WASHINGTON — Eritrea has once again found itself on the wrong side of international norms as a U.N. report accused the East African country of violating an arms embargo by buying military communications equipment from North Korea.
This marks the third consecutive year that Eritrea has been named by the U.N. panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea, said Hugh Griffiths, coordinator of the panel.
In response, the United States moved to ban all equipment sales or interactions with Eritrea’s navy, under nonproliferation legislation that targets Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Eritrea was one of seven African countries listed as arms-embargo violators for buying weapons, military material or receiving training from North Korea.
In Eritrea’s case, the U.N. panel found that in July 2016 Eritrea imported 45 boxes of encrypted military radios and accessories, including GPS antennas, microphones and clone cables. The equipment was intercepted before reaching its destination.
The U.N. said the equipment was sold by Glocom, which is said to be a Malaysian front company selling North Korean goods in an attempt to avoid detection. A previous report found evidence that an Eritrean government department had received “military and technical support” from a North Korean company named Green Pine.
Marketing to Africa
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) arms and military expenditure program, said North Korea aggressively markets its military goods and services to African countries.
“North Korea, first of all, wants to export arms because it’s one of the things which they can make and for which at least there is some demand,” Wezeman told VOA. “But it is not surprising that the demand is concentrated in countries with very limited economic resources, because what North Korea is supplying generally is not of high quality.”
Wezeman said most of what North Korea sells is out-of-date or refurbished Soviet-era equipment.
“It’s not the kind of equipment which [buyers] are going to pay a lot of money for,” he said. “So they cannot market this stuff to anyone else except to African states and a few others. Myanmar is a country which in the past was also known to have North Korean equipment. Cuba is also one of those, but generally, these are countries which simply cannot afford too much better than that.”
A history of sanctions
Eritrea’s Ministry of Information denounced the new U.S. sanctions as “inexplicable and unwarranted,” and said they followed a pattern established years ago.
“The pattern is sadly the same,” a ministry statement said. “Fallacious reports are first floated and illicit measures subsequently announced by the same architects who act as the plaintiff, prosecutor, and judge.”
Eritrea was previously accused of aiding the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab in 2009. As a result, the U.N. ordered an arms embargo, travel restrictions and a freeze on assets of military and political leaders.
Another U.N. report five years later found no evidence that the Eritrean government continued to support al-Shabaab, but declined to lift sanctions.
“The Monitoring Group does not, however, rule out the possibility that Eritrea may be providing some assistance to elements within al-Shabaab without detection, but it is the overall assessment of the Monitoring Group that Eritrea is a marginal actor in Somalia,” the U.N. group found.
Matthew Bryden, chairman of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank focusing on peace and security issues in the Horn of Africa, told VOA in 2016 that the sanctions include a two-way arms embargo prohibiting Eritrea from importing or exporting weapons and supporting armed groups in the region. “Although the focus was initially on al-Shabaab in Somalia, the wording of the resolution appears to have a wider significance,” he said.
Bryden believes that the sanctions regime has been effective “to the degree that Eritrea has opened its stance, has ceased supplying al-Shabaab, has started cooperating on the issue of prisoners of war and is showing a new openness to the U.N., to the sanctions committee and to others. So there’s clearly some progress,” he said.
The monitoring group’s annual report last November said that because Eritrea received foreign support for a new military base and seaport, it violated the embargo. Eritrea has hosted security personnel from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as they conduct attacks as part of their ongoing campaign in Yemen.
Eritrea feels betrayed
Daniel Ogbaharya is originally from Eritrea and teaches at the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He thinks Eritrea’s hard-line stance toward international monitors is because of the Asmara government’s feeling that it has been betrayed by the international community in the past.
“I believe [these are] psychological sort of reasons, and on top of that the government does not want to … give credence or relevance to the accusations,” he said.
Ogbaharya added that he believes international sanctions have been imposed in a secretive and unfair manner, and that this gives Eritrea’s unelected leaders a valuable talking point, to argue that the world is against them.
“Even if you disagree with the Eritrean regime on a whole host of things, we know that sanctions actually play into the hands of authoritarian regimes,” he said. “Remember the government’s discourse is that ‘the whole world is against us, not just now, but ever since 1952 or before that,’ so it plays into that discourse.”