Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Princeton Lyman: Previous attempts to ‘bring Eritrea in from the cold’ have proved difficult, but we should still try

Ambassador Cohen is right that ending the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is long overdue and would be of great benefit to both countries and the region. The same is true for better relations between Eritrea and the US. But Ambassador Cohen does not mention that the African Union was instrumental in calling for United Nations Security Council sanctions against Eritrea. Not a few Africa countries have been upset by perceived Eritrean actions either in Somalia or elsewhere in pursuing its conflict with Ethiopia. Eritrea has become somewhat of an outlier. And rapprochement has proved difficult.

In 2008, when I was at the Council on Foreign Relations I made a major effort to bring Eritrea and the US together. After months of discussion on how to do this, I suggested to the Eritrean ambassador the Council sponsor a meeting between Eritrean officials and a distinguished group of Americans no longer in government, but with strong backgrounds in the region, to discuss the whole range of issues between our two countries. The idea was that if the meeting were to go well, someone from the administration would join opening the way to more formal government-to-government meetings.


The Eritrean ambassador assured me his government had approved this proposal. I persuaded the outgoing Bush administration to hold off on a designation of Eritrea as a state sponsor of terrorism to give this meeting a chance. Though skeptical, the administration agreed. The list of Americans I had contacted and who had agreed to sit down with such a delegation for two days was impressive, including many former diplomats who had served in the region and others active in humanitarian program in Eritrea. What was still missing was the list of Eritrean participants. Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, the Eritrean ambassador traveled home, promising me a list of Eritrean delegates when he returned. I did not hear back from him for months. When he finally contacted me, he told me that President Isaias had in fact killed the idea.

This is not to say that improvement in relations between the US and Eritrea does not remain desirable. Nor that any opening to settle the dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia should not be seized. But it does reflect the reality that the government of Eritrea does not make it easy for such rapprochement. After all this time, and with so much suspicion and accusations, these processes cannot be solved by meetings that have strict preconditions, as Eritrea has often insisted upon, nor without a readiness to address the several issues at stake not just one. Perhaps another try at second track diplomacy might help to start the dialogue. I encourage Ambassador Cohen to pursue that and other ways to advance these worthy goals.
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