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Interview with Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the President’s Office

[Eritrea] Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the President's Office.
Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the President's Office. (Corinne Archer)

In a wide-ranging interview, Yemane Gebremeskel, Director of the President’s Office and presidential spokesman, explains Eritrea’s position over the border issue. He also discusses the attitude of the international community, as well as domestic issues including the detainees, religious and press freedom, and national elections. (This follows earlier interviews with other government leaders in the Horn of Africa).

QUESTION: How long is Eritrea prepared to put up with the stalemate over the border issue?

ANSWER: To begin with we don’t consider it a stalemate for a number of valid reasons. We have a legal decision. This is in accordance with the Algiers agreements. In legal terms Ethiopia’s obligations are very clear, the obligations of the international community are crystal clear, so it’s not a stalemate in the sense that the case has not been settled or because there are outstanding legal issues. The only problem is that one party is reneging on its commitments, but this is not a party that can impose its will. I don’t think Ethiopia can defy international law for long. It is too much dependent on international assistance. So perhaps we have to continue with our diplomatic efforts, but I don’t consider it a stalemate and I don’t think it’s unlimited.

Q: Why did you refuse to receive [the UN special envoy Lloyd] Axworthy?

A: I think with Axworthy we’ve made our position extremely clear. It has nothing to do with the professional competence of the person involved or his diplomatic skills. The main problem is his mandate is not clear because in the correspondence we got he seems to have either assumed for himself or think that in the mandate given to him that he is going to revise the Algiers agreements. That’s not acceptable, that’s a violation of the treaty. He cannot look into a decision that is final and binding. We’ve said in the Algiers agreements there’s no provision for a special envoy. There are no ambiguities.

Normalisation is also out of the question. Normalisation is an agenda that we’ll have to pursue at one time in an incremental way, but when the right environment is there. The moment the causes of war are removed we’re ready, if not to forgive and forget, to go back and slowly cultivate the relations that existed before.

Q: But for the sake of diplomacy, wouldn’t you allow him to come to tell him your position face to face?

A: He knows our position, but to engage with him in an official manner would imply that we are engaging him in whatever he plans to do. There’s no point in receiving him for the sake of courtesy simply to repeat what we have officially told the secretary general or the Security Council members. They know our position. If you receive him one time, then the second time you’ll have to deal with whatever ideas he has and we are not prepared to entertain those kinds of ideas. It’s very sincere, it’s very frank and we have all the respect for the person of the envoy but we are not prepared to contemplate or receive any envoy.

The Security Council has a legal obligation because it’s a guarantor and also because it has implications for international peace and security. If its resolutions are not observed, it will have to do something. Our position is very clear, we’ve been sending letters, we’ve been lobbying diplomatically. The Security Council should invoke chapter 7 and impose appropriate measures. What we want is to see tangible progress on demarcation, we want to see our border demarcated, we want to see peace and we want to see international law respected. What we can’t accept is when the Security Council fails to do its part and comes up with solutions that are not legally tenable and that are not fair.

Q: The international community accuses Eritrea of being difficult. Do you accept that?

A: I think that might be a big generalisation. We might have problems with some of our partners on issues which have nothing to do with the present conflict, but I guess that’s normal. We are a sovereign nation and we are very much interested in strengthening our ties with everybody, but on certain issues that we strongly believe in, we have the right to chart our own ways. If someone wants to compromise our sovereign rights, we’re not going to do that, it’s as simple as that.

Q: If demarcation took place in the east, as has been proposed, wouldn’t it be a guarantee against Ethiopia laying claim to the port of Assab any time in the future?

A: Demarcation has to be in segments purely for procedural reasons but it is one entire process. We did not oppose demarcation starting in the east as long as this is not partial demarcation, as long as this is a continual process. But Ethiopia has no reason to invade Eritrea or to claim Assab. Assab is uncontested sovereign Eritrean territory and neither this government nor future Ethiopian governments have any reason whatsoever to entertain that idea. We’re not going to pre-empt this eventuality through some kind of accommodation of this sort [partial demarcation]. You don’t need incentives or inducements to persuade Ethiopia not to invade Eritrean territory.

Q: Is dialogue before demarcation totally out of the question?

A: Yes, because, dialogue about what? To begin with you need the minimum environment. You need confidence building measures and the confidence building measures have to be relevant, have to be meaningful, have to be sincere. If Ethiopia proposes regional confidence building measures while its position on the main issue remains intransigent, it’s not going to mean anything. The first confidence building measure Ethiopia has to do is to withdraw from the territory it occupies and allow [displaced] people to return to their villages. What are we going to resolve through dialogue? Certainly not the boundary.

Q: Some critics say Eritrea prefers the status quo regarding the border issue because it diverts attention from internal issues. How do you react to that?

A: If there are armchair analysts somewhere in Europe who have no job to do but speak on things they don’t know, let them enjoy that luxury.

Q: There has been no mention of the detainees for some time. What’s the current situation and is Eritrea planning to make any announcement soon about their fate?

A: This is a very clear-cut issue. These are not political detainees in the sense that these are not people who have been imprisoned because they expressed, as some say, alternative ideas on how the country should be governed etcetera. These are people who betrayed the country at a critical time, who tried to oust the president through unlawful means during a time of war, during Ethiopia’s third invasion in May [2000], who even tried to establish a liaison with Ethiopia. The matter was discussed at the national assembly here and they were condemned for their actions and the parliament mandated the government to handle the issue in an appropriate way.

How it will be handled, when they will be brought to court, if they will be brought to court or if there will be another solution, is a sovereign matter for the government. Two years is not a long time because if you take the severity of their actions and if we also take into account that this is not a time of peace, it’s a time of no-war, no-peace. There are other issues involved. Why are people talking a lot? The former Derg officials who were detained by Ethiopia are still in prison, almost 13 years after Mengistu was ousted. They were brought to court or the charges were brought in 1995 or 1996, five or six years after their detention. There are other places at war and we all know how these issues are handled. So what’s peculiar about Eritrea? Why are we talking about political detainees?

So for people to say Eritrea prefers the state of no war, no peace - that is cynical to me. We started the [political] processes before the war and they were moving smoothly. The war created obstacles and in some aspects did not enable us to move at the pace we would have wanted to move. Now there is relative peace and even in the last two years there has been a lot of progress in terms of elections for local government. This time round there will be elections for regional assemblies etc. So wherever there is an opportunity, the government embarks on this process. But at the end of the day, survival is paramount. It all depends on whether we’ll be allowed to live in peace or not. And if we have to postpone certain issues, then they will be postponed. This is not like baking a cake, it’s nation building and what do we care whether something happens today or next year as long as the process is right, as long as it’s done in accordance with our wishes, the wishes of the population and is not imposed.

Q: But isn’t Eritrea different because these people made so many sacrifices to bring you to where you are now? Aren’t they entitled to something more than just disappearing for so long?

A: They have not disappeared. Nobody denies the contributions of everybody and it’s clear that they are former leaders, they are former heroes. But then those in government are also equally former leaders, in fact it is the entire population. This has been a long war where literally every family has paid a sacrifice so in that sense it’s everybody, and you’re talking about 11 members of 150-strong national assembly.

Q: But they are very prominent.

A: Yes, they are prominent but those in government are also very prominent. It’s a very sad history, a sad incident. Nobody wanted that, but they are guilty of crimes which are very grave and nobody can be absolved from a crime simply because he has accomplished some major things in the past. Society recognises the achievements of the past, but this happens everywhere.

Q: We have been speaking about the 11 prominent ones, but many other people have also been arrested or detained – journalists, others for religious beliefs?

A: Let’s try to be very accurate in what we say. There are not many people who have been arrested. The movement that these people were involved in was not insignificant and I can assure you that the government did not detain all those who were involved. Those detained were the founders, the most prominent, the most active members of this attempt to oust the president and betray the country in times of war.

Regarding the journalists, you’re not talking about professional journalists. There were connections and the connections are very clear. On religious freedom, this is a new attack that we have seen coming from certain quarters in the last three months. My interpretation is that there are some people interested in smearing the image of Eritrea and they will come up with one thing or another to put pressure on Eritrea, to harass this government. Otherwise there is huge religious tolerance, it’s historical. Populations here are mixed, the religions are very traditional – the constitution is very clear on religious freedom or practice. There are no restrictions on religion. I think the problems were with the Jehovah’s Witnesses early on, because they said they didn’t recognise the temporal government, they refused to vote yes or no, to take any part in the political process here during the referendum. Their number is very small, they publicly said they don’t recognise the temporal government and the government’s response was, okay, if they do not recognise the temporal government, the government will also not recognise them and give them licences for trade or allow them employment etc. Those were the kinds of measures taken. And in 1994, when we had the national service, the Jehovah, perhaps others, they refused national service because they considered themselves as conscientious objectors. The law does not allow that, we don’t have provision for exemption from national service on religious grounds. We are a small country and the burden of defending the nation has to be shared equally.

Q: You mentioned earlier that local elections are being organised. Is this a move towards national elections and multipartyism?

A: The process is very clear. We have had regional elections before. The electoral commission is handling these elections this time round so that may be the new element in this process. The national assembly has also mandated the electoral commission to set the date for national elections, so whenever the electoral commission sets the date there will be national elections. It’s not dependent on regional elections, although that might be a very helpful process.

Multipartyism, in general principle yes, it is there but the law on political parties has to be approved by the national assembly. It was not approved the last time. The view from the beginning was that you don’t necessarily need a party law to hold national elections. You can have national elections and the party law can be adopted at any time. So in terms of commitment it’s very clear, in terms of the process it has its own pace, its own characteristics.

Q: How is the work of the committee reviewing the press law progressing? When will the private press be allowed to operate again?

A: These issues are also related to the existing environment. Frankly our preoccupation now is whether we will have peace or war. That is paramount. You cannot see these issues in isolation. The way the country reorganises itself in times of hostility is different to when there is normality. The situation now is mixed. The clouds of war are still hanging over us. It’s a question of priorities for a young nation.

Q: So do you see the private newspapers as a potential threat given that there is still the possibility of war?

A: No. I think the problem with the existing papers was that they were few, most of the journalists were not experienced, they could have been easily manipulated, easily infiltrated, especially if there is money involved. That was the problem. And the whole idea of creating the committee – the intentions were good because constitutionally we have to have a free press, you can’t always have a monopoly of the press. But if the first experience was not very positive, then that always creates caution. And so you would rather want to have very explicit laws – on libel, on defamation. It was very loose, because it was a first experience. Now I think this has to be reinforced. If you tell me you are going to be a journalist there are standards, there are ethics. In the previous press law that was not there, so anybody who wanted to be a journalist could be a journalist. But then you also pay the price because sometimes things get distorted.

Q: You say you believe the threat of war is still there. Why have you chosen this moment to demobilise 65,000 people?

A: No, it’s not this moment because demobilisation has been on the programme for a long time. There was a lot of technical work, the demobilisation commission had to register everybody, there were the training packages, the initial rehabilitation packages, the prioritisation - the parameters have to be very clear. So there were technical processes that delayed this. Otherwise the political decision to demobilise was taken about two years ago and the commission was working actively. It’s not a new policy decision.

In the long term, this country can only support a very small army. That’s what we did after 1991. But that does not mean that those demobilised will not be remobilised if there is war. Technically everyone under a certain age is part of the reserve army so whether you are in active duty or demobilised is really a relative situation.

Q: Are you concerned that a lack of human resources, because so many people still have to be demobilised, could hinder development?

A: It’s obvious that war has its costs but the government is trying to be flexible and trying to involve people in the army in tangible development projects during times of relative peace. Now there are small unities - construction units for example that are involved in urban housing that are of commercial value that can be sold to home buyers, there’s a lot of construction of big roads which have an impact on the infrastructure, on the economic development of the country, they have been building dams etc. so there have been quite a lot of activities that have been going on by involving the army or by involving those who are in national service. The government has tried to use the relative peace for development purposes, so it’s not been a total disassociation from economic or productive activity. Yes, in times of war this has to be disrupted but in times of peace it can be done. That’s how we survived in the long war and there is rich experience.

Q: What are the security concerns that prompted you to issue travel regulations for foreigners?

A: I don’t think we can be very explicit at this time, but any government if it believes that it has to take certain precautionary measures, has to do this. Because of that conviction and feeling, those travel guidelines were issued.

Q: But why just for foreigners, why not for everybody if there are security issues?

A: Yes, at the end of the day if there is risk to human life we are not going to differentiate between foreigners and citizens. I’m sure if there is going to be war for example tomorrow, foreigners will have to leave. I mean this is our own country, so for us, if there is a risk we have to face whatever risk that exists. Whereas for foreigners you take additional precautions, they are guests here, they don’t have to carry the heavy burden of any security problem. Although for human life, the priority of the government is to make sure nothing happens to anybody. But even within that framework, I think foreigners have to be treated differently.

Q: What is your vision for Eritrea in two years’ time?

A: In terms of Eritrea, I think if Eritrea is left alone, if our neighbours do not want to either occupy parts of our land or reoccupy us or create regimes that they like through subversion and force, I think this country has extremely good prospects. It’s a small country, people are industrious, the achievements in the last 12 years have not been insignificant. The resources are quite substantial: tourism, fisheries, agriculture mining, the human resources potential is high. The policies of the government have been appropriate, the government enjoys full support of the population, we are not worried by ethnic conflict, we are not worried by religious conflict. The policy has been extremely prudent in terms of promoting equity among the different constituencies. So I think internally we have no worries. The main problem is the external threat, simply because I think Eritrea is a small nation, it’s a new nation and perhaps its neighbours are not comfortable with a new nation.

See also:
Interview with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Interview with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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