Ethiopia Pursues ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Tigray, Tedros Says; Warns of Nuclear Threat in Ukraine
A woman selling fruit in Adigrat, Tigray region 

Ethiopia’s Tigray region suffers from “the worst catastrophe on Earth” due to a devastating mix of factors such as government neglect, drought, and racism, World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press briefing Wednesday.

Tedros grew emotional at the end of the briefing as he described the humanitarian crisis facing 6 million people in the region who have been cut off from the world and insisted “it’s not because I’m from Tigray that I’m saying that.”

Shifting back and forth from the crisis in Tigray, drought, and hunger throughout the Horn of Africa and also Ukraine, Tedros warned the international community may be “sleepwalking into a nuclear war” as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which he called “the mother of all problems.”

“But in terms of humanitarian crisis, I can tell you the humanitarian crisis is greater in Tigray,” he said.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), at a virtual press briefing

Millions of people have been displaced by the fighting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and Tigray’s regional administration.

National and regional governments view one another as unlawful

Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for defusing tensions with neighboring Eritrea, but his government has taken a hardnosed approach toward Tigray’s regional administration, which it views as unlawful – leading to the military entry to the region.

Tigray’s regional administration defied the government by holding an election in September 2020. And Tigray’s regional administration saw Abiy’s government as unlawful after he postponed national elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tigray has now been under a virtual military siege for over a year, sparking widespread hunger as well as disease. Despite recent promises to allow the entry of desperately needed food and medical supplies, only a scattered number of relief envoys have been allowed to pass by the Ethiopian forces amassed around and inside parts of Tigray.

In January, Tedros slammed Ethiopia’s “complete blockade” on health and humanitarian aid to the Tigray region, saying it has been unable to deliver life-saving medications for nearly six months in a situation that is “unprecedented” even in comparison to conflict-wracked Syria or Yemen.

Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia now also fear retaliation from Eritrean forces operating in the region in an alliance with Ethiopia’s government. Almost 60,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled to eastern Sudan since the conflict began, according to the UN refugee agency.

While Tedros called attention to the crisis in Ukraine, he said he hadn’t heard any head of state from the developed world talking about Tigray during the last few months.

“Why? Maybe the reason is the color of the skin of the people in Tigray,” he said. “Nowhere in the world you would see this level of cruelty, where a government punishes 6 million of its people for more than 21 months.”

“How can peace talks occur when people are being suffocated?” he asked, grabbing his neck by his own hands to underline the point. “The only thing we ask is, ‘Can the world come back to its senses and uphold humanity?’”

UN warnings go back to November 2020

A woman brings her child to a clinic in Wajirat in Southern Tigray in Ethiopia to be checked for malnutrition in late summer. 

United Nations officials warned of a full-scale humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia almost two years ago. The conflict erupted after an attack on an Ethiopian government military base in Tigray. Abiy’s government sent troops in to seize control of Tigray’s governing Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) party and several towns and a humanitarian base with nearly 100,000 Eritrean refugees.

Humanitarian aid groups said the government forces effectively sealed off the Tigray region since July 2021, disrupting the flow of crucial food and aid supplies. But the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported earlier this month that 6,105 trucks were able to bring more than 1.4 million metric tons of humanitarian supplies into Tigray since humanitarian convoys resumed in April.

The overall humanitarian situation in Ethiopia has significantly deteriorated in 2022 leading to increased humanitarian needs across the country due to ongoing conflict and violence, and climatic shocks such as the prolonged drought,” OCHA said in an 5 Aug situation report. “More than 20 million people are to be targeted for humanitarian assistance and protection this year. Nearly three quarters of them are women and children.”

Both sides agreed to hold talks in June after a cease-fire and the flow of aid was somewhat restored but not enough to meet the needs of the millions of people still trapped in the region. As many as 13 million people in the northern Tigray, Afar, and Amhara regions need food assistance due to conflict, according to the World Food Program, and 7.4 million people across the country face severe hunger due to drought.

Ethnic cleansing – it could be even more … 

Tigray refugees

Tedros has been at odds with Ethiopia’s government for some time. When he was confirmed for a second term as WHO chief this year, Ethiopia did not co-sponsor his nomination — the first time that an incumbent director general at the UN health agency was thus shunned by his own home country. 

Ethiopia’s government also wrote WHO earlier this year accusing Tedros of “misconduct” after his sharp criticism of the war and humanitarian crisis in the country. He previously had served as both Ethiopian foreign minister and health minister.

That has not deterred Tedros, who spoke movingly about his experiences as a “child of war” growing up in Tigray under earlier cycles of conflict at the opening of the World Health Assembly, on 22 May, where he was elected for a second term as Director General. 

And on Wednesday, he was even more blunt about the situation unfolding in the region.

“It’s ethnic cleansing. It could even be more? Why are people not telling the truth,” Tedros told the press briefing. “Why are we keeping quiet when 6 million people are being punished?”

Image Credits: Christine Nesbitt/ UNICEF, Rod Waddington/Flickr, UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt, © UNFPA/Sufian Abdul-Mouty.

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