Ethiopia on Thursday expelled seven UN aid workers, including Mr Adele Khodr, the Unicef Country Representative for Ethiopia, over claims of interference with the country’s internal affairs.
The top UN officials from various UN agencies were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. The Ethiopian government has issued a statement detailing some of the breaches allegedly committed by the UN staff.
In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ethiopian government accused the UN officials of diverting humanitarian aid and transferring communication equipment to be used by Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a rebel group which is fighting the Ethiopian army and its allied regional and Eritrean forces in northern part of the country.
It also accused the UN officials of violating "agreed security arrangements" and for "continued reticence in demanding the return of more than 400 trucks commandeered by the TPLF for military mobilisation and for the transportation of its forces since July 2021."
Addis Ababa further accused the individuals of "disseminating misleading information and politicising humanitarian aid."
Expressing hope that the humanitarian response to the Tigray region will not be affected by the government's action, Ethiopia called for immediate replacement of the expelled UN workers.
"The government has urged the UN to expeditiously replace these personnel to allow the continuation of our cooperation in providing humanitarian assistance" the statement said.
The statement added: “The Ethiopian government will continue to work with UN agencies and institutions to alleviate the suffering of the people during this difficult time and any institutions that do not pose a threat to the country's sovereignty and national security"
The seven officials (Five from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), one from Unicef and another one from the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, were expelled and declared as persona non-grata.
Farhan Aziz Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary ‑ General said: “The United Nations is sending a Note Verbale to the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to clarify that it is the long-standing legal position of the organisation not to accept the application of the doctrine of persona non grata with respect to United Nations officials.
This is a doctrine that applies to diplomatic agents accredited by one state to another. The application of this doctrine to UN officials is contrary to obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and the privileges and immunities to be accorded to the United Nations and its officials.
In an interview with Nation.africa, Mr Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst on Ethiopia and the East African region says the persona non-grata marks an escalation of the simmering dispute between international aid agencies and the Ethiopian government over the flow of humanitarian assistance.
"The measure signals (Prime Minister Ahmed) Abiy’s despair on the instrumentality of diplomatic relations to resolve its irritation," Mr Metta-Alem said.
Caught by surprise, over Ethiopia's move, the international community may take retaliatory measures.
"The deteriorating political conditions in Sudan could influence the magnitude of western response to minimise regional instability. However, it is too early to make conclusive remarks on the nature and magnitude of response," he added.
While aid agencies accuse Ethiopia of blocking aid flow to Tigray, Addis Ababa accuses that aid agencies of being too close to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
Ethiopia claims the aid agencies provide diplomatic, technological and other support to topple the federal government.
The latest statement by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was deeply disappointed by some countries urging the United Nations Security Council to consider the matter.
"This is a blatant violation of Ethiopia’s sovereign prerogative on matters of national security. We are confident the UN Security Council will reject this undue politicization of humanitarian assistance," the statement added.
The current move came less than a week after Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister disclosed the country’s dwindling patience to tolerate the continued exploitation of the humanitarian agenda for geopolitical advantages.
"The act is also a testament to Ethiopia’s resistance to the White House calls for additional sanctions which aspired to pressurise Ahmed Abiy’s administration while turning a blind eye on TPLF invasion," Metta-Alem said.
Ethiopia says that aid agencies not only failed to appreciate its efforts to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, but they also turned a blind eye to the human sufferings in TPLF controlled regions.
The horn of Africa nation further argues that aid agencies failed to condemn TPLF for its atrocities, including use of child labour.
“TPLF has a history of exploiting humanitarian aid to its political objectives during the 1980’s and remained a darling of aid agencies for decades during its hegemonic rule. Even prominent Tigrayan activists started criticising TPLF for exploiting the humanitarian agenda at the expense of Tigrayan lives,” Mr Metta-Alem added.
Despite shared recognition of the need for humanitarian assistance, aid agencies and the Ethiopian government continue trading accusations.
"Amidst accusations and counter accusations, the impending humanitarian crisis in Tigray and elsewhere in TPLF controlled areas remain worrisome. If the impending danger is to be reversed, aid agencies need to be neutral and the government more accommodative," he said.
Ethiopia's expulsion move comes at a critical time of looming humanitarian crises in Tigray as famine takes a toll on the population.
The action is believed to affect the UN's humanitarian and other activities in Tigray and Ethiopia at large. The UN said that Ethiopia’s expulsion of its officials will jeopardise ongoing humanitarian operations.
OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said the senior UN officials are responsible for overseeing the humanitarian operations of many agencies, including non-governmental organisations.
He warned their expulsion will have serious repercussions for millions of destitute, homeless people in northern Ethiopia’s conflict-ridden Tigray region.
"It remains very dire and there is a spill over of the conflict into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, which means the humanitarian needs and the number of internally displaced people are increasing,” Mr Laerke said.
He added: “Food insecurity continues to increase with at least 5.2 million people targeted for emergency food assistance in Tigray.”