International sanctions and poor relations with neighbors have left Eritrea largely isolated in East Africa. Relations between the U.S. and Eritrea are tense, partially due to alleged human rights abuses by the Eritrean government. Indeed, a number of Eritreans flee the country – many cite the country’s mandatory and essentially indefinite military service as the reason. As the Trump administration settles into office, The Cipher Brief asks Felix Horne, a senior researcher for the Horn of Africa at Human Rights Watch, whether U.S.-Eritrea relations could thaw in the coming years.
The Cipher Brief: Although the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Eritrea in 1993 after its independence from Ethiopia, current relations seem dismal. Why?
Felix Horne: Eritrea has been largely isolated from the international community since independence. It has continually blamed both Ethiopia and the U.S. for many of its domestic woes without acknowledging the devastating impact that the indefinite nature of national service has had. The U.S. has a very strong relationship with Ethiopia, and this partly feeds Eritrea’s perspective on the United States.
Interestingly, Eritrea’s isolation has changed over the last couple of years in two ways. Firstly, the last two years have seen increased engagement from European states, largely to curb migration to Europe. Thousands of Eritreans continue to flee Eritrea every month, many of whom end up in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The refugees regularly cite the indefinite nature of national service as a key reason for their migration. Despite this, European efforts in Eritrea have focused primarily on development efforts to stem poverty. While this may be worthy on its own, it will not stop migration – that will only stop once the indefinite nature of national service and the associated human rights violations have stopped. Secondly, due to the conflict in Yemen, the Gulf states are showing a renewed interest in Eritrea. The United Arab Emirates has established a military presence in Assab, Eritrea. Despite the increased engagement from these states, there haven’t been too many indications that the U.S. is considering a shift in policy.
TCB: Does the U.S. have an interest in bettering bilateral relations? If so, why and how?
FH: Eritrea occupies a very important geopolitical location along the Red Sea. The UAE and other Gulf states have eyed increased cooperation with Eritrea as a result. Despite the strategic location and strengthening relationship with other states, there have not been many indications that the U.S. is shifting its policy towards Eritrea.
Eritrea’s dismal human rights situation and mass migration out of the country show no signs of abatement either. There are many reasons for this, but it is clear that the international community’s isolation of Eritrea hasn’t helped. Whether a more substantive engagement with countries like the United States would help improve the lives of Eritreans remains to be seen.
There are also significant economic opportunities in Eritrea, including significant gold deposits, largely untapped due to Eritrea’s isolation. A large Canadian mine is operational, with a variety of Chinese mines expected to start producing soon.
TCB: What about security relations – right now, there is no military-to-military cooperation, but could this be a possibility in the future, especially with a common interest in dealing with violent extremism and terrorism in the Horn of Africa?
FH: It’s really not clear under the Trump presidency whether there will be a rethink about relations with Eritrea, and there haven’t been many signs from the Eritrean government that they are keen to start a new relationship with the United States either.
TCB: What is Eritrea’s role in stabilizing – or destabilizing – the region; that is, does the country cooperate in efforts to combat terrorism, or contribute to it itself, for example?
FH: Eritrea has been under UN sanctions for some time over its alleged support to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia both also support and fund each other’s armed opposition groups. It doesn’t play any significant role in regional efforts to combat terrorism, having relatively poor relations with many of its neighbors.