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Eritrea and the ‘International Community’


Eritrea, Africa’s youngest nation, was one of a handful of African states that favored the re-election of George W. Bush last November.   Conversations with members of Eritrea’s government revealed an undisguised animosity towards the Clinton-era officials, Susan Rice in particular, who mediated the Algiers Agreement that set the conditions to end the Ethiopian-Eritrean War of 1998-2000.  From the Eritrean point of view the United States showed ill-concealed favoritism towards Ethiopia during the negotiations and members of Eritrea’s government were well aware that the same group of Democratic appointees was set to reclaim America’s Africa portfolio if John Kerry won the presidential election.  Observation of Eritrean political reality, however, also suggests that Eritrea and the United States under the Bush administration share similar styles.  In particular, two favorite Bush tactics: a cavalier attitude towards public and world opinion and a disregard for human rights standards are shared by the Eritrean government.   These tactics, employed by countries at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of political, military, and economic power, have resulted in similar repressions and hubris.

When Eritrea achieved its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after a long a determined civil war against two Ethiopian regimes that lasted thirty years, the world thought it was witnessing a brand new hope in Africa’s oft-depressing political scene.  Led by the dynamic leadership of Isaias Afwerki, head of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front that had shepherded Eritrea to independence and who promised not to repeat the mistakes of past African regimes,  Eritrea set out on a course of new African leadership by taking initiative on regional issues and getting involved in mediations as distant as the Congo.  Within the same period, however, Eritrea also became embroiled in conflicts with Sudan, where it still supports the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army against the government in Khartoum, and with Yemen over sovereignty of the Hanish Islands; actions which caused observers of the region to wonder whether Eritrea was simply a vibrant young state flexing its muscles or if there was something more alarming at play.  All encouraging indicators came to a stop, however, with the commencement of what Eritreans call the War with Woyane (wo’ya’nee–a word denoting people from Tigray province in Ethiopia) against Ethiopia in 1998.  Although the conflict was mediated and resolved, in principle, by the Algiers Agreement, which ended the war in 2000, tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia have remained high and for all intent and purpose Eritrean daily life feels like that of a state at war.

After nearly four years of ambivalence, prospects for peace flickered last Thanksgiving when Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, announced that Ethiopia accepted the decision of the boundary commission "in principle."  The spark quickly evaporated, however, when Meles subsequently demanded five non-negotiable caveats to Ethiopia’s acceptance, one of which was a re-assessment of the boundary demarcation.  Ethiopia’s reactionary politicians have long refused to accept Eritrean independence and regional observers speculated that Meles, under heavy pressure from his political opposition for failing to "resolve" the Eritrean question, made his Thanksgiving offer as a political tactic.  By offering an olive branch Meles was attempting to bolster his re-election prospects in the run-up to Ethiopia’s National Parliamentary and Local Elections this past May by not only trying to rise to the level of statesman but also by indicating to his countryman that he was the only person who could play the peacemaker with Eritrea.  In reaction, Eritrean government officials vilified Meles while re-asserting their belief that only American diplomatic and economic pressure could make Ethiopia accept the principles of the Algiers Agreement and the decision of the Boundary Commission (Ethiopia maintains the same line vis-à-vis Eritrea).  While impartial American pressure on Ethiopia is unlikely, regional peace would strip the Eritrean government of the "security imperatives" mantra it uses to justify its dismal human rights record.  The International Community could then hold the Eritrean government accountable for its repressions and support democratic reforms in an unambiguous moral climate. 

For good or ill, Eritrea looks to the international community, led by the United States, to help demarcate its border with Ethiopia and to enforce the conditions for peace.  As such resolution has been slow in coming this has led in turn to the revival of an historic Eritrean skepticism regarding the intentions of the international community towards Eritrea, in particular those of the United States.  Four times in the past sixty years representatives of the International Community have let down Eritrean hopes.  The first time was in 1948 when the victors of World War II: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France, failed to decide on the disposal of Eritrea.  As a result the fate of Eritrea, a former colonial possession of defeated Fascist Italy, was sent to the newly formed United Nations General Assembly.  There in 1952, a decade before the beginning of Africa’s decolonization, Ethiopian claims on Eritrea, supported by the United States which had strategic interests in the Red Sea region, caused Eritrea to be federated with Ethiopia as an autonomous province.

A decade later, during the height of African decolonization and despite a United Nations implemented constitution that guaranteed Eritrea’s autonomy, Emperor Haile Selassie unilaterally dissolved the Eritrean federation and absorbed Eritrea into Ethiopia as its 14th province.  With the exception of DeGaulle’s France, the International Community made barely a whimper of protest.

There was no greater betrayal to the cause of Eritrean independence than that of the former Soviet Union in 1978.  Despite having advocated for Eritrean independence since 1948, ideological allegiance with the Marxist Ethiopian Dergue regime caused the Soviets to arm and advise Ethiopian forces at the very moment when they were about to be swept from the field by the combined might of Eritrea’s liberation militias.  What should have been a victory march turned into a "strategic withdrawal." Eritreans promptly commenced winning their freedom all over again.  It took another twelve years.

Only a thirty year liberation struggle secured what some Eritreans had been asking for since 1948, an independent state.  In 1993, keeping with the fashion of Eastern European countries emerging from out of the shadow of the iron curtain, Eritrea held a referendum to confirm its independence; a referendum in which 99.8 percent of eligible Eritrean voters worldwide said "yes" to freedom.

Despite this history of betrayal and indifference in December 2000 the Eritrean government agreed to accept the findings of a neutral Boundary Commission based in The Hague as one component of the Algiers Agreement, which ended the two year war with Ethiopia that claimed nearly 100,000 lives.  Ethiopia was also a signatory to this agreement and participated in choosing commissioners.  After submissions and hearings by both state parties the five member commission rendered its decision on April 13, 2002.   The decision is widely regarded as fair but to date Ethiopia has refused to accept it although the border was adjusted in places to the chagrin of both sides (the focal point of Badme, however, was awarded to Eritrea by the boundary commissioners).  It appears that Ethiopia’s EPRDF, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of ethnic minorities that holds the reins of power in Ethiopia’s ethnic-federal system, fears that accepting the decision will undermine its political authority.  EPRDF is therefore requesting that the decision be re-considered in certain areas to reflect de-facto settlement and administrative realities despite its fundamental finality.  In addition, the United Nations Secretary General’s Office and the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) have reported that Ethiopian militias continued to commit raids into the U.N. monitored transitional security zone into 2004.

Eritreans also have a visceral reaction to Ethiopia fueled in part by what the Eritrean-American political scientist Ruth Iyob refers to as Ethiopia’s hegemonic dominance over western-perceptions about the Horn of Africa region.  Ethiopian mythology of a 500-year-old civilization was propagated by Emperor Haile Selassie, who purported to be a descendant of the House of David in direct lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The myth of Haile Selassie’s genealogy inspired the Rastafarian religion, which believes that Haile Sealssie was in fact the Messiah returned to earth.  This fable, coupled with the collective guilt felt by western powers when they willingly allowed Fascist Italy to overrun Ethiopia despite the noble pleas of Haile Sealssie to the League of Nations, has allowed the Ethiopian state whether in its Imperial, Afro-Marxist, or current Federal form to enjoy relative immunity from criticism within the international arena.  The fact that Ethiopia is also adept at public relations campaigning often co-opting Americans and Europeans to make its case to the world, most famously the English historian Sylvia Pankhurst, has also helped to deflect Ethiopia from all but the most determined of critics.

Unfortunately, the result of continued Ethiopian belligerence has been the entrenchment of an Eritrean isolationist attitude and a refusal to extend democratic freedoms because of justifiable security concerns.  Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported on the Eritrean government’s use of torture, detentions, and political arrests.  Last November, I witnessed to a systematic round-up of young men suspected of avoiding national military service.  By some estimates over 10,000 young men across the country were detained in harsh conditions while their status was reviewed.  At Adi Abeto camp near the capital, Asmara, more than a dozen men were killed trying to escape incarceration due to overcrowding and poor detention conditions.  According to Amnesty International, many more were injured and others were held incommunicado or removed to a prison on the main Dahlak Island. 

Despite its current authoritarianism Eritrea has a longer history of genuine democratic practice than Ethiopia, a well-rehearsed democratic mythology, a progressive (if unimplemented) constitution, and the example of their independence referendum.  Where Eritrea is failing in terms of civil and political rights, namely: religious freedom, freedom of movement, a free press, and a constitutional judiciary, it has made progress in the arena of social, economic, and cultural rights; building hospitals, schools, and technical colleges mostly in rural areas. Only recently the government waged an effective campaign against female genital mutilation that by all accounts had immediate and positive results.  On the other hand Ethiopia, which has its own problems with human rights abuses, including widespread arbitrary detentions, suspension of free assembly following the May elections, and the torture and killings of members of the Anuak (Anywaa) ethnic group in the town of Gambela in December 2003, is generally considered a democratic state.  Just recently, a Carter Center post-election statement called Ethiopia’s May 15 elections "a deepening of Ethiopian democracy" despite post-election violence and repressions. This benefit of the doubt allows Ethiopia to remain the West’s preferred partner, to the detriment of U.S.-Eritrean relations.

As we have learned in the United States, security is a necessary condition for freedom to grow.  Without it, Eritreans continue to hunker down in order to endure what feels like a long siege.  Petrol, milk, and flour shortages are now common, rationing has been instituted to conserve water, and the government has cracked down on black-market exchange, threatened jail time for citizens who fail to deposit foreign currency, and periodically forbids withdrawing money from foreign currency accounts; all because of its desperate need for hard currency.  Jonah Fisher, a BBC correspondent expelled from Eritrea last September, railed against the government’s authoritarian tactics and it is true that government actions have become increasingly unpredictable and heavy-handed.  If, however, the Eritrean government, led by former liberation fighters, decides to go it alone who can blame them.  Once again, despite Eritrea’s best expectations the International Community is failing to grant it justice.  International relations, as Americans have discovered under President Bush, require some reservoir of good will but for Eritreans that well is dry and unfortunately, Eritreans will continue to suffer from the International Community’s moral abandon of peace in the Horn.

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