In decades past, Mr Keffyalew Gebremedhin served as a civil servant in different capacities within Ethiopian governments. Later, as a member of the Ethiopian Foreign Service, he headed the UN Division in the then international organizations department of the Foreign Ministry. For a brief, he was also the executive assistant to the foreign minister, until he vacated that post following his assignment to the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations in New York, where he served as a senior diplomat.
His main responsibilities were economic and technical assistance issues. He also had represented Ethiopia’s interests as the country’s representative on the economic and finance and budget and administrative committees of the United Nations General Assembly. These tasks have rewarded him with important experiences in operations of UN agencies involved in development activities around the world. Mr. Gebremedhin repeatedly served as negotiator on behalf of developing countries in elaborating policies for operational activities of these agencies.
In terms of tangible achievements, he mostly values two. The first one is the construction of the headquarters building for the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), for which Ethiopia assumed frontal role and responsibility as the headquarters country. Therefore, Mr. Gebremedhin had to negotiate with other countries and no less with his government, as the construction of the international conference facilities involved giving free land and the manner in which occupants of these lands were to be removed with adequate compensations paid. He had to be involved in the elaboration of the terms and mechanisms designed to ensure the rights of those people were respected, lest any difficulty in this worsen the resistance of the UN and its member states to contribute the funds toward construction of the building.
For the negotiations with other countries, first it was necessary to formulate common negotiating position of the Africa Group. Secondly, evolving an overall negotiating positions with other countries. Once that was done, the remaining task was to persevere and advance defense of that position in the face of strong opposition, especially from the United States and a few European countries.
On the home front, pushing the bureaucracy to develop appropriate site map on a timely basis and arranging the handing over of the land and title-deed to the UN for the construction project was a nightmare. We also had to follow that the removal of people living on the land, which took a life of its own, was completed in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, some countries would have used it against Ethiopia, citing violation of the rights of those residents. That was a moment when he found himself squeezed between the UN on one side and the bureaucracy’s indifference in Ethiopia on the other. This problem mainly arose because the bureaucracy was consumed by its generosity in giving land and thus everything would go according to its plan.
Another complication in the negotiations was UN funding for the construction of its regional headquarters building in the so-called ‘communist country.’ In fact, some countries were totally opposed to the building in Addis Ababa of such a huge modern complex, shortly after the 1984-1985 famine. Some indicated that they were horrified by the extravagant celebration of the revolution’s anniversary fresh, at which time the government, according to news reports, had a huge bill importing whisky. This nearly endangered the negotiations in New York. The government later responded to the media criticisms in an official statement from Addis Abeba, explaining that the whiskey was for the consumption of the sizable diplomatic community in the capital.
Some persisted in their refusal to fund the project. For instance, the US withheld its contribution to the UN. The unsuccessful negotiations to get this changed only resulted in delays in the construction work. Because of those delays, the project was hit with cost cost overrun that jumped from the initial estimated USD 75 million to over USD 120 million – without including the finishing works and furnishings.
Africa hugely cooperated with Ethiopia and held to its ground, until the full budget was approved and construction started.
The second blessing Mr. Gebremedhin counts is Ethiopia becoming member of the United Nations Security Council in 1989. The initiative came from, him when he was Charge d’Affaires a.i. of Ethiopia’s diplomatic mission in 1988. He spearheaded the groundwork in regional negotiations, whose efforts initially required overcoming a few obstacles by the then Somalia and a few countries supporting it. Finally, after several rounds and weeks of negotiations Africa supported Ethiopia’s candidacy, which later was endorsed by the OAU Summit.
The gratification in this area is in witnessing Ethiopia becoming member of the Security Council for 1989-1990. It was one of the delightful privileges of his career. Bear in mind that this was only the second time for the country to become a member of this important body that deals with international peace and security, although Ethiopia has been one of the first 50 signatories of the Charter already in 1945 and a participant in earlier talks regarding the Organization’s Charter and its establishment. A simple comparison with other countries would explain why this was a problem for him. Ethiopia has been on the peripheries in terms of membership of the Security Council, for instance, seen against Egypt’s five-term service, Nigeria’s four, Uganda three, etc. Therefore, for him this this was unacceptable.
The first time Ethiopia became a member of the Council was in 1967-1968, when Lij Endalkachew Mekonnen was Ethiopia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. That was a very proud moment for Ethiopia and the whole of Africa. It was during that time Ethiopia and Liberia took the apartheid regime of South Africa to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its failure to administer Namibia in accordance with the relevant international laws, especially the Namibia trusteeship mandate that was entrusted to it by the League of Nations. This eventually led to the barring of South Africa from participation in any international activities such as sports, cultural activities, international festivities, travels and economic relations with other independent countries.
Similarly, it was in 1989 the Security Council was intensively seized with actions to dislodge apartheid South Africa from Namibia. This historical coincidence of Ethiopia’s membership of the Security Council was noted by many in the international community. For M. Gebremedhin the joy of witnessing Namibia’s independence in March 1990 was an emotional moment. In the Security Council, Mr. Keffyalew Gebremedhin served for a brief as Deputy Representative of Ethiopia, as indicated in the Council’s record, Supplement 2, A/45/2, 1993.
Beyond prestige, the importance of membership of the Security Council is the contributions it makes in improvements in interstate relations. In the first place, countries are forced to examine their actions, their behaviors and the quality of their relations with their peoples. For instance, after the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Ethiopia was totally alienated/separated from the Western world because of the ideology it pursued. Even during the height of the conflict situations or the humanitarians disasters that had befallen the country, the US dealt with Ethiopia indirectly either through the UN or later through former President Jimmy Carter especially in the mid-1980s.
It was only after Ethiopia’s membership of the Security Council the two countries had official contacts at a very high level. The first such official meeting took place in Geneva between Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka and Secretary of State James Baker. The US government’s official involvement to bring peace between the EPLF and the Dergue, and TPLF and the Dergue followed, although their efforts were overtaken by events on the ground.
TPLF was installed as the government in power in Ethiopia and Eritrea got separated from Ethiopia.
Mr. Gebremedhin resigned from service to the Ethiopian government of his own volition and joined the United Nations Secretariat as an International Civil Servant.
At the United Nations, he worked as officer responsible from New York Headquarters mainly for the biennial programs and budgets of ECA, UNEP, UNCHS (Habitat), and the UN Scientific Committee for the Effects Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). For a brief he also dealt with the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNCTR), the UN Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (UNCTFY), ECE, UNCTAD, UNHCR and the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP).
His responsibilities involved: reviewing the respective medium-term plans, the biennial program budgets and the performance reports, as proposed by the offices. In the Secretariat, he took responsibilities for reviewing them, aligning programs and budgets. When necessary programs were revised, amended and finalized, on the basis of existing mandates and submitted through the chain of command to be presented to member states as the Secretary-General’s proposed programs, budgets and performance reports. Once approved by the Secretary-General, Mr. Gebremedhin followed-up their implementation throughout the Secretariat.
Having retired from official life, Mr. Keffyalew Gebremedhin has for a while now been devoting his time to family, research and writing.