Afar Perspectives on Ethiopia-Eritrea Rapproachment: Two Roads to Assab

18 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2018 Last revised: 16 Jul 2020

See all articles by Joseph Magnet

Joseph Magnet

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section

Date Written: February 2, 2020


On July 9, 2018 Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship, which committed the two governments “to forge intimate political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation.” On July 17, 2018 Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that preparations were underway for landlocked Ethiopia to use Eritrea’s port of Assab, and that a task force had been established for implementation.

Use of the Assab port has critical economic significance for Ethiopia and Eritrea both. It also has implications for the traditional inhabitants of the port area and surrounding environs – the Afar people.

The port and surrounding lands are Afar traditional territory, inhabited by Afar people for almost two thousand years. With respect to these lands, both the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea and the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea found that Eritrea engaged in widespread and systematic persecution of the Afar people, including ethnic cleansing – a crime against humanity.

The Commission [of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea] collected information that the Afar people have been subjected to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance by the Eritrean Government since 2000. These killings have also triggered their displacement from their lands within the country and across borders to Ethiopia and Djibouti....The commission, therefore, finds that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, in a widespread and systematic manner since May 1991.

In June, 2018 the SR-Eritrea reported that Eritrea’s crimes are ongoing. On October 24, 2018, the SR-Eritrea reported that the Afar people “have been removed from around Assab ... an area traditionally belonging to or used by them” by force.

This paper considers the following questions and proposals:

(1) If Ethiopia is now to use the Assab port and surrounding lands without consent of the Afar people, will it be involving itself in Eritrea’s crimes?

(2) Approximately 200,000 Eritrean Afar have fled Eritrea and now live as asylum seekers and refugees in neighbouring Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. The UNHCR maintains that “Voluntary repatriation remains the main durable solution” to the world’s refugee crisis. Nobody would voluntarily return to Eritrea today unless they had reliable guarantees of personal security, prophylaxis from indefinite national service, reasonable prospects for the enjoyment of human rights and expectations of a job. These conditions do not now exist in Eritrea.

(3) Going forward, Ethiopia must choose between two roads that lead to Assab. One road, simply taking the plunder of Eritrea’s crimes against humanity by paying the criminals to use the Assab port and surrounding lands, is quick, although it is a road reserved for criminals. A second road will take longer to travel and contains many obstacles. As the regional hegemon with newly acquired access, power and leverage in Asmara as a result of the transformed situation, Ethiopia could

• work to create the necessary conditions, with appropriate guarantees, that would allow some Afar to return;
• try to mobilize Eritrea and interested European governments to participate in training Afar to work in port construction, operations, associated infrastructure and the necessary service industries that will process Ethiopian traffic;
• try to negotiate reserving part of its payment for use of the port to restore Afar to their homes, businesses and properties or to replace these in appropriate cases;
• engage with European governments to assist these efforts and funding motivated by the EU’s desire to stem the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into EU countries;
• engage representative Afar organizations in these processes and seek Afar consent to the negotiated outcome.

If Ethiopia is moderately successful in creating the right conditions, and securing pathways for compensating restitution, Afar might be motivated to return home. If they did, this could serve as an example to other Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers now in Europe, Israel, Sudan and elsewhere. The reintegration of significant numbers of educated, trained, employed former Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, with a stake in employment, housing, and social services could be transformative of the Eritrean dictatorship, a goal the civilized world shares.

This second road may be slower and less certain, but it is the only road that leads to the possibility of peace, justice and stability for all the parties concerned.

Suggested Citation

Magnet, Joseph, Afar Perspectives on Ethiopia-Eritrea Rapproachment: Two Roads to Assab (February 2, 2020). Ottawa Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2020-11, Available at SSRN: or

Joseph Magnet (Contact Author)

University of Ottawa - Common Law Section ( email )

57 Louis Pasteur Street
Ottawa, K1N 6N5

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