Can the US mediate Egypt and Ethiopia’s water dispute?: US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s lessons from the Ethiopia-Eritrea stalemate.

Earlier this week, US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, questioned several expert witnesses at a hearing entitled “Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace.”[i] While the primary focus of the hearing was on the ongoing Ethiopia-Egypt Nile dispute, an extremely interesting point was raised by Rep. Rohrabacher regarding Eritrea. Specifically, when discussing a potential US arbitration or mediation role in the Ethiopia and Egypt disagreement, Rep. Rohrabacher outlined the US’ failure in arbitrating the Eritrea-Ethiopia 1998-2000 war. Rep. Rohrabacher stated:

“Let’s just note that, we did convince the Ethiopians at one point to agree to arbitration of a major dispute that they were in with Eritrea. And, this happened during the last administration, so you’ll know this is not a partisan remark, but I thought the behavior of our government in that whole episode was disgraceful, and has undermined our ability to arbitrate other disputes in the sense that Ethiopia, the decision of the arbiters went against Ethiopia in their border dispute with Eritrea…and we extracted some kind of other deal with them to help us with some sort of defense related deal…and let them off the hook, basically said they didn’t have to follow their arbitration, which meant the message to all of Africa was you don’t…you better skip out the arbitration because that just doesn’t work, even the Americans are going to discard it, what the result is. That was very sad.”[ii]

Rep. Rohrabacher’s comments raise serious questions about any possible US mediation role between Egypt and Ethiopia. What is further striking is his acknowledgement of the US’ utter failure in mediating the Ethiopia-Eritrea 1998-2000 war. Not only were the US’ actions wrong ethically, they proved to be great strategic blunders, since they led to more tension and conflict. Ethiopia has continued to occupy swathes of sovereign Eritrean territory, in direct violation of international law, and in blatant contravention of the rulings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.[iii] Moreover, the US’ harmful role was further compounded when Ethiopia – supported by the US – invaded Somalia in 2006, leading to a sharp rise in terror and insecurity in the region.

For over a decade, Eritrea has been the scapegoat for the ills of the Horn of Africa – sanctioned, characterized as intransigent, and bearing the brunt of the blame for the region’s instability, conflicts, and tensions. In direct contrast, Ethiopia has been held up as a strong US and western partner, receiving millions of dollars in aid. In 2011, it was the world’s fifth largest recipient of official humanitarian aid and received $3.6B in total assistance,[iv] representing between 50-60 percent of its total budget.[v] Additionally, Ethiopia’s 2011 share of total official development assistance – approximately 4 percent – placed it behind only Afghanistan.

While it is notable that US politicians, such as Rep. Rohrabacher, have begun to recognize – and publicly acknowledge – their administration’s mistakes in the region, much more tangible steps are required to ameliorate the situation and rectify past mistakes. With Ethiopia possessing a critical dependency on foreign aid, the US should end all assistance to the country unless Ethiopia abides by international law and respects Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

REFERENCES

[i] Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace. 2255 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, DC 20515. Nov 18, 2014 2:00pm

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1O1io-f-itY&feature=youtu.be (begins at 6:20)

[iii] http://www.pca-cpa.org/showpage.asp?pag_id=1150

[iv] http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/countryprofile/ethiopia

[v] http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files

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