By Mesfin Tegenu
It is time for serious scrutiny of The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General’s role in the war in Ethiopia. Earlier this month he is quoted as saying: “Maybe the reason is the colour of the skin of the people” in suggesting the world has ignored the conflict in Tigray. It is just the latest comment of his two-year-long effort to bring international condemnation and sanctions on a democratic government. During that period, he has purposefully and persistently distorted the realities of the conflict.
Let’s begin with his personal interests in this war. Dr Tedros himself is from Tigray, he is a member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), he served in the TPLF-led government as Minister of Health from 2005 – 2012 and later as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2012-2016. The authoritarian TPLF governed Ethiopia for over 27 years until it was overthrown in a democratic uprising in 2018. The years of endemic corruption, human rights abuses and ethnic-based discrimination had worn thin on the Ethiopian people who wanted their economic development to be accompanied by a new democracy. Dr Tedros himself faced many accusations of ethnic-based discrimination while in office, in 2010 Human Rights Watch published a report called: Ethiopia: Donor Aid Supports Repression, research pointed to the TPLF government routinely using access to aid “as a weapon to control people and crush dissent.”
Returning to his comments this month, suggesting the people of Tigray have been ignored, the evidence would suggest otherwise. There have been severe punitive actions taken by the international community against the Ethiopian government including visa restrictions and their free trade scheme with the US being cancelled. Not to mention relentless rhetorical condemnation. It is also really important to note there has been no fighting whatsoever in Tigray since June 2021. Ethiopian forces did not enter the region after they repelled the TPLF’s invasion of Afar and Amhara. Moreover, the Ethiopian government led efforts to get aid into the region with a humanitarian truce in March this year despite the TPLF still attacking towns and villages in neighbouring regions. His comments also contradict the language being used by the United Nations agencies which have said the aid programme is meeting its targets with large amounts of aid reaching Tigray. Adrian van der Knaap, WFP’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, went as far as saying famine had been averted in Tigray and highlighted the regions in need of aid were now Afar and Amhara, communities that were destroyed by Dr Tedros’ TPLF colleagues.
The people who are being ignored are those living in Afar and Amhara. Communities that faced months of TPLF occupation and atrocities including killings, rape and mass looting. The latest estimates by OCHR suggest around 9 million people in those two regions need urgent aid. OCHR describe the situation in Afar as: “dire with alarming levels of food insecurity and malnutrition.” An analysis of Dr Tedros’s public comments and tweets since November 2020 shows he has not once referenced the suffering in those areas. Could it be he is ignoring them due to their ethnic background?
I also want to highlight his lack of scrutiny of the TPLF. His comments always suggest the people of Tigray are suffering solely due to the actions of the Ethiopian government, yet that does not stand up to the facts. The TPLF initiated the conflict in November 2020 attacking government military bases in Tigray, the Ethiopian government’s defensive operations were justified according to the UNDP. They launched an invasion of Afar and Amhara in June 2021 and threatened to march on Addis Ababa. The suffering they caused on their way has been highlighted by numerous reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and international media outlets. More recently, evidence provided by Reuters, the MacDonald Laurier Institute and others, have shown the group becoming increasingly authoritarian against citizens living in Tigray. They’ve been accused of restricting aid including food, forced conscription and using child soldiers. Channel 4 in the UK recently interviewed Tigrayans who had fled into neighbouring regions in control of the Ethiopian Government. Yet, of course, analysis of Dr Tedros’s comments show he has never challenged the actions of the TPLF.
Raising the alarm for people in Tigray is so important, the region will need significant support to rebuild over the coming years, but that is not what Dr Tedros is doing. The trend of his public comments is consistent with the language used by the TPLF leadership in Ethiopia and the complete absence of empathy for the people of Afar and Amhara. This demonstrates he has one interest and that is to further the aims of the TPLF. It is time someone held the Director-General to account. Trust in the WHO is essential, his approach to Ethiopia is making many question the organisation’s integrity.
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