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ForeignPolicy.com: UNDP Memo Echoes Ethiopian Talking Points on Tigray

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 13 March 2021

Agency memo sidesteps questions around government’s role in Tigray.

Ethiopian soldiers at a refugee camp in Tigray.
Ethiopian army soldiers stand as a child stand next to them at Mai Aini refugee camp, in Ethiopia's Tigray region, on Jan. 30. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

The confidential memo—signed by Achim Steiner, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP)—says that “all sides” in the East African conflict bear a share of responsibility for the bloody government offensive on the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, with federal forces receiving backing from the Eritrean armed forces and militias from Ethiopia’s Amhara ethnic group.

The four-page memo points to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Ethiopia’s former ruling political party, as provoking the Ethiopian government offensive by attacking and seizing Ethiopia’s Northern Command headquarters in Tigray in early November 2020, in what would have been an “act of war everywhere in the world, and one that typically triggers military response in defense of any nation,” according to the Feb. 16 memo, which was obtained by Foreign Policy.

The memo provides a largely sympathetic account of Ethiopia’s role in the crisis, echoing government talking points and repeating the Ethiopian leadership’s says that the international community has failed to address Tigrayan provocations over the past two years, including its opposition to government reforms and refusal to engage in political talks with the government. The memo also urges donor states to focus more on development and humanitarian goals and less on reprimanding the Ethiopian government over its human rights record and especially the excesses committed during the conflict. It recommends that any investigation into human rights abuses be led by Ethiopia’s own national Human Rights Commission, possibly with international participation.

“In a context like Ethiopia, this approach is likely to be counter-productive and will yield no results,” the memo states, referring to taking a confrontational tack.

The memo paints a damning portrait of the Tigrayan political leadership, characterizing it as an obstacle to the government’s reform agenda, while faulting foreign governments for failing to call the Tigrayans out over the past two years when their actions challenged the rule of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

“The ghosts of a repressive 27-year TPLF regime continue to torment the country—and winning the hearts and minds for social cohesion requires accepting that there is blame on all sides, including the international community,” it states.

It remains unclear what influence, if any, the memo will have on the thinking of the U.N. secretary-general. UNDP’s pro-government stance reflects the fact that any effort to restore peace and basic services in Tigray will require the cooperation of the Ethiopian government. But it also underscores a long-standing concern U.N. observers have held about the development agency: Its dependence on member states’ approval for development programs has made the organization almost reflexively deferential to governments where it operates. The agency’s reluctance in the past to criticize governments from Myanmar to Sri Lanka as they carried out mass atrocities against ethnic minorities inflicted lasting harm on the U.N.’s reputation as a champion of human rights.

Senior U.N. and UNDP officials said that the memo does not reflect the official U.N. position and that is simply one of a number of briefing notes reviewed by senior leaders in the organization seeking to forge a U.N. position on the crisis.

“These internal briefing notes provide insight and analysis based on a variety of views and positions of stakeholders on the ground, and do not constitute UNDP’s endorsement or official position on a particular issue,” according to a statement from a UNDP spokesperson.


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