Written by Omer Abdelkarim
In most cases, be it a report or within a conversation, what one attempts to dexterously leave unsaid, gloss over, or play down, reveals more of one’s intentions and objectives than what is explicitly emphasized. The 08 June 2016 Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE) press briefing and its summary report was such an occasion.
According to its stated goals, the COIE’s purpose was to take stock of the objective situation in Eritrea. What the COIE actually did, however, is everything but that. An example of its unprecedented and egregious overreach is the COIE’s recommendation (including conclusion) to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It recommended that the UNSC “determine that the situation of human rights in Eritrea poses a threat to international peace and security.”
Even if one is convinced that there are grave human rights violations in Eritrea, which there aren’t, no amount of rational, objective analysis could lead from there to the conclusion that Eritrea “poses a threat to international peace and security.”
For this young, low-income, developing country with a population of about four million to be elevated to such “lofty,” influential stature – in terms of possessing the capacity to “[pose]a threat to international peace and security”- is highly imaginative and fanciful.
The majority of Eritreans no doubt will recognize the COIE’s efforts to severely underplay Ethiopia’s occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory and repeated attempts to destabilize Eritrea, as well as vilify Eritrea, as a continuation of historic UN and US efforts to chip away at, if not completely reverse, Eritrea’s independence. Others will still no doubt recognize that this conclusion, which flies in the face of all previous assessments, is rather bizarre. It is worth noting that when the COIE does mention the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict, it is only perfunctorily in passing, and often only to dismiss the gravity and significance of its potential consequences altogether. It is also mystifying – and extremely troubling – that the COIE attempts to cast the gravity of this situation and conflict as a figment of Eritrea’s imagination.
For example, the COIE states, “While the ongoing Ethiopian occupation of the village of Eritrean territory is illegal, the Commission considers that neither the issue of Badme nor the arms embargo on Eritrea justify…. Eritrea’s military/ national service programmes.”
The COIE goes on to state that,
“The Commission finds more persuasive that the [national service] programmes are instead a source of cheap labour and a form of population control.”
For the COIE’s assessment to be correct, the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict has to pose little danger to Eritrea, much less to the region as a whole. This assessment, to put it mildly, openly and brazenly flaunts all other somber assessments thus far. It will be effectively demonstrated that this assertion is false. However, it is an unavoidable assertion for the CIOE or anyone that sets out to frame Eritrea, ignoring the objective realities on the ground. That the CIOE’s assertion runs contrary to logical, rational assessment is easily demonstrable; for instance, its assessment flies in the face of continued, long-running proclamations by the Ethiopian regime that its primary goal is regime change in Eritrea. In fact, as pointed out by Bronwyn Bruton, writing for the Atlantic Council, “earlier this year, in March, Ethiopia’s prime minister publically threatened to take military action against Eritrea.” Moreover, as the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Cedric Barnes points out,
“Despite the impression of a frozen conflict since the 1998- 2000 war that killed an estimated 70,000 people, there have been at least eight significant flare-ups since 2011.”
There are other examples which serve to contradict the COIE claims. Writing for the US Council on Foreign Relations, Bronwyn Bruton, in comparing the threat to regional peace emanating from extremist in Somalia relative to the unresolved conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, states that,
“The potential for the Somali conflict to ignite a wider regional conflict is real but should not be exaggerated. The greatest danger stems from a potential escalation of the long-standing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”
No amount of justification can mask the glaring absurdity of the COIE’s attempt to deny, if not turn on its head, what the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), Ban Ki Moon, calls the most “serious source of instability for the two countries, as well as for the wider region.” The somnolently of this fact cannot be lost to any sensible and sober observers.
A UN “Report of the Secretary- General on Ethiopia and Eritrea” situation underscores:
“The ongoing dangerous stalemate in the peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains a source of very deep concern. Not only does the overall situation remain unsettled, but it has also … the potential for this situation to deteriorate further or even to lead to renewed hostilities is real, especially if it is allowed to continue indefinitely. The current impasse is a serious source of instability for the two countries as well as the wider region… Ethiopia’s refusal to implement — fully and without preconditions — the final and binding decision of the Boundary Commission remains at the core of the continuing deadlock. I therefore strongly urge the Government of Ethiopia to comply with the demand of the Security Council… Full implementation of the latter resolution remains key to moving forward the demarcation process and to concluding the peace process.”
Naturally, numerous resolutions of the UNSC and UNSG’s reports are not alone in making similar such assessments. The European Parliament’s Policy Department and its Directorate-General for External Policies stresses the same fact, stating that,
“A growing verbal belligerence amongst senior security officials in Ethiopia, who would not mind using minor provocation as an excuse to launch a massive response against Eritrea …The resolution of the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia is seen by analysts as the key to resolve political instability on the Horn of Africa … escalation of violence in the border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti … is seen merely as a continuation of the unresolved Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute.”
The EU report concludes by highlighting that numerous analysts are “concluding that the instability of the region is caused, in essence, by the unresolved Ethiopia- Eritrea border dispute.”
It is puzzling that the seriousness of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, unequivocally attested to by the UNSC, UNSG, EU and multiple other observers, is only lost to the COIE and the “experts” it cheery picked to reach its predetermined position. Furthermore, for the COIE to state that this is a figment of Eritrea’s imagination and to recommend that it is not Ethiopia’s occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories and the unresolved conflict between the two that “poses a threat to international peace and security,” but only some imagined and over exaggerated human rights violations in Eritrea is beyond absurd, at least to any rational and fair observer.
Of course, as can be gleaned even from the UN’s own documents, the fact that Ethiopia’s failure to comply with the EEBC decision and make peace with its neighbors has destabilized the entire region is an inescapable, uncontroversial conclusion. Ethiopia is, however, an “ally” of the United States (or, more appropriately, a vassal). As such, it can be presumed that the COIE is attempting to shield Ethiopia, the intransigent party, from meeting its treaty obligations and securing peace in the Horn of Africa. Be that as it may, attempting to invert the entire issue and avoiding the obvious implications is like attempting to ignore “that 800-pound gorilla that’s sitting there and you just can’t get around it,” as UN Special Envoy Lloyd Axworthy put it to the Canadian Parliament. Axworthy is unequivocal in describing the gravity of the situation and its impact on human rights and other issues, not only in Eritrea, but also across the entire Horn of Africa region.
Axworthy informed the Canadian Parliament,
“I come back to the point that the lack of resolution of conflict is such a large and powerful force that impedes any efforts, whether it’s human rights’ improvement, or poverty reduction or agricultural reform. It’s just like that 800-pound gorilla that’s sitting there and you just can’t get around it, and until the conflict itself is resolved any efforts in these other areas, I think, would be severely impeded.”
(As it will be recalled, Eritrea did not accept the nomination of Lloyd Axworthy as a UN Special Envoy. This had nothing to do with the professional or diplomatic credentials of the nominee but simply because it contravened fundamental tenets of the Algiers Agreement. The UN was indeed caving to Ethiopia’s unlawful requests “to create an alternative mechanism” to essentially review the “final and binding” EEBC Award).
How then does the COIE maneuver around this “800-pound gorilla that’s sitting there”? Its strategy, despite all evidence to the contrary, is to pretend that this “800-pound gorilla” is a figment of Eritrea’s imagination and ignore it altogether. Additionally, the COIE downplays the seriousness of the situation by reducing the occupation of large swathes of Eritrean territory by Ethiopia to just an “ongoing Ethiopian occupation of the village in Eritrean territory.” The reference to “the village,” neglects to properly contextualize a flagrant violation of international law and overlooks that this seemingly minor village was actually a flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war. As noted earlier, the situation not only violates and challenges Eritrea’s security, independence and sovereignty, but poses dangerous implications for the entire region. Yet, the COIE simply just pretends the situation does not exist.To overlook that this conflict is central and fundamental to the issue is highly erroneous and rather disingenuous. As noted earlier, this engendered by the COIE’s efforts to frame its predetermined position: “that the [Eritrean national service] programmes are instead” of a hedge to this existential threat that Eritrea faces, but “a source of cheap labour.” Nothing is a better illustration of a pure case of twisting all facts beyond recognition “to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” The COIE’s pretense of objectivity and “objective observation” hence, are just that, pretenses. Its goals have nothing to do with achieving lasting human rights for Eritreans or removing the “threat to international peace and security.”