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U.S. blasts "sickening trend" as U.N. warned of "relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian workers"

Ethiopia holds elections amid Tigray crisis
Ethiopia holds elections amid Tigray crisis 06:03

United Nations — Humanitarian aid workers — the people who risk their own health and safety to bring food and shelter to women, children and families around the world — are under attack, the Director General of the International Red Cross has told CBS News. 

"Humanitarian aid is being used as a bargaining chip, and we see this materializing in many, many conflicts in all regions of the planet," said Robert Mardini.

Humanitarian workers have been killed trying to do their jobs, including three Doctors Without Borders staffers killed just last month in Ethiopia's war-torn Tigray region. According to data compiled for a project funded by the U.S. government's international aid agency USAID, the last two years have seen both the highest number of major attacks on aid workers, and the most resulting in injuries.

Mardini told the United Nations on Friday that non-profit groups were under increasing pressure, and that the manipulation of humanitarian aid was holding "civilian populations to ransom."  

Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross, distribute relief supplies to civilians in Tigray region
Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and volunteers from the Ethiopian Red Cross distribute relief supplies to civilians in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, January 6, 2021. INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS/Reuters

At a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday on the dangers humanitarian workers face, President Joe Biden's U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told diplomats: "A new and sickening trend has emerged: the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers." 

In the case of Ethiopia, the U.N. has accused soldiers from Eritrea, who were supporting the Ethiopian government in the recent conflict with regional Tigrayan forces, of using starvation as a weapon of war. But this past week, Ethiopia went on the offensive. The government accused aid workers of "playing a destructive role," putting them in the crosshairs, and threatening to halt their work.  

At the Security Council meeting, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned of a "relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian workers," as diplomats cited attacks on such workers in more than a dozen countries.

"In Ethiopia's Tigray region - which stands on the brink of a man-made famine - parties to the conflict are impeding the delivery of aid, destroying civilian infrastructure and targeting aid workers," U.K. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told fellow diplomats on Friday.   

Humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia's Tigray regi... 08:18

Mardini told CBS News that some aid is getting into Tigray, but not enough to meet the need. He said the ICRC hopes to scale up its operation in the region along with other organizations, including the U.N.'s own World Food Program. 

"It's like a patient with a desperate fever being given one aspirin," Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation, affiliated with Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told CBS News.

Below are transcribed excerpts from our interview with Mardini, who speaks at length on what he believes should be done to increase aid deliveries around the world, and on the "dire" conditions in Ethiopia and in Haiti following the assassination of the country's president:  


Director General, International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini: What is needed most today, and what is very short in supply, is political leadership to bring an end to those protracted conflicts that are spanning over decades and decades. As humanitarians, we always try to do our best to support, but what we're seeing is that there is this growing gap between humanitarian needs worldwide: More displaced people, more people in a situation of acute malnutrition, without access to health care, to education, and now are challenged by an additional deadly threat, which is the COVID-19 in many places, the consequences of climate change, water scarcity, extreme weather events are also an additional stressor on their lives and livelihoods.  

CBS News' Pamela Falk: If I understand you correctly… you see humanitarian aid as a target? 

Mardini: It is being more and more politicized, for lack of political solutions to conflict. Humanitarian aid is being used as a bargaining chip and we see this materializing in many, many conflicts in all regions of the planet, and we see more of them, and we've seen more conflict, exacerbating in the wake of in the wake of COVID-19. 

Falk: Ethiopia is accusing aid groups of "arming" the Tigray fighters. And it seems to be a bit of a desperate accusation at a time when we're seeing aid convoys get in, but we're not hearing that the situation is getting any better. Tell us what's going on.  

Mardini: It is grim. The situation on the ground is extremely dire for people who have been facing violence displacement over the past month. Our teams are on the ground, are working. People in Tigray have demonstrated the extraordinary resilience and solidarity, but today they are reaching a breaking point. For two weeks now there is an interruption of commercial activities, which, of course, is extremely challenging for people. And, to put things into context, Tigray is a place where the vast majority of hospitals today are not running as they should. There is no electricity. There is no water supply. Some hospitals are running on generators. The fuel is not available in sufficient quantities, and the basics are missing from the market. People have lost their income-generating activities. So the situation is extremely grim. Acute malnutrition is there. 

Falk: Right now, do you feel like as much aid as you can deliver is being allowed in? 

Mardini: The question is not 'allowed in,' the question is: Is it reaching [people] at the speed, we need? And this is the problem. We don't have, as ICRC, any explicit refusal or red light from any side. Having said that, the challenge is all the logistical roadblocks from point A to point B, from the suppliers of food, medicines, chemicals for water treatment, to where they need to be to make a difference for the people, and this is... our challenge and we need to make this process as fast as possible. 

Falk: Turning to Haiti…the situation since the assassination, and before, has been terrible. And there's a real sense that a lot of the aid money - all the dollars after the earthquake - hasn't gotten to people. What are you seeing in Haiti? 

Mardini: We are very concerned by the situation playing out in Haiti, the people of Haiti are extremely anxious about the current dynamic, the unpredictability of security, let alone the disruption of major essential services. We are supporting the Haitian Red Cross, we are supporting some hospitals in Port-au-Prince, but definitely we need to consider stepping up our support as we move forward, because the situation is, is dire and is unfortunately deteriorating. 

Falk: What needs to be done around the world? And a lot of people write to us and say they care, they want, they want to change, so that people can eat, so that people can live in peace. What do you think needs to be done? 

Mardini: The humanitarian space… which was the theme of the discussion at the Security Council, is very much under pressure in almost all the places where the ICRC works. In many places, it is unfortunately shrinking, because of the erosion for respect of the basic rules of war, because also of the politicization of humanitarian aid.

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