On September 6, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia’s northeastern Tigray region, where more than 7 million people have been caught in a brutal conflict between Ethiopian government forces and those of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
The government launched an offensive in Tigray in November 2020 after the TPLF attacked government army posts. But the military action was preceded by a long-festering dispute between the government of Abiy Ahmed, who became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018, promising change amid a wave of discontent with the then-ruling TPLF coalition.
Abiy alienated Tigrayan leaders accused of corruption, and the TPLF retreated to Tigray, defying the government by holding its own regional election.
In June, Abiy’s government announced a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire. However, armed clashes and hostilities continued as Tigrayan forces moved to retake Tigray's capital of Mekele and capture neighboring Amhara and Afar, displacing tens of thousands of civilians.
U.S. and aid agencies have accused Ethiopia’s government of preventing assistance from reaching 400,000 people facing famine-like conditions. Thousands have been killed and 1.7 million displaced. Of those, 63,000 fled to Sudan amid charges of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, mostly against Ethiopian government forces.
But Addis Ababa has denied allegations that it has blocked aid to civilians in Tigray and accused international humanitarian bodies of bias. In its recent statement, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said:
“Some TPLF soldiers infiltrating from the Sudanese side have already been captured carrying UNHCR ID cards.”
That statement, referring to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), is misleading.
The feud between the Ethiopian government and humanitarian organizations has been going on since the military action on Tigray began.
A U.N. official denied accusations that refugees camps in Sudan have been used for military training. The official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the UNHCR is aware of reports of refugees joining militants after they return home. But he said the agency has not been able to verify those stories, and that it has no ability to determine what refugees do when they return home.
This is not the first time that Ethiopia has implied a link between Tigrayan fighters and humanitarian groups. In July, Ethiopia’s spokesman for the Tigray emergency task force, Redwan Hussein, accused aid workers of “arming” TPLF fighters and threatened to halt the operations of some of those organizations.
Hussein claimed that aid workers are “playing a destructive role,” adding that they “are widely engaged in coordinating, from a distance, campaigns of propaganda to harass and defame the Ethiopian government.”
U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said Hussein’s accusations were baseless and dangerous.
In another incident, Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador, Taye Atskeselassie Amde, accused U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock of “behaving not like a humanitarian but a nemesis determined to exact some kind of retribution.” The remark came after Lowcock briefed to the U.N. Security Council in April about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tigray and the use of sexual violence as a weapon.
Amde told Reuters the government was investigating all rights violations.
On August 19, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said the Ethiopian government’s actions toward aid workers was causing a severe shortage in humanitarian assistance.
“They have encountered unacceptable delays at multiple checkpoints, some of which take hours to clear, as well as repeated intensive searches. Aid workers are harassed, and we have seen an increase in troubling and harmful rhetoric coming from the Ethiopian Government against humanitarians,” USAID said.
Medical and aid workers in Tigray have been targeted, including three Doctors Without Borders (MSF) staff who were killed last June. Health facilities have been looted and destroyed by armed groups. MSF said public statements against aid workers are putting them in danger.
“Aid organizations, including MSF, have been repeatedly undermined by public statements casting unwarranted suspicion on their activities, thereby jeopardizing the safety of their teams on the ground,” MSF said in a statement published in July.
The Ethiopian government and the TPLF have traded accusations of responsibility against each other for these attacks.
On September 2, the The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a report that while humanitarian aid is still able to reach 75 percent of Tigray, routes through the Afar region in the northeast (Semera-Abala corridor) have been blocked, affecting 5.2 million people in need.
OCHA said armed police forces prevented a U.N. mission from reaching its team in Tigray, forcefully entering U.N.-marked cars and accompanying them on their way back to Semera town in Afar, temporarily confiscating staffers phones and verbally abusing and harassing them. This led the U.N. to halt some of its team’s operations.
The Ethiopian authorities have suspended the operations of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), MSF Holland and Dubai’s Al-Maktoume Foundation.
The government accused NRC and MSF of “disseminating misinformation on social media and other platforms outside of the mandate and purpose for which the organizations were permitted to operate.” Meanwhile, the Al-Maktoume Foundation was suspended for violating COVID-19 guidelines and misusing its budget.
During a congressional hearing in March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the attacks on the people of Tigray “ethnic cleansing.” In June, Blinken urged Abiy in a phone call to ensure “unhindered humanitarian access” to Tigray.