After eight years of negotiations with Addis Ababa ended in failure, Cairo has taken its dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
In a letter to the top UN body on 19 June, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri described that situation as “an imminent threat to international peace and security” which required “immediate consideration”.
In referring the matter, wrote Shoukri, Egypt wants the UNSC to urge Ethiopia to conclude a fair agreement on the workings of GERD and refrain from taking unilateral action on the filling of the reservoir.
Egypt’s response came hours after Ethiopian authorities declared they will begin filling the dam in July. A UNSC session is expected to be convened on Thursday or Friday, according to the Jordanian news website Dar Al-Hayat newspaper. A UN source said African member states, including South Africa, the current chair of the African Union and a non-permanent UNSC member, had requested time to address the dispute.
According to Al-Hayat, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is conducting talks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. The United States, it said, supports a UNSC session to discuss the GERD crisis.
The massive hydroelectric dam is Ethiopia’s biggest national project and comes with promises to significantly improve the Ethiopian economy. Located on the Blue Nile — which meets the White Nile in Sudan and then flows north to Egypt — GERD will affect 90 per cent of Egypt’s water supplies dependent on the Nile.
Almost a decade of Egyptian-Ethiopian-Sudanese negotiations have failed to reach an agreement. Addis Ababa continued with the dam’s construction anyway.
Today, the $6 billion dam is 73 per cent complete and Ethiopian officials say the filling of the reservoir will begin in July — the rainy season — with or without an agreement with downstream countries.
In his three-page letter to France’s Nicolas De Riviere, the president of the UNSC, Shoukri said Cairo was resorting to the council after exhausting innumerable rounds of negotiations that had sought an agreement on GERD that preserves the rights and interests of the riparian states of the Blue Nile.
He said negotiations had failed due to Ethiopia’s unilateralism and “desire to establish a fait accompli”.
In unilaterally filling the reservoir, Shoukri argued that Ethiopia is seeking to establish unfettered control over a transboundary river, a material breach of the 2015 Declaration of Principles signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan which stipulates that the filling and operation of GERD be pursuant to guidelines and rules agreed between the three countries.
The appeal to the UNSC comes under Article 35 of the UN Charter which entitles member states to alert the Security Council of any situation that might lead to international friction, or that is likely to endanger international peace and security.
Attached to the letter was the Washington-brokered agreement on Guidelines and Rules for the Filling of GERD that Egypt initialed on 28 February following tripartite negotiation sponsored by the US Treasury Department and the World Bank. Shoukri explained that the operational rules in the agreement were in the main proposed by Ethiopia, ensure GERD operates at an optimal level, and include drought mitigation measures that ensure sustainable generation of hydropower from the dam while assisting downstream states to minimise the impact of droughts.
The agreement also addresses the other contentious issue in the GERD negotiations — Ethiopia’s right to undertake water projects upstream of GERD in accordance with “the applicable rules of international law”. Shoukri’s letter argued that Addis Ababa’s rejection of this provision reveals its intention to “codify an unregulated and unrestrained right to exploit the riches of the River Nile” without considering the impact on downstream states.
A source close to the negotiations told Al-Ahram Weekly that Cairo could not continue to engage in meaningless negotiations with no end in sight while Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir in July.
By appealing to the UNSC Cairo is internationalising the dispute to increase the pressure on Addis Ababa, he said.
“There are no guarantees the UNSC will exercise that kind of influence but it is the only political avenue available,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press. Cairo, he added, is not holding its breath.
On 22 June, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew responded to Egypt’s appeal with a four-page letter of his own. Andargachew rejected Egypt’s “misrepresentation” of the dispute, arguing that GERD does not constitute a threat to international peace and security.
In his letter, the Ethiopian foreign minister made no mention of Addis Ababa’s decision to unilaterally start filling the reservoir in a few weeks, the escalation that prompted Egypt’s appeal for UNSC intervention. Instead, Andargachew argued that recent tripartite negotiations had made progress, and were suspended only because the Sudanese delegation wanted to consult with its leadership.
He blamed Cairo’s “insistence” on “historic rights and current use”, and “reference to the 1959 colonial era agreement”, for the slow progress of negotiations. “Colonial” is mentioned repeatedly in Andargachew’s response, a nod to the Ethiopian political narrative surrounding the GERD dispute.
Andargachew’s letter denied taking unilateral action (an indirect reference to the decision to begin filling the dam next month) and accused Egypt of building the Aswan High Dam (1970) “without consulting Ethiopia” 50 years ago.
Shoukri’s 19 June appeal to the UNSC refuted this claim, citing the Washington Agreement which “explicitly states that it is not a water-sharing agreement”. His letter also included references to previous agreements signed by a sovereign Ethiopia, none of which include the 1959 treaty the colonial context of which is highlighted by Andargachew.
“Bringing up issues related to so-called colonial treaties is a political ruse designed to distort facts and deflect attention from the real issue,” Shoukri wrote.
In Cairo, expectations about the results of the appeal to the UNSC are modest. The council is currently chaired by France, a state inclined towards indecisive diplomacy.
Diplomatic sources expect the council to task the UNSC secretariat to compile a report on the dispute for distribution among its 15 member states. An open or closed session is expected Thursday or Friday when Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan make their cases.
What happens later is unclear.
After a closed debate, the UNSC president might make informal comments to the media on the issue. Or the Security Council could opt for a statement by its president. The strongest, and least likely, UNSC response to the Egyptian appeal would be a decision.
In his daily briefing on Monday, the UNSC spokesman told reporters the council is closely watching developments. He urged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to intensify their efforts to peacefully resolve outstanding differences.
The UNSC’s paralysis when faced with international crises in the past decade has led many diplomats and commentators to question its continued relevance. A 2019 briefing by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) argued that new and surprising divisions between the UNSC’s five permanent members — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — underlay the council’s reduced effectiveness.
“Many Security Council members do not have a deep understanding of the dispute, and are wary of intervening strongly at this stage,” ICG’s Richard Gowan told the Weekly.
“At least in the first instance, the council seems likely to respond to the Egyptian letter by holding a closed discussion rather than a big public debate, and may not even make a public statement on the situation.”
If the council does make a statement it is likely to be neutral and focus on the need for further diplomacy, he said.
The risk of Egypt’s appeal to the UNSC is that it may harden Ethiopia’s resolve to not make the concessions needed, said ICG senior analyst for Ethiopia William Davison.
“Instead, it could proceed with filling as planned in July, which is very likely to happen whether there is a deal or not,” he told the Weekly in an e-mail.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Sunday, Shoukri said Cairo is not seeking coercive action by the Security Council.
But, he said, if the UNSC cannot bring Ethiopia back into negotiations and filling begins, “we will find ourselves in a situation that we will have to deal with.”
“When that time is upon us, we will be very vocal and clear in what action we will take.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly