Ethiopia's Meles Goes from Strategic Starver to UN
Partner in a Day, Ogaden Games in the Times
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at
the UN: News Analysis
UNITED NATIONS, July 23 -- Does the UN
system have humanitarian access to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia or not? In the
July 22 New York Times, the director of the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia,
Mohammed Diab, was quoted that ''Food
cannot get in."
Further inquiry by Inner City Press
yields responses that imply either that the New York Times misquoted the UN
official or the UN system is backing away from the statement -- or both. Two
separate UN explanations are quoted extensively below.
The after-the-fact spinning may be
explained by the fact that the UN, whose Security Council declined to criticize
Ethiopia's ongoing incursion into Somalia which began last December, and whose
humanitarian coordinator in Somalia
support of the Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government, is in a
conflicted position with regard to human rights violations by the government of
prime minister Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.
The Times article had another,
"'It's a starve-out-the-population strategy,' said one Western humanitarian
official, who did not want to be quoted by name because he feared reprisals
against aid workers. 'If something isn't done on the diplomatic front soon,
we're going to have a government-caused famine on our hands.'"
Perhaps the UN now wishes that WFP's
director of Ethiopia had also demanded anonymity -- some say that his candor,
meant to highlight the impending starvation of civilians, is not kindly looked
upon by others in the UN system who have a more go-along to get-along attitude.
Or was the tough talk, and then stepping-away, a sort of high-stakes diplomatic
game in which bad press is threatened if food is not released? Already in the
U.S. Congress there are moves to condemn or de-fund Ethiopia. Will a retraction
or amplification not be sought from the New York Times because the story, from
the UN's point of view, fulfilled its purpose? Is this the function of
journalism, or more specifically of humanitarian journalism?
At Ban Ki-moon's
spokesperson's noon briefing on July 23, Inner City Press
Press: The people in that region called for some kind of UN inquiry. So one,
are you aware of that call for an inquiry? And two, what is the UN going to do
if its humanitarian agencies are denied access to regions they are supposed to
Spokesperson: To be completely truthful, I have received many pages of reaction
from the humanitarian agencies on this report. So, I think I'd rather share
with you this report afterwards. OCHA -- the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs -- the World Food Program and the World Health
Organization, all of which have programs in this region which they consider to
be the poorest area of Ethiopia, have reactions to this. And rather than go
through the whole Q&A here, I think I would rather share the whole thing with
you afterwards... (Video
here, from Minute 10:06).
But the "whole thing" wasn't shared. When
Inner City Press afterwards asked for the three sub-agencies' reactions, at
first the (mis) direction was to contact WFP. While Inner City Press sent WFP's
New York spokesperson an e-mail, the response at the noon briefing was that
three agencies' reactions -- "the whole thing" -- would be shared afterward the
briefing. It was never explained why, as to a fourth agency, UNICEF, involved in
the polio program described in the Times article, no reaction was provided, or
even apparently sought.
Ten hours later, no World Health
Organization reaction had been provided. As to OCHA, the deputy spokesperson
said that, "as I mentioned earlier, John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for
Humanitarian Affairs will be here tomorrow. So, I think maybe he will in a
better position to also brief you on that."
The WFP written statement provided tried
to back away from the agency's Ethiopia director's quote, and stated that the
New York Times presented it out of context:
on your ethiopia question from WFP
unspokesperson-donotreply [at] un.org
To: Inner City
1:34:26 PM Eastern Standard Time
Bettina Luescher, WFP Chief Spokesperson, North America
The New York
Times quoted WFP Country Director Mohamed Diab as saying this was the first time
he had heard of such diversions, but in fact Mr. Diab said it was the first time
he had heard of allegations of a government blockade on the region... The New
York Times quotes Western humanitarian officials as estimating that up to 30
percent of food aid to the Somali region is diverted and that to cover their
tracks soldiers and government administrators tell aid agencies that the food
assistance has been spoiled or been stolen or hijacked by the rebels.
surprised by such a statement - we take seriously this allegation of major food
diversion, and will quickly investigate together with the government and other
agencies. In Ethiopia, a number of agencies as well the government provide food
assistance - we will ensure this allegation is raised with all relevant
what is implied by the WFP quote in the New York Times, WFP does not consider
there is a government 'blockade' on the Somali region as multi-agency and
government assessment teams are currently working on the ground in three zones,
and WFP food distributions are underway in three other zones. WFP, however,
like FEWS holds that restrictions on commercial trade and movement of
humanitarian aid because of military operations as well seasonal floods, rising
prices, and other factors could lead to a humanitarian crisis among pastoral and
agro-pastoral communities in some areas unless the restrictions are lifted
The dispatch of
emergency food assistance was delayed in some areas because of restrictions on
movements of commercial traffic and humanitarian assistance since a security
operation began in parts of the region in May.
has allowed WFP food assistance into three zones -- Shinile, Afder and Liben –
in the Somali region and the food is moving now and being distributed. We have
monitors on the ground to check it is distributed to the people in need.
the authorities this month allowed multi-agency and government assessment teams
into the most restricted zones: Fik, Degehabur and part of Gode zone. The
government has also assured us that if those assessments find there is a need
for emergency assistance then food can be distributed. The assessment teams
will move onto other zones once they complete the assessments in those three
zones. Assessments are continuous in the region.
Preparedness and Prevention Agency allocated a total of 9,600 tons of relief
food, a one-month ration, for 530,000 beneficiaries in the Somali region in May
before the assessments. Part of that 9,600 tons is what is being distributed in
the three regions where assessments were completed.
That is certainly a more upbeat picture
of the situation in Ogaden than was painted by the
Times. Inner City Press asked WFP, early Monday afternoon, if it is saying
that Mr. Diab was misquoted by the Times. In the ten hours since, this direct
questions was not answered.
Ki-moon in Ethiopia, January 2007
The OCHA response, received later, is set forth
below, as it mentions WHO:
Nations today welcomed efforts by the Government of Ethiopia to provide much
needed humanitarian assistance to the people of Somali Regional State. On
Saturday, 21 July, the President of Somali Regional state ordered the release of
food to five zones in the region that have been the subject of security
operations since May of this year.
Nations, like other humanitarian actors, holds that restrictions on commercial
trade, including the delivery of food to rural areas as well as seasonal floods,
rising prices and other factors could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the
region unless restrictions are eased soon.
million people reside in Somali Region – the poorest area of Ethiopia. The
region is overwhelmingly rural and consists almost exclusively of pastoralists /
agro-pastoralists, who depend on a delicate lattice of local and international
trade with Somalia for their survival. There are ongoing concerns about such
health issues as Acute Watery Diarrhoea, polio, malaria, measles and other
infectious diseases. Approximately 530,000 vulnerable people currently receive
Emergency Food Assistance. Approximately 1.1. million people are chronically
food insecure. Malnutrition accounts for 8 percent of all deaths. Last year, a
series of floods disrupted the lives of more than 361,000 people, more than half
of the total flood-affected population of Ethiopia. These events took place
after severe drought affected the lives of 1.4 million.
reports have stated that UN assistance to Somali Region has been diverted by
Ethiopian military and militias. The United Nations takes these reports
seriously and investigates all information regarding misappropriation of
resources. However, since Ethiopia-based food distributions have not taken place
during the period of military operations due to new modalities in performing
assessments, it is hard to imagine that such diversions existed.
also indicated that some diversion may have occurred from the World Health
Organization’s Polio Eradication Program in Somali Region. The WHO program in
the country is unaware of any funds being diverted from the our polio
vaccination program to members of the Ethiopian Defense."
For the record, we understand that the
Polio Eradication Program is a partnership between WHO and UNICEF. More
generally, one wonders how much the differences between these UN statements and
the reporting and (UN) quotes in Sunday's is attributable to the fact that the
UN needs to maintain good relations with the Ethiopian government of Meles
Zenawi in order to maximize (remaining) access.
impact such backing-away will have in Addis Ababa, and more importantly in and
for the people of Ogaden, remains to be seen.
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(and weekends): 718-716-3540
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UN Office: S-453A,
UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439
(and weekends): 718-716-3540