Skip to content

What About Those Sanctions on Eritrea?

I think it is important that before any major decision, particularly one that can be charged with emotion, that one take pause, reflect, then come to a decision. It is in the this vein that I waited to discuss the actions that have been taken against Eritrea by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) at the end of last year.1 The most common talking point taken from the resolution is that of the arms sanction on Eritrea (note paragraph 5) and it is on this point that we ought to focus.

Because I have already discussed my feelings about what some purport to be journalism ( here ),  I will not discuss the “media’s” discussion about the topic ( though I will recommend that written by others: here2 and here3 ). Though it is important to note the media response to the sanctions, at this stage it is more important to understand its context. Because the market for news regarding Eritrea is still small, an echo chamber quickly develops and so the media discourse is volatile. To understand the source of this volatility in regards to the sanctions we will discuss a couple aspects here.

Of most importance is the effectiveness of sanctions to achieve a political aim. After all, if they are ineffective, why bother at all? This discussion has been going on in the Iranian sphere for years as the Islamic Republic has endured decades of unilateral, and soon multilateral sanctions. In a somewhat dated piece from 1991, Hofbauer, et al. concludes that the effectiveness of trade sanctions is essentially limited to destabilization.4 If this is the case, is this really the result that we want to see in the Horn of Africa? After all, since the 2005 election crisis in Ethiopia and a number of internal conflicts, that country is a mess, Somalia has been in trouble for the past two decades, Djibouti is focused on an internal conflict between the Issa and Afar, Sudan is struggling with half a dozen internal conflicts as well as an International Criminal Court warrant for it’s President, and finally Yemen is engulfed in two separatist rebellions and a massive al-Qaeda threat. In light of these neighbors, it is surprising that Eritrea is not bolstered by the international community as opposed to being sanctioned sanctioned by it.

Just as important though to the discussion of whether or not they are effective is, are they just? “One of the strategic dilemmas the Security Council faces when imposing an arms embargo is whether such action will inadvertently benefit one of the parties in a conflict.”5 This is particularly important in the case of S/RES/1907 (2009) because Eritrea is not a direct combatant in the conflict. As such the logic for restricting arms sales, transfers and training to Eritrea is limited. What should be considered is bolstering the monitoring capability of  the Somalia Sanctions Monitoring Group to actually prevent the transfer of arms. If this would be the logical course of action there must be another motive. The case of these arms sanctions on Eritrea are one of the few that have happened to a country under occupation. Ironically, the last time an arms sanction was levelled against a country that was under occupation was Eritrea in 2000,6 when Ethiopia thrust itself onto undisputed Eritrean territory. It is in this vein, and perhaps even in the Djibouti context (Djibouti is also permitted the sale and transfer of weapons and/or training of soldiers, however a Permanent Member of the UNSC, France, has a mutual defense treaty with it), that the un-justness of these sanctions must be seen.

Perhaps this is the context we and the media ought to be discussing the sanctions imposed on Eritrea. Either way, we should recognize that our actions will have lasting consequences in the region, just as the Security Council’s federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia led to a decades long conflict and lasting tension. If we want a settled, sustainable peace in the future we must work for it today, a role Eritrea has tried to play in the region.

Note: Parade magazine has an interesting table of trade sanctions (general, not isolated to arms), and their consequences.7 It should be noted however, that these are unilateral sanctions, as opposed to the UNSC sanctions on Eritrea which are multilateral and their implementation obligatory to each member State. Evidently the Administration (President Obama’s) was irritated enough by this short piece that they issued a direct response.


  1. S/RES/1907 (2009)  

  2. Abdul Nabi Shaheen (05 February 2010). “Imperial designs”. Gulf News (Dubai).  

  3. Sophia Tesfamariam (2010). “Deciphering UN Security Council Resolution 1907 (2009)?” American Chronicle.  

  4. Hufbauer, Gary Clyde; Schott, Jeffrey J.; Elliott, Kimberly Ann; (2009). “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered”. Peterson Institute for International Economics  

  5. Cortright, David; Lopez, George A.; Gerber, Linda (2002). “Working Paper 02-2 – Sanctions Sans Commitment: An Assessment of UN Arms Embargoes”  

  6. S/RES/1298 (2000)  

  7. Webber, Rebecca (2009). “Do Trade Sanctions Work?” Parade (New York).  

Published inNews