The top US diplomat for Africa welcomed a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea but said concerns over Eritrea’s human rights record hindered co-operation with Washington.
The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea re-opened crossing points on their shared border for the first time in 20 years on Tuesday, raising hopes of reduced tensions in the region.
Tibor Nagy, US State Department assistant secretary for Africa, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday the United States “deliberately engaged” with Eritrea in recent months but it was too soon to talk about lifting United Nations sanctions imposed in 2009, which accused it of supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. Eritrea denied the charge.
Among concerns the United States raised with Eritrea was detention of US embassy local staff and several Americans for what Nagy called politically-motivated reasons.
The United States also wanted a full explanation from Eritrea over past weapons purchases from North Korea highlighted in a UN report, said Nagy, without elaborating.
He said jailing religious and political prisoners and indefinite, obligatory national service, as well as a tightly-controlled system of government were also a worry.
“Eritrea cannot assume by saying wonderful things and opening good relations with the neighbours it will automatically lead to sanctions relief,” said Nagy, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.
“There have to be concrete actions taken and we will remain engaged and say things that may not always be popular but have to be said,” he added.
Eritrea has long dismissed accusations of human rights abuses by the UN, including alleged extra-judicial killings and torture, as “totally unfounded and without merit.”
The UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, backed by 13 of 15 UN Security Council members. The sanctions included an arms embargo, travel restrictions and asset freezes for some of the country’s top officials.
Warming ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia this year and sweeping reforms by Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reshaped the political landscape in the Horn of Africa.
Abiy’s ruling coalition ended a state of emergency and released political prisoners, also announcing plans to partially open up the economy to foreign investors.
In his boldest move, Abiy offered last month to make peace with Eritrea, 20 years after the neighbours started a border war that killed an estimated 80,000 people. Full-blown fighting ended by 2000, but troops faced off across their disputed frontier ever since.
“Up to now for the last 20-plus years Eritrea used Ethiopia as an excuse to maintain what I would almost call a ‘fortress state’,” Nagy said. “With the opening of peace they really will no longer have a reason to do that.”