Unlawful, Unjust, and Missing the Target: A Brief Note on US Sanctions against Eritrea

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By: Fikrejesus Amahazion (Ph.D.)

On Friday, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office imposed unilateral sanctions against Eritrean individuals, national institutions, and government entities in connection with the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia.

The move is not only unlawful and unjust, it will prove counterproductive to the cause of peace, justice, and stability in the Horn of Africa.

To begin, the adoption of unilateral coercive economic measures by the US is a flagrant breach of the fundamental principle of sovereign equality in international law and violates the basic norms of international relations as enshrined in the UN Charter, countless UN General Assembly resolutions, charters of various regional organizations, such as the Charter of the Organization of American States and the Constitutive Act of the African Union, and numerous international treaties, including the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. As stated unequivocally in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, it is only the UN Security Council that may impose measures including “interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication”.

Additionally, according to a report by the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization, imposing “unilateral and secondary sanctions on countries through application of national legislation is not-permissible under international law.” Accordingly, no nation-state – large or small, powerful or weak, rich or poor – has the legal right tocompletely bypass multilateral institutions and impose sanctions against another.

Second, the US sanctions are unjust and represent a clearattempt to shift blame for the current crisis in Ethiopia.Following years of sowing violence and chaos, as well as considerable military preparations, the TPLF staged a massive, unprovoked attack on all outposts of Ethiopia’s Northern Command in early November 2020. It also launched missiles on heavily populated civilian areas in Eritrea, including the capital, Asmara, and killed scores of Eritrean migrants.

Then when the Ethiopian government announced a unilateral ceasefire earlier this year, the TPLF responded by attacking the neighboring regions of Afar and Amhara, committing atrocities, looting humanitarian aid and property of civilians, conscripting children, and conducting a “scorched earth” policy. In recent weeks, the group has also repeatedly threatened to advance on Addis Ababa, attack foreigners, and once again invade Eritrea.

Since it began, the war in Ethiopia has involved many horrificcrimes by the parties involved. Accountability and justice should be ensured. Although it is imperative to take a critical view of and closely scrutinize all actors within conflicts, it is beyond any reasonable contention that the TPLF and its reckless, criminal actions have precipitated, prolonged, and expanded the crisis in Ethiopia.

Sanctioning Eritrea is scapegoating, pure and simple.However, it also essentially condones the TPLF’s actions andgives it little incentive to cease its violent campaign or genuinely commit to peace. Undoubtedly, the group will be emboldened by and find great encouragement in the latest US move – thus meaning that the deep suffering of many innocent people willlikely persist.

It should also be pointed out that although the US stresses the paramount importance of maintaining regional peace and stability in the Horn of Africa, it is Eritrea that has borne, for almost two decades in the recent past, the brunt of the violence, suffering, and destruction that has ensued from perennial conflict and mayhem. The basic fact is that the US extended support to the TPLF – the primary force culpable for this state of affairs – through massive economic assistance and political cover. At this stage, the US cannot, with any modicum of legitimacy, claim the moral high ground and seek to pontificate to or judge Eritrea.

The war in Ethiopia is an immense tragedy and it must stop. However, the US’ imposition of sanctions on Eritrea is not only unlawful, unjust and a clear case of scapegoating, it threatens to embolden and encourage the TPLF’s reckless campaign of violence.

The author, Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion is an educator and researcher based in East Africa.

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