The U.S. and Others May Have Been Wrongly Sanctioning Eritrea for Years Over Alleged Al-Shabab Support

Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki inspects an honor guard prior to his departure at the end of a four-day state visit in Entebbe, Uganda, on August 19, 2011. PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty

For the past eight years, Eritrea—a tiny country in East Africa—has been under a comprehensive arms embargo and tough sanctions on political leaders.

The sanctions were imposed in 2009 by the United Nations Security Council after it found that Eritrea had "provided support to armed groups undermining peace and reconciliation in Somalia," including Al-Shabab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate that continues to wage war on the Somali government.

But a new report by a monitoring group has found no evidence of Eritrean support for Al-Shabab and recommended that the Security Council ends its current sanctions regime on the country.

The Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea was not able to access the country in compiling the report—Eritrea has refused to comply with the Security Council on the matter—but nevertheless said it had "not found conclusive evidence of support provided by Eritrea to Al-Shabab."

Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab recruits walk down a street in the Deniile district of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, on March 5, 2012. Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty

The group came to the same conclusion in three previous reports dating back to 2014, but the sanctions regime has remained in place. The monitoring group recommended in its latest report that sanction regimes for Eritrea and Somalia be disassociated, and a separate sanctions committee and monitoring group be set up on Eritrea.

Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war, is a one-party state and run by an "authoritarian regime" that is "entirely controlled" by the country's president, Isaias Afwerki, according to the State Department.

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The original sanctions imposed in 2009 included an arms embargo; travel bans on Eritrean political leaders; and asset freezes on government officials in the country. The sanctions were linked to Eritrea's purported support for Al-Shabab—which included efforts to "destabilize or overthrow" the transitional government in Somalia at the time—and attempts to sow chaos in neighboring Djibouti.

Eritrea and Djibouti share a heavily militarized border and dispute the status of a small remote territory, Ras Doumeira. Qatari peacekeepers manned the border until earlier in 2017, when they pulled out.

The monitoring group report did find, however, that Eritrea continued to "provide support to armed groups intent on destabilizing Ethiopia and Djibouti." Eritrea's actions continue to "generate insecurity in the region and undermines the normalization of relations" between countries in the region, the report found.

The sanctions on Eritrea were adopted in 2009 with 13 Security Council members—including the United States, Russia, France and the U.K., four of the five permanent council members—voting in favor. China, the remaining permanent member, abstained, and Libya voted against the motion.

Eritrea has consistently disputed the sanctions and rejected allegations of its support for Al-Shabab. The country's minister of information said that the sanctions regime had been driven through by the United States as "Washington was doggedly wedded at the time to a political agenda of 'punishing Eritrea.'"

"Virtually all member States today acknowledge, without ambiguity, that the accusations are hollow indeed. Yet the UNSC continues to invoke irrelevant and tangential issues to maintain the illicit sanctions"

— Yemane G. Meskel (@hawelti) November 14, 2017

In the wake of the latest report, a former top U.S. diplomat on Africa has called for the sanctions to be removed. Herman Cohen, who served as assistant secretary of state for Africa between 1989 and 1993, said that the United States and Ethiopia, Eritrea's longtime rival, should sponsor a Security Council resolution to lift the sanctions.

In view of UN report clearing #Eritrea of all charges related to al-Shebab, US and #Ethiopia should jointly sponsor Security Council resolution to lift sanctions.

— Herman J. Cohen (@CohenOnAfrica) November 13, 2017

Since the 2009 Security Council resolution, the United States has imposed other, independent sanctions on Eritrea. Earlier in 2017, the State Department announced it had proscribed trading with the Eritrean navy, after the U.N. monitoring group discovered a shipment of North Korean–made military communications equipment en route to Eritrea. The United States proscribes arms trading with North Korea, Syria and Iran.

Eritrea is also on a list of countries that the U.S. says have failed to crack down on human trafficking. Other countries on the list include North Korea, Russia and Syria. The United States restricts certain forms of foreign assistance to countries on the list and stops their citizens from engaging in exchange programs with Washington.