As the powerful winds of hope and change blow across the Horn of Africa, the issue of international sanctions against Eritrea is again drawing attention and comment. In a recent article featured on Bloomberg, an analyst is quoted as claiming that, for Eritrea, “further domestic and international reforms are needed in order for it to bring an end to the UN-imposed sanctions.
” Additionally, last week, Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and former US Ambassador to Ethiopia (as well as several other countries), commented that despite the rapid, momentous changes unfolding throughout the Horn of Africa, it is too early to lift the sanctions on Eritrea. The longtime US diplomat also asserted that, “there has to be concrete actions taken,” and that “Eritrea cannot assume that by saying wonderful things and opening good relations with the neighbors that will automatically lead to sanctions relief.”
Such comments reveal, yet again, the fact that the sanctions against Eritrea (first imposed in 2009, and then broadened in 2011) are less about Eritrea’s alleged support for terrorism or other activities in the region than other factors. Of course, this can hardly be considered breaking news. As put by internationally renowned scholar and widely respected activist Noam Chomsky, the “international political system is basically weapons you can use against the weak.” With regard to the UN, the national interests of the permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members are often a more accurate, reliable guide to the likelihood of sanctions being imposed than the fact of a violation. Additionally, according to comments from several months ago posted on Twitter by Ambassador Idd Mohamed, a Somali diplomat, “as former alternate Ambassador of Somalia to the UN who participated [in] all discussions and meetings between [the] UNSC and IGAD member states, I can confirm the sanction imposed to Eritrea on behalf of Somalia by UNSC was politically motivated [rather] than factual or evidence based.”
It is highly instructive to recall that beyond the considerable issue of the dubious legitimacy or basis for the original adoption of sanctions against Eritrea, and while setting aside their general ineffectiveness, demonstrable counter-productivity, and flagrant violation of the fundamental rights of the Eritrean people, the pretexts for the sanctions have long been found to be non-existent. Specifically, a long series of UN Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) reports have consistently concluded that they have found “no evidence of Eritrea’s support for Al-Shabaab,” while Eritrea has normalized its ties and relations with countries across the region.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman memorably developed the term “zombie ideas” to describe policy ideas that keep being “killed” by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentlessly forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda. In a similar fashion, the sanctions imposed upon Eritrea may be as regarded as “zombie sanctions.” At this stage, the continued imposition of sanctions against the country can only be characterized as the continuation of a severe miscarriage of justice, politically-motivated, and not rooted in a genuine concern for international peace or security. Furthermore, the attempt to establish a new set of preconditions, particularly in relation to Eritrea’s alleged internal conditions or policies, is a simple case of “changing the goalposts” in order to justify the unfounded measures taken by the UNSC against the country.
Although Eritrea certainly has numerous challenges within many areas which, to be clear and to reiterate, are not the basis for the imposition of sanctions, the way to begin to effectively address these is through cooperation, genuine respect, dialogue, and constructive engagement, not through partisanship and coercion. Moreover, maintaining the unwarranted, unjust sanctions while shifting the discussion to the country’s internal conditions and policies raises significant questions regarding legality, moral authority and credibility, appears morally self-righteous, and intrudes upon the country’s sovereignty and political independence.
Sovereign equality is a fundamental component of the UN Charter, and Eritrea, as an independent nation-state within the framework of the international community, has equal rights and duties with other nation-states. Notably, these rights extend to the ability to freely and independently select and develop its political, social, economic, and cultural systems. Additionally, it is important to recall that the principle of non-intervention in other countries’ internal or external affairs is among the basic principles of international law, as outlined in the UN Charter and strongly emphasized within many other regional and international treaties and documents.
In addition to the problematic comments about sanctions outlined above, Nagy’s reported description of Eritrea as having created a “fortress state” critically overlooks the nearly 20-year illegal military occupation of and repeated aggression toward Eritrea by the US-backed, TPLF-led Ethiopian regime. To compound the matter, the arms embargo imposed on Eritrea infringed on its fundamental right to defend itself – a not insignificant point as a State that had large swathes of its territory militarily occupied and faced unremitting threats from a belligerent party.
Furthermore, the description ignores Eritrea’s consistent and considerable efforts since independence to provide and tangibly improve vital social services for its people, including primary and secondary healthcare, education across all levels, energy (e.g. urban and rural electrification), housing, food security, clean water, and sanitation, as well as the country’s significant investments on infrastructure (such as ports, airports, roads, and communication facilities) and inclusive, sustainable development and poverty reduction. Of note, all these efforts and investments have been undertaken with a special focus on women, children, minorities, and vulnerable, marginalized groups.
Ultimately, the sanctions against Eritrea are not based on fact or law, while arguments for their continued imposition are not rooted in a genuine concern for international peace and security. Quite simply, they should be immediately and unconditionally lifted. By doing so, not only will the UN and the international community take an important step to rectify a severe miscarriage of justice and restore eroded credibility, they will help contribute positively to much needed peace, security, and stability in the Horn of Africa and show support for the rapid, momentous changes unfolding across the region.