United Nations Sanctions Against Eritrea: Missing Perspective



On December 23, 2009 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) through Resolution 1907 imposed sanctions against the State of Eritrea. The decision to ostracise Eritrea was almost unanimous, and followed a vote by the 15 Council members in which China and Libya abstained and objected respectively. The Security Council identified Eritrea’s bellicose and jingoistic foreign policy in the Horn of Africa region as the trigger for its decision. It labelled Eritrea’s conduct detrimental to the long-term security and peace of the region. Precisely, the Security Council picked up on what it described as Eritrea’s persistent meddling in Somali internal affairs (abetting Al-Shabab) together with the lingering border row the country is having with its neighbour, Djibouti, as warranting punishment. And of the impending punitive steps that the Council envisages to pursue, freezing the assets of selected political and military leaders in the Eritrean government, applying travel bans to (key) officials of the regime, and an arms embargo have particularly gained the Council’s attention as appropriate measures.  


Bearing in mind the plurality of the Eritrean nation-state, how must ‘Eritreans’ respond to the imminent UNSC sanctions aimed at the Eritrean government? Is it sufficient for Eritrean public opinion to be confined to outright approval or else to defiant deprecation only? In either applauding or criticising the sanctions, what criteria should we rely upon? Beyond the predictably polarized Eritrean postures hitherto expressed, is it possible to bring to bear a discursive argument that scours the spectrum in search of the truth? The above musings seem to boil down to one core question: is it tenable to promote a position that neither sides with the Eritrean regime nor embraces the impending sanctions against it, or is this proposition tautological? In the present article, I wish to supplement a missing dimension from avowed political responses that typically salute or reject the sanctions against Eritrea. To do that, I am bound to pursue the issue from an angle that circumvents overt partisanism and yet remains relevant and committed with the view to preserving centre stage for the interests of the ordinary Eritrean. Any carefully weighted robust judgment on how Eritrea and its people might fare under a UNSC sanctions regime ought to be articulated in the context of an integrated framework of analysis that inevitably exposes the fundamental nature of the Eritrean State whilst not refraining from rendering critical appraisal of the UNSC. Ultimately, only a multi-dimensional perspective such as this will enable us to come to terms with the real meaning and reach of the sanctions. 


Whenever the UNSC confers to decide on life-and-death matters, such as sanctions or the authorisation of military action, the decision-making process promises to generate controversy. We will be better placed to understand the discrepant responses at the national and international levels if we accept difference and conflict as social norm. Counting on the reader’s generosity to forgive a minor digression, I may further have occasion to state a couple of (not-so-unorthodox) points; that society obviously is not a utopia but rather it exhibits profound internal contradictions and sectional interests. We are yet to hear of a homogenous, unified and totally contented national population, unless somehow implausibly we turn a blind eye to entrenched hierarchy and competition that tend to undercut notions of egalitarianism. Meanwhile, the question of the eventuality of a mono-cultural classless society is extremely hard to foretell in line with the historical process’s highly contingent and complex mechanism.  Having outlined by way of the above parenthesis some basic characteristics of society and the organization and dynamics of human collective interrelations, my objective in the following is to try to demonstrate why it is unjustifiable to defend either the Eritrean regime or the UN sanctions. 


Depending on people’s interests, hostile and/or sympathetic response will always be the usual order of public sentiment towards sanctions. For, not only are sanctions and war grave prospects, but what likely exacerbates things is a wide-spread view that the “world system”—of which the UN is an invaluable extension—is blatantly lopsided in favour of certain special interests. The Security Council itself is a highly politicised forum with a dubious record with regards to impartiality as a guiding principle. These considerations – formal and informal political and economic stakes on the one hand, and ambivalence and scepticism towards the UNSC as an effective international arbiter on the other – must have been in play in determining the Eritrean peoples’ respective outlooks on the recently pronounced sanctions against the State of Eritrea. So when, in the concluding week of 2009, Eritreans learned of the destiny of their nation as about to be handed down Security Council invoked sanctions, the development was duly taken up as a serious topic and was (still is) widely discussed, especially among the Eritrean diasporas. The dominant trend in Eritrean public attitude has meanwhile pitted a simple ‘for’ and ‘against’ sentiment. Reductionist dichotomies that shepherd groups and individuals into neatly delineated antagonistic blocks don’t naturally accommodate difference and dissent. The affirmation of this time-honoured simple truth should thus lead to the re-configuration of our national response to the sanctions. In other words, either hailing or condemning the imposition of sanctions on Eritrea should not constitute the only positions.  


The Eritrean Government/ Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) Regime 


The Eritrean State’s gross infringements on the rights of its people are well known and publicised. It is a folly to deny or to try to rationalize under the guise of national security, sovereignty, development, Eritrean exceptionalism (sic) or whatever, the unforgivable deeds of the regime. Judging by the magnitude and intensity of the repression, one might be excused in thinking the PFDJ government is prosecuting a total war against a redoubtable enemy within. This full-scale internal assault is carried out with the aim of intimidating, subduing and, in the end, pacifying the population. For this reason alone and more than for the Asmara government’s foreign policy adventures, Eritreans ought to boycott the regime en masse. Indeed, the popularity of the regime (if it ever enjoyed a significant degree) has hit rock bottom. Cooperation and solidarity with the regime by Eritreans inside and outside the country has markedly dissipated. Non-Eritrean erstwhile sympathisers with the Eritrean cause have distanced themselves in shock and disbelief at the monstrosity that the PFDJ government has evolved into. For all that, the regime has only itself to blame, even though it would have us think Eritrea’s so-called detractors bear ultimate responsibility in this regard. It beggars comprehension to think of any one with minimal sense of moral judgement standing by the PFDJ regime at this critical juncture. Neither patriotic zeal nor the belief in perceived foreign plots can buffer against history’s implacable judgement. The brutal subjugation of the Eritrean people by the PFDJ is something that can never be glossed over or swiftly dismissed out of hand as a necessary (short-term) suffering and sacrifice on the path to a greater lasting common good. The quest for economic and political independence, highly admirable in its own right, does not have to be synonymous with self-styled isolationism that goes hand in hand with the senseless oppression of the people. In case admonishment is required, the PFDJ’s mode of governance which betrays deep animosity towards the Eritrean people does not bear remotest resemblance to democratic humanist socialism. Under the latter, the relationship between the state and the people need not have to be fraught, meaning coercion and intimidation ought not to be the defining feature of government. To declare PFDJ’s rule as benign is to disingenuously invert reality head on heel, since for a state to not be at odds with its citizens it must guarantee the individual certain basic rights; the right to work, education, medical services and legal protection and security, so much so for PFDJ’s reign that has trampled on those very rudimentary tenets of citizenship. Eventually, if the state loathsomely mistreats its people, it can not expect the people to cooperate wholeheartedly in the nation-building process. The objective situation in Eritrea is such that it makes it ostentatious, not to mention impossible, to display public allegiance to the PFDJ. Therefore, a counter measure designed to shake and slacken the Eritrean government’s tenacious grip on power has to sound good, timely and highly appealing. Deeper pondering compels the individual to grapple with at least two challenges here: firstly, the decision about the nature and source of the anticipated counter action, and; secondly, the effects of sanctions in reality despite the formal rhetoric that attempts to distinguish between government and people. Let us deal with these contentious issues in turn.




My personal conviction is that there is no reason to doubt that Eritreans on their own can be the originators and deliverers of the necessary program of collective self-emancipation. Eritreans are heir to a vast and rich experience of national, continental and international freedom struggles. The recent Eritrean war of independence fought against Ethiopia and, before it, the contributions of the Eritrean nationalist movements of the 1940s and 50s have bequeathed onto us important lessons and values – of steadfastness, resourcefulness and ingenuity among other things. Similarly, as an integral part of the contemporary African generation, Eritreans also are the beneficiaries of a larger reservoir of foresight that accentuates the novelty of self-help passed down to the subaltern through the timeless legacies of Amilcar Cabral, Franz Fanon, Patrice Lumumba and Walter Rodney. By virtue of what I have noted afore, I am extremely reluctant to include ‘sanctions’ as part of the overall strategy of weakening and defeating the Eritrean regime. Why? Because sanctions fall outside the autonomous category of authentic and credible resistance. It is readily conceded that political struggle may involve a variety of means, including perhaps external lobbying and support. But what can’t be forfeited for a struggle to remain self-driven and legitimate in the end is that the bearers of the cause in question have to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility of facing up to the opponent. Outsider participation can be solicited though only in a marginal sense and only on the terms of those engaged in the struggle. My assessment is that, up until this point, the Eritrean resistance effort appears not to have succeeded in taking the regime to task for its excesses within the domestic front. The PFDJ was paraded before the UNSC on the initiative of Uganda for the former’s external role in Somalia and not out of concern to relieve the suffering people inside Eritrea. The lack of Eritrean political agency says a great deal about the organised Eritrean opposition’s capacity to square up to the regime and to somehow influence the political course of events to the advantage of the besieged Eritrean population. It is no good insisting so long as there is an intersection of political interests (between the national and the multi-national), then the desired purpose is served or achieved. The injunction not to compromise truth in its universal sense demands the overlooking of parochial politics on the part of the few.




The second point carries the message which interprets sanctions as being ambiguous at best and insidiously cruel and dangerous at worst. If experience is anything to be guided by, the already exhausted Eritrean people will be further debilitated upon the implementation of the sanctions. The least we can do is ruminate about how sanctions often translate on the ground. Similarly, it is only wise to be circumspect when the Security Council formally announces that its sanctions against Eritrea are exclusively targeted towards the government. Without for a second wishing to downplay the seriousness of the existing political rift, it still strikes me as naïve to pander to the diplomatic niceties and reassurances of the Council. The reality is, more than incapacitate the targeted regime, sanctions are known to stalk society placing at greater risk the entire civilian population in the process. The observation is poignantly borne out in the case of totalitarian states generally and all the more so in the instance of autocratic Eritrea per se where the government/ president exercises absolute control over every facet of the nation’s life, most significantly monopoly over the national economy. In spite of the people’s volition, totalitarianism manifestly precludes the distinction between government and society. Paradoxically, this can potentially imply government and civilian population will be impinged on in the same way in the event of sanctions. Sanctions are not necessarily expressive of a reciprocal relationship where, if something adversely affects the state, then by definition the people will be spared the negative consequences. Moreover, sanctioned governments have long since learned and devised ways to deflect the suffocating effects squarely to the civilian population. I don’t harbour illusions that the Eritrean regime will easily ride off the storm. The sanctions against Eritrea will pose serious challenges to the state’s capabilities in the different realms of governance. It may or may not signal the downfall of the government ultimately. However, as to the question of whether the people inside Eritrea will receive the sanctions as the much-anticipated way out of their labyrinthine state of existence is entirely debatable. The final verdict on the matter indisputably rests with the people inside the country who will experience the depredation and rapacity of the sanctions. 


PS: The position adopted in the essay is a public statement that is to act as witness to Eritrean history in the making. It cautions against the urge for change at any cost.


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