UNITED NATIONS, Oct 11 (IPS) – A growing diplomatic battle is being played out at the United Nations between Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and one of the world body’s member states: the politically-troubled Ethiopia which is desperately in need of international humanitarian assistance.
But the war of words – in an institution where the Secretary-General is traditionally considered subservient to all 193 member states – is rare by UN standards forcing Guterres to exercise his “right of reply” in the Security Council, the most powerful body at the UN.
When the Secretary-General was confronted with a question at a news briefing last week specifically about his right of reply “which we had never –ever— seen in the Security Council”, it triggered the question: “is this an expression of the level of your displeasure, at the moment, with the Ethiopian Ambassador?”
“It is my duty to defend the honor of the United Nations,” Guterres shot back.
The brouhaha followed the Ethiopian government’s decision last week to declare seven UN officials, mostly doling out humanitarian assistance, ”persona non grata” (PNG).
In international diplomacy, PNG is based on the principle of reciprocity: “you expel our diplomats and we expel yours” as evidenced during the Cold War era between the UN and the then Soviet Union.
In a May 2018 piece, a former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon pointed out that expelling diplomats en masse became a characteristic of the Cold War, when diplomats from the Soviet Union and its allies were often suspected of being intelligence agents and were ordered to leave – usually after a spy scandal.
Inevitably, the Russians and their allies retaliated, kicking out western diplomats. The largest single expulsion was in 1971, when Britain’s Conservative government expelled 90 of the Soviet Union’s 550-stong embassy in London and stopped a further 15 diplomats from returning.
But the UN does not have diplomatic reciprocity, nor does Guterres have the power or the authority to expel Ethiopian diplomats either from the UN or from New York city.
The Ethiopians say the seven UN officials were booted out of the country because they “interfered in the domestic affairs of Ethiopia”.
But as of Friday, there was no response from Ethiopia to the Secretary-General’s request for concrete evidence for the expulsion.
Guterres also argues that the concept of persona non grata applies to relations between sovereign nations, not relations between the UN and its member states.
Ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie Amde of Ethiopia said his country was not under any legal obligation to justify or explain its decisions, and listed allegations of “misconduct” by UN officials.
The dispute was apparently triggered by the fact that the UN was also providing humanitarian assistance to rebel forces in a country where nearly seven million people require such aid.
When it provides urgently-needed food and medicine, the UN says, its distribution is not guided by politics, but by human factors.
Kul Gautam, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, a UN agency which has provided humanitarian assistance to millions of people world-wide, told IPS: “Yes, I am aware of several UNICEF and UN Reps being PNG’ed, but never did the UN take as strong and categoric public position as in this case”.
In the past, he said, the UN Secretaries-General and heads of agencies have protested and condemned such expulsions, “but I do not recall the UN ever questioning the offending government’s right to declare UN international staff persona non grata.”
Thus, it came as a (pleasant) surprise that in the case, involving UN staff PNGed by the Ethiopian government, the Secretary-General made a bold public statement questioning the actions and statements of the Ethiopian government both to the media and at the UN Security Council.
“I hope and trust that the S-G’s new-found position has been carefully reviewed and corroborated by the UN Legal Office and that it will be sustained –if the case were challenged at the International Court of Justice.”
In the past, Gautam pointed out, UN staff being PNGed by authoritarian governments for taking a principled stand in the best interest of the UN or the causes they serve (e.g. the best interest of children, in the case of UNICEF), was often seen as a badge of honour for the staff member concerned.
After all, UN staff pledge their allegiance to the UN Charter that speaks of “We the peoples of the United Nations”, and not “We the governments of the United Nations”.
And UN staff are specifically barred from taking instructions by their national governments or host country governments, he argued.
“Some governments would prefer that the UN and its agencies simply send them a cheque as part of their cooperation. But the UN General Assembly as well as the governing boards of UN agencies, Funds and Programs expect the UN staff on the ground to carefully monitor the utilization and effectiveness of the support they provide,“ he said.
“Let us hope that the UN S-G’s well-considered response to the unilateral action by the Ethiopian government will lead to empowering UN international civil servants to carry out their humanitarian and development activities without any fear or favour in the best interest of the people to whom such support is intended.”
Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, told IPS “Lots of UN officials have been declared PNG by a country in which they were posted. SGs sometimes complain and sometimes keep quiet”.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy in Focus columnist and senior analyst, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council, told IPS: “I cannot recall any previous time a Secretary General has exercised his right to reply.”
But this is not the first time UN officials have been expelled or declared persona non grata, he pointed out.
Most recently, Morocco expelled most of the MINURSO peacekeepers from occupied Western Sahara and invoked PNG status on the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy Christopher Ross.
The difference is that with Morocco and with the other previous cases, the government in question had at least one permanent member of the UN Security Council as a staunch ally, thereby limiting the Secretary General’s ability to confront them so decisively, said Zunes.
“This unprecedented action regarding Ethiopia may be as much a reflection of Ethiopia’s relative diplomatic isolation as it is the seriousness of their anti-UN action,” said Zunes, a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.
Gautam said, Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, has deeply disappointed the international community by committing or condoning serious human rights violations against the people of an ethnic minority community in his own country.
The fact that some militants within the ethnic community may also have committed atrocities, does not justify the harsh and disproportionate actions against innocent civilians by the ruling government of a democratic state which must be held to a higher standard, he argued.
“While there have been several cases of UN officials expelled from various countries by authoritarian governments, Ethiopia declaring as many as seven UN officials providing humanitarian assistance as persona non grata (PNG) on seemingly trumped-up charges, is unprecedented.”
Also unprecedented is the position taken by the UN Secretary-General, whose spokesperson stated that “…it is the long standing legal position of the Organization not to accept the application of the doctrine of persona non grata with respect to United Nations officials”.
He went on to say that “This is a doctrine that applies to diplomatic agents accredited by one state to another state. 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 accorded to the United Nations and its officials”.
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