Addis Ababa — Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has fastened the blame on the US for ‘organizing’ the recent Ethiopian military incursions, which he says is aimed at diverting world attention from his country’s border row with Ethiopia. Speaking on State TV in late March, Isaias said the Ethiopian attack had its roots in Washington’s “failed agendas” and “wrong calculations”. Whether his assertions are shared by the rest of the country is hard to fathom as people are not free to offer opinions and criticizing the government is unimaginable.
The Security Council has simply ignored President Isaias’s concern, which meant for the UN bending its Charter principles of the sanctity of the idea of territorial integrity of UN member states.
The Eritrean government is not helped by its isolationist, defiant behavior which has led to debilitating UN sanctions imposed on charges of fueling violence and terrorism in the Horn of Africa Region. Its miserable human rights record has also earned her no friends.
Under these circumstances, the Security Council was inclined to treat the Ethiopian incursion the same way it treated the Kenyan invasion of Somalia last October in pursuit of Al-Qaeda linked Al-Shabab operatives who attacked tourists inside Kenya. A UN sanctions monitoring team determined in July that both Somalia and Eritrea were serving “as platforms for foreign armed groups that represent a grave and increasingly urgent threat to peace and security in the Horn and East Africa region”.
Ethiopia said it was acting in self-defense when it invaded up to 18kms into Eritrea in mid-March overrunning three of its military garrisons at Gibina, Gelehibe and Ramid in South Eastern Eritrea, where Asmara was “arming and training…hit-and-run terrorists” such as the anti-Ethiopia Afar rebels who attacked 27 European tourists in January, murdering 5 and kidnapping two others. A government statement warned of additional operations if Eritrea failed to stop being a “launching pad for attacks against Ethiopia.”
In a statement after Ethiopia announced its operations, the Eritrean government dismissed Ethiopian accusations that it supported the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front or ARDUF to attack the tourists. Avoiding a retaliatory response, it urged the UN to denounce the Ethiopian action which it claimed was aimed at diverting attention from its border dispute with Ethiopia.
Suggestive of its continued relationship with Al-Shabab as underlined by the UN Sanctions Monitoring Group, the Eritrean government rejects AU military intervention in Somalia as amounting to “meddling” in the internal affairs of the troubled Horn of Africa country. The UN regards Eritrea’s attitude and support of Al Shabab as a cynical plan that only encourages extremism and terrorism which has so far claimed the lives of over 21,000 Somalis.
The UN thus concludes that “Eritrean involvement in Somalia reflects a broader pattern of intelligence and special operations activity, including training, financial and logistical support to armed opposition groups in Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Sudan.” Added to this was the UN report of a foiled Eritrean attempt to blow up an AU summit in January 2011 in Addis Ababa.
The Security Council imposed a stricter second round of sanctions on Eritrea in December targeting its lucrative mining industry and its “Diaspora taxes” believed to be collected through methods of intimidation, blackmail and extortion from hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees and other expatriates. The UN says impoverished Eritrea is using these sources of revenue to destabilize the Horn Region. Eritrea has denied the UN charges.
UN-Eritrea relations are at their lowest point. They started deteriorating in 2008 when Eritrea expelled UN Peace Monitoring troops from areas on the Eritrean side of the border with Ethiopia, which Addis Ababa now says are being used as safe haven for ‘insurgents and terrorists” preparing to launch subversive missions in Ethiopia. The UN presence on the border was meant to discourage the kind of military action Ethiopia took inside Eritrea on March 15 – an action which could lead to Eritrean reprisals, thus sending the two nations to yet another bloody war.
By kicking the UN peace forces out, Eritrea wanted to remind its citizens that the war was not over until the border was demarcated. In so doing it was also putting pressure on the UN to force Ethiopia to abide by a “final and binding” demarcation resolution adopted in 2002 by The Hague based Ethiopia-Eritrea Border Commission. The resolution puts the contentious village of Badme inside Eritrea.
Ethiopia has since decided to accept the Commission’s ruling unconditionally but says it wants negotiations with Eritrea on how to implement it. Eritrea wants physical demarcation first and then it will decide if it wants to talk. Thus the impasse continues.
Human Rights Abuses
The Eritrean government’s reported destabilizing role in the Horn Region is indefensible. Equally reprehensible is its shocking human rights violations which the international community needs to urgently tackle if the regime is to be humanized. Simon Tisdall of The Guardian has described Eritrea as “hell on earth.”
Thousands of young men and women keep fleeing the country knowing they may be abducted by human traffickers and end up in the Sinai Desert with the possibility of being raped, tortured, and killed for their internal organs to be sold to the highest bidder.
A UN report links the regime to “people trafficking” involving despairing Eritreans trying to get out of the country. At home, citizens face arbitrary arrests, torture and detention in life-threatening conditions for indefinite periods of time. For many rotting prisoners, the only way out has been to commit suicide if they can find the means to do so.
The government allows no freedoms of speech, press or of movement or travel abroad. The system is totalitarian which means the people have no right to change their rulers through democratic means.
The government says it needs a firm control over the people until its border issues with Ethiopia are settled. But it has also given no hint that there will be democratization and respect for human rights once its border problems are solved. Additionally, there are no indications that the government will introduce changes in its dangerous foreign policy.
As is often the practice in times of Eritrean national crisis, the government has accused Washington for being behind the Ethiopian action. The American Embassy in Asmara has put out a statement dying the charge.
The fact remains that the Security Council’s inaction in the wake of Ethiopian attacks inside Eritrea was a rebuke and a warning against the Red Sea state. What political impact these developments will have on the people and government of Eritrea is yet to be seen. It is clear however that the country will continue to face more humiliation and sanctions unless the government stops brutalizing its people and learns how to live in peace with its neighbors.