Eritrea’s Diplomatic Advances Overshadow Domestic Crimes

As of 2009 the United Nations (UN) Security Council imposed a variety of sanctions on Eritrea. The sanctions were in response to allegations against the nation for supplying arms to al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia for their violent border disputes with Djibouti. The UN made an arms embargo throughout Eritrea, and on certain targeted officials placed travel bans, and froze the asset’s of some officials. The UN Security Council lifted these measures on November 14th after a unanimous vote.

The Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office commented that this action will “further enhance the collaborative gains that have been achieved in the region over the past few months.” Eritrea’s Chargé d’Affaires said that the sanctions were always “unwarranted punitive measures” and that “the long overdue call for justice is finally answered.”

The vote comes after Eritrea has made significant diplomatic advances in the region. Earlier in September Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a formal peace deal and opened the border between the two countries for the first time in twenty years. Leaders from Eritrea and Djibouti have also met earlier this year to discuss their border conflict. While no resolutions were made, the media describes their relationship as “thawing.” And lastly, in the eyes of the UN, there is no longer any reason to believe Eritrea is supplying arms to al-Shabaab.

Thus it would appear that the decision to lift these sanctions is a gesture of approval for Eritrea’s recent improvements to their diplomatic relations. Still, alternative motives to normalize relations in one of the most contentious nations in the Horn of Africa exist among the international community.

First, Eritrea is in a geographically strategic region. At its closest point, it is only twenty miles away from Yemen and the Saudi backed UAE has a military base along its coast. Its access to the Red Sea also makes it attractive for trade deals, especially for the neighboring land locked Ethiopia. Lastly, Eritreans make up a large portion of refugees in the migrant crisis. Some believe that lifting the sanctions on Eritrea will help bring stability to the region, drawing the country out of isolation.

However, it may be overly optimistic to assume that Eritrea’s internal problems will be mitigated by improving international relations. The state of their domestic affairs has been, and remains, a dark and overlooked reality. Eritrea is a highly militarized, one-party nation. President Isaias Afwerki has held his position since the country’s independence in 1993, making him the only president Eritrea has ever had. This oppressive regime was previously justified by the “war time efforts” against Ethiopia between 1998-2000. Now, in 2018, it is obvious to anyone paying attention that Afwerki is a dictator.

The watchdog body, Human Rights Watch, has a well documented account of President Afwerki’s abuse. Twenty-one government employees and a journalist critical of his dictatorship have been imprisoned since 2001. Those in detention in Eritrea are often held for years, even decades, without a trial and on an incommunicado basis. Family members do not know if they will ever see their loved ones again, dead or alive.

Religious freedom is non-existent. Those belonging to religious groups deemed unlawful, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are persecuted. They are not allowed to receive ration cards or work permits and some are held in detention. The national service requirements are drastically abused, beginning only when one is 18. Reports denounce this, saying that younger teenagers have been forced to start service which in some cases lasts decades. The UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 described this system as modern day enslavement. Expatriates describe the conditions of military service as “72-hour work weeks, severe arbitrary punishment, rape by commanders if female, and grossly inadequate food rations” and insignificant pay. A predictable outcome to these atrocities is that 12% of the population has fled the country.

Given this disturbing reality, it is valid to question the UN Security Council’s decision to lift the sanctions. Critics have discussed possible ramifications of the UN, essentially voicing approval of the Afwerki regime, despite the fact that there has been no reform of domestic policies. Thus, the question remains of how the internal state of the nation will change in the future, if at all. Some fear that the UN’s decision will embolden Afwerki and that Eritrean citizens will not benefit while they remain under repressive domestic policies.

In the midst of all these new developments and generally positive media coverage, Eritrea has also applied for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). If given a seat, they can vote on human rights resolutions, in which they themselves are implicated.

All this plays into a broader issue – the UN accepting candidates onto their Human Rights Council who are guilty of violating human rights. Some of these disconcerting members include the Philippines (notorious for Duterte’s violent and cruel drug war) and Venezuela (where Maduro has silenced free speech and political opposition). Eritrea is now expected to join this council. The Human Rights Council is responsible for defending and improving human rights internationally. When human rights are violated, it is the Councils duty to confront the situation and create recommendations.

The UN must step back and reevaluate what their purpose and place is in the fight for human rights. They must carefully consider their actions and how their members will contribute to their function and legitimacy as a global actor. The world must also continue to keep a close watch on Afwerki. As he begins to gain international influence, potential cooperators must use their power to pressure Afwerki to improve life for Eritrean citizens.