Confusing and contradictory: Eritrea’s intervention at the AU summit

At the just ended 20th African Union Summit few things confused those present more than the intervention of Eritrea’s Ambassador Girma Asmerom. It was a statement with manifest contradictions including his advice to the Somali government to be inclusive while making no effort to recognize it as a legitimate government. Ambassador Girma said “The Eritrean Government is strongly committed to Somalia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and independence; we expect all countries and organizations to show the same commitment.” This ‘commitment’ has been most vividly demonstrated, of course, by Eritrea’s continued support over several years for Al-Shabaab and other extremist groups. Equally nonsensical was his demand for the implementation of the Ethio-Eritrea’s Boundary Commission’s Decision when the sole stumbling block to this remains the Eritrean regime’s continued refusal to hold a dialogue on implementation of the Decisions, and Eritrea’s continued activities intended to try to destabilize both Ethiopia and the region.

These efforts to destabilize, indeed, provide the most obvious contradiction to the almost desperate efforts to present Eritrea as a stable country with a genuine interest in the workings of the African Union and in the peace and stability of the region. The known facts about the belligerent actions of the regime are an open contradiction to the pretensions and diplomatic maneuverings of the ever busy diplomats of Eritrea. If there is anything that is consistent about Eritrea’s foreign policy, it is its absurd attempt to project this young nation, which has deliberately embroiled itself in conflicts with all its neighbors, as a victim of the international political order and of United States’ and CIA manipulations.

This is, after all, a regime that has turned Eritrea into a pariah state where thousands are forced to languish in secret gulags and cross the borders in thousands, at the risk of their life in the face of a shoot to kill policy. Yet, it flaunts itself as the last bastion of independence in Africa, keeping at bay the “arm twisting of the west and its allies” not to mention misguided policy of “self reliance” in this increasingly globalised world.

The current effort to present a false image of Eritrea is, of course, deliberately designed to try to pick up sympathy from the international community in order to try and gain support for the lifting of the UN sanctions. Ambassador Girma’s intervention exemplifies the mindset of the regime in Asmara, reflecting the “siege mentality” of a government which consistently blames the CIA for everything. “To derail and frustrate, if possible also dilute the legally and conclusively resolved border issue and to prepare the ground for "crisis management," the U.S. Administration has resorted to futile efforts of bringing up unrelated issues to the matter.” The diplomatic charade of presenting an Eritrea in peril is used to add to the regime’s method of holding the genuine demands of the Eritrean people for justice, democracy and development hostage, by perpetuating a war psychology which can only be compared with Orwell’s 1984 where the nation is kept in a state of eternal war in order to keep Big Brother’s control.

The regime may have implemented a system of what one analysts called a near perfect control of all components of Eritrea’s culture, media, education, judiciary, economy, foreign affairs and even religious organizations as well as the decimation of alternative poles of power, but the recent “small incident” of troops seizing the State Television station, and the demonstrations at Eritrean embassies across Europe and in the US clearly showed there are cracks in the government’s self-righteous edifice.

In his intervention, Ambassador Girma went on to request the AU to urge Ethiopia “to withdraw from sovereign Eritrean territory including the town of Badme”. In an attempt to evoke sympathy he tried to draw a parallel between what he called the “occupation of Eritrean territories” with “Israel’s occupation of Palestine territories”. Refusing to admit the fact that Ethiopia’s repeated call for dialogue on the implementation of demarcation and normalization of relations have been repeatedly turned down by Asmara, he said he had been instructed by President Isaias to say that Eritrea would negotiate with Ethiopia in the afternoon if Ethiopia withdrew its troops in the morning. He underlined the unreality of this by immediately adding that “the problem has nothing to do with the issue of "political will" or "dialogue." Ethiopia has made it clear, time and again, that it has accepted the decision of the Boundary Commission on delimitation of the border, and it has repeatedly called for the two sides to discuss demarcation of the decision, a normal practice in territorial disputes. One recent example is the way Cameron and Nigeria settled their dispute over Bakassi through dialogue on the decisions of the International Court of Justice on their border .

It is the Eritrean regime‘s unwillingness and its destabilizing activity through surrogates that have remained a hurdle to the settlement of the issue. Ambassador Girma’s claim for the implementation of EEBC’s decision flies firmly in the face of the overwhelming evidence of Eritrea’s intransigence and belligerent behavior. Eritrea’s call for this is at best mere lip service to peace; at worst mere parody. It might be added in this context that the accusation that Ethiopia is occupying Eritrean territory is downright false.

Leaving aside Eritrea’s crocodile tears for peace, these diplomatic maneuvers are no more than a smoke screen. Eritrea’s latest prevarication over dialogue can only be compared to a soap opera aimed at trying to persuade the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions imposed on Eritrea for its continued assistance to the al Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. It has repeatedlydemonstrated that it has no interest in peace within the region. As Minster Dr. Tedros noted Eritrea’s aversion to peace with Ethiopia goes back to 1998 and the start of two years of war when Eritrea “invaded Ethiopia in May 1998, and this is the genesis of the crisis between the two,” and as he noted the Eritrea Ethiopia Claims Commission confirmed that Eritrea was the aggressor in violation of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter.

Equally, contradictory is President Isaias’ recent letter to the UN Secretary General calling foran independent investigation of human trafficking of Eritreans. He described this as something that has been going from ‘bad to worse’ and claims the country, in collaboration with the world body, will do everything it can to “stem and eliminate the perpetrators who commit such a hideous crime against its citizens.” He therefore asks the UN to launch “an independent and transparent investigation of this abominable affair so as to bring to justice the culpable parties.”

President Isaias claims that for ten years or so, Eritrea has been the target of malicious and concerted practices of human trafficking, adding, bizarrely, that this “despicable ploy was unleashed in tandem with the decision to block the implementation of the “final and binding” arbitration decision of the border dispute, and, is part and parcel of the war declared against the country.” In this letter he does not accuse anybody in particular only saying that “the architects of this scourge have further resorted to various schemes, under suitable labels to conceal a
nd disguise the crime as well as their real identity.” Elsewhere, however, he has claimed this is all the responsibility of the US government and especially the CIA.

Nowhere does he make any reference to the policies which lead thousands of desperate youngsters to try to flee across the border to avoid perpetual conscription or others to escape the continued militarisation of Eritrean society and an increasingly desperate economic situation. Unsurprisingly, he makes no mention of those whom Eritrean human rights organizations have named as responsible and accused in detail of involvement in this practice. According to the testimony of refugees who have survived the ordeal, one central element in the chain of those involved in the human trafficking of refugees out of Eritrea and into Europe and the Middle East, involves senior officers of the Eritrean army, whose commander-in-chief is President Isaias. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to start any investigation into human trafficking nearer to home.


* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – Feb 8, 2013 issue, titled “Confusing and contradictory: Eritrea’s intervention at the AU”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

* To read Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmerom’s Addresses at the African UnionClick here.

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