Banking on international pressure to resolve GERD deadlock

Doaa El-Bey , Wednesday 1 Jul 2020

Reaching a legally binding agreement and avoiding unilateral measures is the only way to resolving the GERD deadlock

GERD (photo: Reuters)

In his address to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Monday Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called on the international body to encourage negotiations to reach an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The UNSC meeting was held upon Egypt’s request after Ethiopia said it would go ahead with filling the dam’s reservoir in July with or without the approval of Sudan and Egypt.

“It is Egypt’s belief that any agreement on the GERD must be a legally binding instrument under international law that includes clear definitions that establish the threshold of significant harm that must be prevented, and a binding dispute resolution mechanism to ensure the effective implementation of the agreement,” he told the UNSC during his video-conference speech.

He described the dam as “a threat of potentially existential proportions… that could encroach on the single source of livelihood of over 100 million Egyptians.”

UNSC members agreed during the meeting that tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia should continue and warned against any party adopting unilateral actions.

Sudan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Omer Siddig, said that close consultation and coordination is required in discussing the impacts of the dam and that reaching an agreement before beginning the filling of the reservoir is essential. He added that any decision on the timing and the rules of the filling must not be taken unilaterally.

Instead of discussing the problems facing the negotiations Taye Atske-Selassie, Ethiopia’s permanent representative to the UN, chose to argue that the UNSC was the wrong place to discuss the dam.

“Ethiopia does not believe the issue being discussed today has a legitimate place in the Security Council… This council should not be a forum for exerting diplomatic pressure,” he told the session.

In a move widely seen as a last-minute attempt to bridge differences Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to what Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission, described as “an AU-led process to resolve outstanding issues”.

This is a positive step, says Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Hegazi. “At this point we need leadership, negotiations in good faith and a legally-binding agreement,” he said.

Professor of political science Tarek Fahmi agrees the involvement of the AU represents a positive step and that any resolution of the issue requires a clear and legally binding agreement. “Drawing rules for the initial filling and the operating process is not enough. We are not in need of general guidelines, but an agreement that the parties have to legally abide by,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

William Davison, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, expressed his hope that as time becomes more pressing the parties may be more willing to compromise.

“Perhaps as the scheduled start of filling moves closer, and the pressure increases, the parties will start to make concessions in key areas, especially if AU facilitation manages to foster a better atmosphere. But ultimately, there are still significant disagreements on legal issues and drought management so there is a need for the parties to seek compromises in a manner that they have not been willing to do so far,” he told the Weekly.

Last weekend the president’s office announced that Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa agreed that Ethiopia will delay the filling of the dam and refrain from taking unilateral measures before an agreement is reached. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdouk also issued a statement saying the three countries had agreed to “postpone the filling of the reservoir until an agreement is signed”.

The announcements came after a video summit between the leaders of the three countries on Friday. They agreed to form a committee of legal and technical experts to draft the deal. Cyril Ramaphosa, South African president and current chairman of the AU, headed the meeting.

A day after the summit Ethiopia issued a statement that differed from those issued by Egypt and Sudan.

“Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD within the next two weeks, during which time construction work will continue. It is in this period that the three countries have agreed to reach a final agreement on a few pending matters,” a press release by the Ethiopian prime minister’s office said.

Davison noted that Ethiopia’s stand with regards the filling remains firm. “Despite the confusion, Ethiopia seems to be sticking to its plan to start filling in the middle of July regardless of whether there is a deal or not,” he said.

Fahmi argues that Ethiopia is in effect treading water, and “if the committee fails to reach an agreement it will take a unilateral decision to fill the dam.”

Although Monday’s UNSC session is in essence procedural, Fahmi believes it is a clear sign “the dam issue has become an international one rather than the concern of the three countries directly involved.”

Hegazi says Monday’s session offered an opportunity to correct falsehoods that Ethiopia is trying to spread by claiming that all the previous agreements on the dam date from the colonial era.

Shoukri told the UNSC session that “every treaty relating to the Nile that was concluded by Ethiopia was signed by its government, free of any compulsion or coercion, and as an independent and sovereign state.

“These include a treaty freely signed by the emperor of Abyssinia in 1902 prohibiting the construction of any works across the Blue Nile that affect the natural flow of the river, and a General Framework for Cooperation, freely signed by Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi and Egypt’s president in 1993, in addition to the 2015 Agreement on Declaration of Principles. Needless to say, all of these treaties remain binding and in force.

“Besides,” notes Hegazi, “Ethiopia referred to colonial agreements in demarcating its border with Eritrea. Colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) were the basis for the Algiers agreement signed in Algeria in 2000 between Ethiopia and Eritrea. That was the agreement that put an end to the border war between the two countries.”

Last month, Egypt sent a memo to the UNSC asking it to intervene to restart talks on the dam and warned that filling the dam without a deal threatened international peace and security.

Sudan sent its own letter to the international body last week stating that the dam could “cause substantial risks” to Khartoum and endanger the lives of millions of people living downstream. The letter also warned that filling the dam without reaching a tripartite agreement would compromise the safety of the Sudanese Roseires Dam.

In November last year, the US and the World Bank joined forces in an attempt to broker a deal. After four months of talks the three countries reached an agreement, but Ethiopia failed to turn up to the signing ceremony in February.

Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water supplies, fears the impact of the dam if the filling starts without an agreement guaranteeing a minimum annual flow of water. Sudan also opposes initial filling without an agreement.

The sticking points in the talks include finding a legally-binding mechanism for conflict resolution, provisions that reflect the legally binding nature of the agreement, technical issues related to mitigation measures during periods of drought and prolonged drought, the long-term operating process and details of the technical committee that will run the dam.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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