Clarifications on The Economist’s Recent Article on Eritrea and Ethiopia

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To the Economist. Ultimately, peace should always be encouraged but it cannot sustain without respect for and observance of international law.
The full picture. Ultimately, peace should always be encouraged but it cannot sustain without respect for and observance of international law.


Last week, The Economist featured a brief article on the possibility for rapprochement and peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The article requires several important clarifications, some of which are outlined below.

First, in contrast to what the article suggests, there is no contested or “disputed” border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), formed in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Algiers Peace Agreement of 2000 and composed of five prominent and highly respected lawyers, unanimously delivered its final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions in April 2002 and November 2007, respectively.

Through modern techniques of image processing and terrain modeling, in conjunction with the use of high-resolution aerial photographs to identify boundary points and both grid and geographical coordinates, the Commission virtually demarcated the Eritrea-Ethiopia border in 2007.

Subsequently, it wrote a letter to the two parties, as well as to the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), stating that,

“The Commission hereby determines that the boundary will automatically stand as demarcated by the boundary pillars points listed in the Annex hereto and that the mandate of the Commission can then be regarded as fulfilled.”

Moreover, signed copies of 45 maps containing the demarcation of the boundary by coordinates were sent to both Eritrea and Ethiopia on 30 November 2007, with copies also deposited with the UN and the Office of the UN Cartographer.

Collectively, the above reflects the legal and technical closure of the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict. To be clear, what remains then is Ethiopia’s military occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, which is a flagrant violation of international law and its obligations under the Algiers Agreement.

Another important point is while the EEBC’s decision has been accepted by Eritrea, and although the entire process was guaranteed by the UN and the OAU/AU and witnessed by the US, EU, Algeria, and Nigeria, Ethiopia has not only “refused to accept the findings of a UN boundary commission,” it has completely failed to shoulder its legal obligations and responsibility for demarcating the border.

What is more, however, is that since the end of the destructive 1998-2000 war between the two countries, the Ethiopian government has made provocative and persistent calls for the overthrow of the Eritrean government and, through belligerent, threatening statements within the Ethiopian Parliament or via government-owned media outlets, proclaimed its intentions to carry out “military action to oust the regime in Eritrea.”

In addition, Ethiopia has funded, trained, harbored, and otherwise supported several Eritrean opposition groups – internationally recognized as terrorist organizations – targeting the Eritrean government, as well as making regular illegal incursions into and attacks against Eritrea, most recently in the disastrous June 2016 attack on Tsorona.

And while it is true that Ethiopia’s new PM, Abiy Ahmed, promised “to make peace with Eritrea,” it should be recalled that previous Ethiopian leaders did the same before ultimately going on to engage in provocation and aggression toward Eritrea.

Of note, The Economist neglects to mention, even in passing, the failure of the international community. Specifically, rather than condemn Ethiopia’s illegal military occupation and repeated aggressive actions, which represent violations of international law, the Constitutive Act of the African Union, and the UN Charter, or call for the immediate, unconditional implementation of the EEBC decision, the international community, principally led by the US – which itself has undermined and sought to reopen, adjust, or reverse the EEBC decision – has encouraged Ethiopia’s violations by offering it vast diplomatic, military, and economic support.

The Economist also describes Eritrea as having “retreated into isolationism,” seeming to suggest that the country dismissed global or regional engagement and cooperation, instead choosing to isolate itself. This is inaccurate and overlooks the fact that it is the international community, again led by the US, which has pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea.

Peaceful and cooperative regional and international co-existence and integration have long been fundamental bedrocks of Eritrean foreign policy. However, the country has been the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at blocking foreign agreements and trade or investment deals.

For example, according to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated November 1st, 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.”

A 2009 cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece reveals that the “USG [US government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” while a cable from November 2nd, 2009 mentions that the German government’s rescinding of a credit guarantee to banks for a commercial loan of $US146m to Eritrea’s Bisha mining project was the result of “caving in to…American pressure.”

In another 2009 cable, it is revealed that the US worked “to convince the Government of Egypt not to invite the Government of the State of Eritrea (GSE) as an observer to the Bright Star military exercise.”

As well, in 2011, as Eritrea was facing another round of sanctions, “only the US” was opposed to the Eritrean President, Isaias Afewerki, speaking to the UN Security Council, and it worked to block his appearance. More recently, in late 2014, Eritrea was one of the few African countries excluded from participating in the highly publicized US-Africa Summit in Washington, DC, focusing on trade, investment, and security, while in 2015, when Egypt, which was then preparing for its presidency at the UN Security Council, proposed a Council trip to Somalia, Egypt, and Eritrea, the US did “not want a Council trip to include Eritrea,” and argued against its inclusion.

Generally, insinuations about Eritrea’s supposed isolationism are rooted in a lack of understanding about Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to development and external aid. Specifically, Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively.

Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) the country’s own institutional capacity to implement projects.

Eritrea’s unique approach is rooted in the country’s long struggle for independence, which was largely self-reliant, with much of the international community completely ignoring or actively working against the independence movement. Furthermore, the country has a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence, encourage the initiative of Eritreans, and foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.

Importantly, the article does not provide proper context regarding sanctions against Eritrea. Although it mentions that “a panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council found no evidence of arms transfers and advocates lifting the embargo,” it is vital to point out that this is not a breaking development.

Instead, over a period of several years now, a long series of UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (UN SEMG) reports have consistently concluded that they have found “no evidence of Eritrea’s support for Al-Shabaab.

Furthermore, while The Economist notes that “America sounds open to the idea [of removing sanctions],” more context would reveal that it was the US which was the key architect of the dubious sanctions adopted against Eritrea, and that it is the US that remains the fundamental obstacle to their removal – despite the international community increasingly recognizing and acknowledging that the pretexts for them are non-existent, their continued imposition is illegitimate and unjust, and that they are counterproductive.

The Economist is also incorrect in its understanding of Eritrea’s approach toward port access and normalization of relations with Ethiopia. Rather than Eritrea fearing normalization or choosing to be on a “war footing,” as suggested by the article, leaked US diplomatic cables from September 2007 and May 2009 reveal how Meles Zenawi, the former PM of Ethiopia, acknowledged that implementing the EEBC “would cost him his prime ministership,” and that he was “content to allow the status quo with Eritrea [to] continue with no resolution of the border impasse, and he would not welcome any new attempt by the UNSC to engage on this issue.”

The fact is that until the war in 1998, the two countries enjoyed strong economic, cultural and security relations, and Ethiopia had been using Eritrean ports at symbolic rates and without any hindrance. Even during the bitter war, Eritrea offered the use of its ports to transport humanitarian aid to Ethiopia (which it refused).

In 2007, Isaias also stated that

“We can live together [with Ethiopia]. There is nothing to prevent us from developing a relationship. Imagine how much we could have achieved in terms of economic cooperation, working together on the stability of this region, working together to fend off threats. We know we can live in peace and live by cooperating and probably integrating our economies gradually and doing trade. This border issue should not be. We have to remove it somehow.”

Additionally, in April 2011, during the 275th Meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council, held in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Eritrea’s Representative to the African Union, the late Ambassador Girma Asmerom, stated unequivocally that, “[O]nce Ethiopia vacates sovereign Eritrean territory, including Badme, the Government of Eritrea is ready and willing to normalize its relation with Ethiopia.”

Ultimately, peace and diplomacy should always be encouraged. There is little doubt that the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia would greatly benefit from peace and a normalization of relations between the two countries. However, that can only be possible and sustainable with respect for and observance of international law.