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Eritrea - US Relations

The U.S. consulate in Asmara was first established in 1942. In 1953, the United States signed a mutual defense treaty with Ethiopia. The treaty granted the United States control and expansion of the important British military communications base at Kagnew near Asmara. In the 1960s, as many as 4,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed at Kagnew. In the 1970s, technological advances in the satellite and communications fields made the communications station at Kagnew increasingly obsolete. In 1974, Kagnew Station drastically reduced its personnel complement.

The 1974 coup in Ethiopia led to a change of sides in the Cold War game as the new government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Marxist-Leninist in orientation, became a client of and dependent on Moscow. The Soviets became increasingly involved in Ethiopian affairs and started a massive flow of arms to the government. This led the United States to sympathize more openly with the Eritrean cause.

In early 1977, the United States informed the Ethiopian Government that it intended to close Kagnew Station permanently by September 30, 1977. In the meantime, U.S. relations with the Mengistu regime were worsening. In April 1977, Mengistu abrogated the 1953 mutual defense treaty and ordered a reduction of U.S. personnel in Ethiopia, including the closure of Kagnew Communications Center and the consulate in Asmara.

Though a cofederal arrangement between Eritrea and Ethiopia had been agreed to in 1952, the Ethiopian government under Haile Selassie began to undermine Eritrea’s autonomy until the region was forced to relinquish its autonomy in 1962, triggering an insurgency against the Ethiopian government. The United States was not greatly involved in the dispute until 1990, when the Eritreans asked for a U.S. role in negotiating a resolution to the conflict.

Because by this time the Eritreans had essentially won the war, they had no incentive to agree to anything but their long-sought aim: full independence. Neither the United States nor the members of the Organization of African Unity were happy about officially aiding the secession of Eritrea, supporting instead a state’s right to territorial integrity. However, the insurgents’ military victory over Ethiopian government forces meant that the latter had to agree to a referendum on independence; there was thus little reason for the United States to oppose it.

In August 1992, the United States reopened its consulate in Asmara, staffed with one officer. On April 27, 1993, the United States recognized Eritrea as an independent state, and on June 11, diplomatic relations were established, with a charge d'affaires. The first U.S. Ambassador arrived later that year.

The ruling party in Ertitrea, the EPLF Eritrean People's Liberation Front (popularly called Shaebia) argues that "The United States continues to pursue a relentless policy of unprovoked hostility against Eritrea. ... that US hostility towards Eritrea does not emanate from incompatible values in regard to justice, democracy, human rights, or fundamental principles of international law. The fact is the United States has all along believed that its perceived interests and strategies in the region are better served by Ethiopia: irrespective of the philosophical persuasions and political colour of the regimes in power in Addis Abeba. This was true during Haile Selassie's imperial period and Mengistu's military dictatorship. It is also true today."

US interests in Eritrea include encouraging Eritrea to contribute to regional stability, consolidating the peace with Ethiopia and Djibouti, encouraging progress toward establishing a democratic political culture, supporting Eritrean efforts to become constructively involved in solving regional problems, assisting Eritrea in dealing with its humanitarian and development needs, and promoting economic reform.

Senior National Security Council Africa Director Gayle Smith, along with her colleague Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the time, were mediators in an ultimately failed attempt to reduce tensions between rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia. “They totally failed in the mediation and during the process they won the hatred of the president of Eritrea [Isaias Afwerki] because he accused them of plagiarizing the Ethiopian side,” said Herman Cohen, former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

By 1999, the US was very concerned by credible reports that Eritrea had delivered large quantities of weapons and munitions to self-proclaimed Somalia President Hussein Aideed for the use of a violent faction of the Oromo Liberation Front. The terrorist organization Al-Ittihad may also have been an indirect recipient of these arms.

A high priority of the Clinton administrution was to end the 2-year border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. To that end, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, Assistant Secretary Susan Rice. Senior National Security Council Africa Director Gayle Smith, and others; together with representatives of the Organization for African Union {OAU) and the United Nations, engaged in intense shuttle diplomacy with the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments. They eventually succeeded in brokering the June 2000 cessation of hostilities agreement nnd the- subsequent peace treaty signed in Algiers on December 12, 2000.

While the Clinton administration was more conciliatory in its relations with the Eritrean government, in 2001 the new Republican policy took a different line. In reference to emerging public criticism of President Isayas Afeworki, Donald J. McConnell, who had been named Ambassador-Designate of the United States to Eritrea, said at his confirmation hearing that “This reflects the necessity for the government and entire structure of the regime in Eritrea to move from the central control of one person, the president, to a more democratic process.”

In the past, the United States provided substantial assistance to Eritrea, including food and development. In FY 2004, the United States provided over $65 million in humanitarian aid to Eritrea, including $58.1 million in food assistance and $3.47 million in refugee support. In 2005, the Government of Eritrea told USAID to cease operations. At the Eritrean Government's request, the United States no longer provides bilateral development assistance to Eritrea.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in February 2004, publicly recommended for the first time that Eritrea be designated as a a "country of particular concern," or CPC, under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The State Department subsequently acted on that recommendation, designating Eritrea as a CPC on September 15, 2004. The Commission has found that the government of Eritrea engaged in systematic and egregious violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. The government of Eritrea banned public religious activities by all religious groups that are not officially recognized, closed their places of worship, and inordinately delayed action on registration applications by religious groups.

James Knight, Director, Office for East Africa, Bureau of African Affairs, US Department of State, said in December 2007 that "Eritrean government policies have choked the Eritrean economy and consolidated power among a small group surrounding President Isaias. The government actively blocks humanitarian assistance from international donors and interdicts economic development projects, despite the enthusiasm of the international donor community to help Eritreans emerge from poverty and dependence on remittances from the Eritrean diaspora. Eritreans who flee the country's economic morass or its political repression risk their families' imprisonment and heavy fines. President Isaias permits no political opposition and no independent media. Any senior government official who dares to speak out is subject to severe punishment.

"Eritrea pursues expensive and dangerous adventurism in the Horn. Eritrea materially supports extremists to undermine the internationally-supported Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. While other nations of the Horn and the wider international community pursue a common strategy for lasting peace and stability there, Eritrea encourages unending violence, especially in Mogadishu. Eritrea is also believed to support Ethiopian insurgents, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)."

The Government of the State of Eritrea [GSE] has constrained US diplomatic operations and access to the country (in flagrant disregard for its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations) by: 1) placing travel restrictions on all foreigners, including diplomats, largely confining U.S. Mission personnel to Asmara; 2) demanding the right to inspect Post's diplomatic pouch shipments; and 3) refusing visas to most official temporary (TDY) personnel. In response to these restrictions, the State Department ordered the closure of the Eritrean Consulate in Oakland, CA in August 2007.

The Government of the State of Eritrea typically runs anti-U.S. propaganda in its state-controlled media. This had virtually stopped as of January 20, 2009, though the cessation was not permanent. The GSE generally views U.S. diplomatic operations in Eritrea with hostility and paranoia, and the bilateral relationship has been poor for many years.

Lynn Fredriksson, Advocacy Director for Africa, Amnesty International USA, stated March 11, 2008: "One would be hard pressed to find a country in sub-Saharan Africa in which U.S. foreign policy currently has less impact than Eritrea... The government, supported by remittances from the Eritrean diaspora, maintains its bellicosity on the Horn and its international isolation, with the ready excuse of the unenforced border commission ruling, and in retaliation for years of neglect by an international community biased against independence claims."

Prior to the innauguraiton of Barack Obama on 20 January 2009, every bad thing in Eritrea was touted as proof of an American-led conspiracy against Eritrea. Daily anti-American diatribes peppered the regime-controlled airwaves and print media. The regime attempted to deflect all complaints by claiming America and its puppet, Ethiopia, were an immediate threat to Eritrea's sovereignty and/or territorial integrity. Criticism of the regime was thus tantamount not only to sedition, but also to treason. Since January 20 the regime was on what it considers a charm offensive with the US in hopes that the Obama administration will for some reason reverse USG opposition to the regime's regional meddling and domestic oppression.

The United States was the principal architect behind the punitive sanctions that the UN Security Council imposed against Eritrea in 2009 and 2011 respectively. In 2009 the US strongly supported a UN Security Council resolution that addressed the issue of Eritrea invading Djibouti. It is a matter of principle that the US cannot ignore, which puts UNSC credibility at stake, and would make Eritrea feel it can continue to invade neighbors with impunity. the international community had never effectively confronted Eritrea for invading neighboring countries on five occasions (Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia).

Under both the Clinton and Obama administration, Smith and Rice ordered tough sanctions against Eritrea for allegedly aiding Somali-based terror group al Shabaab. “As of now, everyone agreed there was nothing going on between Eritrea and al Shabaab. But the U.S. didn’t want to lift sanctions,” said Cohen, a former U.S. ambassador to Gambia and Senegal. “I contend that this was just because of Gayle’s personal animosity [with Eritrea].”

On Friday, 02 December 2011 the American Embassy in Asmara received visa applications for President Isaias Afwerki and twelve members of his government to travel to the United Nations in New York. American Embassy staff expeditiously processed the visa applications and issued all thirteen visas releasing them to the government of Eritrea the next morning, Saturday, December 3.

The Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated 29 January 2014 that "The ill-thought policies of US administration officials, that have caused tragic consequences for the region, started during the unnecessary war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998-2000. At that time US officials, who had been invited by both sides to facilitate a peaceful settlement, decided to take sides, convinced as they were that saving the regime of the late Ethiopian Prime Minister at all costs was their number one priority.

"US hostility to Eritrea increased sharply in the middle of the 2000s when it decided to rely on Ethiopia, whom it had branded an “anchor state,” in its war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa. It subsequently instigated the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and to “reward” Ethiopia, it intensified its effert against Eritrea, maligning its government, which has an impeccable record in fighting extremism and terrorism, as a “spoiler.” Some US officials openly spoke of “punishing” Eritrea and called for “regime change.” A series of concrete measures, including economic, diplomatic and media pressures, were undertaken by Washington against Eritrea and the Eritrean Diaspora in the United States.

"Despite US hostile policies and actions, Eritrea has regularly sought to engage the United States. Inter-agency talks in the early 2000s floundered when the US made it absolutely clear that it was not going to shoulder its responsibility in regards to the Eritrea-Ethiopia boundary ruling. Another attempt in 2006 failed when the then US Assistant Secretary of Africa Affairs decided that the international boundary ruling should be changed and Eritrea isolated and punished. Even after the imposition of sanctions a high-level meeting was held to open a new chapter, but US hostility proved a bridge too far. Subsequently, in December 2011, the United States went as far as making it impossible for the President of Eritrea to address the United Nations Security Council on the issue of sanctions."

As of March 2015 there was no US Ambassador to Eritrea. Eritrea maintained an embassy in the United States, but did not have an Ambassador to the United States.

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Page last modified: 29-06-2015 20:56:44 ZULU