Every year or two, there’s a wave of suggestions that it might be time for the US to try and once again engage with Eritrea. The latest such effort came in December from former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa (1989-1993), Herman Cohen in a piece entitled: “Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold”. Ambassador Cohen now heads a lobby firm but his recommendation was picked up by former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn and by the former US Ambassador to South Africa, Princeton Lyman, both of whom supported the idea but argued (on the same website) that this might not be easy. Ambassador Shinn thought the idea was “harder than it sounds”, while Ambassador Lyman in a masterly understatement said previous efforts by the US had proved “difficult”. They are likely to continue to be so. Only last October, the Eritrean regime publicly blamed the US (and later the UN) for the Lampedusa tragedy when 366 Eritreans, mainly youngsters, were drowned trying to reach Italy, having fled from their own country. This sort of rhetoric is a commonplace of the Eritrean regime which in the past has claimed the US created the 1998 Eritrean-Ethiopian war, and suggested the 9/11 atrocity was carried out by the US itself. Nevertheless, Messrs. Cohen, Shinn and Lyman seemed to think: “we should try”.
In principle, of course, no one would disagree. Everyone would like to see Eritrea change policies and lose its status as a pariah state, but none of these comments by former US diplomats, get to the heart of the problem. This lies in the nature of the regime in Asmara and, leaving aside its highly repressive internal activities, its external policies. Others, besides the US have tried to improve relations with Eritrea over the years. None have been more than minimally successful. The reasons are simple and relate largely to Eritrea and President Isaias’ insistence on ignoring all norms of international behavior and international relations. Eritrea has repeatedly demonstrated over the past 23 years that the fundamental principles of its external policies are force, aggression and violence, either open or clandestine. These attitudes also characterize its internal policies. President Isaias operates with little understanding or interest in the wider world, which he has tended to ignore, especially when it fails to treat him with the exaggerated respect he apparently believes he and Eritrea deserve.
In the past neither efforts to establish trust nor attempts to negotiate have made much progress. It is only now as sanctions have begun to cause problems with remittances and offer a possible threat to mining operations which provide the major source of revenue to keep senior army officers and party leaders quiescent, that awareness is creeping in that the regime is facing deep and real economic and social problems. The most recent IMF estimates are that Eritrea’s per-capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity will grow only around 1.7% between 2013 and 2018, a mark that will lead to the nation being ranked as the second-poorest country in the world before the end of the decade. This is despite the input of some quite substantial profits from mining, though there have widespread claims that these are dependent upon what amounts to ‘slave labor’.
At the center of the argument of Messrs Cohen and Shinn is the issue of Eritrea’s relations with Ethiopia. Both seem to accept the idea that President Isaias’ hostility to the outside world, the US and everybody else, is caused by insecurity in the face of a continued threat posed by Ethiopia, seen of course, as a US ally. The excuses for the increasing sacrifices demanded of the population is provided by the threat of the “evil, hostile, menace of Ethiopia,” or by the machinations of the US and its control of the UN and indeed almost everybody else. Indeed, to paraphrase an older US diplomat, referring to Stalin’s policies after the Second World War: “A hostile international environment is the breath of life for the prevailing internal system…” The “threat” of Ethiopia is the standard official line provided by Eritrea and has provided the excuse for keeping national conscripts mobilized since 1998, but it no longer appears to be working. The population is hemorrhaging at a rate of 600 people a week across the border with Ethiopia and similar numbers to the Sudan, in spite of shoot to kill orders along the frontiers. According to the UN Special Rapporteur for Eritrea, some of those now crossing the border are unaccompanied children as young as five or six.
In fact, any external danger to the concept or reality of an independent Eritrea vanished in 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in Ethiopia. The EPRDF played a major role in helping the EPLF win its war for independence. Once in power in Addis Ababa it immediately encouraged the assumption and recognition of Eritrea’s independence. There has been no change of policy since, despite Eritrea’s invasion of Ethiopia in May 1998.
Messrs. Cohen and Shinn go into some detail of the 1998-2000 war, but much of their comment is inaccurate. They also miss the central point, noted by the UN Claims Commission –“Eritrea violated Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations by resorting to armed force to attack and occupy Badme, then under peaceful administration by Ethiopia as well as other territory…in an attack that began on May 12, 1998…”. (Claims Commission’s Partial Award Jus Ad Bellum (December 19, 2005), paragraph 16). The war was the result of Eritrea sending pre-prepared mobilized infantry and mechanized brigades across what was, at the time, the accepted administrative border between the two countries. It was a very clear case of aggression.
Eritrea’s defeat in June 2000 and its signing of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, followed by the Algiers Peace Agreement in December, produced no change in attitude. The Algiers Agreements required the creation of a 25 kms wide Temporary Security Zone along the border inside Eritrea, and the deployment of a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to monitor this and the ceasefire. UNMEE was also given the task of providing logistical and security assistance to the demarcation exercise which was due to follow the Decisions of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission, announced in April 2002.
Eritrea began its efforts to underline the Algiers Agreements prior to 2002, and subsequently ignored Ethiopia’s acceptance of the EEBC Decisions in November 2004. Ethiopia had originally raised some concerns over the EEBC Decisions, but after failing to get satisfaction for these, it made it clear it was prepared to proceed to demarcation in conformity with international practice, and consistent with the Algiers Agreements and their aim of bringing about sustainable peace and the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, as soon as Ethiopia accepted the EEBC Decisions, Eritrea openly began to flout the Algiers Agreements, persistently violating the TSZ and imposing restrictions on UNMEE. By 2007, the UN Secretary General noted in a report to the Security Council that the Eritrean troops that had illegally entered the Transitional Security Zone in October 2006, not for the first time, had remained, and that Eritrea had also deployed additional troops accompanied by tanks and heavy armament. He described Eritrea’s restrictions on UNMEE as representing “a serious violation of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities of 18 June 2000, the 2001 Protocol Agreement of 17 June 2001 concluded between Eritrea and UNMEE, and relevant Security Council resolutions…”. When these activities met with no more than mild verbal criticism from the Security Council, it steadily expanded its activities until it had taken over the whole TSZ, rendering the Algiers Agreements, including the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, effectively null and void. The Security Council did pass a number of resolutions demanding Eritrea remove all restrictions on UNMEE, but it took any action and in February 2008 the situation reached a point where UNMEE, humiliatingly, was forced to withdraw.
This demonstration of UN weakness encouraged Eritrea in its bellicosity, its aggressiveness and its disregard for international norms, and another example followed almost immediately. In June 2008, Eritrea invaded Djibouti and seized several strategic locations just inside northern Djibouti, including the islands of Doumeira and Kallida. In subsequent fighting nearly sixty Djiboutian soldiers were killed or wounded, and a senior officer and 18 others captured. Eritrean losses amounted to around 200 killed or captured. President Isaias denied there had been any clashes and persisted in this despite all the evidence of fighting. Eventually, two years later, in June 2010, following mediation efforts by Qatar at the request of Djibouti, Eritrean troops withdrew from the border areas, though the government still refused to admit there had been any conflict. A Qatari observation force was deployed to monitor the border area until a final agreement could eventually be reached, but no progress has been made in releasing Djibouti prisoners of war or in reaching a settlement as President Isaias still denies that anything happens. This time, the Security Council did react and imposed sanctions. Subsequently, with no apparent change in Eritrea’s attitudes or policy over Djibouti, extremist support or destabilization policies in the region, the Security Council, not unreasonably, repeated its belief that Eritrea was a threat to international peace and security, and extended sanctions by another 16 months, to the end of 2014.
Another area of activity by Eritrea which also led to the imposition of UN sanctions was over Eritrea’s persistent interference in Somalia and its support for extremist and terrorist organizations there. After the fall of the ICU in Somalia in December 2006, Eritrea gave refuge to Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and other leaders of what later became Hizbul Islam and supported its anti-government operations in Somalia with planeloads of arms as well as training and funds. These activities included support for Al-Itihaad, Hizbul Islam, and Al-Shabaab, and the UN Monitoring Group produced detailed evidence of its transactions. President Isaias has also repeatedly insisted that Al-Shabaab and similar organizations must be considered Somali stakeholders, claiming despite all evidence they are not terrorists and they should be brought into government. Eritrea, unlike all other IGAD states, refused to recognize either the TNG or the current Federal Government of Somalia. It even withdrew from IGAD in anger that other IGAD states refused to follow its line, though it has now asked to return. It hasn’t changed policy. In 2013, the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea issued two separate reports and concluded that Eritrea had diversified its support for extremist operations to Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Yemen in addition to fronting a number of business operations.
This is, indeed, a government that relies so totally on the fiction of external threats to maintain its own internal legitimacy that whenever and wherever the fantasy appears threadbare, it has deliberately recreated it with another outbreak of violence or aggression. This is in the conflicts it started with Yemen in 1996/7, Ethiopia in 1998-2000 and Djibouti in 2008. On other occasions it has repeatedly backed opposition forces, extremists and known terrorists, consistently attempting to destabilize Ethiopia and Somalia and interfere in the internal affairs of Sudan and later of South Sudan. Its foreign policy has, in fact, consistently and persistently continued to demonstrate a pattern of aggression and hostility.
In fact, like any bully, Eritrea rapidly backs down when faced by firm action. Indeed, it is clear from past experience that the government in Asmara only responds to the threat of superior strength. Nothing less will produce change. As the UN Monitoring Group reports for both 2012 and 2013, as well as a mass of additional evidence, make clear, Eritrea has continued its efforts at regional destabilization. There has been no change of policy, merely some misrepresentation and verbal fiction. To lift sanctions now would send very much the wrong signals, giving Eritrea a green light to continue its policies of aggression and regional destabilization.
The lack of movement, whether in normalizing relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia, in response to UN sanctions over regional destabilization or UN demands over the conflict with Djibouti, is quite clearly the responsibility of Eritrea, and Eritrea alone. It has nothing to do with Ethiopia or Eritrea’s border “dispute” with Ethiopia. Bringing in Eritrea “from the cold” can only come after a visible change of attitude in Eritrea, with implementation of a fundamental shift in attitude, an end to all aggressive policies, dismantling of training camps for extremists and terrorists, abandoning support for armed opposition groups and all other efforts to destabilize its neighbors. This needs to be accompanied by acknowledgement of the necessity for dialogue and acceptance of the norms of international diplomacy and adult relationships. Then and then only the lifting of sanctions and Eritrea’s reintegration into regional organizations and international politics might follow.
This response was first published on the website of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.