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Could Eritrea come in from the cold?

Asmara, Eritrea

By Mary Harper | BBC

"The North Korea of Africa", "A giant slave camp", "Africa's fastest emptying country", "The cursed land", "Africa's most secretive and repressive state".

These are just some of the labels applied to Eritrea in recent years. The problem with labels is they stick. They become the lens through which the country is viewed.

Although many of these headline-grabbing descriptions are exaggerated and over-simplified, Eritrea is facing immense challenges, some of the most serious in its short, 25-year history.

This month a United Nations-appointed Commission of Inquiry found that crimes against humanity, including enslavement, torture, murder, rape and enforced disappearance, have been committed on a "systematic and widespread" scale.

It has recommended the UN Security Council refers the matter to the International Criminal Court.
Eritrea, which has never held national elections, has no parliament, no opposition parties and no free press, acknowledges there have been "individual transgressions of human rights", but describes the accusations as "legally indefensible" and "politicised".

It says the report is "entirely one-sided" because members of the Commission only spoke to Eritreans outside the country, many of whom have their own agendas.

Just a week after the report was released, another bombshell hit Eritrea. There was a serious flare-up on its border with Ethiopia, perhaps the most significant since the devastating 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.

Details of the latest clashes are murky. Eritrea says 200 Ethiopian troops were killed, Ethiopia says there was a "major engagement". Both sides blame the other for starting the violence.

Eritrea is in close proximity with another conflict. Just 40km across the Red Sea, a civil war has been raging in Yemen.

As if these were not enough, there are a number of other serious problems in Eritrea.

During the past few years, there has been a spike in people leaving the country. Many of them are young, seeking better opportunities and escaping long years of obligatory national service.

In 2015, Eritrea - a relatively small country - was the biggest source of African migrants to Europe. This year, according to the UNHCR, Eritrea has slipped to joint fourth position, behind Nigeria, The Gambia and Somalia.

In 2009, the UN imposed targeted sanctions on Eritrea for its alleged support for Al Shabaab Islamists in nearby Somalia. This led to further international isolation and hurt the country's economy, already damaged by the closure of its border with Ethiopia.

Eritrea was left out in the cold, an international pariah.

New opportunities

Ironically, some of these challenges, old and new, have started to lead to opportunities for Eritrea.
Let's start with the easier ones.

The conflict in Yemen has already led to stronger ties with some Gulf countries, especially those in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels. Eritrea is providing the United Arab Emirates with what the foreign minister, Osman Saleh, describes as "logistical facilities" at its southern port of Assab.

He said the UAE is helping to improve the port there, and will later work on the port in Massawa.

There are also reports of supplies of desperately-needed fuel, something Eritrea denies.

Europe is also engaging more, mainly because of the migrant crisis. It has announced a $227m "development fund" for 2016-2020, almost four times the sum it gave for a previous period covering 2009-2013. It says Eritrea can also benefit from its new Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which aims to discourage so many people from leaving the continent.

Some Eritrea experts, such as Cedric Barnes of The International Crisis Group, have argued that Eritrea and Ethiopia should use the latest outbreak of border violence as an opportunity to sort out once and for all the dispute that has run like a festering sore since 1998.

This will not be easy. Eritrea feels betrayed by the UN and Western powers who failed to push Ethiopia to abide by an international border ruling in Eritrea's favour.

Like Eritrea, Ethiopia has been accused of serious human rights abuses, a lack of democracy and repression of the media. But it is a key Western ally, and foreign powers may be reluctant to pressurise it in the same way as they do Eritrea.

It is even more difficult to see how Eritrea could turn the UN Commission of Inquiry's findings into an opportunity, especially if some of its senior officials end up at the ICC.

True, the ICC is viewed with great scepticism by many Africans who accuse it of disproportionately targeting individuals from their continent.

Kenya's president and deputy president were voted into power after being indicted by the ICC.

Sudan's Omar al Bashir became something of an African hero after he was charged.

Eritrea has shown some signs of taking human rights more seriously. It has accepted 92 out of 200 recommendations put forward by the UN's latest Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights, although implementation is slow.

This year, for the first time, it allowed the UN office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to visit a prison.

Bizarrely, Western diplomats in Eritrea often have very different views from their governments.

One went as far as describing Eritrea as a "perfect development partner" due to what was described as its relatively low levels of corruption, strong work ethic and lack of religious extremism in a region where many countries have been affected by Islamist violence.

One elephant in the room is the question of who will succeed the country's first and only president, Isaias Afwerki, who is 70 years old.

One Western diplomat said: "He is about the only African president who cares about his people, but he is like a stubborn camel leading his country in the wrong direction."

Although a growing number of people are arguing that it is probably wiser to engage with Eritrea than isolating it further, there will have to be huge shifts in attitude from all sides for constructive dialogue and lasting change to take place.

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