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Is Eritrea really out in the Cold?

Asmara, Eritrea

Is Eritrea really out in the Cold?

By Kibreab Tesfay

Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen’s article (Time to Bring Eritrea in from the Cold; published by African Arguments on 16 December 2013) seems to have stirred much interest among old Africa hands even as there is scant evidence of serious introspection and policy review inside Foggy Bottom and other principal tentacles of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, the arguments that Ambassador Herman Cohen has put forth for revamping US-Eritrea relations and scraping the unwarranted UN sanctions imposed against the latter largely at the instigation of Washington, have elicited various reactions from the region, and, follow-up articles and rejoinders by former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shin, as well as Ambassador Princeton Lyman of the US Institute of Peace.

Apart from the strident, myopic and predictable views of some die-hard Ethiopian officials (Ambassador Tekeda Alemu and his ilk), all protagonists essentially agree on three critical matters; i) that the allegations linking Eritrea with Al-Shebaab are not true and mainly conjured up for political purposes; ii) the resultant sanctions imposed by the UNSC were legally inappropriate and counter-productive; and iii) improvement in US-Eritrea ties is essential and bodes well for the stability and security of the volatile Horn of Africa region.

But the apparent consensus outlined above ends there. As it happens, serious fissures appear in the narratives and perspectives of the different authors on the underlying causes, chronology of events that brought about this state of affairs as well as the way forward. In one way, the disparate depictions and half-truths are akin to the parable of the six blind men who portray an elephant in as many ways from partial physical contact to its body mass.

A caveat is appropriate before delving into the validity and accuracy of these disparate portrayals. The original title is really a misnomer that conveys a false image even if the hyperbole may have been deemed useful for the purposes of the article.

Eritrea is not really out in the cold in terms of normative diplomatic indices and parlance. Yes, it has troubled ties with the United States. But even if one were to acquiesce in former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s, description of the United States as the “indispensable nation”, it would represent extreme diplomatic hubris to dub one country as “out in the cold” if it happens to attract the ire of Washington. The fact is Eritrea enjoys formal diplomatic ties with literally all UNMember States (Ethiopia and Djibouti excepted); has over 30 Embassies and Consulates all over the world while hosting a similar number in its capital city; and has membership in vital regional, continental and international bodies to promote its considered national security interests. In terms of investment, Eritrea continues to attract FDI in mining, fisheries, tourism and other lucrative sectors from all over the world. Eritrea has also robust programmes of bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation agreements with the European Union, UN Development Agencies, China, various Middle Eastern countries, Japan, India etc. So Eritrea is not out in the cold by any stretch of imagination although its troubled ties with the US has, admittedly, entailed sanctions at the UN and harassment at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

To revert to some of the major inaccuracies and flawed arguments;

1.Ambassador Shin conflates the cardinal issue of respect of Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with other incidental and tangential matters of the restoration of diplomatic and mutually beneficial ties of cooperation that can be freely cultivated between the two countries thereafter. Indeed, in as much as friendly ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia would be desirable adding value to both countries with positive ramifications to overall regional peace and security, the two countries are not Siamese twins that are innately bonded at the hips. Vibrant trade exchanges and policy harmonization are options that both countries can pursue if they see eye to eye on strategic precepts of development and economic growth. “Trade, open borders, telephone links, air travel arrangements and port uses” are all ingredients that lubricate friendly ties of good neighbourliness between the two countries and that contribute to mutual economic growth. Modalities and mechanisms of their implementation can and would be entered freely between the two independent States through mutually beneficial bilateral, and at times multilateral, agreements within the framework of regional bodies; IGAD, COMESA etc.

But they can also part ways and maintain no or minimal trade and investment cooperation without jeopardizing regional peace if both uphold the normative principles and practices of international law. Subordinating, as Ambassador Shin does, cardinal principles of international law and the co-existence of two neighboring States to normalization of economic ties, is not only putting the cart before the horse but it is legally tenuous and fraught with dangerous implications and precedents to regional peace and security. The terms of the Algiers Agreement are also unequivocal. At a more abstract level, the ebbs and flows of trade and economic cooperation between two neighbouring States have no correlation whatsoever to their independent existence.

A seasoned diplomat and academic of Ambassador Shin’s caliber cannot, surely, be oblivious to these rudimentary concepts. But Ambassador Shin has always been an avid supporter of Ethiopia. This may have corroded his objectivity as his arguments are, to be candid, embellishments of the narrative that successive Ethiopian governments, including the present one, have constantly put forth. The purported “negative psychological element” between Eritreans and the Tigrayan ethnic group in Ethiopia that Ambassador Shin invokes is in fact an ubiquitous social phenomenon that prevails everywhere; even between different language/ethnic groups within the confines of the same country. These emotional traits cannot be factored in the calculus of nurturing normative State-to-State ties between two neighbouring countries on the basis of international law.

2. In almost all the articles, US-Eritrea ties are depicted in a rather simplistic, anecdotal, way and mostly in reference to one or two recent incidents. Both Ambassadors Shin and Lyman cast doubts on Eritrea’s willingness and readiness for improved ties with Washington. Ambassador Lyman recounts his personal initiative in 2008 which failed principally due to Eritrea’s recalcitrance at the highest levels. Foreign Office officials in Eritrea and at the US Embassy in Washington contest this version of the story. In any case, there is ample published literature illustrating that friction in US-Eritrea ties goes back to 1998 to coincide with the outbreak of border hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia (see US unprovoked hostilities against Eritrea). Senior Eritrean officials have long maintained that the United States relapsed to its half-century old stance, perhaps out of diplomatic inertia rather than from a cool-headed geopolitical calculus, to put all its eggs in the Ethiopian basket once the two countries were pitted in armed confrontation against each other.

Historically, the United States had supported imperial Ethiopia’s bogus claims on Eritrea to bring about the UN imposed “Federation” between the two countries in 1950; kept silent when this was unilaterally abrogated by Ethiopia to annex Eritrea in 1962; and, extended arms and military training to suppress Eritrea’s liberation struggle thereafter. US hostility to Eritrea did not alter much even after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by a military junta and Ethiopia’s new alignment with the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. And although US-Eritrea ties enjoyed healthy growth and unprecedented warmth from 1991 until 1998, Washington unilaterally “reset” the burgeoning relationship to revert to its “historical mode” after the sad events of 1998. Eritrean Foreign Office officials cite US biased positions during Ethiopia’s successive offensives between 1998 and 2000 as well as its myriad diplomatic acts to block the implementation of the “final and binding” EEBC Award. The latter was in spite of the fact that the United States was the principal architect and broker of the underlying Algiers Peace Agreement. US-Eritrea ties have thus a long, checkered, history. They are not and cannot be reducible to the recent phenomenon of Al-Shebaab and Eritrea’s fabricated “linkages with terrorism”.

But, irrespective of the inaccuracies and flaws cited above, the debate itself is positive that must be welcomed. As I intimated at the beginning, it is not clear whether this is a reflection, or a harbinger, of serious policy review in the State Department. But a balanced and constructive US approach to its ties with Eritrea and the Horn of Africa as a whole can bring vital dividends to the parties concerned and to the pursuit of enduring peace and stability in the region. The stakes are indeed high. The Horn of Africa has proximity to the Middle East; straddles the vital Red Sea international maritime traffic; has a combined population of more than 150 million and is endowed with considerable natural resources. Peace and security between and within all the countries of the region is vital if all the comparative advantages of this region are to be realized to the benefit of its peoples.

Along with other major international actors, the United States can surely be a force of good in this endeavor. But this will require primary recognition and respect for the policy choices and interests of the countries in the region. The dysfunctional paradigm of subordinating local interests and aspirations to overriding US geopolitical interests has proven a recipe for perennial turmoil in the Horn of Africa in the past 60 years. Recent history and the dynamics of our times accentuate the imperative of overhauling the old, obsolete, paradigm and the advantages that can be accrued from a fresh, bold, approach.

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Is Eritrea really out in the Cold? Reviewed by Admin on 3:49 AM Rating: 5


  1. We eritreans are not now fixed with the tactic of the dictator.Our aim and interest now is Democracy in eritrea,elected government in eritrea,free press in eritrea.fullstop.The dictator is now trying to fullish the people by sayning amerca will supportus,we will establish economic ties with ethiopia etc.
    we donot be foolished by the dictator and his handfull operators.
    we eritreans inside and outside eritrea are standing against him!

  2. what about the fate of the people ,immigrated to the neighbouring countries,died in the meditranian sea,poeple in the massive eritrean prison!

  3. The writer have made his case with panctiuation. It can not be said or viewed in political spectrum more than that. I congratulate the writer for the accurate smooth flow of the article which is precise to the point without going out from its core point.
    Work well done.
    Thank you,

  4. Is it your comment or are you responding to the article? If you are responding to the article please you better read and understand the content of the article before you paste a comment.

  5. This independent information from Eritrea will help you to understand why people are migrating from Eritrea.

  6. The US, having failed to freeze Eritrea out, now it turn around and in essence accuse her of self isolistionist? How outrageous!

  7. You seems like a woyane wanna be Eritrean propogandist.
    Yes, it's true there are immigrants from Eritrea be it economic, or for the reason cia and woyane send a propoganda to Eritrean youth if they leave Eritrea they will be welcomed by the west. They even told them they will be accepted if they leave Eritrea illegally. This message means if you leave the country legally with a passport, you wiill not be accepted. It has a purpose, it's simply to demonize Eritrea in governance and democracy.
    There is no country in africa which is like eritrea where people live in peace and harmony.
    As to prison we call it tehadso where there is mosque and church, vocational and academic school with libraries and computer labs and every civil prisoner enjoys sports and physical fitness. Ended what ever the ill wishers of Eritrea used to say, I am proud to be Eritrean.

  8. PLEASE TAKE YOUR garbage TO TIGRAIONLINE OR BETTER YET TO YOUR DISTANT FANS THE 'HASEWNA.COM'. WE LUV & NEED OUR 'DICTATOR'! YOU HAVE YOURS, WE HAVE OURS!!! only difference, our dictator means well, and yours doesn't.while your dicktators sell their poor people and the country for lausy mokhshish from their masters, our dictator does the EXACT OPPOSITE and has succsesfully registered "the fastest growing economy' AGAINST ALL ODDS, & SO CALLED SANCTION !!!!!!!!
    goodluck getting your dicktators to do such an ugly thing, becoz they would rather do the noble african thing called begg in the name of their barefoot population!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Wrong can never be right, lie can never be truth. No matter how much you try to paint Eritrea as heaven of the earth, you can not hide the truth on what is going on there. I have spent 3 months in Eritrea and I can tell you it is a hell hole. The government is doing everything to erase us out of our country. For those of you who are trying to cover up the oppretion of our people "mihret yewrdelkum". I know for fact none of you would go back and live there under the condition the country is. Our problem is not economical but it is the mismanagement of the authoritarian government. Today Eritreans have not enough drinking water, electricity, food.... They bankrupted the airlines, bankrupted investors and corrupted your (HIGDEFAWAN) brain so that you say "bad is good". We don't even have a reliable airlines that flys to Eritrea. Ita hanti zineberet Lufthansa abariroma.

  10. ኤረይ ሳላ ውፉያት ደቅኺJanuary 17, 2014 at 7:14 PM

    Wrong can never be right? I bet you didn't spend 3 month in Eritrea. Asmara is not the hole Eritrea IF? ??? herd the the story you wrote indirect from someone spent 3-4 week in Asmara. You can never deny the development Eri achieved so far AGAINST ALL ODS in every section and aspects. ሰውራ አሪትራ ን ነፋጣት ከማኻ፡ ስም ዘይብሎም ዓኣፍናቓት፡ ግዜን ቦታን የብሉ፡፡ እቲ ገመል 9ይ ማርሻ ወሲኹ ይውንጨፍ'ዩ ዘሎ። እኒ'በዓል ኣረግቶት፡ ጨነውቲ ኣኻልብ ክትልሕትቱ ከሎኹም።
    ጅግና ይሰርሕ ምበር፡ ኣይልፍልፍን'ዩ። ሃካይን ሰራቕን ሕሳውን ግን ኩሉ ግዜ'ዩ፡ ዘማርር። ኣብ ግዜ ሽግርካ ድማ፡ ቁጽሪ ሓደ'ዩ ኣብ ሑቖኻ ካራ ከእትወልካ፡ ወይ ምስ ጸላኢኻ ክዓርኽ፡፡ ኩሉ እትሰርሖ፡ ምዕባሌኻ ዓይኑ ደም'ዩ ዝመልኦ። ሓሶት ክኣልም ከይደቀሰ ይሓድር። ኤርትራ ርኢኻያ ዘይትፍል፡ 3ወርሒ ጌረ what can be wrong as such a LIE. Eritre doesn't need siber heroes. Cause they never help them self. They live in a siber dream. In a fantasy world. Wake up to reality and see Eritrea with your own eyes. Or you will see the miracle from distance in near future
    ዘልኣለማዊ ዝኽርን፡ ክብሪን ንሰማእታትና
    ወትሩ ዓወት ንሓፋሽ

  11. It is very articulate response to all three US official’s orchestrated articles. The response is remarkable and beyond their messages
    expectations. It exposes their intent and ill will design, I hope they have learned from our prominent writers and historians that are well aware what is going in Africa in particular in the Horn. Let them have a lesson and understand the region from first hand, and definitely they will change the path they used to approach the Horn's issue. Thanks Kibreab for all your contributions and educational messages.


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