Ethiopia (Tigray): Open Briefing
Tomorrow (6 October) afternoon, the Security Council will hold an open briefing on the situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa”. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief. The meeting was requested by Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US. A representative of the Ethiopian government is likely to participate.
Tomorrow’s meeting will be the tenth time that Council members have discussed the situation in Ethiopia since the crisis erupted in the Tigray region in November 2020. It will be the second Council meeting following the Ethiopian government’s 30 September announcement that seven UN officials from UNICEF, OCHA and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had been declared “persona non grata” and given 72 hours to leave Ethiopia. The Council discussed this development in a 1 October meeting under “any other business”, also at the request of Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK, and the US.
It seems that Ireland proposed a draft press statement following the 1 October meeting, but it did not garner the necessary support. The statement would have expressed Council members’ shock at the Ethiopian government’s announcement, reiterated their expectation of full cooperation between Ethiopia and the UN and called on all parties to allow unimpeded humanitarian access. However, it appears that the “A3 plus one” (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), China and Russia perceived the statement as unhelpful at a time in which Ethiopia and the UN needed to find a way forward.
Following the Ethiopian government’s announcement, the UN engaged with the Ethiopian authorities to persuade them to reverse the decision to expel the officials. As explained on 1 October by Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary‑General Farhan Haq, the UN’s legal position is that the doctrine of “persona non grata” applies to “diplomatic agents accredited by one state to another state” and not to UN officials. The UN has conveyed this position to the Ethiopian authorities, including through a 1 October note verbale from the UN Office of Legal Affairs and during a call the same day between Guterres and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Guterres also addressed a letter to the President of the Security Council in which he said that Ethiopia’s decision to expel the seven officials “creates yet another obstacle to reaching Ethiopians, at a moment when all efforts should be focused on working together to save and protect lives, protect human rights and avert a humanitarian catastrophe”. The letter further notes that “[a]ttempts to politicize humanitarian assistance” undermine the UN efforts to support the people of Ethiopia.
In a communiqué dated 1 October, the Ethiopian government urged the UN to “expeditiously replace” the seven officials. This request was reiterated in a 4 October tweet by Ethiopia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie. In the communiqué, the Ethiopian government accused the officials of “diversion of humanitarian assistance” to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and of “dissemination of misinformation and politicization of humanitarian assistance”. The UN has denied these accusations, with Haq stressing during a 4 October press briefing that the organisation stands by “the neutrality and the even‑handedness and professionalism” of its staff. At the same press briefing, he confirmed that none of the seven officials are currently in Ethiopia, some of them having already been outside the country when the government made the announcement, and the rest having been “moved from the country to ensure their safety”. In response to the question of whether the UN will replace the officials, Haq said that: “we believe that the staff that the Secretary‑General and the UN Secretariat have deployed are the people who are fit for the job, and we believe that they should be allowed to go about their work without hindrance”.
On 4 October, UK Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Simon Manley delivered a statement on behalf of over 40 states expressing shock at the Ethiopian decision and calling for its reversal to allow the officials to return to Ethiopia to continue their work. The statement notes that the OHCHR official who was expelled was working on the joint investigation by OHCHR and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into alleged violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law committed by all parties to the conflict in Tigray. The report of the joint investigation is due by 1 November.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Guterres and several members are expected to underscore their serious concern at the expulsion of the seven UN officials. The meeting is also likely to focus on the worsening humanitarian and security conditions in northern Ethiopia. OCHA reported that as at 4 October, 5.2 million people in Tigray required food assistance, of whom 400,000 are living “in famine-like conditions”.
On 4 October, Ahmed was sworn in for a new five-year term following elections that were held in June and September. (Elections were reportedly boycotted by some opposition groups and did not take place in Tigray, which is controlled by forces opposed to the federal government.) According to media reports, Ahmed promised in his inauguration speech that he would shield the country from foreign interference. In addition, according to a 5 October Sky News article, “thousands of troops” were observed near the city of Dessie in the northern Ethiopian region of Amhara, giving rise to concerns of an imminent new offensive by the federal government.
At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members may emphasise the need for the government to begin sustained negotiations towards a ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict. They may underscore the need for an immediate ceasefire and renew their calls for unfettered humanitarian access.