On Monday, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia and told him not to send troops in to the Tigray region to avoid further escalation of the lingering conflict in the Horn of Africa. Mr. Biden was ‘very clear’ that “full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters in Washington, following the private phone call.
“Humanitarian access was a significant focus of the discussion between the two leaders today. President Biden was very clear, as I just explained in the readout, that full humanitarian access should be restored, unfettered to all regions of the country,” the official said. “The Prime Minister seemed to understand that that was the request. He has made a series of commitments, including publicly, to expand humanitarian access. And it will now be up to the Ethiopian government to deliver on what they have been pledging to do. But we think this is broadly in the interest of all Ethiopians and, certainly, of the humanitarian situation.”
The official described the tone of the conversation between the American and Ethiopian leaders as “business-like, serious, substantive, and focused on issues.”
However, on the same day that the phone call took place, an air strike in the town of Mai Tsebriin Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray killed at least 17 people, mostly women, and wounded dozens.
That particular strike came only days after another air strike last Friday in a camp of displaced people in Tigray killed 56 people and injured 30, including children.
The United Nations has estimated that more than 100 people have been killed in Tigray by Ethiopian forces in the first two weeks of this year.
And it’s not just Tigrayan people being bombed to death or being detained across the country by the Ethiopian government, medical and health experts are also sounding the alarm that the humanitarian blockade in Tigray is making things worse.
Dr. Mike Ryan, an Irish man who refers to himself as an international citizen, is the Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program in Geneva, Switzerland, who has dedicated his life to saving lives around the world from Africa to Asia and everywhere else.
At the WHO press conference on Wednesday, the health expert and father of three children exploded over the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, describing it as “an insult to our humanity.”
He said the WHO still does not have access to Tigray and that the situation there, rather than getting better, is getting worse, with hospitals running out of basic lifesaving drugs, including for deadly diseases such as diabetes.
“We have not been able to get basic insulin and diabetic treatments in to Tigray since last summer,” he said. “The politics of it are beyond me. The problem is there are people, real people, who have no access to the very basic lifesaving interventions that we in the west, we sitting here in Geneva, would expect immediately if we were to fall ill or sick.”
He added, “From my perspective, this is an insult to our humanity, to allow a situation like this to continue, to allow no access, zero access” into the Tigray region.
He explained that there was no access to the field, no access for the WHO staff and no way of getting basic humanitarian assistance into Tigray.
“It’s truly important that all parties involved in this find a solution to allow humanitarian workers, doctors and nurses, to do their job,” the heath expert recommended.
At the same press conference, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also raised the alarm over the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, warning that the people there have no access to food, medicine, telephone or cash.
The WHO chief said that humanitarian access should be the very basic even in conflict zones.
He cited the examples of Syria and Yemen where the WHO still has access to the people in need, and wondered why the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia has completely cut off Tigray from the rest of the world since July 2021.
“Humanitarian access must be allowed at all times, even during conflict. Conflict cannot be an excuse,” he said.
He said the WHO has tried everything to access Tigray and reached out to the Prime Minister’s office, but the organization has completely been blocked by the Abiy government since July.
Dr. Tedros, who is from Tigray, called on his countrymen to embrace peace and dialogue, saying that the crisis there could be resolved politically.
He told reporters that it is “so dreadful and unimaginable during this time, the 21st century, when a government is denying its own people for more than a year food and medicine and the rest to survive.”
“From my perspective, it is an insult to our humanity to allow a situation like this to continue, to allow no access,” he said during the briefing.
Dr. Tedros’ comments infuriated the government of Ethiopia, which promptly sent a letter to the World Health Organization, accusing its Ethiopian Director General of “misconduct.”
In a press release issued late on Thursday, the government accused him of interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.
“Through his acts, (Tedros) spread harmful misinformation and compromised WHO’s reputation, independence and credibility,” said the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs.
Tedros, who is also an ethnic Tigrayan, has repeatedly called for humanitarian access into Tigray and for all parties to embrace peace and dialogue, but the government sees his criticisms as a way of backing his ethnic group.
On Thursday, the same day that the Ethiopian government was complaining about Tedros, the Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. John Nkengasong also confirmed that his agency does not provide humanitarian assistance in the Tigray region of Ethiopia as the lingering conflict continues to rage there.
Speaking at his weekly press briefing from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dr. Nkengasong said that the agency pulled out its staff from Tigray and relocated them to Addis because of the conflict.
The health expert worried that the conflict might prolong the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases in the region as has happened in other parts of the continent with other illnesses, including in North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the Ebola outbreak lasted longer than elsewhere.
Dr. Nkengasong did not want to comment on the political aspect of the conflict but confirmed that there was no staff of the Africa CDC currently in Tigray for any humanitarian intervention.
The acknowledgement by the Africa CDC director that his agency also does not have humanitarian access into Tigray because of the conflict means that about seven million people in the region are at an increased risk of not having the medical assistance they need.
The United Nations, the United States, the African Union, the European Union and other actors have repeatedly called for an end to fighting in Tigray, and at a briefing in Washington on Tuesday, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric reiterated the Secretary General’s calls for “all parties to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law.”
The American official, who briefed reporters on Monday following a phone call between President Biden and Prime Minister Abiy, acknowledged that the crisis in Ethiopia has been very challenging for the United States from before the Biden administration took office and through the entirety of his tenure up until now.
The official explained: “It has a number of dimensions. There’s obviously a humanitarian crisis that is particularly acute. There’s also a security crisis that has regional implications, given the role and influence of outside states. And here, I would note, particularly, the unhelpful role of Eritrea in this conflict. And it also runs the risk of distracting from other regional priorities to the United States, like the fight against al-Shabaab.
“I wanted to clarify, given the range of accounts we sometimes see, how we see the approach the United States has been taking to this conflict from day one. We’ve been emphasizing to all parties that there is no military solution to this conflict. We’ve been warning against atrocities. We’ve been trying to facilitate a peaceful resolution through dialogue between the parties. We are not choosing sides or putting our thumb on the scale.
“As I think many of you know, we sent
a Senator Chris Coons out to speak — as a personal emissary of the President — with the Prime Minister early in our tenure and named a very senior diplomat, Jeff Feltman, as our Special Envoy to help manage this crisis.
“This has, obviously, also been a major focus of time across our administration — from the President to the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and really to the entire national security interagency — with regular meetings among senior officials held on this topic.
“The trajectory of the conflict has been a bit of a pendulum, with each side having moments of clear advantage. In recent days, the Prime Minister has begun sending more positive signals: prisoner releases, openness to dialogue, and pledges with regard to humanitarian access.
“The Tigrayan side has also publicly committed to dialogue.
“On the other hand, given what we’ve seen in the past, it’s hard to know how long this relatively constructive phase will last.
“So, the purpose of the call today was really to reinforce some of the more constructive steps and inclinations Prime Minister Abiy may be demonstrating, to put the U.S.-Ethiopia relationship onto a constructive footing, and reiterate where we need to continue to see progress — specifically, the Ethiopian army not going into Tigray; stopping airstrikes, which has taken place in recent days and about which we’ve been quite concerned, including publicly; expanding humanitarian access to all regions of the country; and engaging in ceasefire talks.
“So, we do see this as a moment of opportunity if the parties are willing and able to seize it. That remains to be seen. And this window won’t be open forever. So, our goal will be to facilitate that to the greatest extent possible.”
On Wednesday, when USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with UN World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley, they discussed worsening food insecurity around the world and shortfalls in funding needed to address urgent humanitarian crises, particularly in Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
“During their meeting, Administrator Power thanked Executive Director Beasley for WFP’s efforts to quickly scale up food assistance and expand air bridge operations for humanitarian personnel in Afghanistan as well as its continued efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Ethiopians in dire need, as up to 900,000 people face famine-like conditions in the north, and the drought deepens across the south,” USAID spokesperson Rebecca Chalif said in a press statement.
Chalif added that “Administrator Power and Executive Director Beasley also discussed the importance of the ongoing partnership between USAID and WFP in the year ahead. They emphasized the increasing humanitarian needs around the world and the need for other donors to step up in order to enable a swift response to humanitarian crises.”