Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 16 December 2003

Eritrean foreign minister views Ethiopia’s position as declaration of war


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Ali Sayyid Abdallah

Text of interview with Eritrean Foreign Minister Ali Sayyid Abdallah by Idrus Abd-al-Aziz in London; published under the headline "Eritrean foreign minister: Ethiopia’s refusal to observe border delineation decision tantamount to new war; Ali Sayyid Abdallah describes Sanaa Pact as ’deformed newborn’; we do not fear operations from opposition abroad"; published by London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsatweb site on 14 December; subheadings inserted editorially

[Abd-al-Aziz] What is the goal behind the current Eritrean tours of Europe, the US, Africa, and Middle East?

[Abdallah] As you are well aware, Ethiopia refused to implement the border decision, as expressed in the letter Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sent to the United Nations, along with his insistence not to withdraw from the Badme region, which was returned to Eritrean sovereignty by the International Court of Justice [ICJ]. As a result, Asmara viewed the Ethiopian position as unsound and inconsistent with international legitimacy. These tours come within the framework of our efforts to uncover and expose the Ethiopian position before the entire world. The tours have proven their effectiveness and we are now confident that the international community supports us on this issue since we are seeking to uphold our rights.

[Abd-al-Aziz] Did you ask British officials you met with for a specific position?

[Abdallah] Britain used to say that it is not obliged to use the sanctions weapon against Ethiopia even if Addis Ababa insisted on its non-compliance with the border decision. However, we sensed a clear transformation of this position when we met with British officials who affirmed to us that the previous position had been tainted and misunderstood. They also affirmed their support for the court’s ruling as it is a binding and final ruling which Ethiopia must respect and implement. They also pointed out that Britain’s future steps would not be unilateral but within the framework of the UN which will in turn adopt a step-by-step policy in implementing the ruling up to the point of imposing sanctions should the Ethiopian rejection persist. We consider this position to be a positive one in terms of principle, (the Algiers accord stipulates the enforcement of paragraph seven of the UN rules of procedure and requires imposing sanctions on the party violating the accord).

[Abd-al-Aziz] Do you believe that sanctions can reinstate your sovereignty over your territory?

[Abdallah] It may be useless in other regions, but it will be effective in Ethiopia’s case. Ethiopia depends heavily on assistance in the fields of aid and relief, and all this assistant comes from the West, and Europe in particular. This gives Europe pressure tools that could be effective. We have asked the Europeans to apply such pressure.

Ethiopia’s position tantamount to declaring war

[Abd-al-Aziz] Do you expect a new war to break out should the Ethiopian side insist on their refusal to hand over your territories?

[Abdallah] We view all Ethiopia’s statements and positions as a declaration of war; when Zenawi states that the international [Eritrea-Ethiopia] Boundary Commission’s decision is not binding and irresponsible, then we interpret it as a declaration of war. He said: "We are in Badme and we will not fire the first shot." This is belligerent and a scorning of international legislation. Nevertheless, we say whether or not war breaks out between us depends on the international community’s approach when dealing with this crisis along with its role in taking appropriate measures to force Ethiopia to accept the resolution, especially since the international community has jurisdictions awarded to it by the Algiers accord. We, accordingly, plead to the international community to forcefully intervene before the issue escalates because the repercussions will be severe on all should war be waged again.

[Abd-al-Aziz] Is there a timeline for Ethiopia’s fulfilment of the international community’s demands or a timeline for the enforcement of sanctions by the UN?

[Abdallah] There is no timeline. The international community and the UN are following the step-by-step approach. The steps recently started with the ICJ summon the two parties to the dispute by order of the international boundary commission. The court did not ask us any questions nor did it make any remarks or inquiries because we have carried out all that was asked of us to the letter. After the court questioned the Ethiopian side, it issued them a final warning to meet what the international boundary commission had demanded from them. Should the commission fail to force the Ethiopians to implement its decision, then it will submit a report to the UN. This would be another step to be followed by more steps in the [UN] Security Council until we reach the point of imposing sanctions.

[Abd-al-Aziz] What if the Ethiopians accept the sanctions and handle them in the same manner as Libya, Sudan, and other countries and stay in your territory, would you resort to force to regain this territory?

[Abdallah] It is too soon to tell and it is left for time to decide. Nevertheless, I say that it is the government’s duty to adopt measures which guarantee the preservation and safety of its land through political and diplomatic efforts in addition to the international community’s role.

No Eritrean troop movement along border

[Abd-al-Aziz] The movement of Eritrean forces toward the Ethiopian border and into buffer zones has recently been reported. How true are these reports?

[Abdallah] This is not true, there is no movement whatsoever. What is true is the existence of Ethiopian movements. We have lately become used to Ethiopian activity in the buffer zones before the very eyes of the international peacekeeping forces operating there. Private militias and the Ethiopian army have provoked us before and there has been looting of trade convoys for the past six to eight months. The peacekeeping forces have issued directives to stop these illegal practices in the buffer zone. In the meantime, the UN passed a resolution which calls on Ethiopia to stop this harassment.

No dialogue before demarcation

[Abd-al-Aziz] Ethiopia invited you to bilateral talks in order to resolve this issue, why did you decline?

[Abdallah] Talks over what? If they were to be about the court’s ruling, well then it is an indisputable, binding and final ruling. If the talks were to revolve other issues, then we would like to know their agenda. We heard that Ethiopian officials want an undefined dialogue with us. This is absolutely and utterly unacceptable. We affirm right now that no dialogue or normalization of relations with Ethiopia will occur until Addis Ababa implements the ruling of the court and the commission.

AU’s indifference

[Abd-al-Aziz] Why did you recall your ambassador to the African Union [AU]?

[Abdallah] It was a demonstration of objection. The AU did not bother to take any position on the border delineation issue as if it was of no concern to it even though it was one of the sponsors of the Algiers accord. What is amazing is that all the international parties such as the European Union, the UN and the Security Council demanded that Ethiopia honour the commission’s ruling whereas the AU only stood and watched.

Secret agenda

[Abd-al-Aziz] How would you evaluate the internal situation following the divisions within you ruling party and the arrest of top leaders referred to as reformists?

[Abdallah] The internal situation is more unified than before. The defection by a certain group of people calling themselves reformists is not really defection and they are not really reformists. Reality states that this group leaked information to the enemy during our war with Ethiopia and they betrayed the country. At the time we had a secret agenda known to no one in the international community, and which aimed at reinstating Eritrean domination over its territory to counter Ethiopian attacks. This group contacted the Ethiopians, leaked information to them and started cooperating with them. The government deterred them because the issue of national security is a crucial and critical one.

[Abd-al-Aziz] Will they be given a fair trial?

[Abdallah] This depends on the way they are handled; our approach is civilized in dealing with such cases and our past experiences will guide us within this field. We were faced with such cases even during the days of the liberation revolution. There will ultimately be a decision. It is a matter of time. [We] will not forget that they were once our comrades.

No war no peace situation

[Abd-al-Aziz] What is stopping you from making such a decision?

[Abdallah] Comprehensive investigations must first be concluded. In addition, many judicial and political institutions are yet incomplete and are just starting. We are on our way to their completion. We are still in a state of no peace and no war. We waged a three year long war and matters have not been normal.

[Abd-al-Aziz] So you are still in the phase you call revolutionary legitimacy; when will you turn to constitutional legitimacy?

[Abdallah] We proposed the issue of democracy back in our 1978 convention along the issues of human rights, liberties and public participation in the country’s governance. Those were our convictions and following our country’s birth 12 years ago, we initiated the democratic changeover, prepared a constitution, and were preparing ourselves to enter the next phase if it had not been for the war. We waged another war in the economic field too. Following the war, we were faced with economic challenges where growth rates had dropped beyond zero per cent after having been 7.8 per cent prior to the war, according to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund [IMF]. These have hindered our progress toward democracy.

Independent newspapers

[Abd-al-Aziz] Why did you close down independent newspapers and arrest their journalists? Does that not reflect a relapse on your part?

[Abdallah] This is a formality. There was never journalism in its true meaning and there were no professional journalists. When the government prepared the journalism law, it wanted to establish effective journalism which would assist in development and would have an effective role in the future. Certain elements took advantage of the matter; they abused the law and started receiving foreign funds. They also began contributing to internal sabotage and the transfer of information to the enemy through these newspapers. These newspapers began discussing vital issues relating to national security. We let them say whatever it is they want so that the people would recognize their level and take the decision to close them down themselves, which is what actually happened. (It is said that the decision to close down the newspapers was taken by the Eritrean National Council - the parliament - in September 2001. It is also rumoured that the decision had been taken earlier).

[Abd-al-Aziz] How do you explain the fleeing of a number of your ministry’s top diplomats in the past period in pursuit of political asylum in Europe?

Defection of diplomats

[Abdallah] We do not feel that their flight has any political significance. They are a group of people who are weak in spirit and are hired hands of the Ethiopian regime. As for diplomatic work, it is true that we had differences with some European countries but things are going well now.

[Abd-al-Aziz] Your country is constantly being accused of being a mischievous one; you have been involved in two wars in a short period of time and you have problems with your neighbours who accuse you of interfering in their internal affairs and of seeking to wreak havoc in the region?

Relations with neighbours

[Abdallah] As if you are quoting (Sudanese Foreign Minister) Mustafa Uthman Isma’il. This is what he always says in addition to what a dictatorship Eritrea is and other accusations which you have not pointed out. I always distanced myself and did not stoop down to engaging in quarrels with him, but I will answer you now and say: These allegations are Ethiopian attempts to attract parties and get them to oppose Eritrea. It has unfortunately succeeded in attracting Sudan and Yemen and in framing these relations in an alliance they called the Sanaa Alliance.

We were never a mischievous country; instead, we were victims of conspiracies woven against us ever since our country’s birth. This party wants to take this piece of our country and that one wants an island. If we stood and did nothing, our country would have been torn to pieces. We thus had to forcefully defend our rights. Sudan did not participate in attempts to seize land but it backed the Ethiopians during the war and gave the Ethiopian army right of passage through their territories as well as training Eritrean opposition members in camps owned by Bin Ladin within Sudan. We have documents to prove this.

"Paralysed newborn"

[Abd-al-Aziz] Do you have any fears from the Sanaa Alliance?

[Abdallah] This is a deformed and paralysed newborn which is not to be feared. It is powerless to do anything in the first place.

[Abd-al-Aziz] You said that [former Sudanese Speaker] Al-Turabi was behind Eritrea’s differences with Sudan but relations did not improve throughout the two years he was in prison.

[Abdallah] Indeed, nothing has changed. On the contrary Al- Turabi was wiser and less problematic for he is a man of thought, follows a clear philosophy and believes in dialogue unlike others who only believe in the logic of force. Generally, there was no big change. We severed our ties with this regime in 1994 after we were fed up with keeping track of the activities of its embassy staff and its tens of security personnel within the country. We are incapable of pursuing them so we told them to close their embassy and ease our minds. Later on, relations were re-established through the efforts of Libyan leader, Mu’ammar] Al-Qadhafi and the emir of Qatar.

Sudan’s "conspiracy"

[Abd-al-Aziz] Do you still face Sudanese threats?

[Abdallah] Had you recently listened to Mustafa Isma’il’s statements in which he said that they are working within the triple alliance’s framework on toppling the Eritrean regime and instating an alternative democratic one in Asmara as well as saving the Eritrean people, you would have been convinced that they are still targeting us. The government, by the admission of its foreign minister, is involved in a conspiracy against us.

[Abd-al-Aziz] Do you fear that the Eritrean opposition in Sudan and Eritrea [as published, presumably Ethiopia] might launch attacks against you?

Hired hands

[Abdallah] We have no fears along these lines. The elements in Sudan and Ethiopia are known to us one by one. They are weak and incapable of doing anything. It is not a true opposition; they are hired hands who sold themselves to regimes hostile to their country.

[Abd-al-Aziz] You are a member of IGAD [Inter-Governmental Authority on Development] which is sponsoring peace in Sudan. What is your contribution in this field?

US pressure on Sudanese peace talks

[Abdallah] Our contributions are numerous; we were the first to suggest the current negotiations in Kenya and we had previously made initiatives - we brought together [Sudanese President] Al-Bashir and [opposition National Democratic Alliance leader] Al-Mirghani. We would have liked to invest our relations with both sides in bringing together [rebel leader] Garang and Al-Bashir or [Sudanese vice- president] Ali Uthman Taha in something similar to what is currently happening in Kenya, but we are a small country and have no means of pressure like those available to the US in Naivasha [Kenya]. Despite all that we are doing, Mustafa Uthman Isma’il accuses us of sabotaging the negotiations and has demanded that we be distanced from them.

[Abd-al-Aziz] You spoke often of Mustafa Isma’il; do you view his criticism as personal or an expression of a government position?

[Abdallah] He is a top government official. He cannot take any decisions as an individual and what he said cannot possibly be a personal opinion but instead reflects the government’s opinion and the regime’s agenda. It can, however, be said that his exaggeration of matters arises from a personal loathing.

Peace in Sudan possible

[Abd-al-Aziz] What would your position, from the armed Sudanese factions in your territories, be, should they reject the peace between the government and Garang and insist on carrying on with their armed struggle?

[Abdallah] We are working to achieve a just and comprehensive peace which would be satisfactory to everyone and there are current indicators of this. On the other hand, should a small faction or group insist on prolonging the armed struggle and reject peace, then we will act accordingly. What I see now, and following the new developments, is that peace which appeals to everyone is possible.

Arab League’s "impotence and laziness"

[Abd-al-Aziz] Some say that you turn to the Arab League when times are hard; nevertheless, you reject its membership and accept an observer position?

[Abdallah] On the contrary, when times were hard, we were asked to join but we declined whereas when stability prevailed, we asked for an observer seat, especially following Amr Musa’s appointment and the emergence of his aspirations to develop the league and save it from its state of impotence and laziness. Allow me to say this: We did not turn to it when times were hard for a simple reason which is best described by the saying "you cannot offer what you do not own." The Arab League needs someone to help it. It is weak and incapable of taking a decision or making a stance regarding the most important decisive issues in Palestine and Iraq, but unfortunately [it] stands there watching. We, therefore, asked for an observer seat so we may closely watch any new developments. The moment we note any serious developments, we will be the first to seek membership for we are the closest of the close to the region from a geographic, cultural, and civilization perspective.

Relations with US

[Abd-al-Aziz] How is your relationship with the US, especially after you were forced out of the alliance on terrorism and replaced with Eritrea [as published, presumably Ethiopia]?

[Abdallah] The US told us at the beginning that we were within the alliance but came back to say that they had chosen Eritrea [presumably Ethiopia] and removed us from the alliance. The question is why did they include us at the beginning and why did they remove us at the end? We did not ask to join this alliance nor did we pursue it, it does not matter to whether [we are] or not part of it. What we know is that we have been fighting terrorism since 1992 and have warned of its dangers ever since [Usamah] Bin-Ladin set foot in Sudan, but to no avail. Our current relations with the US are good and we have asked them about the alliance during direct meetings but they denied what they had said through their representatives in the region. In the direct meetings, they say that we are their allies along with the Ethiopians whereas other officials in other bodies say otherwise.

BBC Monitoring Africa

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