UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Days after kicking out seven U.N. officials, Ethiopia accused them without providing evidence Wednesday of inflating the magnitude of humanitarian crisis and taking sides in the war in its Tigray region, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pressed the country’s ambassador for documentation of the allegations.
The unexpected exchange came at a Security Council meeting called to discuss the officials' expulsion amid what the U.N. sees as an escalating humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa nation. To some council members, the ejection of the officials — most of them with the U.N.'s humanitarian agency — will complicate already difficult aid operations.
Ethiopian Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie laid out newly detailed claims about the officials. He alleged they inflated the number of needy people by 1 million, cheered the Tigrayan forces who are fighting the government, invented a dozen deaths in a camp for displaced people, and helped channel Ethiopian migrants from Saudi Arabia to another African nation “for training and preparation” to fight with the Tigrayans, among other accusations.
“Ethiopia deeply resents this experience," the ambassador said, adding that the government had written to the U.N. about staff conduct in July.
A surprised Guterres responded that he had known nothing of these allegations and that he had twice asked Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to send him details on any concerns about the impartiality of U.N. staffers.
Guterres, who maintains Ethiopia had no right under the U.N. charter to expel the officials, took a rare step for a secretary-general by responding directly in the council chamber. He asked the ambassador to provide any written documents that the government may have about any alleged wrongdoing by any of the seven officials.
“It is my duty to defend the honor of the United Nations,” Guterres told reporters afterward. He said if such documents are provided, the U.N. will investigate why he wasn't alerted about the matter.
Ethiopia announced the expulsions last Thursday, accusing the U.N. officials of meddling in the country’s internal business.
The country’s foreign ministry later added some more specific claims of “grave violations,” such as violating security agreements, transferring communications equipment to be used by Tigray forces, spreading misinformation and “politicization of humanitarian assistance.”
But much of what the ambassador said Wednesday had not been raised publicly before.
The expulsions came as the U.N. was increasingly outspoken about what it calls the Ethiopian government’s de facto blockade of the Tigray region, where local forces have been fighting government soldiers and allied troops since November.
The conflict began as a political dispute after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sidelined the Tigrayan regional party that had dominated Ethiopia’s government for decades. The clash spiraled into a war that has killed thousands of people and a hunger crisis that threatens still more.
Up to 7 million people need food and other aid in Tigray and nearby regions where the fighting has spread, and an estimated 400,000 people are living in “famine-like conditions,” Guterres said.
“The people of Ethiopia are suffering. We have no other interest but to help stop that suffering,” he said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told The Associated Press last week that only 10% of needed humanitarian supplies have been reaching Tigray in recent weeks,
Five of the officials expelled work with the U.N. humanitarian agency, another is with the U.N. human rights office and the seventh is with UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.
The council had taken no action after an emergency closed-door discussion Friday, and divisions came into the open at Wednesday's meeting.
Speaking before the Ethiopian ambassador leveled the new allegations, the U.S. and several European members deplored the expulsions.
“It cannot be excused, nor ignored,” Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called the expulsions reckless, unjustified and an affront to the U.N., its member countries and humanitarian principles.
Asked later about the Ethiopian envoy's accusations, she said the U.S. wanted to see the allegations and “where they're coming from,” but it “raises some concerns" that they emerged after the officials were kicked out.
Thomas-Greenfield urged the council to consider passing a resolution to help ensure the U.N. can deliver humanitarian aid in Ethiopia.
“If these calls for humanitarian access continue to go unheard, then the Security Council must act,” she said.
But representatives for China and Tunisia — the latter speaking for the council's three African members plus St. Vincent and the Grenadines — called for “quiet diplomacy.”
Indian Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti wanted to “de-escalate the situation through engagement and dialogue," and Russian deputy Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva said the council shouldn't “overdramatize the developments” in what her country views as Ethiopia's internal affairs.
The Ethiopian ambassador asked the U.N. to send new staffers to replace those forced to leave, and he said his country wanted to work with the international community.
“No one should doubt the Ethiopian tradition of hospitality,” he said. “What we ask is respect, dignity and honesty.”