Since the end their border war in 2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea have consolidated two of the most perfected tyrannies on the face of the African continent. Most recently Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned Ethiopia for killing over 400 & arresting thousands during mostly peaceful protests against a new government plan to expand the city limits of Addis Ababa into Oromia. Just last week a special commission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) accused Eritrea of crimes against humanity and referred members of its government to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Perhaps no other foreign country is more culpable for the deterioration of these two countries once promising trajectories than the United States (U.S.). Over the past 15 years it has developed a close security partnership with Ethiopia, preferring to pursue its counter-terrorism interests over all other interests in the region, including human rights. At its most grotesque this policy is perhaps most vividly illustrated by President Barack Obama’s incongruous comments during his historic July 2015 trip to Addis Ababa in which he referred to the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as “democratically elected” two months after the ruling party claimed 100% of seats in parliamentary elections widely viewed as illegitimate.
Not surprisingly, Washington’s unwillingness to condemn Ethiopia’s occupation of Badme & the excesses of the government have empowered the most hardline elements of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and made a political resolution with Eritrea’s equally repressive People’s Front for Democracy & Justice (PFDJ) extremely difficult. Eritrea has largely contributed to its own isolation by the actions it’s taken against its own people and neighbors but it must be understood that Washington’s partiality towards Ethiopia has also had a perverse influence on the politics of Eritrea itself. President Isaias Afwerki has been able to use U.S. acquiescence of Ethiopia’s continued occupation of Badme as a means to legitimize the complete militarization of society and prolong his rule over the country. It is in this backdrop that clashes have once again erupted along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border, this time in the Eritrean town of Tsorona.
The exact details of the events leading up to the June 12th military confrontation are not known but both sides have traded blame for the attack and Eritrea claims it has killed more than 200 Ethiopian troops and wounded more than 300. What is clear however is that the possibility of an escalation is very real. And in a neighborhood that is already struggling to cope with drought, migration, civil war, anarchy, and terrorism, the potential of Eritrea & Ethiopia returning to war would inaugurate a humanitarian crisis on an enormous scale. Although low, the horrifying prospect of such a conflict erupting requires a more urgent effort on behalf of the international community to engage both parties in a balanced discussion on how to end the standoff & normalize relations.