The two East African countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, became independent from one another 25 years ago, but fought a war over their borders from 1998 to 2000, leaving around 100,000 dead. The so-called Algiers Agreement of 2002 brought an end to the conflict, and mandated a Boundary Commission to “delimit and demarcate” the border between the two countries. The conclusions of the Boundary Commission, operating under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, were never fully accepted by Ethiopia, and a state of hostilities has existed between the two countries since 2002, breaking out every now and then as localised skirmishes at various points on the border. As a result, the government in Eritrea has found it very convenient to claim a continued “state of war” with Ethiopia, purposefully to delay or deny any democratic change within the country, to continue indefinite national military service for its citizens and take vengeful measures against its critics, while such “hostilities” continue.
The new Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, has broken the state of “frozen” relations in this apparently intractable dispute by persuading his government to accept the Boundary Commission’s decisions in full. On June 5, 2018, Ethiopia’s governing coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) released a statement confirming that it would “fully accept and implement” a peace deal with Eritrea that commits the two countries to accepting the findings of the Commission. It also called on the Eritrean government to “take the same stand without any prerequisite and accept our call to bring back the long-lost peace of the two brother nations”. It also has to be remembered that Eritrea long ago publicly accepted the Commission’s findings. Now the way is open for full peaceful relations to be established, and visits by Ethiopian diplomatic delegations to Eritrea are in process to establish peace in all areas. Consequently, Ethiopia is expected to withdraw its occupying troops from Badme and other territories awarded to Eritrea, ending the militarisation of the border. This positive development was generally taken as a cause for hope and celebration by Eritreans and Ethiopians alike.
However, it is most surprising to discover from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he and President Afwerki have actually never discussed the precise border demarcation. In his own words, “Thus far we have not had discussions about the border at Badme, Zalambesa and Bure.” While we hear this from the Prime Minster, we watch preparations for the implementation of the agreements in areas other than the border delimitation and demarcation that are deemed more vital than any other area of cooperation, going full steam ahead. This is a disturbing pattern because without the desired implementation of the Boundary Commission’s findings on the real bone of contention of the border issue, clashes between troops could still occur, especially as Eritrean forces have been pursuing escaping Eritrean refugees into Ethiopia, with the shoot-to-kill instructions from the Eritrean government. To show that the danger is real and present, one should not overlook the fact that the flow of refugees to Ethiopia did not stop even after all of the diplomatic fanfare had unfolded. According to daily reports, the regular flow of refugees to the south has continued after all those developments with no change in numbers.
If this is the existing situation one would ask: exactly what is going on? Undoubtedly this clearly gives credence to the suspicion that has been repeated for years that the border dispute had been artificially prolonged by the Eritrean President for his own purposes, especially to justify the extension of national military service indefinitely and the putting of the constitution on the shelf, in addition to all other crimes, such as enforced disappearances, arrests, the banning of the free press, harassments, and other crime committed using the border war as an excuse. This clearly confirms that the priorities of the two leaders lie elsewhere than in the border issue. The Ethiopian leader says that they have “started to discuss bigger issues, such as connecting… transport… as well as using the ports.” Here lies the clue to the motives of both leaders that lie behind this sudden outbreak of peace and brotherhood, in a deal that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initiated only weeks after taking office. Ethiopia recently discovered significant oil reserves in its eastern region. Officials from the United Arab Emirates were in Eritrea recently, announcing plans for building a major oil pipeline from Ethiopia to the Red Sea via the Eritrean port of Assab. Aside from hidden political motives, the development of oil resources, and the considerations of the possible wealth to follow, are clearly major stimuli for the two leaders to find a new “peace agreement” most convenient.
Behind this rapprochement for very recognisable mutual economic benefits, there is underway a far more significant strategic realignment. Whereas Ethiopia has traditionally been non-aligned in Arab political alliances and as Arabs have been viewed throughout the history of the Ethiopian state as “historical enemies” with Ethiopia pleased to court China for financial and trade assistance, it now seems to be changing its political friendships to one in which Gulf-US interests overlap with the Ethiopian interests.
It is no more a secret that the alliance of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been looking for additional partners in their feuds with Iran and Qatar. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been busy offering financial aid and construction of facilities to both Ethiopia and Eritrea. To be more specific, Saudi Arabia is actively considering Ethiopian requests to supply it with fuel for a year, with delayed payments. Simultaneously, the UAE has agreed to provide Ethiopia with huge loans, investment and infrastructure support, and it has upgraded Eritrea’s port of Assab. It is now becoming clear that Saudi Arabia and the UAE (with backing from Washington) are the political driving forces behind the “surprise” peace deal between Ethiopia’s Abiy and Eritrea’s Afwerki. There are objective grounds to suspect that “peace” is not the first and the most important aim and objective in their minds. Irrespective of that self-speaking truth, it is bizarre and disturbing that the world is expected to rejoice unreservedly at this “outbreak of peace”.
And indeed, why would anyone question this desirable peace process and its likely results? In this connection, it is appropriate to pause a moment to consider: with whom is Dr. Abiy Ahmed negotiating this peace? Is he really meeting the elected representatives of a democratic country, who have the full mandate to make binding treaties on behalf of their constituents or people? Everybody knows that the opposite is true. Diplomats from Ethiopia are and will in reality be negotiating with the messengers of a medieval ruler, who only rules by the gun and without any rule of law, mandate or legitimacy. Briefly put, the entire process is controlled by the archaic ruler who decides things in accordance with his personal wishes, desires, and mood swings.
Moreover, while one usually says that Eritrea has no constitution, this should not be misunderstood. In reality, Eritrea did have a constitution approved by the whole people but banned from implementation and put in the shelf since May 1997, by a single person who considers himself the constitution itself. It has never had democratic national elections, either this century or before. It has no parliament, and no independent judiciary. It is ruled by one man, who came to this dictatorial position by military power. His government has none of the democratic structures and systems that justify the term “democracy”.
To what extent, then, can a diplomatic agreement, such as the treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea have legal validity or legitimacy? On whose authority would the agreements be signed? The answer is, certainly not the people, who have not been able to elect a government that represents them, nor do they possess the legal powers that in the Western world have independence from the executive branch (the division being artificial and non-existent as the ruler is all three in one). In concrete terms, the signature would be the will of one man whose legitimacy can claim no justification other than from the gun; in effect, naked means of coercion. If this is the whole reality, is it not vital to question the status of any treaty signed on behalf of ‘the people’ on the basis of sheer military power? This is in no different from might becoming right. The right of Isaias Afwerki to sign on behalf of the people of Eritrea cannot be accepted because he has no legitimacy which should only be entrusted by the people through elections. Any agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea on the use of Eritrean ports for Ethiopian trade or supplies should and must be governed by a legal treaty ensuring the rights of the Eritrean people. But no legally binding treaty can rightfully be signed by an unelected ruler who rules without any elected parliament.
It is illegal for any Eritrean citizen to leave Eritrea without an issued permit, and very few exit permits are issued: they are usually distributed on the basis of corruption and favouritism to those loyal to the regime and serving as its foot soldiers. Yet Eritrea as a nation is haemorrhaging people at the rate of 5,000 a month, 60,000 a year. That may not seem large until it is seen in proportion to the total population of 5 million. On the basis of these calculations that are based on foreign reports, over half a million people could be said to have left their country in one decade. As most of those leaving the country are under 30 years of age; the Eritrean youth are dangerously draining away.
It is obvious why this dramatic exodus is taking place in so alarming a manner: Eritrea has become a giant prison. No one knows the exact number of prisoners of conscience, but conservative estimates place it at a five-digit figure. Anyone whose political views or religious faith attracts government suspicion is detained, invariably without charge or trial, and held in appalling conditions. Enforced disappearances and extra-judicial executions are frequent, and torture is notoriously widespread and practiced in the forms that are the most severely internationally condemned. All these things have been confirmed and detailed by the UN Commission of Inquiry into Eritrea’s human rights.
But the most pressing motive for young people to leave Eritrea is the system of national service, which is compulsory for all men and women 18 years of age and indefinite or for life. This enforced service is not only in the military, but extends to agriculture, mining and other industrial sectors, with no more pay than “pocket money”. In short, the national service is nothing but a kind of life-long slave labour.
The crux of the matter is that the government of President Afwerki has always maintained that the unending national service is a consequence of the state of emergency caused by the war with Ethiopia, where hostilities existed. He argued that no change to national military service could be contemplated in the presence of the Ethiopian threat from the south; which explicitly meant no normalisation of relations would occur unless the Ethiopian forces withdrew from the occupied Eritrean territories, and the border between the two countries was delimited and demarcated.
Now, with the coming of peace with Ethiopia, will national service be ended? and those who were exploited, enslaved and forced to work under harsh conditions are compensated? That is the vital question which must be asked and begs an answer. President Afwerki has recently hinted that the length of national service will be limited to 18 months in future. This promise has been heard before but has never been honoured. Without an end to “Conscripted Slavery”, the torrent of young people draining from the country will not abate. It is for the best and vital interest of Ethiopia that this flow of emigration comes to an end, not only because so many thousands end up in refugee camps in Ethiopia, but because there can be no stability and no security on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border if Eritrean border guards are constantly chasing their own people with “shoot-to-kill” instructions, as the same desperate people risk everything to escape the “big prison”, which is the way they refer to their country.
The clear message to be conveyed to Ethiopia is that the Ethiopian authorities must recognise that peace and security for all cannot be established on its borders with Eritrea until the deluge of Eritrean emigrants seeking safety subsides. This can only happen when national service ends in Eritrea, the shelved constitution is dusted and implemented, justice is guaranteed for all those imprisoned, and the Eritrean people live a normal life like Ethiopians, with the right and the freedom to live, think, and express themselves as human beings; not owned slaves of the ruler.
In conclusion, it should be emphasised that no document with President Afework’s signature could ever confer guarantees of peace on the border without the changes detailed above. It is vital to warn that the world should not be misled into celebrating “peace” when no such thing exists in Eritrea. There can be no true peace without fundamental long-term justice within Eritrea, not merely at its borders. ===============================================
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)