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World Health Organization Director Says ‘Skin Color’ May Be Why Tigray’s Hunger Crisis Is Being Ignored

Ethiopian officials say the top leader of the World Health Organization should recuse himself from his position for comments about the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region that has left millions of people without food and other essential resources.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Aug. 17 called it the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Tedros said he believes it is not getting the same attention as the Ukrainian-Russian conflict because of racism.

World Health Organization’s Director General Tedros Ghebreyesu arrives for a dinner at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on November 11, 2021, as part of the ‘Paris Peace Forum’. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

“I haven’t heard in the last few months any head of state talking about the Tigray situation anywhere in the developed world. Anywhere. Why?” Tedros asked during a virtual briefing on Aug. 17. “Maybe the reason is the color of the skin of the people in Tigray.”

Billene Seyoum, a spokesperson for Ethiopia’s prime minister, slammed Tedros’ comments as “unethical” the next day. The spokesperson told reporters that the statement was “unbecoming of such a high-profile position.” Billene suggested that Tedros resign if he wants to keep talking that way.

Tedros is from the Tigray region in Ethiopia, which has been deprived of resources amid a two-year civil war in the country between Tigrayan and Ethiopian forces. The conflict has brought famine to parts of Tigray, displaced millions of people and killed thousands, according to reports.

About 13 million need food in Tigray and the neighboring areas also affected by the war, which is a 44 percent increase from January, even though some aid has made it to the region in past months, according to Reuters.

About nearly 6 million people live in Tigray, reports show. Half of the pregnant women or nursing mothers are malnourished, leading to a rise in maternal deaths. Since April, only 462,300 gallons of fuel entered Tigray, less than 20 percent of the monthly need in the region, according to the U.N.

“Hunger has deepened, rates of malnutrition have skyrocketed, and the situation is set to worsen as people enter peak hunger season until this year’s harvest in October,” the United Nation’s World Food Program said in an Aug. 19 report.

Banking and telecommunications services have been cut since Tigray regained control in June 2021. Humanitarian and local health workers said people are starving to death, and basic medical supplies are running out.

Billene said “an operable environment needs to happen” for the services to be restored, including safety guarantees for service workers, NPR reports. She said the federal government is considering “peace talks in the coming weeks.” Tigray forces, however, have accused Ethiopian forces of launching new attacks. Billene said the claims are “a mechanism to deflect” from peace discussions.

Tigray’s government said it would agree to talks “with no preconditions,” which Billene ensured on Aug. 19. However, those talks were abandoned as tensions boiled over on Aug. 24 when gunfire resumed. Both sides blamed the other for the return to conflict.

“Leaving aside all the peace options presented by the government, the terrorist group, the TPLF(Tigray People Liberation Front)…launched an attack this morning in the eastern front in Biso Ber, Zobl and Tekulesh directions starting from 5 AM…” the Aug. 24 statement said, adding that with the measure, Tigrayan forces “officially broke the ceasefire.”

However, a few hours before, the Tigray External Affairs Office released a statement accusing the federal government of spending the previous five days “repositioning an offensive front.”

“The enemy, after laying an unprecedented siege to the people of Tigray and committing unimaginable and unforgettable atrocities, and assuming that the people of Tigray, having been severely weakened, can now be finished off through fighting, has intensified the genocidal war on the people of Tigray through its flagrant violation of the cessation of hostilities agreement that had been in place for a few months,” the office wrote.

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