UN Workers Detained in Ethiopia

by Sarah Li ‘25

Source: Al Jazeera

Published Dec. 2nd, 2021

On November 10th, the United Nations (UN) announced that at least 16 local staff and their dependents had been arrested in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. More than 70 truck drivers—all working as contractors for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and responsible for driving humanitarian aid into the war-torn Tigray region—were also detained. As of now, 6 of the staff members and all of the drivers have been freed, leaving 5 staff members and one dependent still in custody.

The year-long Ethiopian conflict between the federal government and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s former ruling party, has recently intensified as Tigrayan forces and allies pushed southward and threatened to march on the capital.

As a response to this threat, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency, allowing the government to arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected of collaborating with a terrorist group. Having deemed the TPLF a terrorist group earlier this year, the Ethiopian government began widespread arrests throughout the capital, leading to the arrests of the 16 ethnic Tigrayan UN workers and their dependents.

In a recent report, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a government agency, said it had received numerous reports of arrests of Tigrayans in the capital, noting with concern that the new wave of arrests “appeared to be based on ethnicity”, and included elders and mothers with children. 

The Addis Ababa police have denied making ethnically motivated arrests, saying they are only targeting supporters of the rebellious Tigrayan forces fighting the central government.

Government spokesperson Legesse Talu asserted that the detention of the UN workers was a result of their “participation in terror” under a state of emergency, and had no connection with their office or job. However, the TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda declared the state of emergency was used as a cover to conduct mass arrests of Tigrayans.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has claimed that detentions of people based on ethnicity are “completely unacceptable.”

UN spokesman Stephané Dujarric states that the UN has not been given any explanation for the detention of its workers as they continue pressing for the release of all employees and dependents. He announced, “They’re Ethiopians, they are UN staff members, and we would like to see them released, regardless of whatever ethnicity is listed on their identity cards.”

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