Eritrean Sanction: A Self-Inflicted Wound

When it comes to the UNSC’s decision to impose targeted sanctions on the Eritrean regime, there are two narratives being presented. One, advanced by the supporters and apologists for the regime, is that the Eritrean government is being targeted because it threatens the world order with its “good example”: a domestic policy of self-reliance and a foreign policy that rejects crisis-management by superpowers (who create the crisis to begin with) and embraces direct, and regional, conflict resolution that involves all the stakeholders. The other narrative, advanced by the rest of the world, is that the  regime has turned Eritrea into a pariah state: it has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to International appeals for restraint: that it is playing a spoiler role in Somalia by empowering extremist groups; and that it has ignored resolutions demanding it withdraw from disputed territories with Djibouti.

It is the Eritrean regime’s role in Somalia and Djibouti that earned its international sanctions. The case of Somalia being complex, the regime can forever hide in subtexts within subtexts to demand “evidence” for its destructive role. In any event, even if the International community was to present a videotape and satellite images of Isaias Afwerki himself ferrying weapons to Somalia’s AlShabab movement, its supporters will dismiss it as fake, and as a fabrication, so it is virtually pointless to discuss the matter, other than to show how it fits with the general pattern of the regime: to create “facts on the ground” and then to assign itself a role of a broker or an intermediary (as it did—and is trying to do—in Sudan and Ethiopia.) The case of Djibouti, on the other hand, is more direct, and more recent, and easier to comprehend by anyone who has a serious interest in finding the facts.


On May 5, 2008, Djibouti’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Roble Olhaye, submitted a letter to the UN president accusing the Eritrean regime of violating Djibouti’s sovereignty. The letter included a “timeline of events” beginning with February 4, 2008 when Djibouti authorities noticed construction work on the Eritrean side of the border and when they asked for clarification, they were told that “a road was being constructed linking Assab to Obock by way of Raheyta.” Raheyta is in Eritrea and Obock is in Djibouti.

On February 10, according to Djibouti, “Eritrean equipment crossed the border” to Ras Doumeira. This was followed by a series of meetings between reigional governments of the two states, military leaders, ministerial and presidential office, but, claims Djibouti, having seen no progress for 3 months, decided to inform the International community.

On June 10th, the tension between Eritrea and Djibouti erupted into gunfire exchange in the Ras Doumeira/Mt Gabla area.  On June 12th,  the President of UN Security Council issued a statement where he condemned “Eritrea’s military action against Djibouti in Ras Doumeira and Doumeira Island” and called on both parties, “in particular Eritrea” to “show maximum restraint and withdraw forces to the status quo ante.” The case was placed on UNSC’s agenda, at the request of Djibouti and Eritrea, on June 24th 2008.

It should be noted that between the time that Djibouti first raised the issue at the international level on May 5 and the time the issue was placed on the UN agenda on June 24th, the Eritrean regime was given ample time and opportunity to explain its side of the story.  But its foreign policy being an extension of its domestic policy (the only difference is the use of English instead of Tigrigna), the regime refused to recognize that a problem even exists, dismissed every invitation for mediation, and pinned the blame on an entry in its list of bogeymen, this time the United States. At the UN meeting, Djibouti was represented by its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, who spent days telling the members of the Security Council their side of the story; Eritrea was represented by its Permanent Ambassador, who met only with João Honwana, the UN’s Director of the Africa Division of the Department of Political Affairs to tell her Eritrea’s side of the story: it was all a fabrication of the United States.

When the two countries addressed the UNSC, Djibouti could count on a list of sympathetic countries that it had been lobbying for days. Eritrea pulled the only card it has been playing for the last 12 years: it is all Ethiopia’s fault, it said, which deployed long range artillery directed at Eritrea at Mt Mussa Ali, the intersection of Eritrea-Ethiopia-Djibouti. Of course, even if this allegation is true, it has nothing to do with the issue at hand: which is a conflict 52 miles away at Ras Doumeira.

In quick succession, France, Indonesia, Burkino Faso, Russia, China, South Africa, Vietnam, Libya, Panama, United Kingdom, Italy, Costa Rica, Belgium, and Croatia supported one or all of the following:

The June 12th UNSC Presidential statement condemning Eritrea for its “military action against Djibouti”

The role of the African Union Peace and Security Council which had, in May, called on both nations to show restraint and, following the conflict, issued a statement in Sharem-el-Sheikh that it “…strongly condemns Eritrea for its military action against Djibouti and requests it to pull out from the occupied Djiboutian territory.”

The role of the League of Arab States which had decided to send a fact-finding mission to Djibouti and Eritrea on May 6, 2008. (accepted by Djibouti, rejected by Eritrea.)

Once the conflict had escalated from one that could be solved through bi-lateral talks to regional talks (because the Eritrean regime spurned Djibouti’s efforts); once the conflict had escalated from regional talks to the UNSC (because the Eritrean regime spurned the fact-finding missions of the AU, the Arab League and other well-wishers including Yemen), the Eritrean regime could not reverse the process back.

What might be puzzling to some is that the regime seems to be stuck in a rut and never learns from its mistakes.  After all, this is not the first time it has had a conflict with Djibouti regarding its common border.

There is is an unfortunate pattern in the Eritrean regime: it dismisses and stalls conflicts when they are small and relatively easy to solve, then acts aggrieved when the issue is referred to a regional and, eventually, an international body.  Whether this deals with its original conflict with Djibouti (circa 1994), or Yemen (1995-96), or Ethiopia (98-present), it always ignores problems when they are still emerging, then, when they inevitably invite the interest of regional and international bodies, it settles for solutions it could have negotiated in bilateral or regional discussions, years earlier. The world knows this because its behavior impacts the sovereignty of other nations; but Eritreans know this because it impacts their liberty and livelihood, which has been deteriorating since the regime assumed power in 1991.


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