UN only for Tigray?

A recently leaked internal UN memo outlines observations and recommendations on the war in Tigray by the UNDP’s Director for the Regional Bureau for Africa. The memo not only echoes the narrative of the federal government but goes so far as to attempt to justify grave crimes against humanity. It seeks to present war crimes and crimes against humanity as an unfortunate yet inevitable outcome of war claiming “the ugly face of the AFTERMATH of war has not spared the region…military forces are accused of looting public property, killing civilians and raping women…all allegations require further investigation.” 

A fine conclusion, if only the document didn’t also chastise the international community for seeking to uphold international law, and calls for an independent investigation weren’t viewed in Addis Ababa as “hard talk and posture.” 

Despite claiming all allegations require further investigation, and after initially stating their presence as “reported” rather than confirmed, the memo prematurely attributes all crimes committed to the Eritrean military.  Furthermore, the memo absolves the Ethiopian government of any responsibility for the war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out on its citizens, in its sovereign territory by foreign actors who intervened upon its invitation. It  mystifies Eritrean participation in the war by suggesting the federal government has no agency over Eritrean presence and proposing the federal government negotiate the “withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray” 

Most notably, the memo depicts reported cases of ethnic cleansing in western Tigray as an untimely adventure however ‘justified’ before recommending constitutional measures to resolve it. These measures have been routinely and publicly dismissed by ranking members of  the prime minister’s prosperity party who claim, as does this memo, that forceful annexation is justified. This, coupled with  unverified reports  that the UNDP recently went as far as utilizing a pre-1991 map of Ethiopia during an internal meeting, proves that the organization is far from objective on this matter. 

The memo then goes on to present the indefinite suspension of Tigrayans’ inalienable right to elect political representation as a prerequisite for the protection of human rights, stating “Tigrayans are torn between loyalty to the outcome of their ‘election’ and bitter humanitarian disaster.” It unabashedly rebukes donor nations for failing to delay liberal democratic practices such as the right to vote more promptly when it states, “the international community was silent when the TPLF conducted what was declared to be an illegal election by the governments electoral board.” 

Not once does the memo issue concern towards the contradictory narratives of the federal government with regards to holding elections during a pandemic. The justification provided last year by the federal government regarding its decision to postpone elections in 2020 seems far more relevant now when there is a daily increase in COVID-19 transmission rates and a spike in overall cases and COVID-related deaths, causing panic amongst many. Despite this, the federal government stands firm in its plans to hold the June 2021 elections, which are far from free, fair or credible. In addition to a worsening pandemic, the only other development since the federal government’s decision to postpone is that most of the opposing political parties have since been, one way or another, neutralized. 

Instead of flagging this, the UNDP  reaffirms its readiness to support the upcoming elections. The memo recommends investigations into alleged atrocities be carried out in a timeline that facilitates Prime Minister’s Abiy’s re-election, writing, “the focus on reprimand investigation of human rights violations (with international participation) to be done before elections (and as a condition precedent to support for recovery)…The question is really about sequencing.” The memo asks Ethiopian voters to give Abiy a blank check before an objective and deep investigation can be made into the impact of one of his most consequential decisions.

The UNDP fails to understand Abiy’s application of “other means to gradually weaken the TPLF’s functioning i.e withdrawing financial resource allocation to the regional government” as a  criminal act. Also worth noting is when the TPLF warned that the federal government’s suspension of the regional budget would be viewed as an act of war. One that is consistent with the federal government’s failure to differentiate between its political disagreements with the TPLF and its constitutional obligations towards tax paying Tigrayan citizens that expect to receive public services, including security,  in return. 

The memo makes no mention of speaking with political representatives of Tigray and makes no attempt at informing its opinions from a perspective other than that offered by the federal government—an entity that, as the memo notes, is a belligerent in the war and cannot be viewed as an independent neutral party. Most astoundingly, the memo fails to call for a cessation of hostilities. It bases it’s recommendations not on facts on the ground but on the federal government’s wistful imagination. 

Downgrading the conflict from high to low intensity or as has been the government’s posture, pretending the conflict has come to an end, has been unable to end the humanitarian crisis for which war is responsible. There has been no end to the conflict and therefore the humanitarian crisis cannot be achieved without negotiations between all belligerents, including the TPLF-led Tigray Defense Forces. 

The atrocities being committed in Tigray are a natural progression of genocidal rhetoric and narratives that are unfortunately platformed and normalised by this memo. The UNDP’s clear lack of objectivity in its response to the conflict leads one to question its own level of complicity in sustaining the humanitarian crisis in Tigray today. Despite the failure of Ethiopia’s ‘transition’, organizations like the UNDP continue to prop up the Ahmed administration.

UNDP has been heavily invested in Ethiopia’s political ‘transition’ in the past three years. Under its project “Supporting Elections for Ethiopia’s Democracy Strengthening” (SEEDS), the UNDP committed to providing around $40,000,000 to the Ethiopian government over the course of four years between 2019 – 2022. Much of this investment has come in the form of hiring ‘experts’ on UN salaries to ‘strengthen institutional capacity’ Major figures in Ahmed’s administration such as his spokeswoman Billene Seyoum, economic advisor Mamo Mihretu  and senior advisor Lencho Bati are a few amongst those on UNDP’s payroll. This funding will allegedly now be rerouted to support the UNDP’s “Early Recovery” program in Tigray, despite the contestations of other UN agencies on the ground who argue that recovery efforts cannot be deployed while full humanitarian access remains to be achieved. Given that all other UN agencies activities are funded through UNDP, UNHCR’s recent decision to remove staff who have been vocal about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray does not bode well for the independence of UN activities in Tigray.

UNHRC’s acceptance of requests from the state appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to conduct joint investigations into atrocities that continue to be committed, as recommended by the UNDP memo, should be viewed within this context. Why the decision to include the EHRC in investigations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide in which its complicity is alleged should be self evident. EHRC should be investigated for, amongst other offences, its role in disseminating dehumanizing narratives that created an environment permissive to atrocities of this kind.

There is no denying that Abiy’s administration has desired and enjoyed less policy space than his EPRDF predecessors, the west has enjoyed a significant level of influence over Ethiopia’s current trajectory.

In 2019, Abiy’s administration launched Ethiopia’s Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda (EHERA) with the objective of “transforming Ethiopia from a largely agrarian low-income country to an industrialized lower-middle-income country by 2030”. This agenda has been geared towards pivoting away from a public investment growth model and moving the economy towards a more liberalized and private sector-led model. Over the last three years, the PM has been openly criticized for appointing mostly western-educated technocrats funded by UNDP to oversee the economic liberalization process. During this time, U.S. officials have also been embedded in key Ethiopian economic ministries. 

Critics of the reform agenda have long contended that the EHERA is identical to structural adjustment programs (SAPs), the infamous neoliberal economic packages that continue to be imposed on many African countries by the WBG, IMF and their backers as preconditions for debt relief and financial support. Key elements of SAPs comprise fiscal austerity programmes and liberalization of trade, investment and finance sectors, similar to the proposals made on the EHERA. This, coupled with the increased influence of western partners on domestic matters, has left many to question how “homegrown” the PM’s reform agenda really is. It’s telling that in the wake of Senator Coons’ visit to Ethiopia, the government buttressed admission of Eritrean presence and it’s promise of their withdrawal with a show of its commitment to the privatization agenda.  

Mixed messaging by international donor nations turns on their desire to contain the crisis in Tigray and maintain an ideologically aligned government in Addis Abeba, to hold on to Abiy’s promise of a neoliberal Ethiopia, despite evidence that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to hold on to Ethiopia at all. 

Tigaryan activism has been correctly critical of the AU’s silence and complicity, but has failed to interrogate the UN and the West with similar enthusiasm. What is remembered is Moussa Faki ‘s unfortunate comments that offend not only Tigrayan victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity but his own institutions efforts, all rudely rebuffed, at mediating peace. By in large, the WB funded UNDP’s memo, the UN General Secretaries complicity in legitimizing Abiy’s lies, the french governments active support in shutting down Tigrayan media outlets have been all been ignored.  Ignored in the hopes of achieving a Samantha Powers inspired intervention, presumably with full knowledge of how well thats turned out in the past. 




  1. […] media in early March. This memo not only directly echoes Ethiopian government propaganda, but it ”goes so far as to justify grave crimes against humanity” and forceful annexation of Western Tigray through systematic ethnic […]

  2. […] levels of violence the country has experienced during his tenure. Amongst the many horrendous ‘recommendations’ found in a leaked UNDP memo are plans — now being strictly followed– to announce any […]

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