August 23, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, examines the record of Eritrea, a country whose consulate in Oakland, California, was ordered closed last week by the U.S. State Department in response to Eritrea’s attempts to open U.S. diplomatic pouches—a hostile action forbidden by international law—and its refusal for the last two years to give visas to diplomatic personnel on temporary duty to relieve their colleagues.

In a briefing last Friday, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier acknowledged that the closure would also make it harder for the government of President Isaias Afewerki to collect its most important source of foreign exchange, the 2 percent income tax that it imposes on the Eritrean diaspora (one-fourth of the population lives abroad), including some 200,000 living in the United States. She also revealed that a dossier was being assembled with a view toward formally designating the country a “state sponsor of terrorism” subject to more serious sanctions.

According to Dr. Pham, “the shuttering of the consulate and the progress of the interagency evaluation of Eritrea’s links to terrorism come none too soon,” noting that the June 27, 2007, report to the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee by the Monitoring Group on Somalia held the country’s government responsible for massive arms shipments to Islamist militant and other insurgents in Somalia. He also cited Eritrea’s role in creating a coalition against the Somalia’s “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) and its Ethiopian backers that includes not only Somali Islamists and former members of the TFG, but also two Ethiopian rebel groups, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the ethnic-Somali Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). In addition, Dr. Pham noted the support that Eritrea’s President Isaias Efewerki has given to nearly a dozen other armed groups, mostly ethnic-based, with the aim of undermining his neighbors in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Djibouti.

The article also observes that:

And when he is not stirring up trouble abroad, Isaias Afewerki has a lot to do at home maintaining his ironclad grip on his own people. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2007 country report, Eritrea is “not free,” scoring an abysmal 7 on political freedom and 6 on civil liberties (the scale is 1 to 7, with 1 corresponding to the highest and 7 the lowest level of freedom)…Arbitrary detentions, torture, and political arrests are common. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are severely restricted and some categories of civil society organizations, like international human rights groups, are prohibited altogether; the last three international development NGOs were expelled in 2006, a year after the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was kicked out. Eritrea also enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of only eight nations singled out for designation by the U.S. State Department as “countries of particular concern” with respect to international religious freedom

Thus Dr. Pham notes in conclusion:

Much is often made of different priorities focused upon by Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon in the current war on terrorism, with the former characterized as more interested in cultivating political links and strengthening civil society voices and the latter as primarily concerned primarily with establishing security and helping allies. Whatever the truth of that generalization, in the case of Eritrea, Washington policymakers can forge a common position based on aggressively opposing the rogue regime in Asmara which, for its own reasons, is fomenting a growing cycle of violence phenomenon that not only threatens the stability of its neighbors, but, because of its support of an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency, risks opening a broad terrorist front across the entire Horn of Africa.

To read the full text of Dr. Pham’s article, “ Eritrea: The Horn of Africa’s Rogue State,” click here.