In his address to the UN General Assembly, Osman Saleh Mohammed, the Eritrean foreign minister, declared the country’s “political, economic, social and diplomatic path would be smoother and easier if external obstacles that have been put on its path were removed”.
Hinting at the sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009, the foreign minister made clear his position that the embargo was unfair, counterproductive, and severely hindering the country’s development.
This embargo was put in place after the US accused the East African country of funding and arming Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group–charges which the Eritrean government vehemently denies.
Almost a decade later, the small African nation is still subjected to UN sanctions, which alongside Eritrea’s strong stance, begs the questions of whether Eritrea is still deserving of these harsh sanctions. Why is it that this country is still deemed a pariah state in the eyes of the West?
Housing a population of 5 million, Eritrea is situated in the Horn of Africa region, bordering with Djibouti, Sudan and Ethiopia. A former Italian colony, Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year war. Despite its self-determination, the country has had no elections since the inauguration of President Isaias Afwerki, and authorities have quelled all dissent through extensive crackdowns on opposition groups.
Yet, a less well-known dimension of Eritrea is its long track record of fighting terrorism. The country has undertaken multiple operations with several Gulf States in past years; Eritrean troops have reportedly been involved in military operations inside Yemen, and have worked with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with whom Eritrea enjoy close ties. This has led some analysts to question why the US has avoided working with Eritrea in combatting extremist militants in the Middle East.
Despite its strategic location, the relationship between the West (particularly the US) and Eritrea has been consistently strained–despite Eritrea’s attempts to prove it has distanced itself from the terrorist group. However, its efforts have certainly paid off elsewhere.
Recently, the Chair of the Security Council Committee, Kairat Umarov, pursuant to resolution 751, affirmed that there were no links between the Eritrean government and the extremist group. Yet, the allegations of its affiliation with Al-Shabaab were not the only criticism the country has endured in recent years. This is where North Korea enters the picture.
Indeed, Eritrea has also faced condemnation for its trade ties with its similarly sanctioned counterpart. In March, the U.S State Department announced it had discovered the Eritrean navy were trading certain military equipment with Pyongyang, effectively violating a non-proliferation law. As a result, Eritrea found itself in even more trouble, and was subjected to further sanctions, primarily affecting its Navy.
Eritrea’s human rights record also undermines its case. Acknowledged as one of the most isolated countries in the world, the authoritarian state is nicknamed as the ‘North Korea of Africa’. According to analysts and human rights groups, Eritrea has the second worst human right record after Syria. In May 2016, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (CoI) released a report documenting that the country’s numerous crimes against humanity, including torture, arbitrary arrests, enslavement and repression of speech. The report recognised that Eritrea was ruled by totalitarian practices and its inadequate rule of law manifested in the “wholesale disregard for the liberty” of Eritrea’s citizens. The country has consistently been at the bottom of World Press Freedom Index in recent years, with North Korea usurping its position as the country with the least free press this year.
The large exodus of Eritrean civilians fleeing the country is also indicative of the alleged human right abuses the country has committed. Despite its small size, Eritrea is civilians make one of the largest refugee groups fleeing to Europe. Reportedly, tens of thousands of Eritreans are believed to have fled Afwerki’s autocratic regime in the hopes of a better life. Anecdotes from Eritrean refugees cite that one of the main drivers of the large exodus is the country’s policy of military conscription. By law, each Eritrean civilian is required to serve 18 months in national service, although the reality is that national service more akin to enslavement. In practice, conscripts serve the military indefinitely. This factor was documented in a report by the CoI, which cited endless conscription as a form of enslavement.
Between its record of gross human right violations and its liaison with other pariah states, the decision to impose sanctions on the Horn of African country seems, in many ways, legitimate. However, a deeper look into the country’s domestic situation reveals something unusual: despite being a poor authoritarian state, the country also has a small crime rate, as well as a much lower presence of illegal drugs relative to other African countries. These rates are accompanied by one of the highest quality healthcare systems in the region, with Eritrea having made certain strides in reducing malaria, Tuberculosis, infant mortality and other diseases. Its rate of AIDs is also among the lowest in the continent. Western diplomats have also, in the past, cited the country as having a low rate of corruption. It has also been reported that the incumbent, President Afwerki, genuinely cares about his people. Yet, to some, such reports seem hard to reconcile with the jarring reality of Eritrea as a totalitarian state. This only highlights that, much like its Asian counterpart, North Korea, there is not enough information about this secretive African state.
Whether Eritrea will have its sanctions revoked seems to be less of a question about its previous actions, and more to do with its inability to shake off western perceptions of it being a pariah state.