Recently, American Congressmen Randy Hultgren and James P. McGovern, Co-Chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, wrote to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, urging him to “ensure that any reset in relations between the United States and Eritrea, or any easing of sanctions imposed on Eritrea by the United Nations, be tied to concrete human rights objectives.” The letter raises several interesting points which merit further consideration.
First, it is important to once again clarify that the international sanctions on Eritrea, which were recently lifted by the United Nations Security Council after being maintained for nine years, were imposed based upon a set of allegations that had absolutely nothing to do with human rights. 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, for years the pretexts that served as the basis for the sanctions were found to be non-existent. As I, and many others, have previously commented, any attempt to subsequently 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” and highly questionable (which I discuss further below).
A significant issue that comes to mind after reading the letter is sovereignty. Specifically, 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 as 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.
Turning more directly to the issue of human rights, they are moral entitlements that every individual in the world possesses simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is a human being. They come from the fact that we are not only physical beings, but also moral and spiritual human beings. Fundamentally, human rights ought to be respected because everyone is a human being and therefore a moral being.
Having established these basics, it is important to also keep in mind that there is no country in the world, big or small, wealthy or poor, that has a completely clean record on human rights. Not even close. Like every other country in the world, Eritrea is confronted by various human rights (and other) challenges.
As an Eritrean, I will be the first to acknowledge (as I have done on numerous occasions) that while Eritrea has made considerable progress in many areas within a short period of time and despite being faced by considerable obstacles and challenges, a great deal more remains to be done in the country. It is worth mentioning that the government has publicly acknowledged as much on several occasions. However, the best way for those who are genuinely concerned with the country and its people to begin to effectively address these challenges is through cooperation, engagement, genuine respect, dialogue, and constructive interaction, not politicization, threats, and coercion. Regrettably, the human rights movement shares something in common with the hubris of development economics, which in previous decades tried (and failed) to alleviate poverty by imposing top-down, external solutions on developing countries (Posner 2014).
Problematically, Eritrea is far too often criticized for or understood solely in terms of what it has not yet achieved, while the significant advancements and important progress it has made are simply dismissed or disregarded. Of note, an unbalanced, one-sided approach to viewing or understanding human rights overlooks the fundamental fact that human rights are inherently multidimensional and interrelated. Since the country’s independence, itself the product of a long, difficult – and largely ignored – struggle for human rights, Eritrea has made consistent and considerable efforts 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. Additionally, it has made significant investments on infrastructure (such as ports, airports, roads, and communication facilities) and inclusive, sustainable development and poverty reduction. All these efforts and investments have been undertaken with a special focus on women, children, minorities, and vulnerable, marginalized groups.
Another important consideration regarding the letter by the two Congressmen is that it seems greatly out of step with recent developments in the Horn of Africa. Over the past several months, the countries and peoples of the region have come together in peace and reconciliation, seeking to establish a new era after a long history of conflict, antagonism, and instability. Eritrea, in particular, has been active throughout this period, restoring its ties with its neighbors and working to develop new relations underpinned by peace and cooperation. The dark period from which the region has just emerged was characterized by an international approach towards Eritrea that was focused on confrontation, isolation, pressure, and coercion. Undeniably, this approach failed at every level; to borrow from the inimitable Ray Hudson, “even a blind man on a galloping horse in thick fog could see that.” Therefore, it is very questionable to now double-down and attempt to utilize the same failed approach yet again. Widely known are the words from Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Finally, beyond the points discussed above, the letter in question also arouses significant questions regarding moral authority and credibility. As noted earlier, no country can claim a moral superiority over any other in terms of human rights.
It is somewhat ironic that, quite often, countries plagued with a series of shortcomings and serious challenges condescendingly lecture others about human rights. Without wanting this discussion to devolve into a needless – and ultimately ineffective – “tit for tat” type exercise, it is hard to overlook the simple fact that at the same time that the United States has long wielded the “baton of human rights”, pointing fingers and casting blame on alleged human rights issues in Eritrea, it has itself been faced with considerable human rights problems within its own borders. In fact, the recently lifted sanctions and illegal military occupation of Eritrea, actively supported by previous US administrations, were never recognized for what they unquestionably were: an impediment to regional development, stability, and peace and a massive violation of the fundamental human rights of the Eritrean people. Naturally, this all raises important questions and concerns about moral authority and credibility.