In early December of last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening existing sanctions on the State of Eritrea. UNSC 2023, which passed by a vote of 13-0 with two abstentions, was the direct outcome of a scathing report published by the UN’s Somalia Monitoring Group in July of 2011. The report chronicled, in some detail, the full gambit of Eritrea’s destabilizing activity in the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea’s material assistance to Somalia’s Al-Shabaab.
Critics of the resolution have focused their attention on the veracity of the SMG’s claims, and by extension, the fairness of the UNSC 2023. While the truth of Eritrea’s activity in the HOA remains difficult to discern, it is clear that the UNSC resolution was somewhat arbitrary: Al-Shabaab has a number of external supporters, of whom Eritrea is likely the most marginal. But the discussion of “fairness” is beside the point, as such principles, though often invoked in international politics, are rarely of consequence. Power matters on the international stage, and for Eritrea, it is a commodity in short supply.
Intellectually, there are two more interesting questions that need to be considered. First, what will be the effects of resolution 2023 on Eritrea and the region? Second, given that UNSC sanctions are rare (only 11 UNSC sanctions regimes are currently in place), how was the resolution passed? In this post, I focus on the former.
The Ambiguous Resolution
The conventional wisdom about UNSC 2023 is that the resolution lacks teeth, particularly when compared to its original draft (which would have installed the most far-reaching sanctions regime currently on the books). Beyond a call that member states demonstrate “vigilance” in ensuring that revenue from Eritrea’s mining sector is not used for nefarious purposes, and new strictures that prevent the use of extortion in the collection of Eritrea’s diaspora tax, the resolution does little to modify its predecessor, UNSC 1907.
Yet this view must be squared with the reality that the Eritrean government fought tooth and nail, to the eleventh hour, to prevent the resolution’s passage. If UNSC 2023 was a paper tiger, why did it cause such alarm in Asmara? Surely, for a government whose reputation was already in tatters, public image concerns did not loom large.
The real threat that UNSC 2023 poses to the Eritrean government is rooted in the resolution’s ambiguity. In mandating that member states shall “undertake appropriate measures” in regulating Eritrea’s mining sector and collection of its diaspora tax, UNSC 2023 provides national governments free reign in targeting Eritrea’s primary revenue generating activities. Since “appropriate measures” are never defined , nor the circumstances under which these “appropriate measures” may be deployed, Eritrea could face an avalanche of national level regulation that severely curtails its freedom of action. (Note: Even if further action is not taken by UN member states, the resolution creates so much uncertainty that the effects on foreign direct investment are likely to be significant).
Indeed, there is ample precedent for this sort of scenario, which is a key reason China and Russia were reluctant to support 2023. UNSC 1973, an ambiguous resolution that authorized member states to protect Libyan civilians during the recent civil war, was liberally interpreted by western governments as a legal justification for regime change. In this sense, what makes UNSC 2023 so dangerous to Eritrea, is not what it officially sanctions, but what it fails to proscribe.
The relevant point here, is that when one peers beyond the public posturing of concerned parties, there is ample reason to believe that UNSC 2023 could have a severe impact on the way the Asmara conducts its business.
An Eritrean Shift?
The logic of UNSC sanctions, in most cases, is to generate some change in behavior on the part of a target state. Will UNSC 2023 spur a rapprochement between Eritrea and its regional and western critics? Will Eritrea bend to pressure?
The empirical record of UNSC sanctions is mixed. The collective weight of sanctions eventually prompted Qadaffi to take partial responsibility for 1989 bombing of Pan Am 103. But the current hand-wringing over the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs suggests that UNSC sanctions don’t always produce their intended effects.
The point raised earlier is important. If UN member states use 2023 as an opportunity to produce national level regulations curtailing the Eritrean government’s ability to generate revenue, then there will be real incentive for Eritrea to change its behavior. This could produce a diplomatic thaw, and possibly, an end to Eritrea’s isolation on the world stage.
However, if UN member states fail to take further action, UNSC 2023 will have produced the worst of both worlds: the resolution will create more hostility in Asmara towards neighboring countries, the UN, and major international powers, while failing to provide a compelling motive for Eritrea to curb its alleged destabilizing activity in the Horn of Africa.