Foreign AffairsHomepage

Understanding Eritrea

By April 4, 2018 No Comments

Photo: Reuters


Having liberated the city of Keren from Italian rule in 1941, British troops were on their way to Asmara when they were greeted by an Eritrean woman. Excited by the end of fascist rule, she ululated in celebration of her country’s liberation. The captain abruptly interrupted her: “I didn’t do it for you nigger.” And so goes the story of Eritrea.


It was first colonized by the Italians, followed by the British, who tore the country apart by dismantling its railroad system, and then the UN gave it away to Ethiopia, despite demands for independence. After its partition in 1952, Ethiopia shut down Eritrea’s Parliament, tore apart its democratic constitution and made Amharic the official language, an attempt to destroy Eritrea’s cultural fabric. In 1974 a communist takeover in Ethiopia by the Derg brought harsh rule, and the Soviet Union, aiding Ethiopia, used it as a proxy to fight the Eritrean freedom fighters.


Despite all that Eritrea achieved independence in 1991 after a 30 years war against Ethiopia. Now it sits isolated in the Horn. A country not so long ago full of hope and opportunity has now become anything but. Each year tens of thousands of people flee the country, evading an infinite national service program or in search of economic opportunities.


Eritrea’s human rights record is well documented, and in foreign policy circles the idea is that its wounds have been self-inflicted. However, this analysis of the situation fails to take into account what is pushing the country to the brink: Ethiopian aggression on the border complimented by a biased UN policy.


In 1998, seven years after Eritrean independence, the country went to war again against Ethiopia. The war claimed the lives of 80,000 people (the numbers are slightly disputed) and ended in 2000 with the Algiers Agreement, meant to be final and binding. While the war is over on paper, the state of hostilities between these two countries is one akin to war. Ethiopia has not complied with the principles of the treaty and to this day Eritrean land is being occupied by Ethiopian troops, a blatant violation of the agreement.


These actions should come as no surprise. There are many in the Ethiopian ruling party who are mad at former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles for allowing Eritrea to hold the 1993 referendum in the first place. They believe that Eritrea belongs to them, for ideological and strategic reasons. Moreover, Meles’ successor Hailemariam Desalegn, the former Deputy Prime Minister under Meles’, upon taking over as Prime Minister and Chair of the ruling party in Ethiopia declared in “Parliament” and on the state media that Ethiopia intends to attack Eritrea.


And he did not shy away from his commitment. In 2015 the Ethiopian government bombed an Eritrean military site killing eight people, “extending to the perimeter of the Bisha Mine” (a foreign-owned investment site). These actions were flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention and should have been condemned. However, neither the UN nor the American government released a statement. The following year, in June, Ethiopia initiated a border conflict which killed hundreds. Despite the fact that Ethiopia took responsibility, the Obama administration still blamed both parties for the incident.


In addition to the situation with Ethiopia, there is a border conflict with Djibouti. Al-Jazeera recently reported that Sudan has now put troops on the border. Threats to Eritrean sovereignty are not being taken seriously by the international community. By ignoring the reality, it forces Eritrea to go to extreme ends, such as using indefinite mass conscription as a means of defending national interests.


It also doesn’t help that Eritrea has been punished by the international community in an unjust manner. For example, the UN passed Resolution 1907 in 2009 because it had reason to believe that the Eritrean regime was a supporter of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group brought about by Ethiopia’s miscalculated and U.S.-backed intervention in Somalia.


Claims of Eritrean support for Al-Shabab were proven false in 2015 by an investigation of the UN Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia which “found no conclusive evidence that Eritrea was providing support to Al-Shabaab.” The Monitoring Group even recommended that the UN consider lifting the embargo on Eritrea. However, the UN Security Council refused and on November 14, 2017 it renewed sanctions on Eritrea despite evidence that the country is not a supporter of Al-Shabab.


Inevitably, this has led, and will continue to lead, more Eritreans to leave the country and will worsen the refugee crisis in Europe and abroad. Even worse, it confirms what the Government has always believed; that the international community is biased against Eritrea. And that isn’t entirely inaccurate.


As a consequence, Eritrea has shifted its diplomatic and investment outreach to the Gulf states and China. Regarding human rights, this is a major setback. It is very clear that neither China nor the Gulf States will be willing to bring up Eritrea’s human rights violations, such as the lack of civil and political rights and its indefinite national service program.  


On the other hand, as the refugee crisis worsens, the EU has given away hundreds of millions of dollars to the Eritrean regime. This policy is a clear response to anti-refugee sentiments across Europe and is aimed at curbing refugee flows out of Eritrea. But this policy is highly counter-productive and fails to understand why people are fleeing the country. Throwing money at Eritrea will not solve the problem. Europe must ask for concessions, notably on human rights, including reforms to the indefinite national service program. As long as the program remains in place, people will continue to flee the country.


Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has implied that he would be willing to limit Eritrea’s notorious indefinite national service program as soon as the issue with Ethiopia is resolved and sanctions are lifted. However, changes to foreign policy alone wouldn’t be enough to reform the program. That is so because releasing tens of thousands of youth into the labor market with limited options for employment is a recipe for social unrest. Therefore, foreign policy changes must accompany economic development projects for the country to move past its national service program.


Instead of just giving aid to Eritrea, Europe should take the lead and negotiate a final peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Doing so would inevitably reduce refugee flows, and improve the economic and human rights situation.


Simply put, sanctions and isolation cannot be a means to an end. Nine years have passed since the UNSC passed sanctions against Eritrea and nothing has changed. Human rights problems still persist, jobs are few and the Algiers Agreement, meant to be final and binding, has becoming anything but. Eritrea may be small in size, but for its citizens and the Horn of Africa there is a lot at stake.

Other posts that may interest you: