Eritrean diplomat asks: ‘Why is the Sudan conflict not an important issue’ for the UN?

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Updated 29 September 2023

Eritrean diplomat asks: ‘Why is the Sudan conflict not an important issue’ for the UN?

  • Permanent Representative to UN Sophia Tesfamariam urges Africans to strengthen institutions, find own solutions in interview with Arab News
  • Discussed challenges facing continent, underscores need for reforms to make UN more effectual organization

NEW YORK CITY: Even as the 78th session of the UN General Assembly came to an end on Tuesday, it was clear that the curtain was not about to come down on the conversations about the tensions between the Global North and the Global South, the UN’s role in an emerging multipolar world order, and the stubborn persistence of conflicts and inequalities worldwide.

In a candid interview on the sidelines of the event in New York, Sophia Tesfamariam, the permanent representative of Eritrea to the UN, shared with Arab News her insights on the current state of affairs in the world, with a particular emphasis on the situation in violence-torn Sudan and the dynamics of African diplomacy.

Sophia Tesfamariam, Eritrea's ambassador to the UN, believes the internecine conflict in Sudan is not just due to the big egos of rival warlords but also a result of "external interventions, historical and more recent, often driven by military and economic interests." (Arab News photo)

A seasoned diplomat, she pulled no punches in discussing the myriad challenges facing her region and the wider world, while underscoring the need for reforms to make the UN a more effectual institution, for the forging of true partnerships that respect African voices, and for African nations to take charge of their own destinies.

Tesfamariam also offered her perspective on the origins and consequences of the conflict in Sudan, Eritrea’s neighbor to the west, which continues to escalate and shows no sign of abating amid continual reports of atrocities and human rights violations, including sexual violence and the disposal of corpses in mass graves.


Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, occupies a strategically important area in the Horn of Africa.

The country’s representative to the UN, Sophia Tesfamariam, wants UN chief Antonio Guterres to be vocal about African issues.

The conflict in the country between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces has so far killed more than 4,000 people and wounded at least 12,000. It has displaced 5.3 million within Sudan and sent a human tide of refugees into neighboring countries, including Eritrea. In the western Darfur region, the scene of a genocidal campaign in the early 2000s, the conflict has morphed into ethnic violence, with the UN and rights groups reporting that the RSF and allied Arab militias are attacking African tribes and clans.

This picture taken on September 1, 2023 shows a view of destruction in a livestock market area in al-Fasher, the capital of Sudan's North Darfur state, amid the war between the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Security Forces. (AFP)

Tesfamariam described the shock that was felt in the region as Sudan descended into turmoil, saying it was something “that should have never happened” because it goes contrary to “the culture of the Sudanese people, their history, their background.”

She added: “For Sudanese people to have warring in the middle of their towns, the middle of the cities, this urban warfare is new. It’s not something that anybody can get used to.”

A handout picture taken on April 19, 2023 and obtained from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on April 21 shows a crowded ward at a hospital in El Fasher in Sudan's North Darfur region, where multiple people have been wounded in ongoing battles there. (Photo by Ali Shukur/MSF/AFP)

The crisis cannot be attributed solely to a battle of egos between the leaders of the two military forces, Tesfamariam said. Rather, she believes “this final act” is the result of the external interventions, historical and more recent, often driven by military and economic interests, that have hindered the ability of the Sudanese people to take charge of their own destiny and development since gaining independence.

Although the Sudanese people initiated the revolution that led to the overthrow of President Omar Bashir in April 2019, their aspirations were seemingly hijacked by various external interests, regional and international, which contributed to the ongoing clashes between factions within the country, according to Tesfamariam.

This picture taken on September 17, 2023 shows a raging fire at the Greater Nile Petroleum Oil Company Tower in Khartoum amid fighting between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. (AFP)

“And this, to me, looks like what triggered these two sides (the SAF and RSF) to finally see who gains an upper hand,” she said.

“If you’re going to peel back the pieces like an onion to see where the source of this conflict is, at the source of all this you will find intervention to be the culprit.”

The conflict, which began on April 15, came on top of an already dire humanitarian crisis that has been ravaging Sudan for decades. Things have become so desperate that about 25 million people need aid just to survive, but humanitarian agencies are hamstrung by lack of access, precarious conditions on the ground, and bureaucratic restrictions on their movement both into Sudan and then to the places where the needs are most acute.

Tesfamariam highlighted the historical relationship between her country and Sudan. There was a time, for example, when Sudan was a welcoming host of refugees from Eritrea, during the latter’s struggle for independence from Ethiopia, which lasted for decades and ended in 1991.

An Ethiopian woman walks carrying packages on her back in the border town of Metema in northwestern Ethiopia on August 1, 2023. (AFP/File Photo)

“We don’t do refugee camps,” she said. “These are Sudanese. This is their home. They can come any time. And if they need to take refuge in Eritrea today, the communities of Eritrea will welcome them as one of their own as they welcomed us when we were going to Sudan.

“So, the humanitarian situation for us is something of a historical necessity, almost, an opportunity to pay back the Sudanese people for what they did for us and are continuing to do for us all these years.”

As for the international community, Tesfamariam voiced disappointment about its failure to force the feuding factions to agree to a lasting truce, despite many attempts.

“24-hour ceasefire, 48-hour ceasefire — what do these mean?” she said. “How does it give you hope as a person living in a city to know that the guns are going to stop for 24 hours? And then what happens after 24 hours?

“So, these meaningless, endless ceasefire negotiations that go nowhere tell me the international community is not serious about bringing an end to the conflict in Sudan, and the warring parties are not serious in their commitments to their people.”

A convoy of the World Food Programme (WFP) are seen in the village of Erebti, Ethiopia, on June 9, 2022, on their way to Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes by war. (AFP/File Photo)

Tesfamariam reflected on what she described as “the total ineptitude and total failure” of the UN system, including the Security Council, where, in her view, double standards are now the order of the day.

“Where is the interest?” she asked. “There are people dying on the streets of Sudan. But you have spent many, many meetings, and even many General Assembly meetings, on Ukraine. Why is Sudan not an important issue for you?

“I think this total lack of interest says a lot about the UN and its structures, and the way it works and its failures and its inadequacies to resolve issues for which it has been created.

“(The total lack) of any credible action by the (Security) Council tells me that it may not be what we think it is — this governing body that can bring peace and security to all of us — and maybe they’re leaving us to our own devices. And that’s a dangerous way to go.

“What exactly is the UN here for? It makes me wonder. So this continuous call for reform of the Security Council, reform of the General Assembly and what it can do and what is viable to do, I think, will continue. And these will be the examples that we will raise in the future to say, ‘Where was the UN?’ And I am sure future generations will also be inquiring about that.”

Eritrea's UN envoy Sophia Tesfamariam laments “the total ineptitude and total failure” of the UN system in seeking a solution to the Sudan crisis. (AFP/File photo)

Tesfamariam called on Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, to “pay attention” and be vocal about African issues.

“Right now, there is no voice for Africa,” she said. “Yes, it is good they tell you ‘African solutions for African problems.’ But when you come right down to it, if there’s no third party involved, nothing happens. Nothing moves.”

While there is indeed a growing sense that African issues should primarily be addressed by the African Union and sub-regional organizations, Tesfamariam said she has noticed a big discrepancy between theory and reality.

Despite the rhetoric of “African solutions for African problems,” she contended, the AU does not seem to be afforded the same weight or resources as its European counterparts, including the EU.

US Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should “pay attention” and be vocal about African issues, according to Eritrean Ambassador Tesfamariam. (AFP)

“Is the AU office here (at the UN) as fortified and given all the resources and attention and ability, and even the mandate, to interact with the UN the same way as the EU is?” she asked.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s there. But can we just blame it on the EU or the UN and others for not taking an interest? What are Africans doing, also?”

She continued: “Why is it that when the AU meets every year, the first wave of people who come in, sit down to listen to your discussions are the Europeans and the Americans? Do you get the same respect and luxury to go and sit in the EU meetings in Europe to find out what they are discussing? No.

“So why do you continuously relegate yourself to these kind of positions for Africans? But when you cannot pay your own bills, when everybody else is funding every single project that you have all over the place, he who pays the piper picks the tune.

“How do you say no to the largesse that’s coming from EU, from the UN and other agencies that will dictate what should be done with your agency? Why does finance have to be the center of it all? I think if Africans come up with the solution, they will also find ways to finance the projects and initiatives they are trying to push.” 

Leaders of African Union member states join a family photo session during a recent assembly  in the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Union needs to strengthen itself, grow more assertive and become a vocal advocate of African interests, says Eritrean Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam (AFP/File photo)

To start with, according to Tesfamariam, the AU needs to strengthen itself, grow more assertive and become a vocal advocate of African interests. Next, she underscored the need for Africans to take responsibility for their own issues, strengthen regional and continental institutions, and find their own solutions to problems.

She criticized the current financial dependency in Africa on external entities, arguing that it often leads to the dictation of terms by donors that might not align with Africa’s interests.

“Africans themselves have got to take responsibility,” said Tesfamariam. “We need to start looking at ourselves, to do some soul-searching and say, why are we not doing more to strengthen our own regional and continental institutions?

A file photo shows Eritrea's UN Ambassador Sophia Tesfamariam speaking during a UN General Assembly meeting. (AFP/File photo)

“These institutions can’t just be a talking shop anymore. In practical terms, what are we doing to respond to the needs of our people, of our region? How do we form partnerships — not ‘who-gives-and-who-receives’ kind of partnerships but real partnerships, where we share interests and then do things together for the benefit of global security?”

While conceding that efforts to make a dent in the “entrenched” international architecture is still “a work in progress,” Tesfamariam added: “We are not giving up now.”

She pledged to continue to work to amplify Africa’s voice in international forums, taking heart from the fact that “over the years we’ve been able to find more like-minded people.”

She added: “I am not here alone. If I felt alone before, I now have a mutual grievance society at the UN whose members feel exactly the way Eritrea feels — that same frustration with the UN and its ineptitude in some of the things, and with our failure to coalesce as a group to make a difference, to bring change to some of the issues that we have raised here.”


Injuries after Israeli forces target Lebanese army center

Updated 8 sec ago

Injuries after Israeli forces target Lebanese army center

  • Israeli army targeted a Lebanese army center on Al-Awaida hill near the border town of Odaisseh, wounding four Lebanese soldiers
  • Negative response to Hamas’ appeal for resistance fighters

BEIRUT: Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel have continued their hostilities on the front in southern Lebanon following the end of the truce in the region on Friday.

The Israeli army targeted a Lebanese army center on Al-Awaida hill near the border town of Odaisseh, wounding four Lebanese soldiers.

Hezbollah targeted Israeli soldiers at the Ruwaisat Al-Assi site and the Al-Tayhat Triangle, as well as Zabdin in the Shebaa Farms, and Bayyad Blida.

An Israeli drone attacked Lebanese border towns. Artillery was used to target the outskirts of villages and towns, from which most residents had been displaced at the start of military operations.

The Israelis fired flares over the sea coast south of Tyre and over the Blue Line in the western and central sectors. The towns of the Marjayoun district also experienced an Israeli bombardment with heavy artillery shells, flares, and phosphorus bombs causing damage to shops and homes.

Meanwhile, the announcement from Hamas militants in Lebanon of the establishment of “Vanguards of Al-Aqsa Flood” has been met by a negative reaction.

A media report on Tuesday said: “Hamas’ announcement was met with discontent … in southern Lebanon for fear of repeating the 1970s experience of Palestinian armed action from the south.”

Hamas in Lebanon had called on “the brave youth and men (to) join the vanguards of the resistance fighters and participate in the liberation of Jerusalem and the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque, in affirmation of the role of the Palestinian people, wherever they may be, in resisting the occupation by all available and legitimate means, and in continuation of what the Al-Aqsa flood operation has achieved.”

Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, said on social media: “We absolutely reject Hamas’ announcement.

“We also consider that any armed action launched from Lebanese territory is an assault on national sovereignty. We recall what the Lebanese agreed upon since 1990 in the Taif Agreement — weapons should be taken away from Palestinians inside and outside of the camps — as well as the agreement upon the cancellation of the Cairo Agreement.

“History has taught us not to become a bargaining chip in times of war, when we can impose our conditions on the table in times of negotiations.”

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was “surprised” by the statement of Hamas in Lebanon, and added: “The mere idea of bringing back Palestinian armed action from Lebanon is unacceptable and rejected.”

Hesham Dibsi, a Palestinian researcher and director at the Tatwir Center for Studies, told Arab News: “The step is an … attempt to popularize the Oct. 7 operation (and) say that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s camps are with Hamas, and this is not true.”

Former Justice Minister Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said: “Establishing the ‘Vanguards of Al-Aqsa Flood’ in Lebanon is a grave mistake.

“It harms the Palestinian cause for the benefit of the axis of resistance that trades with it.”

Independent MP Mark Daou said: “Lebanon is a state, not an arena, and Hamas has no right to violate Lebanon.

“We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, but we will not accept that the cause be used as an excuse to violate Lebanon and organize non-Lebanese armed forces. Hamas leaders must immediately reconsider this step, or we will consider this a hostile act against the Lebanese and a violation of their security.”

Camille Chamoun, the head of the National Liberal Party, said: “The establishment of the ‘Vanguards of Al-Aqsa Flood’ constitutes a danger and a pretext for a new Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, the destruction of the remaining institutions and infrastructure, and additional tragedies for the Lebanese people.”

Hamas official Ayman Shanaa said in a statement: “We respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese state, and Hamas operates under the umbrella of Lebanese law. Even in resistance actions from the south, we are under the umbrella of the Lebanese resistance.”

Egyptian-Cypriot presidential talks urge Gaza ceasefire, aid push

Updated 53 min 24 sec ago

Egyptian-Cypriot presidential talks urge Gaza ceasefire, aid push

  • Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides highlighted the requirement for immediate action on Gaza
  • Discussions also centered around ways to further strengthen cooperation between Egypt and Cyprus in several fields, particularly energy

CAIRO: The presidents of Egypt and Cyprus have agreed on the urgent need for the international community to push for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides highlighted the requirement for immediate action during talks at the Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo.

Discussions also centered around ways to further strengthen cooperation between Egypt and Cyprus in several fields, particularly energy, while exploring opportunities to consolidate relations not only between the two countries, but Greece too.

But it was the situation in Gaza that dominated their meeting.

Spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Ahmed Fahmy, said El-Sisi briefed Christodoulides on Egypt’s efforts to broker a permanent end to fighting in the Gaza Strip while ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

Christodoulides noted that his country was keen to work with Egypt on both fronts and El-Sisi pointed out the need for a global consensus on bringing about a two-state solution to the conflict. This, he said, would involve the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Earlier, in a call from Christodoulides to El-Sisi, the latest developments in Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip were reviewed.

The two presidents agreed that international and regional efforts to stop an escalation of the fighting were the top priority.

UN experts name Houthi official who tortured captives

Updated 05 December 2023

UN experts name Houthi official who tortured captives

  • Abdulkader Al-Murtada is the head of the Houthi National Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs and the Iran-backed militia’s negotiator in UN-brokered prisoner swap talks
  • Experts’ judgment has confirmed previous claims made against Al-Murtada by former captives

AL-MUKALLA: A UN panel of experts has named top official Abdulkader Al-Murtada as an abuser of inmates in Houthi detention.

Al-Murtada is the head of the Houthi National Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs and the Iran-backed militia’s negotiator in UN-brokered prisoner swap talks.

The experts’ judgment has confirmed previous claims made against Al-Murtada by former captives.

In its 305-page report on Yemen, the panel accused Al-Murtada and other unnamed Houthis of severely abusing captives within the Central Security Camp prison in Sanaa, which is controlled by Al-Murtada. The treatment had resulted in the death of some detainees, and lasting injuries.

The experts said: “Prisoners are systematically subjected to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or punishment perpetrated by the prison’s staff.

“Based on the multiple reports received by the panel, various members of the prison’s management were and still are torturing the prisoners, including Abdulkader Al-Murtada.”

They added that prisoners were subjected to systematic psychological and physical torture inside the Al-Murtada-operated detention facility. Measures included forcing captives to stand for long periods, hitting their heads against the wall, dragging them, beating them with metal or electric wires, and banning doctors from performing lifesaving surgeries on tortured prisoners.

If the detainees asked for medicines, their Houthi captors sold them at exorbitant rates, although these had been received free from relief groups.

The panel also gathered evidence of extortion. Prisoners and their families were forced to pay high amounts to make brief phone calls or to meet, the report said, adding that the phone calls were often allowed “for the sole purpose of requesting families to transfer additional money, which will be administered by the prison’s management on behalf of each prisoner.”

Many former Houthi captives freed as part of prisoner exchange deals between the Yemeni government and the militia have said that Al-Murtada personally tortured them, or that they saw him and his colleagues mistreat inmates.

Citing the case of the kidnapped young Yemeni model and actor Entesar Al-Hammadi, along with other women, the experts said they were subjected to harsh mistreatment by their Houthi captors, with some of the women sexually assaulted and others put on trial.

The report added: “Women in detention are also sexually assaulted, in some cases subjected to virginity tests, and are often prevented from gaining access to essential goods, including feminine hygiene products.”

The report stated that the Houthis had also subjected more than 1 million Yemeni children to indoctrination and brainwashing. The youngsters had joined Houthi summer camps in 2023.

It added: “The panel documented that children as young as 10 years old are exposed to military training. The Houthis are also giving monetary incentives to promote a higher attendance rate in the summer camps by waiving the registration fees for the next school year.”

Hamzah Al-Jubaihi, a Yemeni journalist who suffered at the hands of Al-Murtada before his release in late 2021, thanked UN experts for naming and shaming the Houthi figure and urged the international community to sanction him.

Al-Jubaihi told Arab News: “This person personally tortures the detainees, both physically and psychologically, and he has a terrorist and sadistic mindset, as well as an inferiority problem.

“He was tormenting the inmates in front of me and stamping on their faces with his shoe.”

UN says ‘not possible’ to create ‘safe zones’ in Gaza

Updated 05 December 2023

UN says ‘not possible’ to create ‘safe zones’ in Gaza

  • ‘The so-called safe zones... are not scientific, they are not rational, they are not possible, and I think the authorities are aware of this’

GENEVA: The United Nations warned Tuesday that it was impossible to create so-called safe zones for civilians to flee to inside the Gaza Strip amid Israel’s bombing campaign.
Israel had initially focused its offensive on the north of the territory, but the army has now also dropped leaflets on parts of the south, telling Palestinian civilians there to flee to other areas.
“The so-called safe zones... are not scientific, they are not rational, they are not possible, and I think the authorities are aware of this,” James Elder, spokesman for the UN children’s agency UNICEF, told reporters in Geneva via video-link from Cairo.
His comments came as Israeli troops battled Hamas militants in the southern Gaza Strip after expanding their offensive deeper into the besieged area.
Israel said it was at war with Hamas after the militant group’s October 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and which saw around 240 hostages taken, according to Israeli authorities.
In retaliation for the worst attack in its history, Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas and secure the release of all the hostages held in Gaza.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says the war has killed nearly 15,900 people in the territory, around 70 percent of them women and children.
As Israel’s offensive pushes deeper into Gaza, international aid organizations have warned that civilians in the densely-populated territory are running out of places to flee to.
Elder insisted that the safe zones declared by Israel “cannot be safe nor humanitarian when unilaterally declared.”
The pretense that there is somewhere safe for people to flee to is “callous,” he said.
He stressed that in a proper safe zone, “you can guarantee the conditions of food, water, medicine and shelter.”
Elder, who spent the past week or so in Gaza, stressed that none of that is assured in the areas designated as safe zones.
“These are entirely, entirely absent. You cannot overstate this. These are tiny patches of barren land, or they are street corners, they are sidewalks,” he said.
“There is no water, no facilities, no shelter from the cold and the rain (and) there’s no sanitation.”
Elder pointed out that in the overcrowded shelters that most of the displaced in Gaza have flocked to there had been around one toilet for every 400 people.
“Now remove those people and put them in... the so called safe places. It’s tens of thousands of people without a single toilet — not one — no clean water, nothing to drink,” he said.
“Without water, without sanitation, without shelter the so called safe zones risks becoming zones of disease.”

WHO: Situation in Gaza ‘getting worse by the hour’

Updated 05 December 2023

WHO: Situation in Gaza ‘getting worse by the hour’

  • WHO representative in Gaza: Humanitarian aid reaching Gaza ‘way too little’
  • WHO deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the health system in the enclave

GENEVA: A World Health Organization official in Gaza said on Tuesday the situation was deteriorating by the hour as Israeli bombing has intensified in the south of the Palestinian enclave around the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.
“The situation is getting worse by the hour,” Richard Peeperkorn, WHO representative in Gaza, told reporters via video link. “There’s intensified bombing going on all around, including here in the southern areas, Khan Younis and even in Rafah.”
Peeperkorn said the humanitarian aid reaching Gaza was “way too little” and said the WHO was deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the health system in the densely populated enclave as more people move further south to escape the bombing.
“I want to make this point very clear that we are looking at an increasing humanitarian disaster,” he said.
Peeperkorn said WHO had complied with an Israeli order to remove supplies from warehouses in Khan Younis. He said WHO had been told the area would “most likely become an area of active combat in the coming days.”
“We want to make sure that we can actually deliver essential medical supplies,” he said.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday appealed to Israel to withdraw the order. Israel denied asking for the evacuation of warehouses.