Recent shuttle diplomacy by Isaias Afeworki demonstrates that business as usual in Asmara cannot be sustained, suggesting that Eritrea is on the path to reversing its previously unilateral diplomatic attitude. This week, the President visited Saudi Arabia after spending two days in the State House in Nairobi, where he met with journalists from international media outlets for the first time in almost a decade. Many Eritreans feared that their country would be hit with a slew of sanctions aimed at toppling Isaias’s administration because of his role in the war in Tigray.
Leading Eritrea since its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, Isaias countered the pressure he was under as a result of his involvement in the war by taking Russia’s side in the conflict in Europe, which has ravaged Ukraine, the epicenter. Whilst many felt that Isaias’ intention in the Ethiopian conflict was to get revenge on the the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a party with whom he had a good relationship during the struggle against the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s, Isaias had little expectation that his long-term vision for revenge would be thwarted by the peace deal reached between warring parties in Ethiopia.
Isaias’s sworn adversary, the TPLF, and the Ethiopian federal government struck a deal in Pretoria, and this has turned the tables on Eritrea’s regime. Several analysts believe that after the Pretoria agreement, Isaias has switched his allegiance from Ethiopia to Nairobi and possibly other countries in the Horn of Africa. With Eritrea’s late attempt to rejoin the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and its fierce campaign before the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Isaias sees a new form of struggle on the horizon.
“We are coming back to IGAD with the idea of revitalizing this regional organization. Eritrea cannot achieve its bilateral agreements in the region without the broader integration vision of the region,” Isaias said during his speech in Nairobi last month.
He argues that good intentions and ideas aren’t enough to make a difference in the region, and instead a practical, effective organization is required. “We need a functional and result-oriented regional organization.”
“We do not know what the president meant when he mentioned a revitalized and functional IGAD,” officials from the IGAD remarked. The consensus among insiders is that Isaias wants IGAD to serve his ends and advance his agenda in the Horn of Africa.
“Isaias could solve regional challenges militarily. But now there are new challenges that can only be fought diplomatically,” a political analyst said. The analyst claims that it was the international community that saved the TPLF. “So, Isaias understands the power of regional and international institutions if they are on his side.”
The analyst claims that Isaias, in addition to his bilateral connections with Nairobi and Saudi Arabia, wants to reassert himself in IGAD in order to repair relations with the West.
Isaias discussed the TPLF and Ethiopia at length in a recent interview with local media, during which he emphasized that the TPLF is in sync with western interests and was only spared due western intervention. The Eritrean leader claims him and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) are on good terms, but analysts think their friendships with Nairobi and Saudi Arabia are keeping the country together. But he cannot give up on Abiy if he wants Ethiopia to use Eritrean ports to facilitate the country’s expanding external trade. For this reason, Isaias has just unveiled its “Coastal Development Plan,” which includes revitalizing the ports as one of its primary objectives.
The analyst claims that Isaias’s hatred of the international system means he will never be able to reconcile with the West. The West can’t, either.
Eritrea, on the other hand, has better backing from Asia and Africa, despite the fact that it has been voting against any resolutions by the west against Russia. Proof that the West is still keen on punishing Eritrea may be found in the 52nd UNHRC summit.
Nada Al-Nashif, the UN deputy high commissioner for human rights, told the Council during the ‘Enhanced Interactive Discussion on Human Rights in Eritrea’ on March 6, 2023, that the country is still “a hell for both its own people and its neighbors. “She emphasized that, despite being a member of the UNHRC, Eritrea’s status has not improved over the past many decades.
Apart from the extrajudicial killings, abduction of refugees, and over 800 rapes by Eritrean troops during the northern Ethiopian war in the past two years, the reports indicated severe human rights violations in Eritrea.
The Deputy Commissioner says their office continues to receive credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, inhumane conditions of detention, enforced disappearances, and restrictions on the rights to freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The harassment and arbitrary detention of people because of their faith continues unabated, with an estimated hundreds of religious leaders and followers affected.
“Eritreans continue to be subjected to indefinite military or national service, which intensified following the Tigray conflict. It is alarming that all these human rights violations are committed with complete impunity,” Al-Nashif stated.
During the extended session, the UN’s special rapporteur on Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam, also delivered his findings. “The Eritrean government also continues to object to my mandate. My visit request remains unanswered. Eritrea remains unresponsive to many reports compiled.”
Eritrea’s representative to the UN Council, Adem Osman Idris, has defended his country, saying that it has been subjected to unending harassment for the past decade due to the inappropriate appointment of special rapporteurs, which has been linked to an extreme political agenda.
“This chariot continues to linger in a vicious cycle, from a commission of inquiry to a written report, from an oral update to simple interactive dialogue. These mandates have never provided mechanisms to rectify anomalies or alleged human rights deficits exhibited by Eritrea. Their purpose has been to advance their political motives,” Adem said.
The European Union’s special envoys have likewise urged decisive action against Eritrea.
They demanded that Eritrea comply with the United Nations, halt forced conscription immediately, and allow international investigators access to the country to look into human rights abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity.
At the session, almost every western country, including the United States and the United Kingdom, restated the European Union’s position on Eritrea.
Djibouti joined the West in demanding that Eritrea provide all it knows about the Djiboutian being held incommunicado on its soil.
Special representatives of China, Korea, Venezuela, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia argued the human rights issue in Eritrea has significantly improved. They said the West must stop weaponizing and politicizing human rights and stop pressuring Eritrea.
The session made it quite evident that United Nations members are deeply split over Eritrea. This situation is also eerily similar to anytime Ethiopia’s case pops up at the UN.
Regarding accountability for the Tigray war, both Ethiopia and Eritrea face the same fate. Yet Eritrea is taking advantage of loopholes to hide its involvement in the Tigray conflict. Eritrean special representatives at the UNHRC argued that the special rapporteur was established to see only issues within Eritrea, while the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) was formed to investigate issues within Ethiopia.
Both representatives of Ethiopia and Eritrea argued that the violations by Eritrean troops in the northern Ethiopian war could not be seen by any of these UN bodies.
“We are being criticized for mobilizing our society for self-defense. These countries [the West] are asking us to surrender in front of the massive deployment of force from the Tigray region,” Adem explained.
He stressed that the west is weaponizing human rights, harassing Eritrea, breaching the UN charter, interfering in Eritrea’s sovereignty, and relentlessly working to deter Eritrea from its development path and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.
“This is nothing less than the weaponization of human rights in its crudest form against developing countries,” Adem said.
Experts argue that Eritrea cannot benefit from the west’s development packages as long as Isaias is in power. However, they also believe that Eritrea can attract more favors from countries that are rallying behind Russia and China.