Eritrea: Why Enhanced U.N. Sanctions Were Warranted

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[Global Commentary: Africa]

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia--The state media in Eritrea, which is the only source of information in the country, is not telling the rest of the citizenry the truth of why the UN was obliged to take additional punitive measures on the Isaias Afewerki regime.

But 170 miles south of Addis Ababa, in the colorful Ethiopian Rift Valley City of Hawassa, 600 pro-democracy Eritrean activists who came together from all over the world for a National Congress in November received the news of the new corrective UN sanctions with jubilation hailing it as a major victory for the oppressed Eritrean people. Many of these activists
were comrades-in-arms with many members of the ruling Ethiopian EPRDF in their common struggle against former Mengistu’s autocratic rule and now against despotism in Eritrea.

The reaction of the Eritrean government to the second round of UN sanctions was predictable. Although the facts of the case and the charges were researched and prepared by its aggrieved neighbors - Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda - in collaboration with a UN sanctions monitoring group, an Eritrean Foreign Ministry statement alleges that the
sanctions are “the result of undisguised United States hostility towards Eritrea.”

The government which routinely trashes the concept of legal justice and has long banned the study of jurisprudence from its colleges, speaks of the sanctions as being “illegal and unjust”. The regime would be credible in the eyes of its own people if the tens of thousands of prisoners - journalists, religious leaders, and cabinet ministers, among others - rotting and dying in torture chambers were allowed to seek legal justice in court in which they can defend themselves.

Tragic domestic problems aside, East African governments wanted tougher sanctions levied on Eritrea hoping these might lead to peace in their region. The US also stands to gain by helping to pacify Somalia which has harbored terrorists responsible for the bombings of its two embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 killing and maiming hundreds of staff members and bystanders.

Inside Somalia tens of thousands of innocents have perished as a result of alleged Eritrea’s involvement in the country’s ‘civil war’ in which Asmara is said to have provided Al-Qaeda linked Shabab with weapons, finances and other forms of vital support. Somalia’s President Sheriff Sheikh Ahmed lamented that the regime in Eritrea was “terrorizing his people”. Even an
attempt by the late Col Moamar Gaddafi to stop Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki from destabilizing Somalia failed, according to Sheikh Ahmed’s impassioned testimony before the Security Council via video link.

Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi attributes Eritrea’s reported subversive activities in the region on a “certain clique in Asmara that has never grown up” ostensibly from the time of the liberation struggle decades ago.

Kenya, which has now joined the African war in Somalia on the side of the government there, says it won’t sever ties with Eritrea over Al Shabab. But the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN, Macharia Kamau, urges Eritrea to respond to the UN concerns if it “wishes to remain part of the community of nations in our part of the world.”

The main charges are that Eritrea is stirring up bloody conflicts in the Horn of Africa by providing arms and funds to Al Shabab and other rebel forces in the region and that it attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in January. The Eritrean government has denied the charges although it did not seem to present convincing
counter evidence to refute them. This is a job for legal experts and Isaias Afewerki making a concluding statement in defense of his government before the Security Council would have swayed no minds even that of sympathetic Russia.

Three main reasons why Eritrea is outraged:

One: In what is viewed by some observers as an Eritrea-Ethiopia proxy war in Somalia, Eritrea is incensed and infuriated by the increasing diplomatic successes and internationally supported Somalia-policy of Ethiopia, a country which Eritrea has long wanted punished by the UN for not pulling out of the village of Badme on their common border in accordance with a UN
decision. Undermining Ethiopia seems to have been the basis for Eritrea’s domestic and foreign policies. The issue of “Badme” is the reason Eritrea has refused to consider the people’s demands for human rights, democracy and elections, and why hundreds of thousands of its youth are still in the trenches without pay depriving the nation of vital labor force. Some
experts say the same motive has forced the government to align itself with Islamist militant groups such as Al Shabab in order to weaken Ethiopia. The Eritrean government is far from reaching its goals and without an urgent change of policy it may not be too long before it is slapped again with a third round of UN sanctions or worse.

The new sanctions are more intrusive. They put Eritrea’s revenues from mining and Diaspora taxes under strict scrutiny by UN member states and by the UN Sanctions Monitoring Group. UN member states have the obligation to ensure that funds generated from these two sources are not used by the Eritrean government for terrorism or destabilization purposes in the Horn. The government never discloses its revenues or their sources and is not guided by any accountability rules. It should now be easier to find out how much money the nation has earned, when, where and how it is being spent. If the government fails to achieve the following, i.e., end forced labor, build affordable housing, start rehabilitating conscripts who have served more than three years, reopen the Asmara University and build new ones, increase national food rationing three fold, then it probably is spending the national income of close to a billion US dollars in purchasing such weapons as missiles, new fighter planes, or the Eritrean leaders are stashing the funds in secret banks around the world or they are still financing rebel groups and extremists.

The price for noncompliance has gone up with the new sanctions. Asset freezes and travel bans will now hit more of Isaias’s generals, cabinet members and advisors. Most of them are western oriented with relatives and friends abroad. If they see no end in sight for the country’s dilemma, they might start pointing fingers at Isaias and at each other - a good enough reason for Isaias to be worried.

Undoubtedly UN member states appreciate the correlation between the atrocities committed against Eritreans at home and their government’s readiness to commit acts of aggression abroad. The Executive Chairman of the newly established 127-member Eritrean National Assembly in exile, Dr. Yosuf Berhanu, M.D., asks if the world ever “expected internally despotic Eritrea to be peace-loving and democratic externally”.

If this is the truth, no amount of sanctions will transform or change the Eritrean regime. The sanctions will only serve as another opportunity for it to keep diverting attention from the urgent national need of building liberty and democracy now.

Surely, the UN and other concerned parties can find better ways of not only how to contain roguish Eritrea but also how to help democratic Eritreans help themselves.

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