to those who obstruct humanitarian assistance to the people of Ethiopia.  We call on the international community similarly to employ all appropriate tools to apply pressure on the Government of Ethiopia and any other actors impeding humanitarian access.  We urge the Government of Ethiopia to collaboratively work with the UN and international partners to allow and facilitate safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all in need.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also condemned Ethiopia’s decision to expel UN leaders, writing that he was “shocked by the information that the Government of Ethiopia has declared seven UN officials, including senior UN humanitarian officials, as persona non grata.”

He wrote, “All UN humanitarian operations are guided by the core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. 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.

“The UN is committed to helping Ethiopian people who rely on humanitarian assistance. 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.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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