Eritrea - Foreign Relations
Eritrea wants to be a regional player, as evidenced positively by its hosting of the Chad-Sudan dialogue, and negatively by its involvement in Somalia. But its economic woes, inward-looking policies, shackled media, and higher priority engagement with patrons in the Middle East prevent it from doing so.
The Eritrean armed struggle only attracted diplomatic interest at the end of the 1980s, when the end of the Cold War drastically changed international dynamics. Before that, Western States had been reluctant to support Maoist-inspired liberation forces like EPLF, even if as of 1982 it was the only one fighting Soviet-backed Ethiopian troops in Eritrea. The end of the Soviet Union’s massive military support to the Ethiopian communist regime in 1988 precipitated the fall of its leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, in 1991 and the subsequent recognition by the new Ethiopian Government of the Eritreans’ right to self determination.
Eritrea’s official accession to independence on 24 May 1993 increased international interest in the country. Upon independence, Eritrea immediately became a member of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, (OAU) and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Eritrea was also granted observer status at the Arab League. President Afwerki’s speeches at international level, in which he laid emphasis on self-reliance and denounced corruption, made him and Eritrea a symbol of the “African Renaissance” promoted at that time by US President Bill Clinton.
When Eritrea gained independence in 1993, it enjoyed good relations with its regional neighbors and the goodwill of the international community. A little more than a decade later, Eritrea was increasingly isolated from its neighbors and the international community. Eritrea’s government generally is not favorably disposed to multilateral institutions, and Eritrea's relations with its neighbors are strained. Eritrea’s relations with Ethiopia are strained by territorial disputes and relations with Sudan, by political problems.
In 2010, Eritrea re-occupied its seat in the Africa Union, long deserted in protest for the organization’s backing of Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia. This move, a sign of Eritrea’s efforts to counter its isolation on the international scene, followed the withdrawal of its troops from Djibouti in June 2010, after a Qatar-led mediation. At the same time, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remained tense. In March 2011, Ethiopia accused Eritrea of sending agents across the border to plant bombs. In April, the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that Ethiopia would officially support Eritrean opposition organizations based on its territory.
Eritrea is a member of a number of international organizations, among them the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, African Development Bank, African Union, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Criminal Court, International Finance Corporation, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, International Criminal Police Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Maritime Organization, United Nations, and World Health Organization.
Eritrea is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, United Nations Convention on Desertification, and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Eritrea is not a party to the Conventions on Biological Weapons or Conventional Weapons.
Eritrea is a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). The COMESA Customs Union was launched on June 7, 2009. A transitional period of three years (June 2012) was provided during which the Member States would align their national tariffs with the COMESA CET. The CET is based on categorization of goods with the following tariff rates: raw materials and capital goods - 0%; intermediate goods - 10%; and finished goods - 25%. Sensitive products will be given differential treatment in terms of application of the CET. Member States: Burundi, Comoros, D.R. Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In 2013 Eritrean officials in Asmara, at the UN, and at the AU issued statements and told U.S officials that they wanted to move out of a long period of regional isolation and animosity. Eritrean officials engaged with some neighboring states, as well as nations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to discuss regional stability, counterterrorism cooperation, and regional initiatives to counter transnational challenges. The Eritrean Foreign Minister expressed public dismay at al-Shabaab’s September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
The GSE has a history of detaining/expelling diplomatic and other foreign personnel for little or no reason. In February 2009, the GSE arrested a UK Voluntary Service Organization Volunteer during a raid on a government-sanctioned English-speaking radio station. The GSE detained a UN diplomat overnight in December 2006 for taking tourist photos in downtown Asmara despite the fact he showed his diplomatic ID card and digital camera to the Eritrean authorities. He was never charged. The head of the UN demining program was declared persona non grata in February 2007 on trumped up charges and ordered to leave Eritrea within several days. A TDY UK Embassy technician traveling on a diplomatic passport was prevented from leaving Eritrea for 10 days in June 2007 after being seen on the roof of the British Council adjusting their satellite dish. He was never charged or questioned by Eritrean security officials; however, the GSE-owned press implied he was carrying out espionage activities. UNMEE forces were forced to depart Eritrea in spring 2008 due to the GSE refusal to provide UNMEE forces with fuel.
Ethiopia and other nations in East Africa continued to accuse Eritrea of sponsoring armed groups destabilizing the region. The Eritrean government, for its part, continued to deny the accusations and, in return, levied charges that Ethiopia-supported groups continued to pursue the violent overthrow of the Eritrean regime. Eritrea’s lack of commitment to regional stability reduced opportunities for counterterrorism cooperation or dialogue.
Eritrean support for regional armed groups continues to be linked primarily to the larger context of Ethiopian-Eritrean rivalry in the Horn of Africa, the unsettled border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the way in which that rivalry shapes Eritrean foreign policy. As recently as late 2014 the UN Monitoring Group obtained testimonials and evidence that Eritrea continued to support armed opposition groups from neighboring countries, notably the Somalia-based Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), and Ginbot Sebat. The scale and pattern of Eritrea’s support for these regional armed groups is not uniform and it differs from one group to the other.
Eritrea forged a new strategic military relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that involved allowing the Arab coalition to use Eritrean land, airspace and territorial waters in its anti-Houthi military campaign in Yemen. This strategic partnership had been triggered when the two Gulf countries failed to strike a deal with Djibouti. Unable to use the territory of Djibouti as part of their military campaign to counter Houthi expansion in Bab al-Mandab, the two Arab countries turned next door, to Eritrea. As part of the arrangement, Eritrea has received compensation from the two countries, including monetary compensation and fuel supplies. Any compensation diverted directly or indirectly towards activities that threaten peace and security in the region or for the benefit of the Eritrean military would constitute a violation of UN Security COuncil resolution 1907 (2009). Moreover, some 400 Eritrean soldiers were embedded with the United Arab Emirates contingent of the forces fighting on Yemeni soil.
The Government of Eritrea acknowledged the recent geopolitical shifts in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea region. During a videoconference between the Monitoring Group and Eritrean officials on 31 March 2015, the Permanent Representative of Eritrea challenged the arms embargo on Eritrea, saying that the regional insecurity caused by the armed conflict in Yemen was a reason to allow its lifting. He called upon the Group to take into account new regional developments and cautioned that the “Islamic State” could seek to take over Eritrean islands. He stressed that Eritrea had a “right to self-defence” and that the sanctions were “unjust and unjustifiable”.
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