October 19, 2019 News

Meir Shamgar, former president of Israel’s Supreme Court, has died at the age of 94. He is one of the last members of the Jewish resistance movement that fought the British during World War Two – the Irgun. They were captured and taken to Eritrea where they were imprisoned for the duration of the conflict. Below is Justice Shamgar’s obituary and this is followed by the story I wrote for the BBC. Martin Plaut

October 18, 2019 11:35 am

Former Israeli Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar in 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

(JTA) – Meir Shamgar, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court who started his legal studies by correspondence in an Eritrean prison, has died. He was 94.

Shamgar, who was deported and jailed because of his activities with the Irgun paramilitary group, served as the head of Israel’s top court from 1983 to 1995. He had joined the court in 1975.

Among his most notable policy changes as president was to lift many limitations on who can petition the court, including nonprofit organizations. The move, which Shamgar’s allies and opponents agree laid the foundations for the court’s judicial activism approach, significantly empowered the court to intervene on government policy, making it a decider in Israeli society rather than merely an arbiter.

In a biography of Shamgar, the Supreme Court said he had been a “champion of free speech” throughout his years as a judge.

Shamgar also headed the committee of investigation that looked into the omissions exposed in the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He “had an important role in shaping the foundation of Israeli jurisprudence, including legal policy in Judea and Samaria,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said about Shamgar in a statement Friday, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.

Born in 1925 in Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, Shamgar moved to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939.

Five years later he was arrested by the British for his role in the Irgun, or Etzel, and was sent to Eritrea. In prison there, Shamgar studied law by correspondence with the University of London and, following his release, later completed studies in history and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, appointed Shamgar chief judge advocate general in 1963 – an unusual nomination because in the days leading up to Israel’s creation, Shamgar’s Irgun had been a rival group to Ben-Gurion’s Haganah.

I wrote the story about the imprisonment of the Jewish fighters for the BBC in 2002.

Here it is: Britain’s ‘Guantanamo Bay’

Border patrol in Eritrea in 1944

The controversial detention of alleged al-Qaeda members by the United States at Guantanamo Bay is not the first time difficult prisoners have been held without charge for long periods of time.

Nearly 60 years ago, Britain detained members of the Jewish underground in a similar way.

In October 1944, with the Second World War drawing to a close in Europe, Zionist groups were determined to see the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine once the fighting ended.

But a minority was not prepared to wait that long.

Two groups in particular – the Irgun and the Stern gang – waged a violent campaign against British targets, and a large number were rounded up and detained.

However detention camps in Palestine were difficult to guard, and the authorities looked for somewhere to send their troublesome prisoners, where there would be no friends or family to aid their escape.

The answer the British hit on was Eritrea, which had been captured from the Italians.

On 14 October 1944, 251 of the toughest prisoners were put on planes bound for the capital, Asmara.

Among those who were deported was a man who later became prime minister of Israel: Yitzhak Shamir (of the Stern gang).

Once there, they were sent to Sembel camp, close to the airport, and about two kilometres north of the capital.

Escape attempts

But the prisoners were well motivated, disciplined and organised, and soon set about attempting to escape.

Within weeks the first breakout occurred. The man charged with getting them back was David Cracknell, then deputy commissioner of police.

Inspector Cracknell (centre) with Eritrean colleagues

Now in retirement in Dorset in Britain, he says that during the 20 months that they were in Eritrea, there were in all about 12 escape attempts involving 107 prisoners, of whom 106 were re-captured.

The most daring escape took place in June 1946, when about 50 prisoners broke out of the camp using a 75 metre long tunnel dug under the wire.

The first that Mr Cracknell knew of the escape was when a policeman told him that there had been two or three arrests of strangely dressed individuals, speaking no known language.

One groups of escapees tried to pass themselves off as a British military platoon, complete with fake regimental cap badges, a military policemen with a red cap and white webbing belt and wooden revolver, as well as a major in charge.

Intensive search

This group commandeered a bus and set off for the Ethiopian border.

After about 50 kilometres, the bus ran out of petrol, and the escapees handcuffed the driver and conductor to the steering wheel and set off on foot.

“We spread the news around by radio and runner, and as a result the whole lot were surrounded by villagers and handed over to the police,” Inspector Cracknell remembers.

The late David Cracknell

There still remained a dozen or so at large, and an intensive search was mounted for them.

The British received help from a Yemeni Jew – part of the small Yemeni Jewish population in Asmara.

“I put him on the task of infiltrating any pro-Zionist groups he came across,” says Mr Cracknell.

“He was in touch with me for several days, saying he was making progress, and then suddenly there was no more from him.

“One morning as I got to the office a constable reported that a piece of paper was found fluttering from a window. It was from this missing informer.

“I buckled on my belt and revolver, drove to an Italian villa and went inside. One door was wedged. I put my shoulder to it and broke in.

“‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot’ came a voice from the darkness. I ordered the lights to be put on and there were eight Jews sitting there, with my informer in the corner, handcuffed and gagged.”

Slipping the net

During that time there were many escapes, and one man managed to get away – Eliyaju Lankin.

After five months he reached Djibouti via Addis Ababa, and finally sailed on a French boat to Marseilles and then on to Paris.

“His name is imprinted on my soul”, says Mr Cracknell.

Among those who attempted to get out was the future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

Cracknell received a commendation for this work

The British were alerted that a further break-out had taken place when Shamir, Meridor and some other senior prisoners were said to have gone missing.

An earlier escapee – Rahamim Mizrahi – had managed to live at large in Asmara and was known to be in touch with Jerusalem by radio to co-ordinate their efforts.

Mr Cracknell sent an Italian police inspector to make links with the Italian underworld to try to discover the whereabouts of the escapees.

“Three weeks later I got a phone call. He was in the port of Masawa. They were in hiding, awaiting the arrival of a Lloyd Triestino boat bound for Italy.

“All I could do was to ensure that no one got on that boat. And so by putting a cordon around it, by floodlighting it, even having police in rowing boats around it, I ensured that no one got on board it.

“When it sailed, I knew that they would have to come back to Asmara.”

Escape route

The Italian inspector discovered that they had arrived in Masawa by water tanker, and so offered to send them back by the same route, for a fee of £60.

His phone call came saying they were leaving at midnight. David Cracknell set an ambush, at a point seven kilometres out of Asmara. At around three o’clock a diesel engine was heard rumbling up the hill.

“As it approached, the police lorry shot across the road. Headlights came on, and the tanker screamed to a halt.

“The terrified driver in the front was handcuffed and the head of criminal intelligence was told to get into the tanker and arrest the three.

“He was very sceptical about the whole exercise. His head popped out, and he said ‘no-one here’. I told him to look down through the baffle plates (at the bottom of the tanker), which are to stop the water surging.

“And sure enough, he caught the three. We grabbed them – including a short, fair-haired chap, who turned out to be Yitzhak Shamir. They were handcuffed and taken back to the camp,” Mr Cracknell said.

It was not long after that in March 1947 when they were packed up and sent off to Gilgil camp in Kenya, where most of them remained until the declaration of the state of Israel.

On the morning of 12 July 1948 the African exile of the members of the Jewish underground ended, as they reached Tel Aviv.

Libya: Refugee protests erupt against UNHCR

Friday, 18 October 2019 20:58 Written by

October 17, 2019 News

Today refugees in UNHCR Libya’s Gathering & Departure Facility (GDF) held a demonstration.

The centre, designed to be a 24-72 hour transit facility for evacuees, has been their home for the last 3 and a half months.

The reason? They came to the centre themselves asking for help.

When the prison where they were being held indefinitely was bombed on July 2, they were left on the street with no access to aid.

So they walked 14 hours on foot to Tripoli to knock on UNHCR’s door.

They were given temporary residence there but have been explicitly told that they will not be evacuated and will soon be sent back out into the streets.

These are people who were forced out of their homes due to war, political or religious persecution, and dictatorships.

Their request? A clear understanding of the vulnerability criteria UNHCR uses for evacuations, an explanation of why they don’t meet that criteria, and a chance to appeal.

To: His Excellency Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali

Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

Addis Ababa.

Your Excellency,                     

We, the undersigned Eritrean Political Opposition Organizations and other justice seeking Eritreans in the Diaspora and at home, would like to submit this letter of unequivocal protest on your inaugural speech in the opening ceremony of the Unity Park in Addis Ababa 2019-10-10 pertaining to Eritrea.

We were deeply shocked and embarrassed to hear once again your explicit declaration of representing Eritrea in front of seven African heads of states and representatives of various international organizations, who all very well know that Eritrea is a sovereign country that achieved its independence after 30 years of protracted and costly liberation struggle and should have been represented, as customary, by one of its delegation including one of the two Eritrean ambassadors currently residing in Addis Ababa.

Your Excellency,

You formally announced that you were delegated to represent Eritrea by President Isaias Afwerki; underlined that Eritrea and Ethiopia are so intimately connected and that their relationship has reached such a level of representation, and congratulated the Ethiopian people and all for that achievement.

The Eritrean people value their freedom as well as a good relationship with Ethiopia based on mutual trust and respect. We, the Eritrean Opposition organizations and justice seekers underscore that Eritrea´s fate is decided by its own people and not by a dictator in Asmara. We stand therefore, firm to defend our hard-won independence which we see being gradually eroded and our social fabric destroyed by the dictator in Eritrea. We note and alert all concerned that the patience of our people is wearing thin and they are getting angrier by the day.

Your Excellency,

The world knows the extremely disquieting political, social, economic and human rights situation in Eritrea. It is a country without constitution, no election or elected president, no rule of law and no free press - a country where people are denied to peruse a normal life. Ethiopia and Ethiopians are a living witness of the flooding of thousands of Eritrean refugees including unaccompanied underage children entering your country every day.

The denial of our people’s sovereign and inalienable rights to elect a representative government cannot continue for too long. Until that day, no foreign leader has the legal and moral right to speak on behalf of the Eritrean people.

As we continue to struggle to ameliorate the suffering of our people, we remain certain that the hurdles we as a people face today will be history tomorrow. Peace based on the will and the power of the people will flourish and be asserted. Taking side with the Eritrean people will always be the right path for healthy and good future relations. Those who aspire for a lasting peace in the region should avoid allying with evil forces of tyranny and destruction.

We, once again, express our gratitude to the people and Government of Ethiopia for hosting thousands of Eritrean refugees and the support rendered to them in this difficult time of our history. We call upon Your Excellency, today a Nobel Peace Prize laurate, to seriously reconsider your stance on Eritrea, increase your endeavors of support and solidarity with the Eritrean people and strive at creating lasting peace in the region based on legal framework and institutional relationship between our countries.

Sincerely yours,

  1. Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change (ENCDC)
  2. Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP)
  3. United Eritreans for Justice (UEJ)
  4. Baito Yiakl North America

October 15, 2019

October 14, 2019



Chairman of Sovereignty Council, Lt. Gen, Abdul-Fattah Al-Burhan received message from the Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, SUNA reported.

The message was handed to Lt. Gen. by the special consultant of Eritrean President, Yemane Gebrab.

The message dealt with the relations between two countries and the importance of pushing them to wider horizons.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Asma Mohamed Abdalla, revealed that a meeting of experts in two countries will meet to review the joint projects that were discussed during the recent visit of the Eritrean President to Sudan.

She Affirmed the keenness of Sudan for establish firm relations with the Eritrea and all the neighboring countries.

By David Kode 6 October 2019 


Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stringer)                                                                                                                             


Sport is a major unifier among all nations and the plight of Eritrean athletes should be enough to force the international community, particularly states that now host many Eritreans, to exert pressure on President Isaias Afwerki to implement reforms, 26 years after taking power.

Not many people outside sporting circles were familiar with Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa or the plight of the Oromo people in Ethiopia before the 2016 Rio Olympic games in Brazil.

As Feyisa crossed the finish line in the men’s marathon on the final day of the Olympics, winning a silver medal, and fully aware of the glare of the international community and media, he lifted his hands over his head and crossed his wrists in a symbolic anti-government protest. He repeated the gesture as he received his silver medal – the gesticulation is a trademark sign of protest, often used by the Oromo from where Feyisa hails, against the violent repression of the government.

At the time Feyisa made this gesture the Oromo territories, home to more than a third of the population of Ethiopia, was under siege from the Ethiopian military. More than 400 Oromos had been killed and thousands arrested during protests by the Oromo in the space of several months when Feyisa demonstrated the plight of his people to the world. Feyisa knew full well that such open protest was dangerous and admitted that he could be killed if he returned home. Speaking to the media after the race, he said:

“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, taking their land and resources, so I stand with all protesters everywhere as Oromo is my tribe. My relations are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights, they are killed.”


The intersection between sport and human rights highlighted above brings me to the main issue of this article – how Eritrean sportsmen and women indirectly reveal the state of human rights at home, but how very few people are taking notice.

A few days ago, five players from the Eritrean under 20 football team absconded from their hotel in Jinja, Uganda in the middle of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations Challenge Cup. The players are likely to seek asylum in Uganda and turn their backs on Eritrea for good if the political situation remains the same.

While there is a long history of African athletes abdicating from national sports teams while representing their nations at international sporting events, the peculiarities that force many Eritreans to do so are quite different.

Many of the sportsmen and women from other African countries who leave their camps during international sporting events target mainly countries in the global north with buoyant economies and sometimes better policies on asylum seekers. They do so mostly to seek green pastures and better economic opportunities. Admittedly, some also do so to escape conflicts and civil war. Eritreans for their part have used sporting events as a means to escape from compulsory military service that has been described by some as a form of slavery.

In October 2015, 10 players from the Eritrean soccer team the Red Sea Camels defected after playing in a World Cup qualifying match against the Botswana national team.

Military service is compulsory for all Eritreans at 18 years old and above. While the policy governing this stipulates military service will be done for 18 months, in practice the military service is indefinite.

For example, since the practice was made official by the government in 1994, no Eritrean has been officially released from military service. Conscripts receive meagre monthly wages (approximately $60 on average) that do not cover basic living expenses and others are not paid. Many spend months at the infamous Sawa military camp with limited food and water, often in very high temperatures. Those who violate even the most basic instructions are subjected to harsh punishment. Others work in mines and construction sites and females are often forced to do domestic work and sometimes subjected to abuse and ill-treatment.

Eritreans, therefore, face two options – undertake military service or flee. Until recently, the Eritrean government often cited the existential military threat from its neighbour Ethiopia as the main reason it continued the policy, but even after the two countries signed a joint declaration of peace, friendship and comprehensive co-operation in July 2018, forced conscription continues.

The compulsory military service and the abuse that comes with it should not be viewed in isolation and must be seen within the context of the nature of the Eritrean state.

Eritrea became a closed state in 2001 when the government shut down all independent newspapers, arrested journalists and government representatives that called for democratic reforms and who were critical of the government of President Isaias Afwerki. The whereabouts of most of those arrested in 2001 are not known and many have not been in touch with relatives since. There has been no election since independence from Ethiopia in 1991, the rule of law is absent, the state is heavily militarised and a constitution approved in 1997 has never been implemented.

Forced conscription is the main driving force pushing Eritrean sportsmen and women to abdicate and not return to Eritrea, but the propaganda of the Eritrean government and the conflict “fatigue” experienced by the United Nations and African Union often preoccupies the international community and limits discussions on actions against the Eritrean state that will force it to implement reforms.

After all, they argue, it is a sovereign state and not at war, so other countries engulfed in intra-state conflict should be prioritised. The closed nature of the Eritrean state and the absolute control of the media by the government means up-to-date information on the state of human rights is mostly obtained from Eritreans who have fled from home.

Eritrean authorities have used diplomacy and coercion to force governments of countries where Eritreans have abdicated, to force them to return home. The Eritrean government has also adopted some stringent measures to ensure Eritrea’s presence at major sporting events by recruiting Eritrean athletes who hold dual nationality into its national teams. It has also now imposed compulsory financial bonds on Eritrean professional soccer players who intend to represent Eritrea in international sporting events to deter sportsmen from abdicating and to guarantee they return after sporting events.

Sport is a major unifier among all nations and the plight of Eritrean athletes should be enough to force the international community, particularly states that now host many Eritreans, to exert pressure on President Afwerki to implement reforms, 26 years after taking power.

As a first step, all states should respect the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and provide Eritreans with the administrative, social, and psychological support they need to enable them to settle when they abdicate. Family members of those who abdicate sometimes face the wrath of the Afwerki regime. Anyone who may be forcefully repatriated after they abdicate may never be seen or heard from again once they arrive in Eritrea.

The long-term solution is for other African states, the African Union and the United Nations to stop treating Eritrea like a normal state because it is not. The joint declaration of peace, friendship and comprehensive cooperation signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea last year seems like a missed opportunity for the international community to hold President Afwerki accountable for his human rights record.

Many Eritreans will continue to flee as long as the status quo remains the same but where politics has not been enough to jerk the international community into action against Eritrea, perhaps sports can. DM

David E Kode, advocacy and campaigns lead, Civicus.


Ethiopia gets tough with Egypt over Nile dam

Sunday, 06 October 2019 20:30 Written by

Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Horn of Africa, Uncategorized

In a rare show of anger, the Ethiopian government has told the Egyptians that they will insist on scientific evidence over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD].
5 Oct 2019
The Government of Ethiopia affirms its position to advance the trilateral technical dialogue concerning the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The Water Affairs Ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met in Khartoum on 04 and 05 October 2019. Prior to the Ministers’ meeting, the National Independent Scientific Research Group of the three countries met in Khartoum on 30 September – 03 October 2019.

The Government of Ethiopia is of the conviction that the technical consultation must continue, as it presents the only option for resolution of differences among the three countries with respect to filling and operation of the GERD. Although the unilateral proposal on technical aspects of filling and operation of the GERD by the Government of Egypt side-steps the working procedure of the NISRG and disrupted the ongoing process, the Water Affairs Ministers in their meeting in Cairo on 15 and 16 September 2019 instructed the NISRG to discuss and analyze the filling and operation plan of Ethiopia and the submissions of Egypt and Sudan on technical aspects of filling and operation.

Based on the direction given by the Water Affairs Ministers meeting in Cairo, the NISRG considered Ethiopia’s filling and operation plan of the GERD, and the proposals of Egypt and the Sudan. The deliberation of the Scientific Research Group was based on an outline adopted by consensus between the three country teams. The Group reached an agreement on some points while some other issues remain outstanding. These points of divergence could be resolved through further deliberation by the NISRG.

The filling plan of Ethiopia that is set to be completed in stages that will take four to seven years based on the hydrology is considerate of the interests of the downstream countries of the Nile. Furthermore, Ethiopia and Sudan followed a constructive and inclusive approach for the discussion of the NISRG. Whereas, the Egyptian Side persisted on its position of having all its proposals accepted without which it was not willing to have the NISRG conduct its analysis.

This approach by the Government of Egypt is not new. Rather, it is yet another instance of a disruptive tactic it applied to halt the hydrology, environmental and social impact assessment on the GERD. Ethiopia maintains its stand on the possibility of resolving the issues based on trilateral technical consultation and the invocation of principle X of the DOP is premature.
Despite the tireless efforts of the Ministers of Water Affairs, during their two days meeting to consider the progress of the work of the NISRG, they did not manage to put a direction on the way forward due to the predetermined plan of the delegation of Egypt to make the process fail.

The proposal by the Government of Egypt to invite third party in the discussions is an unwarranted denial of the progress in the trilateral technical dialogue and violates the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles signed by the three countries on 23 March 2015. It also goes against the consent and wishes of Ethiopia and the Sudan; it negatively affects the sustainable cooperation between the Parties; undermines the ample opportunity for technical dialogue between the three countries; and disrupts the positive spirit of cooperation.

Additionally, the proposal to subject the discussion on filling and operation of the GERD to a political forum is unjustified by the nature of the outstanding technical issues. It also contravenes the direction given by the leaders of the three countries given to the Water Affairs Ministers to resolve the technical issues related to filling and operation of the Dam, it will also not allow attainment of a successful resolution of the technical issues.

The Government of Ethiopia believes the existing mechanisms of cooperation will allow resolution of differences and reminds the need to refrain from negative media and other campaigns that will have no other effect than eroding the confidence among the three countries.

The Government of Ethiopia will reinforce its efforts to realize development of its water resource to meet the present and future needs of its people that deserve development and adequate standard of living.

Ethiopia upholds the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm on any other riparian country in the use of the waters of the Nile. Furthermore, the Government of Ethiopia will continue to follow an approach that will not result in direct or indirect recognition of any preexisting water allocation treaty, which has no applicability whatsoever on Ethiopia.

October 5, 2019 Eritrea, Research & information

This research – provided by the European Asylum Support Office [EASO] – forms the background for EU countries, when drawing up policy on refugee and asylum cases. Below is their introduction and a link to the full report.

EASO publishes a Country of Origin Information (COI) report on Eritrea

  • 30th September 2019

Today, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) published a Country of Origin Information (COI) report on Eritrea. The report provides updated information on selected topics (national service, exit from Eritrea, and treatment of returnees), relevant for international protection status determination. Between August 2018 and July 2019, more than 14 475 Eritrean applications were registered in the EU+ countries.1

This EASO COI report on Eritrea was drafted by the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), Division Analysis. The report updates and expands on the EASO COI report on national service and illegal exit (in Eritrea) from 2016. It provides a brief overview of Eritrea’s latest political developments, in the period 2016-2019, including the rapprochement with Ethiopia, the legal framework in force, and the relevant human rights issues. For the same reference period, the report then focuses on three main topics: (1) structure and functioning of the national service; (2) legal and illegal exit from the country; (3) voluntary and forced return. Transversally to the above mentioned subjects, the report details forms of punishment and treatment of deserters, draft evaders, persons illegally exiting the country, and returnees. Besides relevant public and governmental sources, the report relies extensively on interviews with key informants and experts, which were mostly carried out in the period May-July 2019.

The report was peer reviewed by EASO and other COI researchers from the following national asylum authorities: Germany, Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Country Analysis; and Sweden, Swedish Migration Agency, Section for Information Analysis. The report was drafted and reviewed in accordance with EASO’s COI Report Methodology.

The report can be downloaded from the EASO COI portal.

Source: Xinhua| 2019-10-02 22:51:14|Editor: Mu Xuequan

BUIKWE, Uganda, Oct. 2 (Xinhua) -- Five Eritrean Under 20 team footballers have disappeared in Uganda ahead of their game against Kenya in the ongoing regional football tournament, a top official said on Wednesday.

Aimable Habimana, the Chairman of the Organising Committee of the Council of East and Central African Football Associations (CECAFA) told Xinhua in an interview that the players disappeared on Tuesday.

"The five players are missing at the Speke Apartments. We are hoping that they will have a full team to continue with the tournament," Habimana said in the central Ugandan district of Buikwe where the CECAFA U-20 tournament is taking place.

During training on Tuesday the Eritrean team only had 14 members minus the five players. They are supposed to face Kenya in one of the semifinals on Wednesday.


An aerial view of part of the Red Sea coast, with hotels and resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh, is seen through the window of an airplane, Egypt, December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh - GF10000257526
Order from Chaos

 Zach Vertin Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Red Sea has fast become an arena of geopolitical intrigue, as new engagement between Gulf and African states is challenging old assumptions and erasing old boundaries. Expanding economic and strategic interests are driving unprecedented activity on both shores, while great powers pay increasing attention to the maritime gem in the middle, the Bab al Mandab—a strategic chokepoint and gateway to one of the world’s most heavily-trafficked trade waterways.


Zach Vertin

Visiting Fellow - Brookings Doha Center

Nonresident Fellow - Foreign Policy

Here, at the nexus of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a series of state actors—with different cultures, different models of government, and different styles of diplomacy—are feeling each other out. Opportunities and risks abound, and as in any emerging frontier, the rules of the game are yet to be written.

Establishing a “Red Sea forum,” where concerned states might come together to discuss shared interests, identify emergent threats, and fashion common solutions, is a sensible next step. Efforts are underway to shape such a collective, and as leaders from these rapidly integrating regions sketch further blueprints, four design elements are worthy of consideration.

The Context

But first, some context. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have each deepened relations with states in the Horn in recent years, hoping to win friends, investments, and influence. (Reviews to date are mixed; some African states have reaped benefits while others have been destabilized.) The most tangible manifestation of this engagement has been a real-estate boom on the African coast, where new military bases and seaports have accompanied diplomatic and commercial investments in Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Sudan.

Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn, also figures prominently in the new calculus, as does sometimes-rival Egypt, home to the Red Sea’s longest mainland coastline. Since mid-2017, these new forays into the Horn have also been colored by the Gulf crisis, a toxic feud that has infected politics in several African states as rival camps vie for access. Yemen rounds out the dizzying chessboard, where the onset of war deepened interest in strategic access to nearby African shores as well as control of the Red Sea’s southern gate.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in annual trade flows through this 20-mile wide waterway each year en route to Europe, Asia, and the Gulf. The narrow strait is also critical for freedom of navigation throughout the Mediterranean and Western Indian Ocean, thus making it the subject of interest in Washington, Brussels, and most recently, Beijing. The recent arrival of the Chinese navy in Djibouti—the tiny port nation already host to the U.S. and four other foreign militaries—means the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are now also a theater for great power rivalry. (Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and Japan have all signaled interest in establishing a military footprint here, too.)

The Idea

As I argued recently in Foreign Affairs, the idea of a Red Sea forum, as advanced by some forward-thinking diplomats in the region and in the West, is a good one. Such a collective could confront issues as diverse as trade and infrastructure development, maritime security, mixed migration, environmental protection, and conflict management. For example, tens of thousands of irregular migrants leave the Horn of Africa each year en route to the Gulf, often by way of Yemen. Meanwhile, huge numbers of Yemeni refugees, displaced by war, flee in the opposite direction—ending up not only elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, but across the Horn of Africa. States on both shores would benefit from a common conversation about this increasingly complex landscape, especially in the event of a post-war transition in Yemen.

One issue must ripen before this aspirational forum can become a reality, however, and another before its value can be fully realized. First, Gulf Arab states should resolve (or otherwise de-escalate) the ongoing Gulf crisis, which has polarized the Red Sea region and will complicate the participation not only of its feuding protagonists but also of their African allies. Second, states in the Horn should coordinate efforts toward re-balancing what are, at present, deeply asymmetric relationships with small, wealthy Arab monarchies. This will not happen overnight, of course, but the sweeping political and economic changes currently underway in Ethiopia and across the Horn provide a starting point. To be clear, the transformational potential of these transitions is matched only by their potential to destabilize, but success advancing domestic reforms, coupled with progress toward regional integration, could allow these African states to come to a Red Sea forum on a more equal footing.

Early attempts to convene Red Sea states have encountered obstacles, but these efforts will, and should, continue.

Mostly recently, Saudi Arabia attempted to take the lead, inviting foreign ministers to Riyadh under the banner of “Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden”. But the meeting’s lackluster result reflected not only insufficient diplomatic advance work, but differing views over composition and objectives. Ethiopia was not invited, for example, reportedly at the request of Egypt. Cairo’s attempts to exclude Addis Ababa are not really about Ethiopia’s littoral deficit, but about competition over regional influence and the hotly contested waters of the Nile.

African institutions have also initiated efforts toward a Red Sea collective; the African Union issued a mandate to build consensus around a Forum, while IGAD— Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African bloc—recently issued a communiqué committing its members to “formulate shared norms” and develop “common goals” on the Red Sea agenda. But such collaboration has yet to materialize. Eritrea, a key player, has so far resisted, a familiar posture given its president’s aversion to multilateral fora that might cede any authority (it was also a no-show at the Saudi ministerial).

European partners have also signaled interest in supporting a forum, given considerable investments in the region and a desire for secure shipping lanes and stable migration flows. New U.N. Security Council member Germany, together with EU officials, first invited Red Sea states to a gathering on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018. But it also failed to launch, felled not only by disagreements over whom should be at the table, but whether the West should be involved at all.

Such fits and starts are to be expected as a diverse group of states attempt to forge a new diplomatic framework, especially as the boundaries of this new arena are still being defined. Champions of a Red Sea forum are right to continue the legwork in the meantime, narrowing gaps and laying a foundation for when the moment is right. Lessons may also be drawn by examining other such fora—curiosity has been expressed, for example, about both ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the Baltic Sea Forum. As efforts mature and blueprints are revised, Red Sea states and interested partners should consider the following four elements.

The Design Elements

1Ethiopia must be party to any forum. The fact that the country of 100 million doesn’t technically have any Red Sea coastline isn’t grounds to exclude one of the region’s most important players—a country of keen interest to Gulf actors and a lynchpin of politics, economics, and infrastructure development across the Horn. Other “neighborhood” states with important interests and relationships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden should likewise be involved in some fashion, including the UAE, Qatar, and Oman.

2This critically important mechanism should not be misappropriated for use as a military bloc against Iran. (Some believed this was among Riyadh’s motivations in January.) Regional security can and should be an anchor of Red Sea dialogue, but it must not dominate the agenda, distract from a broader menu of shared interests, or risk further polarizing the region.

3Red Sea states should build into the forum a mechanism for coordination with third-tier partners outside the region—including the United States, Europe, and China. Whether the billions in seaborne trade, the ongoing war in Yemen, the development budgets flowing to the region, or the premium on free navigation in this corridor, each of these outside actors have interests in—and are already present on—the Red Sea. A forum cannot, and should not, include everyone, lest it succumb to the lowest-common denominator generalities that have sunk many a multilateral talk-shop. But neither should its core members deny that outside actors have vested interests—or turn away the partnerships and capital investments that would likely accompany new cooperation.

4The mechanism can and should aim to be flexible—more “venue” than “organization.” Every country need not convene on every issue; some matters may be dealt with more efficiently by a subset of states, others will benefit from broad participation of members and partners.

The architects and masons of a Red Sea forum have more work to do, and these design elements may help. More obstacles may be to come, but stability and prosperity in an increasingly complex neighborhood depends on their project.


September 22, 2019 News

Drawing delegates from across Britain and from further afield, Saturday’s symposium was a display of unity and diversity.

Eritreans came together to say ‘Enough!’ to the dictatorship and explore how to move forward. It was a sign of strength and optimism across the diaspora.