Eritrea-Ethiopia Relations: Pedaling a Stationary Object?





The June 12, 2016 clash between Eritrean and Ethiopian forces has ignited a new debate. It is one of the major interruptions of the “no war no peace” situation. However, there are fewer and fewer reasons that justify conflict between the two countries. The clash complicates the rapidly changing geopolitical (dis) order in the Greater Horn of Africa region and, is almost certain to bring external players in the conflict. In addition the recent decision of the United Nations Human Rights Commission on Eritrea must be seen in a regional context, and may not be a manifestation of a diplomatic tension that is likely to disappear quickly. Though the decision has excited some and appears that the odds have assembled against the ruling regime in Eritrea, such a view however is simplistic.

In October 2015 there was a one day long panel discussion that focused on the future relations between the two countries. The conference was organized by Vision Ethiopia in collaboration with ESAT, and the sole purpose of the conference was to prevent conflict between the two countries and open political space in each country. I had the privilege of moderating one of the panel discussions. Present at that panel were distinguished academics like Emeritus Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam and seasoned American diplomats like Ambassador Herman Cohen (Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs), and Ambassador David Shinn (Former Ambassador to Ethiopia and now Adjunct Professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs). In the other panels there were also knowledgeable people. Ambassador Kassa Kebede was one of the important officials in the Government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ato Ermias Legesse was the Deputy Minister of Communication in the Government of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. From opposition political parties there were Dr. Mesfin Abdi of the Oromo Democratic Forum and Ato Neamin Zeleke of Arbegnoch Ginbot 7. The full videos of the conference are available at several addresses (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvGaNdzo8-Y).

There were several sticky problems. However no new issues were identified as casus belli (an act or event that provokes or is used to justify war). The new casus belli could be the one disclosed by the pro TPLF website http://aigaforum.com/article2016/demand-for-isaias-to-leave-eritrea.htm where it claimed that Ethiopia is preparing to demand the removal of Isayas Afeworki from power. Another casus belli could be Eritrea’s support to various Ethiopian armed groups. Some trace their history to the 2005 election crisis and hence are serious rivals to the TPLF regime. The United Nations Human Rights Commission’s damaging report must be examined against the backdrop of potential factors that provoke war (http://www.ethiomedia.com/1012pieces/5689.html).

While investigation of human rights violations in principle should be welcome, the decision to refer the matter to the Security Council appears to be a selective application of international conventions and devoid of understanding the tensions between the two countries, and the rapid changes in the Greater Horn of Africa region. The move is unlikely to be supported by many African countries especially at a time when public opinion about the International Criminal Court is divided and the countries are threatening to cancel their membership. Furthermore, the decision is also vulnerable to criticism in that those who handle the matter at the Security Council are the same individuals who refused to lift the sanctions against Eritrea. More importantly, if the decision is more than likely to complicate matters in the region (http://www.ethiomedia.com/1012pieces /5689.html) and in fact may drag Ethiopia into another prolonged conflict. Hence, policy makers and commentators need to take caution and refrain from escalating the situation. It is also important to note that regime changes are not as easy as they sound. The voids left by dictators are not easy to fill.

For the Government of Prime Minister Haile Mariam it is important to realize that the instruments of peace are not found in the threats and military buildups or in living under the shadow of the military or listening to the extreme wing of the TPLF. It is in taking a calculated risk of political liberalization. It is not by waiting another five years as some half-hearted critics of TPLF/EPRDF are arguing. It is in invoking the relevant clauses of the constitution or whatever is left of it, and holding referendum so that reformers are freed from the shackles of hard core TPLF, and be able to start a credible transition program that meaningfully involve both the armed and peaceful opposition. This opens the door for an orderly transition in Ethiopia and puts Eritrea at bay. It encourages reform within Eritrea and opens the opportunity for building mutual trust. Blaming Eritrea for the disorder in various parts of the country and making noise about corruption when the institutions of the State are captured is like pedaling a stationary vehicle and expecting it to move across space and time.

International justice has increasingly become hard to realize. It is not difficult to observe that the United Nations applies double standards. It is also powerless and had inflicted harm to both Eritrea and Ethiopia as it did to other countries. First, the United Nations federated Eritrea with Ethiopia. In other words it neither anticipated the conflict in the marriage nor did it restrain the countries that were helping secessionists. Second, it failed to advise the Imperial Government about the consequences of abolishing the Eritrean parliament. Third, between 1962 and 1991 the United Nations had no role in resolving the conflict. In 1993 the global body reversed its earlier decision and allowed a rebel group to decide the future of the two countries. It recognized Eritrea as an independent state. It observed the referendum, approved the 99 plus % vote for separation, and participated in the creation of one of the most densely populated landlocked countries in the world. Furthermore, the United Nations neither anticipated nor made serious attempt to prevent the 1998-2000 war. The world body recognized the defective Algiers agreement that created the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission but failed to enforce the decision. Worse it withdrew its peace keeping force prematurely. In 2009 the United Nation imposed sanctions against Eritrea for its alleged role in Somalia. In 2015 it declined to lift the punishment that hurts the people more than the regime; perhaps inadvertently escalating the push factors for the mass outmigration. In June 2016 its human rights commission decided to bring the rulers of Eritrea to the International Criminal Court. Only better minds can explain how the latest decision is contributing to peace and the advancement of democracy in Eritrea.
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