Q&A with Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam, Eritrea’s Permanent Representative to the UN
By Ruth Abraham
- Thank you for your time Ambassador Sophia, What is the general overview of Eritrea’s Mission in the United Nations?
First of all thank you for having me here. Eritrea’s mission to the UN is Eritrea’s entry to the world. It is a platform where we get to engage with 193 countries and many other UN agencies at the same time. Of course, we have different sections: the General Assembly (GA), the Security Council (UNSC) and different UN funds and programs. But it is a place where Eritrea can engage one on one on bilateral issues. It’s also one way to engage multilaterally on issue that are of global concern like the Covid-19 that we have been discussing for the last couple of years. And today, the Ukraine issue, the Cuban embargo are some of the latest issues. So, there are many issues that come up at the UN that we get to have a platform and have a forum where we can express ourselves, have our say and make a modest contribution to the discussion that are happening there. So in that sense, the Eritrean mission to the UN is a gateway of Eritrea to the world.
- Over the past two years you have been in office as Eritrea’s Ambassador to the UN, can you share your experiences, both the negative and positive?
I haven’t had any negative experience. Very different experiences is what I have had. One of the advantages of being a woman Permanent Representative (PR) is that you have a separate forum for women at the UN. We are very few, not sure what the numbers are with the changes that are going on in the sections, but having a woman forum to discuss issues off the platform where the men are, gives you one separate advantage. And for me, as a diaspora and someone that has shared, like all Eritreans, an image of what the UN is, it was a very awakening moment for me to arrive at the UN and see the UN through a different lens. I went there to change the narrative on Eritrea and I found myself trying to change how we view the UN and its utility; what we can do and what its advantages and limitation are.
In our engagement, we have also been able to solidify some good relationship with certain groups within the UN system; the African group, the Non-Aligned Members (NAM), the G77 and really make Eritrea more visible in terms of the statements we are producing there, the issues we are addressing, the positions we are taking on issues that come to the GA. As a woman and a representative of Eritrea, it’s always an opportunity to tell Eritrea’s story at many levels; development issues, social issues, political issues and women issues. That’s how I would describe my two years. It’s still too early. Of course Covid-19 took away two years and most of the stuff was done virtually and now we are getting back to do things in person and we intend to do more when I go back.
- UN reform? How many UN members support the idea of UN reform?
When we talk about UN reforms, we talk about the UN living up to the peoples’ expectations and its fundamental principles. What it was created for in 1948; to bring peace, security and development to the world and stop the surge of war as they say. But has the UN really been able to do that? And there are many reasons why the UN has been unable to fulfil the needs of the world populations or even live up to the mandates that it had. But 75 years later, I think on the 75th anniversary, a lot of countries were expressing their views on why the UN hasn’t been able to do the things that it was set up to do. There are many reasons; of course financial issues will always come up and they raised a bunch of the big issues. But the political space that people and member states had is not the same as it is today.
75 years ago, many African states were just coming out of colonization; they were just establishing their systems of governance and a lot of the rules and regulations and the movers and the shakers at the UN were not the member states that are present today. And the member states today are demanding that the UN live up to the expectations that it was established for. And I think, in that sense, UNSC reforms is a big issue that comes up year after year at the UN and when I went there I was surprised because they said it took 20 years. They have been discussing UNSC reform for 20 years. And until today, we don’t have a consensus of what that reform of the UNSC would look like. If we move on certain clusters in one meeting, it is number of permanent seats versus the Veto versus how many member states there should be on the Council as a whole. In addition, regional configuration, how many from each region is also a big question. But as soon as you resolve one issue, another issue is raise by the other side. The balance between countries in the west and the number of seats that they have in the UNSC versus Africa which has zero seats is a critical factor. Africa has zero permanent seats and as a continent with billions of people and 54 member states, it is something, historical injustice as what they call it, which has to be amended. But how do you do that? The mechanics has not been worked out as yet. It remains work in progress.
And we do have the representatives of the C10; a group of countries that are responsible for UNSC reform mandated by the African Union (AU). So, we usually follow the African Group (AG) position on issues of UNSC reform.
On UN reform, beginning with the UN secretary General, all the way down to the last civil servant, everybody talks about reforming UN in terms of employment, racial issues that they have to tackle and number of women that need to be in the UN system. The UN Secretary General has been trying to balance his Secretariat at 50/50 and get the women representation at optimum level. But it is not just about women faces: you also want the quality, the caliber, the geographical representation of women in the UN. Since the UN is supposed to be a global organization, we would like to see more Africans in executive positions, in higher level positions in agencies. You know almost all agencies are western run and we have very few Africans that are in really high level UN position. So, a lot of work needs to be done. Indeed, a lot is being done; at least the discussions are going on earnestly and I think the voices are louder now. And people are demanding that some changes happen. We have been able to at least get the office of the Special Advisor on Africa to have a more prominent role for us as Africans in the UN to help us in the work that we do. We expect to cement our ideas and our issues and make priorities for some of the African issues that need attention in terms of development. This is all for us to be able to have a balanced UN that addresses many issues on multiple levels; not just issues that are of concern to Western or European or some other powerful countries but also for Africa.
- What can you tell us about the Africa Group and its influence in the UN General Assembly, or the Security Council?
The Africa Group at the UN is a very prominent group. With the 54 memberships that we have, I think we meet frequently, almost weekly with the African Group and we address issues that are common to us. We address issues of candidacy, issues of UNSC reforms, and in the UNSC if there are issues relating to Africa. Unfortunately, almost 100% of the files in the UNSC are African issues although we don’t have permanent representatives. We have neither permanent seats nor veto power in the UNSC.
Nevertheless, we want less interference in the internal affairs of our States because sometimes, the UNSC ends up raising issues that are bilateral matters in the name of normalization of relations. That shouldn’t be within the purview of the UNSC. It should be something that the two relevant countries are able to work on; unless it is critical to the peace and security of the countries or the region. So, on these issues, the Africans are more engaged and discussions on issues like Ethiopia have been on the African Group agenda to explain developments and trends of the conflict and to get support and understanding from other African countries. It has been working to address how the operations were in Tigray and some of the humanitarian issues and the concerns of the UNSC. In that sense, the AG was a good base for us to start changing some of the narratives regarding our region. And in the GA, the AG usually makes group statements if there is consensus on a lot of issues and if we agree that the group speaks on behalf of us on issues of the NAM, G77, Presidency of the UNSC, and on any issue that arise. In that case, we opt for the AG to speak on our stead if we agree on what to say.
So, the group gives us two platforms; it helps us to have bilateral relationship with the African States and on the other hand, it serves as our own group that represents us in the UNSC. It’s a sizeable group that permitsus a platform in terms of vote and bringing our issues to the floor in the GA. AG is an effective group that needs to be strengthened and it is our group. However, there is also the AU, the observer mission, much stronger than the AG with more resources. So, the AG needs to have an empowered AU representation at the UN. Our group does a lot within itself and the reform of the AG, to see where the AG is poised to be most effective in the UN. And as far as the UNSC is concerned, we try to push on the common African position that we have. We do it through committees, experts, bilateral engagements that we do on multiple levels. So, the AG is not just prominent but also active and Eritrea plays its role.
At the G77, there are also second committee officers that engage in multilateral forum but they also engage bilaterally with their counterparts and get our stands forward. So, it is an active and good platform for us and it’s the easiest entry for us since we are Africans.
- A group of UN regional Directors in Africa have conducted a visit to Eritrea last month and held meetings with different government officials on different topics including the strategic framework 2022-2026. What is your view of the visit?
The visit and the launch were successful in the sense that it gave 25 regional directors a chance to watch Eritrea up close and on a personal level. Hearing about Eritrea from the outside and coming here and actually seeing it and speaking to officials and stakeholders; finding out on your own is totally different. It was good to have them here. For me, they are future ambassadors of Eritrea; wherever they are, they can speak on Eritrean issues with full understanding of what Eritrea wants and its priorities. I think the Resident Coordinator here, Ms. Amakobe Sande has done her homework. She brought together very prominent regional directors to showcase Eritrea and let them see Eritrea for what it is and what it is trying to do. And even if Eritrea has some grievances, these are legitimate grievances. We are not complaining over nothing; it is about stuff that has happened in the past. In any case, this launch and what we did in Asmara will give us a chance to renew the relationship and work better in the five years ahead. And I think we can check each other to see where we are periodically to see if we are implementing some of the things that we want and utilize what the framework offers for Eritrea, in terms of capacity building. This includes all the resources that can come to Eritrea to help some of the projects that we intend to do here, duplicate and scale up some projects like the Areza-Maidma Solar Project.
And I think if we start working earnestly, we will find a way to make the UN more useful in Eritrea and find ourselves utilizing some of the many capacities that are available to us at the UN; technical support, IT, support on many areas such as education, health and other resources that we can use. One of the good things about this framework is that if midway, we decide our priorities have changed and that they need to be elsewhere, there is the capacity to change and modify what we have done. It was a good launch and thanks to the Ministry of Development and Finance which a lot more work awaits for, it was a success.
- You are a woman that is representing one of Eritrea’s most important missions and we have celebrated International Women’s Day last week. What can you say regarding that?
International women’s day in Eritrea for me was very special. I went to visit the women in the Denden Association of Disabled women. What I saw there was hope and indomitable spirit. A group of women who are physically challenged in different areas and intensities; and yet these women felt like there was a reason to celebrate not just womanhood but celebrate Eritrea and where we are today. When you sit there with a group of women like that, you come out thinking “what else is there that I can do”? It really made me feel small. The position and the work that we do at the UN at the end of the day is very small compared to what these women have done and continue to do. And the spirit that they bring to this country is priceless. It’s a small group of people and I think they are much unknown people. I wouldn’t have known about them unless I went there yesterday. I am sure that many of our diaspora would love to know them and what they bring to this country while they are still here and sharing their story and their experiences. In the end, they personify this resilience that we talk about in Eritrea. They are just the perfect example of what resilience looks like. Happy women’s day to all the women of Eritrea. Yesterday, I was blessed to have spent a few hours with the most remarkable group of Eritrean women and I hope that I can share many moments with them in the future now that I have known them. And would like to see what we can do to support them in the work that they are doing. They are not just supporting themselves, they are also supporting women like them that are not part of the association but in its extension. Kudos to the women in Denden and to the NUEW and all the women of Eritrea and the things that we bring to the table. The challenges are huge but Eritrean women can survive them. If anybody else can, they can. That was my impression of the International Women’s Day 2022 and I am glad I spent it here and not in the diaspora where it would be more of a fanfare, music and dance. But yesterday was more holistic for me and it was a good moment.
- Thank you again Ambassador Sophia.