U.S. lawmakers are urging Ethiopia and Eritrea to lay aside differences and work for stability and economic progress in the Horn of Africa. The comments came during a congressional hearing Thursday focusing on both countries.
With Ethiopia and Eritrea locked in a border dispute, facing continuing criticism over human rights violations and struggling with famine, lawmakers brought U.S. officials and experts to Capitol Hill to assess prospects for lasting peace.
The United States has urged the governments in Addis Ababa and Asmara to resolve differences stemming from the 2000 Algiers Agreement, which ended a two-year border war that cost an estimated 100,000 lives.
David Shinn, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, now with George Washington University, says it is in neither country's interest to push for war, adding both need to tone down public criticisms and work quietly to resolve their disputes.
"It is at the point where only quiet behind-the-scenes discussions, preferably assisted by the good offices of an outside party acceptable to both governments will help achieve a solution; and if it isn't done quietly, behind-the-scenes, without any public discussion whatsoever, I just don't think it is going to happen," he said.
Don Yamamoto, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, says the border dispute remains a "critical" priority in U.S. efforts to help both countries avoid war.
"The border remains a fault line, and both governments are re-arming. While there is no rush to war, the prospects for conflict are real and troubling," he added. "Despite our best efforts to separate our bilateral interests from the border dispute, it casts a pall over our relations with both governments."
Mr. Yamamoto says any new all-out war would have "devastating" consequences, adding Washington remains in close touch with former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, a special U.N. envoy to Ethiopia and Eritrea.
In recent years, Ethiopia and Eritrea have been cited for violations of human rights violations, and suppression of journalists.
Michael Clough, Acting Africa Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, says Eritrea's government has failed to enact constitutional changes, and clings to policies that prolong a repressive climate.
"Arbitrary arrests and prolonged imprisonment without trial have not been limited to political leaders," he said. "Journalists have also been arrested, and the government is currently detaining about 350 Eritreans who fled Eritrea as refugees but were involuntarily repatriated. In short, by any possible measure the human rights situation in Eritrea is extremely bad and unfortunately there is little prospect for substantial improvement in the near future."
Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House Africa subcommittee, deplores human rights violations in both countries, and urges them to defuse tensions and resolve differences.
"Both Eritrea and Ethiopia make themselves more vulnerable to internal turmoil by their inability to address the many other vital issues they face, even if there is a stalemate on the border dispute. This is neither in the short-term interest of these two nations nor in the long-term strategic interests of the United States," Mr. Smith noted.
Congressman Smith hopes the United States can devise what he calls a more effective policy in dealing with Ethiopia and Eritrea, adding U.S. lawmakers hope Ethiopia's elections on May 15 will be free and fair.
Congressman Donald Payne, who has had personal contacts with the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, says he hopes both countries can avoid conflict.
"Neither of them want war, that is clear. They may not say it publicly, but both are intelligent enough to know that another war is devastating to both countries," he explained.
House lawmakers have sent a letter to Ethiopia's Prime Minister asking him to rescind the expulsion last March of three U.S. democracy and election advocacy groups.
Another U.S.-based organization, the Carter Center, will be among international observers at the May 15 election, with a delegation expected to include the former president and his wife.