This next piece in our “2015 in Review” series will look at Eritrean diplomacy in 2015. Great gains have been made in this regard yet critical new challenges exist. This article will look at this in greater detail.
Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to have been quite busy this past year. The effect of Eritrea’s growing relations have clearly born fruit within the halls of the UN. To understand the gains made in 2015 we must first recall UN Security Council Resolution 1907 and the conditions that brought sanctions on Eritrea in 2009.
Knowing that European Union (EU)-member states were historically reluctant to support anti-African resolutions not sponsored by Africa as a whole, Susan Rice exploited Eritrea’s temporary absence from the east African regional bloc, the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to rally members of the African Union (AU) in an anti-Eritrea resolution that was made to appear as an “African Initiative.”
Revelations from Wikileaks make this reality clear. Let us not forget the cable from September 29, 2009: “Rice reminded Museveni that past experience suggested that the UNSC would not block a resolution led by African members and supported by the African Union. She shared the U.S. read that, if Burkina Faso and Uganda co-sponsor this resolution, the British will support, the French will ‘keep their heads down’ and will not block.”
Everything about the sanctioning of Eritrea was exceptional. The AU called for UN sanctions on one of its own African states, Eritrea, in an emergency midnight meeting, which a January 19, 2011 article in the AFP called an “unprecedented step”. They have relied on a succession of rare events in the face of Eritrea’s reservations to make the sanctions possible.
Observing the events since 2009 up until the end of 2015, one can safely say that the game has changed. Recognizing the isolation strategy and Rice’s role in it, Eritrea has taken a number of measures to defeat isolation attempts.
On November 18, 2011, Reuter’s acknowledged a “charm offensive” by Eritrea. Reopening her mission to the AU that closed in the wake of sanctions and pushing for readmission to IGAD, Eritrea built new international relationships while fostering old ones.
Diplomatic engagements and partnerships since then have snowballed, accelerating this past year. Once again, on August 21, 2015, VOA’s David Arnold declared a “charm offensive” by Eritrea, noting the slew of recent and repeated visits by high-level European delegations that included, inter alia, the British, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Swedes and Swiss. A number of foreign newspapers and think tanks have also sent their emissaries to Asmara.
Visits by European delegations are still ongoing in 2016 as they seek to partner with Eritrea to address mutual problems for mutually beneficial gain.
On June 7, Norway’s NRK reported that State Secretary of the Justice Ministry Jøran Kallemyr visited Eritrea “to obtain confirmation that they intend to comply with the maximum limit of 18 months of national service…and to assess the state of the country.”
“My impression is far better than I had thought…we walked around freely at night…the TV in the bar showed BBC World and there were internet cafes with access to Facebook,” said the Secretary.
Secretary Kallemyr also met Eritrean Minister of Justice Fozia Hashim, reviewing the recently published Criminal, Penal, and Civil Codes and indicating that they were “extremely important when it comes to human rights issues.”
Unlike superficial analyses or confrontational approaches by human rights NGOs, Norway and other EU states have identified, through official partnerships and state visits, the Eritrean state’s nascent and underdeveloped legal bureaucracy as one rate-limiting impediments to human rights and economic progress in Eritrea.
On December 11, the European Union announced that €200 million would be disbursed to Eritrea through 2020 as part of the 11th European Development Fund (EDF). The money is slated to go towards supporting the energy sector, providing social services, and improving governance. This deal makes Eritrea, the highest per-capita recipient of EDF funds.
More important than the money allocated to Eritrea, however, is the relationship the deal builds and the message it sends to the world: Eritrea is not isolated. The victim of a seventeen year US-backed Ethiopian isolation strategy and territorial occupation, Eritrea has effectively taken bold new steps towards neutralizing that strategy and strengthening Eritrea’s hand in the protracted attrition war.
Eritrean diplomacy in 2015 expanded and redoubled with Arab states of the Gulf and Red Sea basin. In September 2014, a new conflict in Yemen drew security and geopolitical concerns of regional and global powers.
Three weeks before the start of 2015, the former Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh, writing for Al-Monitor, indicated, “there is one thing the United States can do.
Opposite Yemen, on the other side of the straits, lies Eritrea. Over the last decade, the United States has espoused a policy designed to isolate and weaken the country. The wisdom of this policy should be reconsidered, given the new regional configuration.”
With the start of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen last March we immediately saw a deluge of allegations about Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen and the regional ramifications.
Initial reports came from intelligence firms like Stratfor and Indian Ocean Newsletter (ION).
The world later learned that Eritrea would join a regional anti-terror alliance spearheaded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and based on “strategic cooperation”. Quickly, the rumor mill went wild.
Of course, little was said about the fact that Eritrea and her President, Isaias Afewerki, for more than a decade had been the leading proponents for such a coalition to secure the Red Sea, home to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
For a region fraught with piracy, illegal fishing, terrorism, weapons and human trafficking, infiltration by intelligence and mercenary firms—as we saw with PVI International in 2011—and a slew of other criminal activities, it only makes sense that adequate measures be taken to bolster intraregional security. Let it not be forgotten that the Horn of Africa is targeted by Daesh (aka ISIS) to be the seat of the al-Habeshia Caliphate.
By October, the new report by Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) made a number of allegations regarding Eritrea vis-à-vis Yemen.
Using vague language open to all kinds of interpretation, the SEMG warned that Eritrea could violate UN Security Council resolutions if it used the alleged financial compensation from neighboring states “towards activities that threaten peace and security.”
How exactly would the use of the purported monies, ostensibly legal, be tracked? Are the currency notes bugged with GPS tracking devices and surveilled?
UN Security Council Resolution 2244 resulting from the SEMG report extended the sanctions committee mandate through 2016 despite the US, according to Herman Cohen, being the only Council member favoring the extension. Looking beyond the final vote count favoring extension, this new diplomatic development of Eritrea winning favor with most members of the Security Council must be appreciated.
Additionally, the resolution called on “Eritrea to cooperate with the SEMG, including on public finance issues in accordance with the SEMG’s mandate, in order to demonstrate that Eritrea is not violating the terms of relevant Security Council resolutions”.
Security Council member Venezuela took the lead in objecting and watering down the draft resolution’s stipulations for investigating Eritrea’s finances and its efforts received support from Angola, Chad, Nigeria, China and Russia. According to sources within the UN, this type of support for Eritrea is not solely a result of nations standing on the side of justice but rather a result of the meticulously planned, expanded and executed diplomatic efforts by Eritrea’s Permanent Mission to the UN and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this past year.
The lies of the SEMG have become obvious to Eritrea’s international partners. First, there were accusations that Eritrea had “2,000 troops” in Somalia. Next, there was “support to armed groups” in Somalia. Later, there was the accusation of government sanctioned human trafficking. Then there was the claim that “Eritrea provided military and logistical support to three armed rebel groups in South Sudan.”
All of these claims, as the latest ones about Yemen most likely will, have been debunked and each SEMG report since 2010 has received less and less support for continued sanctions on an increasingly internationally-aligned Eritrea.
The latest machinations by the SEMG’s sponsor and patron, the current US Administration, to hang the ever-looming threat of expanded sanctions over Eritrea’s head should be seen as desperate, last-ditch efforts to generate leverage over a nation over which it has little.
How do we know this is the case? We know because US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier said the US didn’t have any leverage on Eritrea to an audience of largely Eritrean and Ethiopian students in 2006 at the University of Washington.
As such, the SEMG has consistently assisted in “leverage creation” by using the latest regional issues to manufacture creative, new evidence against Eritrea. With no hard evidence and Eritrea’s expanded diplomacy, support for sanctions is dwindling.
Without getting overly optimistic, perhaps the annulment of the UN sanctions is near. If not annulment, the Eritrean people and state’s six-year contingency efforts may render them effectively annulled.
However, there remains one major obstacle. On February 20, 2014, Ethiopian State Minister for Foreign Affairs sent a memorandum to all diplomatic missions around the world briefing them on Eritrea and providing instructions on moving forward.
According to the memo, “The former U.S. Permanent Representative to UN, Ambassador Susan Rice, was instrumental in adopting the [sanction] resolutions. The current US Permanent Representative, Ambassador Samantha Power, may not be as strong on Eritrea. But since Ambassador Susan Rice is serving as the National Security Advisor of President Obama, she will ensure the continuation of U.S’s policy of sanctioning Eritrea.”
Note the word “ensure”. In life, nothing is certain but death and taxes—and, apparently, Susan Rice’s promotion of TPLF’s anti- Eritrea policies in Washington. It was likely that Rice pushed Obama to become the first US president to visit Ethiopia and compelled him to congratulate democracy in the country this year in spite of the very embarrassing fact that they won 100 percent of the vote.
This type of exceptional and high-level US support that the TPLF regime has enjoyed for the last seventeen years is on its final leg. It would not be a surprise to see Rice make a final push to award the Eritrean people with a goodbye “gift” before she leaves office in less than a year.
Under the tutelage of Rice, the Commission of Inquiry’s allegations of “crimes against humanity” are clearly intended draw an indictment of President Isaias Afwerki by the International Criminal Court prosecutor and to expand UN sanctions to target mining companies by December 2016.
This reality is not lost on the Eritrean people, who have become acutely familiar with Rice and her antics. The same goes for Baroness Glenys Kinnock—the Susan Rice of the UK.
In response to all their hostilities on behalf of the US and UK as well as all the hostilities by their regime change activists, under the pretext of human rights, the Eritrean people have put up a valiant fight this past year.
In June 2015, Eritreans around the world read with astonishment that the Eritrean state was accused of slavery, rape, and crimes against humanity.
Eritreans are the longtime witnesses and victims of some of the modern world’s worst atrocities. During the liberation struggle and the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia, Eritreans were the victims of unrelenting, genocidal scorched-earth policies compounded by barbaric military campaigns that saw little international outcry from “human rights defenders”.
For this reason, Eritreans do not take lightly loaded words and phrases like “slavery,” “rape,” and “crimes against humanity” being thrown around with reckless abandon.
Such accusations came from a report by the United Nation’s (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE) presented to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The report made accusations “sexual slavery” against women and deemed Eritrea’s national service program as an “an institution where slavery-like practices occur.”
The COIE concluded that “on the basis of this body of evidence, the Commission found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.” Note the word, “may constitute” essentially necessitating a mandate extension to investigate further.
Putting the facts together, it quickly became clear to many that the almost 500-page report was politically motivated and a part of the ongoing war to isolate Eritrea and bring about regime change. The accusations are too numerous and outrageous for our concise series but have been covered and will continue to be covered in other issues of Profile.
Notably, the accusations were made despite the COIE never having visited Eritrea. According to their report, the COIE sent President Isaias seeking permission for entry but “received no answer” with “lack of cooperation of the State of Eritrea.”
Let us not overlook the critical ramifications of this seemingly harmless “lack of cooperation” allegation. The sneaky claim served as the primary basis for the COIE to justify its deferral to the inherently hyperbolic testimonies of asylum-seekers, with a conflict of interest, about human rights abuses in Eritrea.
The COIE report stated that “without access to Eritrea, the commission obtained first-hand testimony by conducting confidential interviews with witnesses residing in third countries.” We were told that there were supposedly 550 of these “confidential interviews,” all of which were conveniently anonymous, making all testimonies unverifiable and impossible to substantiate.
And from which “third countries” did interviews come, exactly? One can only speculate. If previous reports by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Eritrea (SRE) are any indication, however, all or most testimonies most likely came from refugees in the two states in active conflict with Eritrea— Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Recognizing the fact that anonymous testimonies were unverifiable, the COIE conveniently lowered its evidentiary standards, explaining that it “based its findings on a ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ standard of proof. This standard is met when…it can be concluded that it is reasonable to believe that the incident or event occurred as reported.”
In other words, “the standard is met when we say it says it’s met.” How can that possibly be “reasonable”?
Additionally, it’s by no mere coincidence that the COIE just so happened to select the exact same standard of evidence used by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrants—the lowest possible standard, never used before out¬side the ICC.
Curiously, Article 58 of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding convention to which Eritrea is not signatory, states that the issuance of an arrest warrant by the Pre-Trial Chamber need only need be based on “reasonable grounds to believe that the person has committed a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court.”
Therefore, the “lack of cooperation” claim served to justify, in just these three simple words, the use of unverifiable evidence (i.e. anonymous asylum-seeker testimonies) and the lowest possible standards of evidence acceptable for an ICC arrest warrant.
Little was said about why the Eritrean state wouldn’t ostensibly cooperate. According to Section of II(A) of the Annex of HRC Resolution 5/1 Annex, nominated “special mandate holders” should be based on their: “(a) expertise; (b) experience in the field of the mandate; (c) independence; (d) impartiality; (e) personal integrity; and (f) objectivity.”
Evidence showed that members of the COIE were neither independent, impartial, nor objective. The most obvious example of this was member Sheila Keetharuth. Alone, she served as the SRE, nominated in 2012 through the lobbying of regime-change activists openly calling for sanctions against Eritrea.
Notably, Keetharuth is also a former employee of Amnesty International (AI), which has had a long and troubled relationship with the State of Eritrea since it was expelled in 2006 for failing to make public its finances. According to leaked memo on Eritrea sent from London headquarters to AI employees in Dar es Salaam on August 1, 2011, “our intended goal is that by December this year , the regime of lssayas Afewerky should be shaking and ready to fall and we are working on the final details now of an ICC Warrant for crimes against humanity for the President.”
Additionally, the COI’s founding draft resolution, tabled in June 2014 by Somalia under coercion by a US delegation seeking another so-called “African Initiative” within in the halls of the HRC, called for “a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur”. Thus, Keetharuth was automatically put on the COIE, a clear break of HRC procedure.
By calling for the pre-appointment of the SRE outside of the procedures clearly outlined throughout Section II(A) of the Annex of Resolution 5/1, the resolution and extra-procedural appointment of Keetharuth to the COI violates that HRC resolution. The SRE effectively skirted the nomination procedure that goes through the scrutiny of stakeholders (e.g. the Eritrea state, inter alia), consultative groups, and the HRC President.
After only about six-months of investigating, the COIE alleged of “crimes against humanity”. By year’s end, it was obvious to Eritreans that the COIE was politically motivated and sought to take President Isaias Afwerki to the ICC.
Through popular Eritrean resistance in the form of worldwide mekete, Tigrinya for “resolute re-buff,” the Eritrean people put up a valiant fight in 2015, worthy of recognition for the fact that it actually led to reassessment of the Eritrean human rights narrative pushed by the global, anti-Eritrea media machine that assumed it’s story would go without challenge.
Over the past year, Eritreans around the world campaigned and demonstrated against the COIE and its report, boldly telling the UN HRC and the COIE, “Hands of Eritrea!” Going viral on social, print and even televised media, the efforts seemed to coalesce in the #HandsOffEritrea campaign.
On June 22nd, anti-COIE demonstrations in Geneva that sparked the campaign’s founding could be seen by any honest observer of Eritrea as a major success to add to the story of the Eritrean people’s struggle for justice in 2015. Organized within only five days following the COIE’s unexpected and shocking accusations, 8,000 to 10,000 would-be demonstrators loaded planes, trains, and automobiles, urgently making their way the Palais des Nations of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to protest the report.
Despite the wholly ad hoc nature of the Hands Off Eritrea demonstration, the sheer size and decibels from indignant protestors before the curious ears and eyes of pedestrian onlookers, HRC members and journalists made it virtually impossible for a reluctant Western media to remain silent on the event.
No less a publication than France’s Le Monde covered the Hands off Eritrea demonstration and its associated hashtags and slogans like #SheilaShould, which creatively voiced demands directed at SRE in glib tweets.
As is often the case with positive news on Eritrea, however, the reports, including Le Monde’s, spun coverage to downplay and discredit the auspicious development. In this case, it was the unquestioned parroting of unsubstantiated allegations by COIE members that they were “subject to threats” from protestors.
Like an orchestra of musicians reading sheet music, US-aligned HRC members, in the ensuing final presentation of the COIE, expressed a melodic chorus of disdain towards the phantom “threats”, one soloist after an¬other, allowing for the wholesale write-off of the entire protest, and ultimately discarding its central message.
Clever strategy. How else could the HRC justify ignoring the show of mass indignation?
Giving passing mention of the #HandsOffEritrea campaign while repeating allegations of threats, Al Jazeera English also used its coverage to subtly discredit the anti-COIE protests through an article with a divisive headline reading “Eritreans divided” and content that made the protests ap¬pear to represent only a section of the Eritrean diaspora rather than the majority.
In order to fool us into believing this fiction, the author, Fatima Naib, compared the June 22nd anti-COIE protests to another demonstration, covered by her at length, that was ostensibly in support of the COIE that had yet to even occur on the slated day of June 26th.
Naib then posted a second article using images of protestors— not in Geneva—but in Addis Ababa holding TPLF-issued placards that read “Isaias to ICC”.
After confronting Naib, Eritreans on Twitter personally questioned her about why she gave biased coverage. Rather than responding with professionalism, or, better yet, just ignoring them, she instead left them with a rather flippant response: “Because I can. Deal with and get over it:)”.
In terms of television, Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” program, which invited SRE Keetharuth as a guest, displayed the nationalist hashtag #HandOffEritrea underneath Keetharuth’s grimacing face as she gave an emotional, combative and long winded tirade on the seeming certainty of abuses in Eritrea and forced the show’s host to ask her to stop lecturing for viewers.
Without doubt, the largest, fasting-growing and most critical local mekete effort outside of Geneva was that in the UK, which manifested itself in creative news ways in 2015.
During the first half of the year, determined civil society initiatives by indignant Eritreans and friends of Eritrea dovetailed into a more than six-month series of discussions that forwarded a mostly legal and academic assessment of Eritrean human rights.
Hosted by the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, Society for Advanced Legal Studies and the Universal Peace Federation, these increasingly impactful events—inviting independent, globally-respected investigators of Corporate Social Responsibility who investigated mining companies alleged by COIE to abuse Eritreans—quickly snowballed, proving so effective in garnering the attention of UK lawmakers that they culminated in a “bridge building” discussion on Eritrea officially scheduled in the House of Lords for June 18 and support¬ed by Baroness Oona King, Lord Nicholas Rea and Lord Avebury.
At the session, Professor Asmarom Legesse, the founder of the Asmara-based, human rights non-governmental organization Citizens for Peace who is revered by many peoples throughout the Horn of Africa, was set to present his scathing and well-researched twelve-page critique of the COIE report.
With things looking auspicious, it would later be the last-ditch, desperate efforts of Baroness Kinnock that ultimately terminated the event in its final antecedent hours and consigned it to the local Coronet Pub, leading a snickering Professor Asmarom to later joke that the “pub is the last bastion of British democracy.”
In the wake of Professor Asmarom’s muzzled voice, a group of Eritrean youth and elders going by the name “FenQ’l” held a multi-month continuous, 24/7 sit-in demonstration, through rain and shine, directly across the street from the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s residence on 10 Downing Street. They held three demonstrations, the last of which drew a massive crowd and marked seventy days of continuous protest under the tumultuous chant of “Hands off Eritrea!”
Thus, the hand of global mekete in 2015 is important for one reason: it actually worked. Rather than serving as some anachronistic, “feel good” gathering of nationalists seeking affirmation of an ongoing romantic liberation struggle, “Hands off Eritrea” forced observers and the media to make very real reassessments of the checkered narrative on Eritrea human rights.
These efforts coincided with major changes at home and abroad, to be further covered in the next part of our series, that helped to help buttress Eritrean sovereignty and usher in a more auspicious 2016.