United Nations Argues Ethiopia Can't Expel Its Officials as Organization Is 'Not a State'

The United Nations argued that Ethiopia has no legal right to expel seven U.N. officials from the country as the organization is "not a state."

U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in a diplomatic note sent to Ethiopia's U.N. Mission that the U.N.'s "longstanding legal position" that the doctrine of declaring someone "persona non grata"—or unwelcome—doesn't apply to U.N. personnel. He also informed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about the policy exception via a phone call with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday.

"The application of this doctrine to United Nations officials is contrary to obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and the privileges and immunities to be afforded to the United Nations and its officials," Haq said.

He argued that the doctrine declaring someone persona non grata only applies between states and said: "We are not a state."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.N. Flag
The United Nations informed Ethiopia on Friday that it has no legal right to expel U.N. officials from the country as the organization is "not a state." Above, the U.N. flag flies at the organization's headquarters in New York on June 15, 2007. Nicholas Roberts/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopia announced the expulsions on Thursday, giving the seven officials 72 hours to leave, as pressure grows on the government over its deadly blockade of the Tigray region where children are reportedly starving to death.

When issues are raised regarding U.N. personnel, Haq said, "the requirement is that such concerns are appropriately conveyed to the organization."

"It's then for the secretary-general to make the necessary determinations and take the necessary steps to address the matter," the spokesman said.

Haq didn't answer directly when asked whether this means the U.N. officials will remain in Ethiopia, and not leave within 72 hours. He reiterated that declaring someone persona non grata applies between countries, and the United Nations is a global organization with 193 member nations.

Abiy's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the U.N.'s diplomatic note and the prime minister's phone call to the secretary-general.

Secretary-General Guterres said Thursday he was "shocked" by the Ethiopian announcement and expressed "full confidence" in U.N. staff, saying they are guided by impartiality and neutrality. In a statement, he said the U.N. was engaging with Ethiopia's government "in the expectation that the concerned U.N. staff will be allowed to continue their important work."

Ethiopia's government has accused humanitarian workers of supporting the Tigray forces who have been fighting its soldiers and allied forces since November. Aid workers have denied it. Thousands of people have died in the conflict marked by gang rapes, mass expulsions and the destruction of health centers, with witnesses often blaming Ethiopian soldiers and those of neighboring Eritrea.

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, this week told the Associated Press that the crisis in Ethiopia is a "stain on our conscience" as children and others starve to death in Tigray under what the U.N. calls a de facto government blockade. Just 10 percent of needed humanitarian supplies have been reaching Tigray in recent weeks, he said.

The remarks were one of the sharpest criticisms so far of the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade, with some 400,000 people facing famine conditions. Memories of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia, which killed around 1 million people and produced images that shocked the world, are vivid in his mind, Griffiths said, "and we fervently hope (this) is not happening at present."

The AP, citing witness accounts and internal documents, last week reported the first starvation deaths since Ethiopia's government imposed the blockade in June in an attempt to keep support from reaching Tigray forces.

In a new statement Friday, Ethiopia's foreign ministry said "we have sadly observed that some U.N. staff have failed to fulfill their mission independently and impartially."

It listed the "grave violations" as alleged diversion of humanitarian assistance to the Tigray forces, violating security agreements, transferring communications equipment to be used by Tigray forces, "dissemination of misinformation and politicization of humanitarian assistance" and "reticence" in pressing for the return of trucks used in aid deliveries.

Ethiopia's government alleges the trucks are commandeered by Tigray forces; humanitarian workers have said instead that truck drivers fear further intimidation upon leaving Tigray and that there is little fuel.

"We are confident that the provision of humanitarian assistance will not be affected" by the expulsions, the statement said, adding that Ethiopia will continue to cooperate with the U.N. and its agencies "provided that their activities do not undermine the sovereignty of Ethiopia and pose a threat to its national security interests."

Haq said the secretary-general also sent a letter to the Security Council informing the U.N.'s most powerful body of the situation in Ethiopia and the developments regarding U.N. staff.

The council had already scheduled closed-door consultations late Friday morning on the expulsion order.