Eritrea and the Security Council: the road to sanctions

Oct. 10 2009

Addressing the UN General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, Foreign Minister Seyoum reminded his listeners of the challenge facing the international community in Somalia, a challenge underlined by the murderous terrorist bombings at the headquarters of the African peacekeeping mission to Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu in mid-September when over 20 peacekeepers died. He stressed that the crisis, aided and abetted by rogue states, was fuelling extremism and terrorism. Minister Seyoum also noted that it was the IGAD states that had first called for sanctions against Eritrea for its actions against the Government of Somalia and for its support for the extremist groups in Somalia. That was back in May and IGAD's stance had promptly been endorsed by the African Union's Peace and Security Council asking the United Nations Security Council to adopt punitive measures against Eritrea for its active involvement in support of terrorist elements in Somalia against the TFG and the African Union Peacekeeping force, AMISOM. This was an unprecedented call by the regional bodies against one of their own. It was a clear indication that both IGAD and the African Union had exhausted their patience with Eritrea, losing hope that it might return to peaceful ways of its own accord. Five weeks later at the 13th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the African Union in Sirte, Libya, July 1st to 3rd, the Summit formally called for sanctions against all those foreign actors, both within and outside the region, and especially Eritrea, that were providing support to the armed groups engaged in destabilization activities in Somalia, attacks against the TFG, the civilian population and AMISOM, as well as against the Somali individuals and entities working towards undermining the peace and reconciliation efforts and regional stability. All the delegations which took the floor on the issue emphasized that the regime in Asmara should be seen as the 'spoiler' in the Horn of Africa, continuously provoking conflict with its neighbours. No delegation spoke in defence of Eritrea. Just over eight weeks later at the end of August, the African Union Special Summit on Consideration and Resolution of Conflicts in Africa, again endorsed the call for the speedy implementation of sanctions for a no-fly zone and a naval blockade to prevent the flow of arms to insurgents in Somalia.

Eritrea's response to this flow of condemnation, to the wealth of evidence and criticism against it, has been predictably dismissive, calling it “outrageous”, “illegal”, “irresponsible”, “deplorable” and “symptomatic of the fundamental structural malaise that has gripped the AU right from its inception.” It has not produced any evidence to support increasingly threadbare denials in the face of the detail produced by the UN Monitoring Group and the Government of Somalia including specifics of arms flights and the support provided to Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys', the head of Hizbul Islam and ally of Al-Shabaab in the attempt to overthrow the TFG in Mogadishu in May and June. Sheikh 'Aweys' was, of course, based in Asmara from January 2007 until April 2009, and has himself made no secret of the fact that Eritrea has helped the extremist opposition groups in Somalia.

The Security Council should be well placed to understand the need to respond to the activities of Eritrea in Somalia as it has had experience of Eritrea's activities in other areas and its negative responses to criticism before. Indeed, it's mystifying that any member of the Security Council could find itself in any doubt over Eritrean aims and intentions, or see the persistent Eritrean response to UN resolutions as acceptable in any way. Eritrea has ignored a whole series of UN Security Council resolutions over a number of years, on the issue of the UN Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia, over arms supplies and support to extremists and terrorists in Somalia, and over its invasion of Djibouti in June last year. Its stubborn refusal to respond to Security Council resolutions is a serious reflection on the position and authority of the Council, and on the future of UN peacekeeping operations, flouted so egregiously by Eritrea with UNMEE being illegally expelled from the Temporary Security Zone in Eritrea. This, of course, was a step that unilaterally abrogated the Algiers Peace Agreement of December 2000. Eritrea has equally prevaricated over, or simply ignored, Security Council demands to withdraw from Djibouti, to allow a fact-finding mission or even try to resolve the issue diplomatically

It has been more than four months since the issue of sanctions against Eritrea for its actions over Somalia was first raised by IGAD, and over three since the AU as a body requested action from the UN Security Council. The evidence is definitive, the need is undeniable. Every day the crisis worsens. Neither the region as a whole, nor Somalia in particular, can afford the consequences of failure. Peace and security issues affect domestic as well as regional considerations and all the IGAD states need a solution in Somalia, and quickly. Every additional day's delay means Somalia, already the worst humanitarian problem in the world, is liable to sink deeper into confusion. And yesterday, it seemed the UN Security Council might finally be preparing to take action to heed the call of the African continent for the implementation of sanctions against a regime in Asmara now widely regarded as an embarrassment and a disgrace to our continent.

In the meeting yesterday to consider the Secretary-General's latest report on Somalia, Britain's Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador John Sawers said the UK was concerned by the evidence of Eritrean support for opponents of the Somali Government: “The Council will need to give serious consideration to the AU's requests [for sanctions] over the coming weeks”. Britain, he said, stands ready to support such action”. The US Deputy Representative to the UN, Rosemary di Carlo said: “It is time for the international community to consider ways to address Eritrea's destabilizing impact on Somalia and the region.” The Russian representative at the meeting, who called for states in the region not to allow foreign mercenaries and arms into Somalia, said firmly: “We believe that there is a need to take additional steps to strengthen this regime [in Mogadishu]”. The UN's Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, who told the Council that the humanitarian situation had worsened dramatically following the recent fighting said national and external spoilers must be neutralized, adding: “Targeted sanctions can be one effective way to deal with the spoilers.” Indeed, it looks today as if there is no other alternative for the maintenance of peace and security in the Horn of Africa. Action cannot come soon enough for the people of Somalia.