Foreign policy and defense
Eritrea is a nation in Eastern Africa. Its capital city is Asmara. The authoritarian and closed Eritrea have since a new peace agreement been signed with the archipelago of Ethiopia 2018 to some extent opened up to the outside world. The peace agreement has resulted in the lifting of UN sanctions against Eritrea, and relations with Somalia have also been improved. But the regime in Asmara still looks with distrust on the outside world and the peace process with Ethiopia has recently slowed down.
After independence from Ethiopia in 1993 (see Modern History), Eritrea established good relations with both neighboring countries as well as the Arab world and the Western world. However, conflicts with countries in the region arose immediately due to territorial demands and mutual accusations of support to rebel groups.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Eritrea for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
The relationship with Ethiopia became directly hostile when a border war between the two neighboring states was fought in 1998–2000. Despite a first peace agreement in 2000, and a decision on the border demarcation made by a UN commission, the war did not reach a definitive solution. Ethiopia did not leave the disputed border town of Badme, which was awarded to Eritrea, and the border was not excellent.
In Eritrea, the outrage was great that the outside world let Ethiopia ignore the UN Commission ruling. This was one reason why Eritrea was gradually circling the freedom of movement of a UN peacekeeping force, Unmee, which patrolled a security zone between the countries after the war (located on the Eritrean side).
UN sanctions 2009–2018
Finally, in July 2008, the United Nations decided to withdraw the force entirely. In 2009, a UN commission stated that it was Eritrea that started the war. Both countries were sentenced to pay damages to the other party; Eritrea somewhat more to Ethiopia than the other way around.
Following a direct call from the AU in December 2009, the UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea. The cause was a conflict with Djibouti and, not least, Eritrea’s involvement in the conflict in Somalia (see below). It was the first time that AU has called for sanctions against one of its own members. An arms embargo came into effect, and official representatives of Eritrea were banned from travel outside their home country and assets abroad were frozen. Eritrea denied all charges and in protest withdrew his representation at the AU. It was restored in 2011.
The sanctions were extended, and in a tightening in 2011, the United Nations Security Council urged the world’s states to thwart transactions made to fulfill the Eritrean regime’s demands for foreign Eritrean to pay 2 percent in “tax” to its home country.
Peace Agreement with Ethiopia 2018
The peace agreement 2018 was a quick and unexpected turn. After some political summit meetings, Eritrea and Ethiopia announced on July 9 that the war between the two countries was over. At a meeting in Asmara, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed the “Joint Declaration on Peace and Friendship” under which “the war between the countries ends and a new era of peace and friendship begins”.
After the peace agreement was concluded, diplomatic relations were restored with Ethiopia as well as with Somalia. Ethiopia and Eritrea established trade relations, transport and communications with each other. Ethiopia asked the UN to lift sanctions against Eritrea, which happened in November 2018.
In the summer of 2019, one year after the historic agreement, it became increasingly clear that the peace process had stagnated. Several border crossings had again been closed and a number of planned cooperation agreements had been laid on ice. Many observers felt that Eritrea’s leaders wanted to slow down the rate of reform for fear of losing control of the country. Internal conflicts in Ethiopia also contributed to inhibiting peace work.
Djibouti and Somalia
Even in relation to Djibouti, border crossing causes tension. It was called at the border in 1996, and in 1998, diplomatic relations were broken after President Isaias Afwerki accused Djibouti of supporting Ethiopia in the war that just broke out. The connection was re-established in 2000.
In April 2008, Djibouti reported to the UN that Eritrean soldiers gathered at the border, and despite mediation efforts, strikes broke out in June. The world’s condemnation became harsh. The UN, the Arab League and the AU all identified Eritrea as the aggressive party. Following mediation from Qatar, Eritrea withdrew its troops from Djibouti in 2011. Qatar sent an observer force to guard the border.
In the summer of 2017, both Djibouti and Eritrea stood on Saudi Arabia’s side in the country’s conflict with Qatar. As a result, Qatar withdrew its observer power and tensions rose again in the border area. Djibouti accused Eritrea of bringing troops into the disputed area. In September 2018, in the wake of the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in June of the same year, Djibouti and Eritrea signed a new peace agreement and the relations between them were normalized.
Eritrea’s support for Islamist groups in Somalia has largely emerged as a way of indirectly waging war on Ethiopia, which in turn supported the so-called transitional government in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. In 2013, Eritrea was no longer reported to support the Islamists.
Following the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the summer of 2018, Eritrea and Somalia also approached each other. In July 2018, the two neighboring countries decided to establish diplomatic relations.
Yemen and Sudan
The diplomatic relations with Yemen and Sudan were broken already in 1994, and it would take until 2005 and 2006, respectively, before they were fully restored. A conflict with Yemen over the Hani Islands in the Red Sea in 1995-96 led to sporadic fighting. The conflict was resolved in 1998 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague dividing the archipelago, giving Yemen the larger islands.
Relations with Sudan were long disturbed by accusations that each country supported rebel groups on the other side of the border. Eritrea was also accused of supporting the Sudanese regime’s opponents in Darfur in western Sudan. Gradually the situation improved and in 2008 the Sudanese government banned Eritrean opposition groups from being active in Sudan. After the regime in Sudan in a military coup in spring 2019, Eritrea and the new Sudanese transitional government have relatively good contacts with each other.
Eritrea early supported the struggle for independence in southern Sudan and welcomed the proclamation of the new state of South Sudan in 2011. Relations deteriorated as mutual fighting broke out in South Sudan 2013; the South Sudanese government accused Eritrea of supporting the rebel side. Despite this, in June 2016 Eritrea opened the port of Massawa so that the United Nations Food Program (WFP) from there could transport humanitarian aid to distressed South Sudanese.
Relations with the Western world are strained, mainly because of the Eritrean regime’s serious violation of human rights (see Democracy and Rights). In 2005, the United States was ordered to cease all aid and leave the country after Washington, among others, accused Eritrea of supporting terrorism. In May 2017, the United States removed Eritrea from its list of countries that do not fully cooperate in the fight against terrorism, but Washington has continued to criticize Eritrea for human rights violations.
With the EU, Eritrea maintains relations and the Union has continued to provide some assistance, despite protests from human rights activists. After 2018, the regime in Asmara has shown some willingness to increase dialogue with, among others, the UN and the EU. In the spring of 2019, the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights got to visit the country. In the same year, Eritrea was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council, but the Council’s special rapporteur was not allowed to enter the country. Italy also provides assistance and has visited Asmara after the summer of 2018 to discuss trade and other economic cooperation.
Contacts with China have increased since 2005; the Chinese make investments in infrastructure, agriculture, energy, trade and healthcare. Russia is also showing increased interest in trade with Eritrea. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are important lenders. In April 2015, Eritrea signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to support the Saudi-led military alliance in Yemen against the Iran-backed lumberjacks. The alliance had to deploy troops in Eritrea, who also contributed troops.
Due to the conflicts with several neighboring countries and the perception that the outside world is hostile, Eritrea is constantly in the highest readiness. All adults between the ages of 18 and 40 are required to do national and military service, formally for 18 months, but many remain for years (see Current Policy). The entire society is described as militarized.
For a more detailed description of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea read Conflicts: Ethiopia-Eritrea.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 200,000 Men (2017)
The air Force: 350 men (2017)
The fleet: 1,400 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 20.9 percent (2003)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 31.1 percent (2003)