Ethiopia: The UN Will Even Let TPLF Assault and Detain Their Workers

Jeff Pearce
5 min readOct 18, 2021

“If something comes, no one will protect me.”

Sources say TPLF soldiers have been harassing, beating, and detaining Ethiopian staff for the UN and contracted workers — sometimes for days — with UN senior officials letting it happen and refusing to go public.

According to a source, a Child Protection Specialist for UNICEF in the Mekelle area was snatched by the TPLF while heading from the work compound to his personal quarters in mid-July. It was only after he went missing for about three to five days that the UN realized what had happened, and that their staffer had been beaten and was being held by TPLF soldiers. The staffer was later reassigned to the Afar region. But while UN officials discussed what happened to him at a meeting, the episode was not included in the regular internal reports that cover security incidents. Nor did the UN go public.

A contracted worker in Shire was also regularly harassed in July. Again, the UN didn’t bother to log the security incident on its internal reports.

I reached out to the individual who works for UNICEF and was assaulted, but they told me, “I’m not ready to talk about my experiences in Tigray” before quickly hanging up.

Nevertheless, a second, independent source confirms it was common knowledge among UN staff that an Ethiopian worker for UNICEF was mistreated and interrogated for hours by the TPLF.

Why isn’t this in the UN’s records? Applying a double standard is apparently business as usual for the organization. A truck driver detained for a day in the Afar region made it into the security reports, but serious incidents when the TPLF are the culprits can get a pass.

The Child Protection Specialist who was reassigned is Amhara. The contracted worker is Oromo. One source believes that’s not a coincidence, “It’s based on ethnic background.” The TPLF are targeting staff and contracted workers of other ethnicities, harassing them, and if that kind of pressure won’t work, they will snatch them up and detain them. When the UN shows up to negotiate a staff member’s release, the TPLF will make letting them go contingent on the staffer being reassigned out of the region.

These attacks carry massive implications for how the UN is operating in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government just recently declared seven senior UN officials persona non grata and kicked them out for spreading disinformation and helping the TPLF. But as I reported October 5, an internal email demonstrates that UN staff even look the other way while the TPLF carry out forced recruitment in IDP camps, and they also ordered workers not to attend “recruitment events” or take any photos or video of recruitment activities.

Now it’s clear that senior officials will even sacrifice members of their own team, allowing them to be assaulted and detained by the TPLF, to maintain the positive image that mainstream Western media has offered the world.

While a public Situation Report for July 19 acknowledges “there have been reports of attacks on individuals suspected to have supported the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Eritrean Defence Forces,” there is no mention of an attack on a UN worker. Nor did it make into the Situation Report for August 5. Why is the UN covering up what happens to some of their own?

When a source complained about TPLF belligerence to a director, the director downplayed the conduct and claimed the measures were “not harassment” and that the incident wouldn’t be officially reported “for the common safety” of UN operations.

The source also claims three Amhara staff from Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, were taken in the first week of July in another incident and held for several days. After long negotiations, they were eventually released but also relocated. UN officials also tried to downplay this episode at one of their internal meetings, and a senior official for the MSF team apparently burst into tears, upset by the obvious gaslighting, insisting, “It happened, it happened!”

One source says that this episode prompted them to think, “If something comes, no one will protect me.” Here are more signs of what I first reported months ago, that Ethiopian analysts and staff are working in an environment of fear and intimidation.

An Update: On October 20, an MSF spokesperson finally got back to me with an official comment: “Our staff have faced harassment and detention by various actors in Ethiopia. In the interest of the safety and security of our staff, we generally do not provide any details of such incidents and handle them in bilateral discussions with those responsible. All armed actors should respect the neutrality of our medical mission and allow MSF teams to continue working so that those in need may receive much needed assistance.”

But this raises more questions than it answers. For instance, there is no comment on how the UN responded to the incident.

And why the double-standard? Back in late June, MSF accused the Ethiopian army of dragging staff members out of vehicles in the aftermath of a skirmish in Tigray and murdering several of them. It’s worth recalling, however, that the TPLF stole federal army uniforms in the November 3–4 attack and have sometimes masqueraded as ENDF forces. But at the moment, the only force in control of Tigray is the TPLF.

Yes, the murders of MSF staff are serious enough to tell the world, but why not all incidents? Why is it keeping them secret when they involve the rights and safety of Ethiopian nationals in their own country?

Is the MSF telling us that by going public, it wouldn’t be able to protect its staff?

The Ethiopian government is within its rights to demand to see the minutes of the UN meeting held over the beaten and detained Ethiopian staffer.

And the government is within its rights to demand what security measures the UN is even taking (if any) to guarantee the safety of Ethiopian nationals working in Tigray for the organization.

If this is how the UN allows Ethiopian nationals to be treated, why, the government might ask, should Ethiopia allow it to continue operating in the country at all?

And it gets worse. On the excuse of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) making aid “community based” and with “local integration,” the UN has been quietly pruning and discarding experienced staff who come from other regions of the country and bringing in junior officials from Tigray who are sympathetic to the TPLF or have obvious conflicts of interests.

Given that the TPLF’s lobby firm, Von Batten-Montague-York, is now banging on about independent investigations, maybe a good place to start would be the internal records on security incidents and the human resources files of the UN in Ethiopia.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.