The United Nations is an imperfect institution with imprecise tools. It celebrates the dignity of man and the universality of rights; yet it says that five superpower countries—US, Russian Federation, UK, France and China—have rights that supercede those of the rest of the world. It is a club where friendship or animosity to a superpower counts for more than its own Charter. Middle Eastern regimes can do whatever they wish with their subjects because they are US allies. A country (like Israel, for example) can attack a defenseless country like Lebanon (1973) or bomb another (Tunisia) or deport tens of thousands of Palestinians, and it will face nothing but a toothless resolution. The blowing up of a civilian aircraft is a regrettable accident (Iranian Air flight 655) or a despicable act of terror (Pan Am 103), depending on who is pulling the trigger. That is the game. The Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afwerki, did not know how to play it; he was outplayed, and now he is going to pay for it. The question is: is he going to pay for it or will the price be paid by innocent Eritreans? Will the sanctions recently passed by the UN Security Council harm the people of Eritrea or their self-imposed rulers? Both? Neither?
The Trigger for the UNSC Resolution
The trigger for the UNSC Resolution was the Eritrean regime’s role regarding Somalia’s “Djibouti Agreement and Peace Process” (judged by the UN to be a “spoiler” role) and its failure to deal with its border conflict with Djibouti (judged by Isaias Afwerki to be “fabricated.”)
The Djibouti Agreement and Peace Process resulted in the election of Sheikh Ahmed Sherif as Somalia’s president, but it has many Somali Islamist organizations (four, at last count) fiercely opposed to it, claiming that it is foreign-imposed and illegitimate. Isaias Afwerki has been the self-declared spokesperson for these groups and, according to the UN, the provider of arms, logistics and training for its fighters.
Isaias Afwerki has argued, implausibly, that he has provided political support—as it is his right to do so as the leader of a sovereign nation—but not arms, and training. Implausible because we know that every foreign entity that has been provided a sanctuary in Eritrea in the past—whether it is leaders of Sudan’s Eastern Front (EF), or Sudan’s People Liberation Movement (SPLM), or the Darfur rebels, or the alphabet soup Ethiopian opposition organizations—have all received arms, training and logistical support from Isaias Afwerki. Why would Isaias make an exception with the Somali opposition?
As for his border conflict with Djibouti, his claim that there was no clash, no Djibouti prisoners of war who are not accounted for, and, therefore, no need at all for mediation or problem solving, is essentially the same approach he uses with Eritreans: he arrests citizens and says he knows nothing about them; he claims that there is no need for reconciling with the opposition, because there is no opposition. Unfortunately for him, Djiboutians, unlike Eritreans, have a “zeray”—a powerful advocate–in France. He tried to treat Djibouti as just another “Zoba”—a province of Eritrea—and to treat its citizens like he treats Eritreans, and his bluff was called.
There are many un-informed Africans—Pan-Africanist—who may look up to Isaias Afwerki as the proud African standing up to the neo-colonialist. Un-informed because they don’t know that Isaias Afwerki was an enthusiastic supporter of neocolonialism, and of France’s presence in Djibouti when it suited his purpose. This is what he told journalist Robert Kaplan, who interviewed him for The Atlantic (April 2003):
General Franks, on several visits here, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during a visit last December, have held long talks with Afewerki. “The meetings were superb,” Afewerki told me. “I mean that they were frank, without pretensions or flattery on either side. I share the strategic view of the Americans in the region. French forces in Djibouti have been a stabilizing factor, and U.S. troops will add to that. You need outside powers to keep order here. It sounds colonialist, but I am only being realistic.”
Six years ago, Isaias Afwerki was saying France and the US are required in the region for the sake of peace and security. To add more to the irony, the UNSC Resolution that was just passed against the Eritrean regime is called “Peace and security in Africa”, and it would never have passed had the “outside powers” not shared Isaias Afwerki’s view that their presence is needed to “keep order here.”
The UNSC Resolution 1907
The resolution, which was passed on December 23, 2009, is available here.
It calls on member states, including Eritrea, to comply with the 18-year old and frequently violated arms embargo on Somalia;
It calls on member states, including Eritrea, to support the Djibouti Agreement and Peace Process;
It calls on Eritrea to withdraw from Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island and reinstate the status quo ante and acknowledge that it has a problem with Djibouti;
It calls on all member states to prevent “sale and supply” of “arms and materiel” including “spare parts” from and to Eritrea whether the arms are originating from their territory or elsewhere;
It calls on member states to prevent the “entry or transit” of specific Eritrean individuals, whose identity shall be determined later;
It calls on member states to “freeze without delay the funds, other financial assets and economic resources which are on their territories on the date of adoption of this resolution or at any time thereafter, that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the [Eritrean] entities and individuals” which shall be named by a committee.
Proportionate or Disproportionate? Target or Blanket?
On February 22, 2006, this website called on the International community to impose the following on Isaias Afwerki and his Enforcers. You can read it here.
- A ban on entry visas to all Isaias regime officials who seek to travel to Western nations;
- Curtailing the regime’s ability to raise funds in foreign countries;
- Stopping its covert and overt international commercial, banking and other enterprises;
- Assist in lifting the campaign of intimidation the Isaias regime imposes on Eritreans living in the Western nations.
We consider these measures to be proportionate and specifically targeted at the Isaias regime. Some Eritreans who naively think that the regime actually uses all its play money for the benefit of the people will, no doubt, disagree. And as the regime has a history of co-mingling funds—those that are raised by individuals for the specific purposes of, for example, helping war orphans with those that are raised for war-making—we are sure that the sanctions committee will make mistakes. But on the whole, this sanction will target the regime, with little impact on the people.
As for the “arms embargo”, the United Nations Security Council has had 30 resolutions referencing Eritrea. With the exception of the first (1993’s Resolution 828, admitting Eritrea to the UN) and the last (2009, calling on Eritrea to solve its border problem with Djibouti), all the other 28 deal with Eritrea’s conflict with Ethiopia. An arms embargo, including one on spare parts, may embolden Ethiopia to take advantage of the imbalance and, fearing this, Eritrean may actually be encourage to accelerate an illicit arms race in the region, thereby endangering the “peace and security” in the region even further.
As far as we are concerned, the sanctions were placed for the wrong reason, but we still support them. A writer at Awate Forum articulates our position perfectly:
Say two thieves were running from cops after setting two different houses on fire. One of them was caught. For some reason the cops screwed up and charged him for setting the wrong house on fire and was convicted. Would you say it is unjust that he is sitting in prison? It will be nice to have the regime sanctioned for the right reason, but we should take what we got at this point.
History of Sanctions
The UN is slow to impose sanctions, and even slower to remove them. Since the first one (on “Southern Rhodesia,” now Zimbabwe) to the most recent, the nations involved had to comply to specific terms to have the sanctions lifted.
In Haiti, deposed president Aristide had to be reinstated; Yugoslavia had to disintegrate; Sudan had to have the forgiveness of Ethiopia and Egypt (for trying to assassinate Hosni Mubarek while he was in Addis Abeba) and turn in the suspects; Zimbabwe and South Africa had to give up their race-based rule; Sierra Leone and Coite d’Iviore had to stop their blood diamond money and their civil wars, and UNITA had to dissolve and its ruler, Jonas Savimbi, die before the sanctions were lifted.
What will it take for the sanctions to be lifted from Eritrea? Whatever they are, they won’t be suggested by the “intellectuals” of the PFDJ. On the eve of the sanctions, they were organizing petitions and demonstrations, long after the train had left the station. The PFDJ had and has able and learned intellectuals who know how the game is played and exactly what it takes for the Isaias Afwerki regime to escape the sanctions—but they will never suggest it, because they would never dare tell the ruler of the gang to mend his ways. And so, just as there are Palestinians now who, 40 years after the fact, are still lamenting “Resolution 242”, there will be Eritreans who will be decrying “Resolution 1907” for a decade more.
This is an opportunity for the Opposition organizations to take a lead on the issue and to try to persuade the people that as long as Isaias Afwerki is in charge, nothing but bad will happen to Eritrea. Are they up to the task?