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Justice and the Horn of Africa

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (C) and Isaias Afewerki (L), President of Eritrea, meet at the 66th General Assembly Session at the United Nations on September 21, 2011 in New York City.

Justice and the Horn of Africa
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion

In one of his debates with Socrates, Thrasymachus alleges that “justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” Shifting thousands of miles away and thousands of years forward from ancient Greece, recent events at the United Nations seem to aptly reflect his point. Specifically, last week, Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press revealed that Egypt, the next president of the UN Security Council, proposed a Council trip to Somalia, Egypt, and Eritrea. However, the US balked at the inclusion of Eritrea – according to Inner City Press the US “does not want a Council trip to include Eritrea,” – leading to the likelihood that the visit to Eritrea will be dropped.

In true Orwellian fashion, while it has become common to hear Eritrea, a young, low-income, developing country located within the volatile, politically-fractious Horn of Africa region, derogatorily described as reclusive, secretive, the “North Korea of Africa,” or even the “hermit kingdom,” the recent revelations illustrate that, yet again, Eritrea has instead been the target of externally-driven attempts to isolate or sideline it.

For example, in 2011, as Eritrea was facing another round of sanctions, “only the US” was opposed to the Eritrean President, H.E. Isaias Afewerki, speaking to the Council, and it worked to block his appearance. In stark contrast, South Africa’s Permanent Representative, Baso Sangqu, stated that “I don't think there is anything wrong with hearing from the President [of Eritrea],” while China said it supported Eritrea’s request to address the Council. It remains highly puzzling and deeply troubling that a country facing extremely serious allegations (and their severe, dire consequences) was effectively sidelined from voicing its perspectives.

Notably, efforts to isolate Eritrea have also extended to involve attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals. For example, according to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated November 1st 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Additionally, a 2009 cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece reveals that the “USG [US government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,”  while in late 2014, Eritrea was one of the few African countries excluded from participating in the highly publicized US-Africa Summit in Washington D.C., which focused on trade, investment, and security.

Significantly, the recent revelations serve to underscore how frequent US pronouncements of wanting to “promote improved relations [and] greater peace and stability” in the region ring rather hollow. In addition to its opposition to the UNSC’s visit to Eritrea, recall that the US continues to politically, militarily, and economically support Ethiopia, which occupies swathes of Eritrean territory, in violation of agreements and international law, and while it has also engaged in repeated, aggressive military incursions into Eritrea.

Importantly however, attempts to isolate Eritrea have been called into question, and the sanctions the country remains burdened with have increasingly been recognized as illegitimate, unfounded, and counterproductive. Ms. Bronwyn Bruton, Deputy Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, has noted the ineffectiveness of isolationist policies towards Eritrea, suggesting that it is “time for a new approach” by the international community. Furthermore, Herman J. Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has claimed that continued sanctions on Eritrea have “no basis in fact,” are due to “certain persons in the highest levels of the United States Government [having] mean spirited grievances against Eritrean President Isayas Afwerki [sic],” and are “pure bullying.”

In City of God, St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, “how dare you molest the seas?” Sternly, the pirate replied, “how dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.” Similarly, although the US regularly proclaims the importance of upholding international law and defending high standing principles such as justice, its broad approach towards the Horn of Africa seem to flagrantly contradict its rhetoric.

With little doubt, the Horn of Africa is one of the most complex regions in the world. It is a politically-fractious powder keg that has experienced decades of poverty, strife, foreign intervention, global superpower competition, famine, drought, ethnolinguistic and religious tensions, external manipulations and machinations, and devastating war. Crucially, a UNSC visit to the region, and Eritrea in particular, could prove highly beneficial in advancing much needed mutual cooperation and understanding, both amongst the countries of the region as well as between the region and the international community. Furthermore, in terms of Eritrea, rather than continued efforts to isolate and sanction it, the international community – and the US in particular – should encourage greater dialogue, trust, and improved relations. Such efforts will not only support vital socio-economic growth and general development, but also encourage peace, security, and stability in a long troubled region.

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