W.H.O. Chief Denies Ethiopia’s Charges of ‘Criminal’ Support for Violent Rebels

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), addresses the media during a press conference at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 on the situation regarding to the new coronavirus. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

World Health Organization (W.H.O.) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a statement on Thursday denying allegations from the government of Ethiopia he is secretly backing the Tigray rebels in his home country’s steadily escalating civil war.

Several top United Nations officials declared their support for Tedros, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“My heart breaks for my home, Ethiopia, and I call on all parties to work for peace and to ensure the safety of civilians and access for health and humanitarian assistance to those in need,” Tedros said in his statement, which was posted on Twitter Thursday evening.

“I am deeply saddened about reports of casualties and large numbers of people being displaced and seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. In the midst of a global pandemic, I am further concerned about the impact on health,” he continued.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Friday some 32,000 refugees have already fled from the Tigray region of Ethiopia into neighboring Sudan, and another 200,000 could follow over the next six months if the fighting continues. UNICEF estimated that about 45 percent of the refugees are under the age of 18.

U.N. officials added that the area of Sudan where the refugees are arriving is remote, devoid of the infrastructure needed to accommodate large numbers of people, and vulnerable to attack if fighting in Ethiopia spills over the border. Those fleeing from the Tigray region are reportedly departing in great haste and bringing few supplies with them.


Food and medicine are running desperately short in Tigray, while the government shutdown of banks is preventing humanitarian aid from reaching many of its residents, raising fears of a hunger crisis among those who do not flee to Sudan. The region was already teetering on the verge of famine due to a plague of locusts. Local hospitals report treating hundreds of casualties from the fighting, including a growing number of civilians.

The United Nations on Friday requested $200 million in emergency aid for Ethiopia and its refugees in Sudan. The U.N. demanded an immediate ceasefire so “humanitarian corridors” could be established, creating safe routes for the delivery of food and supplies to civilians.

In his statement on Thursday, Tedros seconded Guterres’ call for “immediate measures to de-escalate tensions and ensure a peaceful resolution to the dispute.” 

Neither side in the conflict seems inclined toward negotiations at the moment. The Ethiopian government insists Tigrayan separatists went too far when they held illegal elections and occupied a federal military base early this summer, so the situation must be resolved with military force. 

Tigrayan leaders are steadily widening the conflict by attacking targets in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which they accuse of colluding with the federal government to destroy them. On Friday, Tigrayan forces fired rockets at the capital of the neighboring Amhara region, possibly targeting its airport. Tigray forces previously launched rocket attacks against other civilian airports in Amhara.

“There have been reports suggesting I am taking sides in this situation. This is not true and I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace. The whole world needs peace for health and health for peace,” the statement from Tedros concluded.

On Wednesday, Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff Berhanu Jula accused Tedros, who is a longtime member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and held several high offices in Ethiopia as a member of that party, of working behind the scenes to provide diplomatic support for the Tigray rebels, and even helping to supply them with weapons. Berhanu called on Tedros to resign from WHO.

Ethiopian government officials have accused Tedros of “treason” for colluding with Egypt against the government of President Abiy Ahmed. There are some strong disagreements between the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments, especially concerning a dam Ethiopia is building across the Nile River.

A senior Ethiopian official on Thursday complained that Tedros never reached out to Abiy government to hear its side of the conflict with the TPLF and never offered his assistance as an intermediary with his old friends in the Tigray region. 

Instead, the official said Tedros has been “hustling and bustling and calling a number of leaders and institutions” to undermine Abiy and “pressurize the government to sit and negotiate.”

Guterres said on Thursday that he has the “utmost respect” for Tedros, an “exemplary international public servant.”

“He’s guided the World Health Organization through Ebola and Covid-19, and he has always focused on the need to strengthen global public health,” the U.N. secretary-general said of Tedros.



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