Following last week’s UN Security Council (UNSC) statement urging Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resume negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) under the auspices of the African Union (AU), Christophe Lutundula, the foreign minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the AU, visited the three countries in an attempt to get the talks back on track.
The UNSC statement reflects the international consensus that negotiations must resume “within a reasonable timeframe”, says Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
“It is an expression of the view of all member states, and gives observers of the negotiations more room to intervene in order to reach a mutually acceptable and binding agreement.”
The statement, sponsored by Tunisia, the only Arab state currently sitting as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, read: “The UNSC encourages Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resume negotiations at the invitation of the chairperson of the AU to finalise expeditiously the text of a mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, within a reasonable timeframe.”
William Davison, Ethiopia senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said that the statement was “predictable” because there has been growing international concern about the failure to reach an agreement on GERD, in addition to an appeal from Egypt for the council to intervene.
“One positive thing is that the parties will be pressured more to reconvene under the AU, while the international concern may mean powerful nations will provide more diplomatic, technical, and possibly financial support to the process.”
During a three-leg tour last week Lutundula attempted to bring the three countries’ views closer by tabulating a list of points of agreement and disagreement. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Egypt was happy to study the DRC’s points and provide feedback, and during a joint press conference Lutundula said Cairo looked forward to receiving an invitation to resume the AU-sponsored talks with Sudan and Ethiopia at the earliest opportunity.
Shoukri highlighted two issues: that talks should be supported by the “active participation” of the international community as well as the AU, and a timeframe for negotiations be set.
Khartoum and Cairo both welcomed the UNSC statement which, a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said, urges Ethiopia to engage seriously in the talks to reach a binding agreement.
Ethiopia reacted angrily to the statement, describing it as “a historic misstep” that undermines Tunisia’s responsibility as the rotating UNSC member for Africa.
“It is regrettable that the council [has chosen to impose] itself over an issue of water rights and development that is outside its mandate,” said Addis Ababa.
It seems likely that Ethiopia's opposition to the UNSC statement is based on the inclusion of the phrase “legally binding agreement”, which is something that Egypt and Sudan have been pushing for while Ethiopia has resisted, Davison explained.
“While there have certainly been technical arguments over the legal status of any agreement, the most immediate, tangible disagreement related to this aspect may be the dispute resolution mechanism and Ethiopia’s rejection of international arbitration as a last resort,” says Davison.
The UNSC also underlined the need to return to the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in 2015 which stipulates that downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan] should not be harmed by the construction of the dam.
The statement was issued two months after the UN held its second session on GERD during which Addis Ababa denounced the draft resolution as “inappropriate”. Two weeks later, and in the absence of an agreement, Ethiopia went ahead with the second filling of the GERD reservoir.
Ethiopia has repeatedly rejected proposals presented by Cairo and Khartoum to widen mediation over GERD and include parties other than the AU. Both Egypt and Sudan would like the European Union, the US, and the UN to be more closely involved.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly