Seven U.N. humanitarian officials expelled by Ethiopia are no longer in the country, the world body confirmed Monday.
“They have been moved from the country to ensure their safety,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said.
“Our priority is to make sure that our staff can go about their work safely,” he said when questioned further by reporters. “And if we cannot do that, then we have to take other steps.”
On Thursday, the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave the officials 72 hours to leave Ethiopia. The government alleged that they had meddled in the country’s internal affairs and leveled other charges against them, including diverting aid and telecommunications equipment to the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his “shock” at the announcement, and spoke by phone with Abiy on Friday.
The officials who were declared “persona non-grata” include the U.N. deputy humanitarian chief, the deputy humanitarian coordinator, and the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) representative.
The United Nations said Ethiopia does not have a legal basis to expel the staffers. U.N. staff are protected under immunity conventions and the U.N. Charter. The organization maintains that such expulsions can only happen on a country-to-country basis.
“We stand by the neutrality and the even‑handedness and professionalism of our staff,” spokesman Haq said of the staffers.
The Ethiopian government has said the U.N. may replace the expelled officials, but Haq said there are currently no plans to do so.
“At this stage, we believe that the staff that the secretary‑general and the U.N. 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,” he said.
He added that the U.N. is evaluating its options as it continues to do its work in Ethiopia.
The U.N. Security Council discussed the matter on Friday, and diplomats said it could meet again this week for another round of discussions.
Millions in need
The Ethiopian federal government has been engaged in an armed conflict with TPLF rebels in the northern Tigray region for nearly a year. The TPLF succeeded in pushing government forces out of the region, and the conflict has now spilled into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar.
Of the six million people who live in Tigray, the U.N. says 5.2 million need some level of food assistance. More than 400,000 people are already living in famine-like conditions, and another 1.8 million people are on the brink of famine.
The U.N. has said for months that it has encountered difficulties in reaching the people of Tigray. One hundred aid-filled trucks are needed daily to meet the soaring needs, but since mid-July, only 606 have been allowed into the region.
“The U.N. has not been allowed to bring in fuel since the end of July, leading to some of our partners having had to severely reduce or suspend their activities,” Haq told reporters. “Cash to run operations is also running out. Medical supplies are depleted, with nearly 200,000 children having missed critical vaccinations.”
Last Wednesday, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said that after 11 months of conflict and three months of a de facto government blockade, the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is spiraling out of control.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Griffiths said the humanitarian crisis there is a “stain on our conscience,” as civilians starve because aid workers are being blocked from getting enough supplies to them.
The next day, the government in Addis Ababa said it was expelling the seven high-ranking U.N. staffers.