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ERC Griffiths holds press conference on mission to Ethiopia

08 Aug 2021

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On Friday, 6 August 2021, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, held a press conference in Geneva on his recent mission to Ethiopia. Following is a transcript of the press conference.

Martin Griffiths (MG): I am very glad to have my first major conference here in Geneva. This is a town close to my heart. I hope to spend a great deal of time here in the future even though I am going to be based in New York. It is good to meet you again. I know we have met – all of us – in the past on Yemen. I have been on the job two weeks now as the Emergency Relief Coordinator. I have some background on this because I was in OCHA at the time of its birth when Sergio de Mello was the first Emergency Relief Coordinator, I was his deputy. It is something of a homecoming.

It was very important for me to go very quickly to Ethiopia, and I am obviously going to put focus on that this morning. I have just come back – the day before yesterday. We spent six days in Ethiopia – in Addis Ababa and Tigray. We had meetings with senior Government leaders including the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Peace, and other officials. 

It was important to meet them on arrival and when we came back from Tigray as I wanted to make sure that we have mutually understood the level of the problem that we together have to deal with in terms of delivering the humanitarian programme. And I wanted to give some details of that. We had very constructive meetings and they of course told me that they were very keen to help on the difficult issue of delivery of assistance and protection of civilians.

I went to Tigray on a UN flight. We spent two days in the field, we went around talking to internally displaced persons, talking to women, talking to local teachers, health workers, looking at the looted and destroyed infrastructure that exists in Tigray, and the predicament and the tragedy of so many of the people we met. My main conclusion from that was that the needs we had all heard of was by no means understated, these are real needs. The humanitarian system needs 100 trucks a day going into Tigray to meet the needs of the people. It is a phenomenal programme in terms of size. That is 100 trucks a day going in across the line into Tigray where the Tigrayan authorities have remit. That is the challenge making this pipeline work. 

At the moment and during the time of my visit and up until today, we have just seen 178 trucks, which were stuck in Afar, the neighbouring region, waiting to go in, have crossed and reached Mekelle in the last few days. Not all at once, but in the last few days. I gather there are now about 40 [trucks) waiting to get to their destination. But that is very good news for the agencies and the people of Tigray but of course 100 trucks a day is the target. Hundred trucks every single day.

My colleague, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, most exceptionally experienced, perhaps the most experienced UN official working as the World Food Programme envoy, said sufficient logistics and delivery is there in Addis and is looking into how to make this work. Now I had a lot of discussions, of course with the local administrators in Tigray, about what they need in terms of food – the harvest which is recently being planted is likely to produce between a quarter and a maximum half of its production. The need for food is likely to go into next year. This is no small effort. 

They need a re-equipment of primary health centres. We saw hospitals and health centres destroyed, their equipment taken away. There are health workers, but there are no salaries. WHO and UNICEF are working on how to re-equip these centres at a basic level and much of the equipment coming on these trucks I mentioned, will go towards meeting those needs. 
We have a vaccination programme for measles for the kids of Tigray which is going to take place in three weeks. Nothing stops and the equipment needs to be there, vaccines and the cold chain and so on.

Just a word on protection. As one very experienced humanitarian worker for the United Nations said to us in Tigray, she said this is a protection crisis. We talked to many of the women who suffered a terrible abuse and terrible treatment during the period of the recent months. I spoke at some length to a man whose father was killed in front of his eyes and the body was left for six days in the family compound before he was able to take it and bury his father and the shock of it killed his mother. And that compound is still not rebuilt. So, the scale of it is to be believed.

Going back to Addis, I had some very constructive meetings again with the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Peace Minister – the three key ministers – in charge of this operation along with the Commissioner. And I described this and they all spoke constructively and solidly to me about their efforts to make this work – even in the time of war. 

But Ethiopia is going through a very high degree of rhetoric. Humanitarian officials and aid workers are being condemned in public and in social media. I think I have spoken on the record about this, and I spoke to those leaders that I mentioned that any such criticism needs to stop. First of all, it threatens the lives of people who are there to help and secondly of course it has an impact on the humanitarian delivery. Of course, it is unacceptable. I think the USAID Administrator made the same references during her visit in the past few days. And I was given assurances, again – we will see. I was given assurances by those ministers that this will not continue, and I said that if there are specific individuals that you have evidence about not pursuing a firm, neutral stance in humanitarian delivery – tell us. Of course, we will investigate. 

We have all heard of the suspension of two or three of the NGOs. I just want to tell you that I have been in discussions in Addis and even this morning with Minister of Peace about those suspensions and try to get our way through that.

I want to end with two points. Ethiopia is not a stranger to humanitarian needs. Even at present, up to 10 million people, even more, are in need of humanitarian assistance and largely getting it because it is all over the country. One of the messages I wanted to make clear is that the United Nations and other agencies are serving the people of Ethiopia and not only the people of Tigray – and have been for a very long time. I’ve had very constructive discussions with the presidents of both the Amhara region and the Somali region in the past few days to make sure we can serve their people when displacement happens. About a 100,000 extra people have been displaced in Amhara as a result of the conflict.

That leads me to my second point, which is that this war has to stop. This war has to end. We will – all of us – continue to try to make sure those 100 trucks a day reach Mekelle, reach the beneficiaries. We will do everything we can to help the affected people in Amhara and Afar while continuing the work in other parts of Ethiopia. But there is no doubt at all the war has to stop. A humanitarian ceasefire is a glaring necessity in these circumstances. This means offensive military action has to stop, I expect forces should withdraw. At the very least offensive action has to stop and a humanitarian ceasefire needs to be brought into being. And I welcomed the Prime Minister’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire some weeks ago. But we need to build on that, make it reciprocal and give the people of Tigray and their neighbours half a chance of survival in these next months of desperate need. Thank you very much.

Questions:

German Press Agency: You were talking about the trucks that are stuck – can you explain a little bit more what the setting is there? Who obstructs the humanitarian aid from getting to the aid recipients and who are you talking to, to unblock these?

MG: The refer to the general point I made. I did not visit Semera in Afar, so I cannot give you a first-hand account of the scene. These are trucks you need across the lines. You go anywhere in the world where humanitarian assistance is crossing a line of conflict and it is going to be problematic. Of course, there needs to be screening, checking of all those trucks.

There are a number of checkpoints that they need to get through to make sure they are not taking things that are not humanitarian. So that’s the first issue we need to address, and I don’t think we need to have any illusions about how difficult that is for the Government of Ethiopia, and for humanitarian agencies by the way, it is a difficult proposition. Then of course, we are doing something about this. There are local people, who see these trucks go by and say, can we have these, why are we not being served. So, we are ramping up – the World Food Programme is in the lead of those efforts of ramping up to serve those people. In my discussions in Addis, a senior minister said to me you need to serve those people and demonstrate that you are serving Ethiopians and not particularly one set of people.

New York Times: You say there is a need for all offensive action to stop. Did you meet Tigrayan commanders? They were all on the BBC a few days ago saying offensive action has to continue. So what is your understanding of their approach at this point and their cooperation with your effort?

MG: We have no official contact with the Tigrayan military commanders nor indeed their political leaders. We are, as you can imagine, as a humanitarian organization in touch with local administrators – people running hospitals and so forth because we have to work with them to get the aid to places where it is a priority. We are not in the business of mediating between these two sides. We talked to many people who have those contacts, so we at least understand the context. And I would say this, an indirect answer to your question: The Prime Minister has this unilateral ceasefire – he repeated his commitment to it on the two occasions we met – and I have no reason to doubt that. For the Tigrayans who are extending the war into the south and into the east – in Afar and Amhara – they need to take into account that without the ceasefire we will try and get those 100 trucks in and we will do everything we can. It is going to be easier for the Tigrayan people if the war stops. So, they also have an incentive to end their military activities. I am humanitarian coordinator now and not a mediator, so I will keep my hands clean of such matters.

Associated Press: I have a follow-up on that. I know you don’t want to mediate but a humanitarian requires a certain amount of coordination, so what more could you be doing in terms of getting in touch with the military commanders and in particular what is your message to them about Amhara and other regions – the recent incursions. What would you say to them directly?

MG: In a situation like this, when humanitarian agencies act between the two sides, it is of the highest importance that they don’t get involved in any political activities or the kind that you are describing which would lead the other side to say that you are siding with one or the other. We are already accused of that – a point I made earlier. 

We are already accused of aid workers feeding the Tigrayan machine. I was on a UN flight to Mekelle, and I was searched in great detail on one leg of the flight, in fact my earphones were taken away because it was thought they would be somehow helping the Tigrayan struggle. But I have to say that since then, the Government has intervened to reduce considerably those searches and I welcome that. And also, two more UN flights have taken place to Mekelle and back in the last days. This is good news. But as humanitarians we are not going to get into the business of seeing where the military of the other side is willing to go. There are lots of people willing to do that and probably better than we can. 

But you have asked the question what I think. I think it is time to stop the war. That means not pursue further military ambitions in Amhara. I noted Samantha Power [USAID Administrator] was quite clear on this. She said that they should stop and ideally withdraw to Tigray. I would say exactly the same thing. If you want to secure the safety and prosperity and survival of the people of Tigray,, the best way to do it, even while the UN agencies and others are trying to do their best - is of course to end the conflict. The problem is to stop the conflict is to freeze it or withdraw forces. The problem is that ceasefires don’t happen from one day to the next. This is difficult stuff. A unilateral ceasefire is a good first step, but it needs reciprocity and in an environment of a shooting war, as we all know from elsewhere, it is very hard to make that happen. What that means for humanitarians is that while that is the objective, let’s live with current circumstances and focus on the 100 trucks. Once the supplies arrive at the moment in Tigray, the access for the agencies in Tigray is relatively good. The frustration of the agencies – I spend two days with them, national NGOs, international NGOs, UN agencies – is that they have access, but they haven’t had the supplies needed to exploit the access. Hopefully, a little bit better today because of those 178 trucks. But a lot needs to be done in an environment in Ethiopia which is very fragile, I would say.

Agence France Presse: If all the problems in getting in trucks over the line, if they all melted away very quickly, are you ready to go? Do you have those 100 trucks a day ready to roll, and do you have the necessary aid to fill them? Thank you.

MG: That’s a really good question, and one which we spent quite a lot of time discussing. In other words, the question is, if the gate opens, will you be able to do the job you’re supposed to do? And I would answer it this way: The quick answer is yes; we are ready to do it. The World Food Programme, which leads the humanitarian efforts on logistics, have the trucks and the supplies ready, and assures me that the pipeline can keep flowing if it’s allowed to. 

There were questions in the past, I think, and discussions about whether the humanitarian agencies had ramped up or scaled up the level of their presence and experience of people in Tigray, and it was a big ask, because to suddenly produce that operation out of nowhere, and to get the right people in the right place, meant that every single agency had to find those people, who are scarce by the very nature, and deploy them, and get them to understand the situation, and then get them to work together. And it took a bit of time, as you know. So, we looked at that, and this was one of the purposes of my visit, and I can say that largely, the agencies are ready. They have experienced people in Mekelle. For example, just one example out of many: The head of the UNHCR operation in Tigray is their Head of Emergencies from Geneva. Like OCHA, we have also 120 staff around Ethiopia, a lot of them dealing with Tigray. We have also sent in people from the rest of our offices to help – very experienced people. So, I think Tigray has the benefit of, on the whole, experienced people who have seen something like this before. And I think, I have had that experience myself having seen something like this before, that this is incredibly important when you are making judgments. It is also vitally important if you are to maintain, in very difficult circumstances, your careful, cool neutrality and impartiality. When you are seeing such terrible things in front of you, experience makes the difference, I think. And experienced leadership in particular is what agencies need and mostly have to make sure that our people do the right thing despite the stresses and frustrations that they have daily.

Anadolu News Agency: Mr. Griffiths, I’m just trying to get the picture clear here. The UN does not have road access, which has been blocked by the Tigrayan forces. But how are you getting into Mekelle? Who is leading you into Mekelle? Thank you.

MG: I think you have misunderstood what I have been saying. Inside Tigray, because of the declaration by the Prime Minister some weeks ago of that unilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of his forces, you will remember that what he did was, he declared a unilateral ceasefire and he declared a withdrawal of Ethiopian National Defence Forces, for humanitarian reasons, and he referenced for example the need for the planting of the harvest. So, there is no, at the moment, and God knows I hope it continues, conflict in large areas of southern, central, and eastern Tigray. Not all of Tigray, but those areas. 

So, there is no impediment to agencies moving in those areas at the moment. The difficulty arises coming through from Government-held areas – Afar is the proximate region – and our supplies crossing the line then into those Tigray areas not under current Government control. That’s the area where it requires daily, detailed negotiation to make sure that these supplies come through. And we also need a backup air service, so that staff, for example, can rotate. The need for cash is very high indeed. The banking system doesn’t exist in Tigray. The same for telecommunications – we lack communications equipment. Cash, communications equipment – basic services, if you like – are vitally important to get the humanitarian operation going. So for example, as you probably know, to run convoys, you need communications equipment to manage convoys, and if you don’t have it, you can’t do it. World Food Programme does have, they just repaired their sat equipment, but many of the agencies don’t have it. And it’s important for the safety and security of our staff. Without 24/7 communications some of our agency staff, particularly in the north of Tigray and Shire, could come under attack, and we would be at a disadvantage as to how to get them out safely. So, communications equipment is for the functioning of the operation. 

Cash is essential to pay workers, to buy fuel, to pay humanitarian workers, to pay local services. And so, the Government has a provision to allow a certain amount of money to be taken in, after procedures are satisfied, physically taking in cash into Mekelle, and this tends to happen, of course, on the flights. But it’s cumbersome for the Government, and it’s cumbersome for us. One of the things I was told by many is that even if you took the first steps to switch on the cash, to switch on the banking system, not only would the agencies be better equipped, but many people I spoke to who put their savings, Tigrayans, members of the communities and communities left alone, who can’t access the savings they have in their accounts because they can’t get access to their accounts, it’s very important that this happens. It’s very important for dignity and respect, as well as for survival.

Various German media: I write for several German-language media. I was wondering, did you ask the Prime Minister to get full access for the aid convoys, full and unhindered access for the aid convoys, and if so, what was his response?

MG: That is a slightly invasive question in terms of my conversations with the Prime Minister, but of course I asked him that. I mean, it was one of the first things we talked about, access, because of the presented problem for us. And the Prime Minister, as you know, is very much the leader of the Government of Ethiopia, very much the inspiration, I think, of that Government, the leader who has just gone through a successful election for his Prosperity Party. He is a person you need to talk to if you want things of this magnitude and of this sensitivity done. And certainly, on one occasion, without going into details of our discussions about this issue, in which of course he said yes, he is absolutely committed to making this work. Because I was saying to him that I think this is very difficult to make it work, and he said it will happen; we will make it work. And indeed, he travelled out of town during my visit, apparently, to intervene to secure routes. I’m not privy to what happens after I have left the room and comments have been made, but I’ve learned from many years of diplomacy and mediation, that what you do is you take people at their word. And I was very pleased with what I heard on that. We have seen some improvement in the last days. 

The challenge is going to be making it reliable, because a humanitarian programme, its beneficiaries depend on when is the next one going to come. When is the next food delivery going to happen? When is the next delivery of medicines going to happen? They need to know a sense of throughput and purpose. It’s not a one-off. You give them food today and you say, I don’t know when we’ll be back; like for all of us, it’s impossible to deal with that. So, reliability, dependability of that land route through into Tigray is the highest priority for us, and I know that my colleague Ramiro is working on it, day and night now in Addis, and I’m hoping that we will continue to see the improvement that we have all been told will happen. Thank you. 

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