U.N. Staffers Recalled for Accusing Officials, Including W.H.O. Director Tedros, of Favoring Tigray Rebels in Ethiopia

Soldiers of Tigray Defence Force (TDF) prepare to leave for another field at Tigray Martyr's Memorial Monument Center in Mekele, the capital of Tigray region, Ethiopia, on June 30, 2021. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations on Monday recalled two female staffers from Ethiopia after a recording of them accusing U.N. officials of bias toward the Tigray rebels was posted online. One of the names they dropped was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and a Tigrayan himself.

According to Reuters, the two female voices heard in the recording identified themselves as U.N. employees posted to Ethiopia. In the clip, the women told a freelance journalist that senior U.N. officials are sympathetic to the Tigrayans, who began a rebellion against the central government in November 2020. 

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talks during a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. - WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020 that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterised as a pandemic. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

World Health Organization (W.H.O.) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talks during a daily press briefing on the coronavirus at the W.H.O. headquarters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

The Tigray conflict expanded in size and intensity over the following year, with Tigrayan forces pushing beyond their borders into neighboring provinces, while the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed organized ethnic militia groups against the Tigrayans and invited assistance from neighboring Eritrea. Allegations of atrocities have been leveled against all parties to the conflict.

The accusations of favoritism made by the U.N. staffers are especially sensitive because the Ethiopian government has accused W.H.O. Director Tedros of assisting the Tigrayan rebels. Tedros denied these accusations and insisted he is neutral in the conflict.

Ethiopia expelled seven U.N. personnel on October 1 for allegedly “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.”

Eritrean refugees walks carrying items during a distribution of items organized the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

Eritrean refugees walk carrying items during a distribution of items organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Mai Aini Refugee camp, in Ethiopia, on January 30, 2021. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

“In connection to the current situation in the Northern part of Ethiopia, we had sadly observed that some U.N. staff have failed to fulfill their mission independently and impartially,” the Abiy government said, referring to the Tigrayan conflict.

The statement declaring these seven U.N. officials persona non grata accused them of diverting humanitarian aid, communications gear, and vehicles to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the primary Tigrayan political party and militia.

Antonio Vitorino, director of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), wrote a letter on Monday in which he said an IOM staffer was recalled from Ethiopia and placed on administrative leave while the recording is investigated.

The Director General of the International Organisation for Migration, Antonio Vitorino, adresses the media during a statement as part of a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, October 11, 2018. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

The Director-General of the International Organisation for Migration, Antonio Vitorino, addresses the media during a statement as part of a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, October 11, 2018. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

“The opinions attributed in the audio recordings to the staff member do not correspond to IOM’s principles and values,” Vitorino wrote.

Vitorino did not name the staffer, but Reuters cited U.N. sources in Addis Ababa who identified her as Maureen Achieng, the top IOM representative to Ethiopia. 

Other U.N. officials in Africa identified the other voice in the recording as Dennia Gayle of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA said on Tuesday its representative to Ethiopia has been recalled to New York for “further discussions.”

“Senior management is deeply concerned and this matter is currently being dealt with in line with our internal rules and regulations,” said a UNFPA spokesperson.

“All UNFPA staff are bound by the United Nations standards of independence and neutrality, which are vital to our work delivering for all the people we serve – no matter who or where they are,” the spokesperson said.

Billene Seyoum, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Abiy, defended Achieng by name on Tuesday and said she was being punished for “telling the unvarnished truth on institutional bias within the U.N. system,” especially “in relation to the terrorist TPLF’s criminality.”

The Associated Press

In this Monday, April 2, 2018 file photo, Abiy Ahmed, the newly elected chair of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) addresses Ethiopian lawmakers after he was sworn in as the country’s Prime Minister in Addis Ababa. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, file)

“Internal and external politics of influence within the higher echelons of power in the U.N. system needs to be thoroughly investigated,” Seyoum said.

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