Normalizing Relations Between Eritrea and the United States:
Farsightedness or Foolishness?
By Guest Editor
“Bringing in Eritrea from the Cold”
Almost one year ago, Ambassador Herman Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, wrote an article advocating “bringing Eritrea in from the cold.” What does that mean? It means, according to Ambassador Cohen, that the US would normalize relations with Eritrea and allow the US to have “military-to-military cooperation of the type that would enlist Eritrea in the war against Islamic terrorism in the Horn coming across from the Red Sea.”
It all starts with the UN sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009. According to Ambassador Cohen, “the UN Security Council should terminate sanctions imposed [on Eritrea] in 2009 by UN Security Council Resolution 1907.” Why? His reasoning is based on the lack of evidence supporting Eritrea’s backing of the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
Ambassador Cohen suggests that a European member propose a resolution to end the sanctions and the US should agree not to veto but to abstain from voting on the resolution. Once the UN sanctions are terminated, argues Ambassador Cohen, the US is free to normalize relations with Eritrea, give Eritrean President Isayas weapons and enlist him as an ally in the war against terror.
Why bring up and article that was written a year ago? The talk for normalizing relations between Washington and Asmara is getting louder. Now is the time to carefully consider the implications of normalization for Eritrea, the United States and Eritrea’s neighbors in the region.
Improving Relations between the US and Eritrea: Farsightedness or Folly?
Ambassador Cohen is not the only one in Washington advocating to normalize relations with Eritrea. Historically, there has been strong support for Eritrea over the years from a number of high ranking government officials, Congressmen and congressional staff, as well as others in the foreign policy community. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, former Ambassador to Nigeria, echoed Ambassador Cohen saying, “Ambassador Cohen is right that ending the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is long overdue and would be of great benefit to both countries and the region. The same is true for better relations between Eritrea and the United States.”
The Eritrean community mastered the art of public relations early on and succeeded to build a loyal constituency in Washington. A mythology was created and perpetuated about the state of Eritrea and its leadership that fed the need to believe in something good coming out of Africa. The mythology was simple. A small country of noble people liberated themselves from the tyranny of a big country—in this case Ethiopia. President Isayas eschewed suits and portrayed himself as a man of the people. Eritreans were perceived as hardworking, self-sacrificing and patriotic. Women fighters were glorified and Eritrean society was portrayed as progressive. There was a messianic fervor about creating Africa’s Singapore in the newly independent state of Eritrea.
Eritrea was a much easier cause for Americans to embrace than the messiness of Ethiopia—with its multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-ideological population. This does mean that Eritrea is genuinely homogenous. Eritrea is multiethnic (nine ethnic groups), multi-religious (Orthodox, Muslim and a number of protestant religions) and multi-ideological. Eritreans are just not allowed to express their differences.
It is clear that the American constituency for Eritrea lingers despite the intransigence of the leadership. It is also clear that the United States needs friends in the rough neighborhood of the Horn of Africa. Al-Shabaab, based in the struggling nation of Somalia, remains a threat. South Sudan is teetering on the brink of collapse. The United States doesn’t appear to want Sudan as a friend. Ethiopia is the US’s most important—some would say only—useful ally in the region. The US certainly could use another friend in the Horn of Africa. Why not Eritrea?
Ambassador Cohen argues, “Those of us who know Eritrean well understand that the Eritrean leadership fears Islamic militancy as much as any other country in the Horn of Africa region.” This is true. Muslims are about one-third of Eritrea’s population. There is a long history of tension between Christian and Muslim fighters during the struggle. The forerunner to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) split from the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) because of the perception of Muslim dominance, Arab influence and sectarianism. It is not a stretch of the imagination to imagine President Isayas’ unease about the impact of the rise of Islamic militancy on his own people.
If the US needs another ally in the region and Eritrea’s national interest concerning Islamic militancy aligns with the US, why not “bring Eritrea in from the cold?” There are three reasons why we should not normalize relations with Eritrea until there is regime change: 1) Eritrea remains consistently and unequivocally committed to de-stabilizing the region; 2) Eritrea is a repressive state that violates its citizens most basic human rights; and 3) The current leadership is a dying regime and arming the leadership would only prolong its repressive rule.
Eritrea’s Role in the Region: Creating Chaos and Destabilization
Security Council Resolution 1907 (2009) specifically prohibits Eritrea from harboring, financing, supporting, organizing, training, or inciting individuals or groups to perpetuate acts of violence or terrorist acts against other States or their citizens in the region.”
South Sudan. The recent report of the UN Monitoring Report Group on Somalia and Eritrea established that Eritrea provided weapons to three armed groups in South Sudan: Riek Machar’s group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in opposition, George Athor Deng’s rebel forces, and the David Yau Yau.
Ethiopia. The recent report established that Eritrea is providing support to three regional armed groups attempting to de-stabilize Ethiopia. According to the report, Eritrea provides logistical and financial support to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Eritrea hosted a meeting in Asmara to raise funds for the ONLF and develop a military strategy. When the ONLF moved its base to Mogadishu, Eritrea was continuing its support while the ONLF was buying weapons in Somalia. The reports states that the ONLF and al-Shabaab has “shifted away from their traditionally hostile relationship and the two movements appear to have forged a logistical entente that is facilitating ONLF operations inside of Somalia and that has allowed ONLF to move with ease through territory controlled by al-Shabaab in Somalia.”
According to the Monitoring Group, Eritrea provides support to the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM)—now the most important opposition group in Eritrea. According to the report, weapons are being transferred from Eritrean Defense Forces to the TPDM.
The third group supported by Eritrea is Ginbot 7. Ginbot 7, registered in the United States as a 501(c) 3 humanitarian organization, is committed to regime change in Ethiopia through armed struggle. Its leadership publicly has admitted to receiving money, arms and training from the Government of Eritrea.
Djibouti. The Monitoring Group in its latest report continues to note the lack of any progress on article 3 concerning prisoners of war of the Comprehensive Agreement signed on 6 June 2010 by Djibouti and Eritrea under the auspices of the Government of the State of Qatar. There are still 17 Djiboutians being held by Eritrea. According to well-informed sources with contacts within the Qatari and the Djiboutian leadership, which the Monitoring Group has cited in its report, the mediation process has stalled. The Government of Eritrea has yet to acknowledge that it holds Djiboutian combatants, or to provide information on their current condition. Despite the involvement of the Qatari in the mediation process, the Eritrean government is still in a state of official denial that any armed confrontation between Eritrea and Djibouti had taken place at all.
It is irrefutable that Eritrea is playing a major role in financing, arming and training terrorist organizations in the Horn to de-stabilize South Sudan and, especially, Ethiopia. Why, then, would the United States give arms to a country bent on creating chaos and de-stabilization in a strategically important region of the world? If Ethiopia is the anchor state for a troubled, yet vital region, why would the US want to antagonize its only viable and credible ally in the Horn of Africa?
As Ambassador David Shinn noted in his non-rejoinder to Ambassador Cohen, “Whatever Washington does in the coming months, the relationship with Addis Ababa is more important than the one with Asmara. Although the United States might decide to try again to improve relations with Eritrea, it will not do so at the expense of its ties with Ethiopia.”
This makes sense.
Although Ambassador Cohen might feel vindicated in saying a year ago that there was no evidence that Eritrea was backing al-Shabaab, what about Riek Machar of South Sudan? Machar’s weapons, provided by Eritrea, have brought his country to the brink of collapse with dire consequences for the already impoverished people of South Sudan. And Ethiopia? Any effort to de-stabilize the US’s one friend in the region—and a mighty friend, at that—threatens the fragile stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.
The Eritrean Government’s War with Its People
Eritrea’s human rights violations against its own people are well documented. The UN Human Rights Council leads the most recent effort to re-tell of Eritrea’s shockingly repressive behavior towards the people of Eritrea. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, said in a statement about the alarming number of Eritreans fleeing the country, “The dire human rights situation in Eritrea persists…Eritreans are escaping systematic and widespread human right violations, namely indefinitely forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and inhumane prison conditions, as well as political repression.” 
Elections have not been held since independence in 1993. The constitution has never been implemented. Political parties are forbidden. The country has no independent media. There is no rule of law.
Eritrea exists in a time warp of unmitigated repression against its citizens and there is no indication that this will change under the current leadership. President Isayas has held on to power for 22 years and there are no signs that he is letting go voluntarily. What do Eritreans do? They run.
Despite the dangers of fleeing the country, Eritreans—especially young men—are risking their lives to escape. And in an ironic twist of history, Eritreans are fleeing into Ethiopia. There are 104,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia today. From October 6 to November 2, 2014 over 4,627 Eritreans crossed the border into northern Ethiopia—over 200 per day. More than half of them, at least those who admitted upon registration on their arrival, are members of the Eritrean army, who spent years in the barracks to defend their country from their sworn enemy, Ethiopia, as they were so told by President Isayas.
Most refugee camps in Africa are enclaves of despair. Having fled or been forced out from their homes, refugees are confined to areas where time stands still and life is reduced to securing the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. Refugees neither can move backward—unless the conditions that caused them to flee have significantly changed—or forward—restricted to designated camps and dependent upon aid for a barebones survival. This is not the case, for Eritreans in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is now the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa. Yet, Ethiopian has taken a supremely humanitarian—and pragmatic—approach to hosting Eritrean refugees without confining them to refugee camps, keeping them dependent on humanitarian assistance or forestalling their future in a psychological stalemate of inertia.
Ethiopia allows Eritrean refugees to live outside the camps and earn a living. Eritrean students have been absorbed into the universities with the Government of Ethiopia paying for 75% of the fees and UNHCR paying the remaining 25%.  This is a fact that should give Ethiopia’s critics some pause.
The flood of Eritreans into Ethiopia speaks volumes about both countries. For Eritrea, the loss of the young generation will have irreparable consequences for the future of the country. No country can afford to lose the number of young people Eritrea loses without a long-term impact on virtually every sector of society. For Ethiopia, it is a chance to build goodwill among a generation of Eritreans who grew up knowing Ethiopia only as an enemy country.
Yet, integrating young Eritreans into Ethiopia’s mainstream is not without risk. There are economic consequences to educating the number of Eritrean refugees within its borders. There are security risks as well associated with the freedom accorded to Eritrean refugees—it would not be farfetched for President Isais to use this opportunity to sneak agents into Ethiopia disguised as refugees with a mandate to cause problems. It is a calculated risk taken by the Ethiopian government to offer young Eritreans the same opportunities given to its own sons and daughters.
The United States experiences ambivalence about alliances with governments that are consistent violators of human rights. For example, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the United States government seems to easily ignore the lack of fundamental human rights for half of Saudi Arabia’s citizens—women. Our economic interests in Saudi oil and our need for a powerful friend in the Arab world trumps our self-proclaimed role as global defender of human rights. But does the case of Eritrea meet the threshold of our prevailing economic and geopolitical national interests?
No. The message we would send by normalizing relations with Eritrea would be that it is ok to consistently and systematically deny your citizens fundamental human rights. And President Isais would make it very hard for the United States to make any kind of statement regarding repression in Eritrea. While the US Government pounds Ethiopia on human rights on occasion, Ethiopia manages to maintain a pragmatic approach to maintaining its relationship with the United States. President Isais is incapable of that kind of pragmatism regarding criticism by friends. If the United States succeeded in normalizing relations with Eritrea, it would be short-lived and embarrassing. It would take only one statement by the United States critical of anything Eritrean, and President Isayas would take the opportunity to castigate its ally and break ties in a spectacular way.
The Government of Eritrea is a Dying Regime
While young Eritreans are risking their lives to flee the country, those at home are dying a slow death. Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest countries despite considerable mineral resources. The economic indicators point to a collapsing economy: insufficient foreign exchange reserves; small share (2.5%) of public spending for education; a crushing burden of military spending (25%); and an economy highly dependent on emergency foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora. Public debt is 121.2% of GDP and the budget balance, as a percentage of GDP, is 10.1%.  Although Eritrea’s economy is growing because of the mineral resources, inflation is high.
In 2013, soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information and took over the state-run television station in an attempted coup against the President. The coup failed. Yet, even one of Eritrea’s most die-hard former supporters, Dan Connell, predicted an end to the current leadership. In an interview with the New York Times on the coup attempt he said, “There is a lot of dissatisfaction within the armed forces. If this [the attempted coup] is suppressed, it won’t be the end.”
It won’t be the end. Eritreans are experiencing record levels of hunger. The military is dissatisfied. Eritreans are fleeing the country in unprecedented numbers. In 2012, there were rumors about the President’s ill health. US Ambassador Ronald McMullen, in a leaked cable, described President Isayas as “an unhinged dictator.”
For some readers, these statements can be parsed and reduced to lies of the Eritrean opposition, or the Ethiopian government, or the CIA. Let’s say, then, that: 1) the economy is growing and hunger is exaggerated; 2) the number of Eritreans fleeing is exaggerated and those who do leave the country are doing so because they are the dredges of Eritrean society (good riddance); 3) and rumors about the President’s health is a CIA plot.
Yet, there is still something fundamentally wrong with President Isayas and his government. The President appears isolated; he has imprisoned many members of his government; his military who dared to criticize him. There are no elections, constitution, freedom of speech and assembly, or even religion. Do we really want to become friends again with the government of Eritrea? Do we really want to give military assistance to President Isayas?
And What About Ethiopia?
What would be the impact of the US normalizing relations with Eritrea on Ethiopia? How would Ethiopia react to the US arming its enemy? Ethiopia has exercised exceptional patience when it comes to Eritrea. The former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, tried not to fight a war with his neighbor. Only when pushed and all other options had been exhausted did the Prime Minister put his troops on the ground. At the end of the two years war, Ethiopia’s military clearly prevailed and could have walked into Asmara with no resistance from a decimated Eritrean military.
The Algiers Agreement somehow made the losing party a victor in territorial gains. And still Ethiopia maintained its patience. Ethiopia agreed to the delimitation of boundaries yet has asked for demarcation on the ground to make the boundaries make sense to the people living there. There are lines that cross through homes, cemeteries, and other anomalies that need to be adjusted. This has made Eritrea, despite having lost the war, stubborn.
Ethiopia’s patience with Eritrea, however, might be coming to an end. The UN Monitoring Report just confirmed what the Government of Ethiopia has said all along—that Eritrea is actively providing arms, logistics, finances and training to groups committed to de-stabilizing Ethiopia. Ethiopia is not South Sudan. At some point, there have to be consequences.
Just how patient will Ethiopia be if the United States normalizes relations with Eritrea and begins giving it weapons? Ethiopia might just want to walk into Asmara and finish Eritrea’s deadly game with a regime change. It is a reasonable scenario. Is this want we want?
Rather than pass a resolution eliminating the sanctions on Eritrea, the fragile region of the Horn of Africa and its Western allies might be better served if the UN enforced the sanctions imposed in Resolution 1907. Let’s stop talking about normalizing relations with Eritrea and let the regime die its inevitable death. The Eritrean people deserve better.
 See African Arguments, January 13, 2014.
 UNHCR Fact Sheet on Ethiopia
 New York Times, “Coup Attempt by Rebel Soldiers Is Said to fail in Eritrea,” January 21, 2013.
 Sudan Tribune, April 23, 2012, “Eritrea Blames CIA for Rumors of President’s Ill Health”
 Some protestant religions are banned as “foreign.”