UN role may be last chance to amicably resolve GERD crisis

Dr Abdellatif El-Menawy

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis has begun to take a different direction, especially as a result of this week’s visit to Sudan by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his meeting with Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Sudanese transitional Sovereignty Council, and the country’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. During this visit, the two sides announced identical positions regarding the GERD and agreed to reject Ethiopia’s unilateral move to fill the dam’s reservoir. The situation is tense amid the failure of the ongoing mediations by the US and African Union (AU).

There has recently been a clear Egyptian-Sudanese rapprochement, which seems to have been able to overcome any sensitivities that emerged with the outbreak of the December 2018 Sudanese revolution and the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019. Political and diplomatic visits between the two sides may have contributed to this. In September 2019, a month after the formation of Sudan’s transitional government, Cairo was the first destination in the Arab world for Hamdok. Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly then visited Khartoum in August 2020. These visits confirmed the intention of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments to improve bilateral relations and build unified political and strategic positions.

The Egyptian president’s visit to Sudan this week — his first since Bashir’s overthrow — will surely open up new political horizons in the relations between the two countries and the future balance of power in the Nile Basin and East Africa. Both countries insisted on rejecting any unilateral actions taken by Ethiopia and the importance of reaching a binding agreement between the three nations that guarantees the protection of their rights during the filling and operation of the GERD. Cairo also supported the recent Sudanese move of calling for an international quadripartite mediation — consisting of the presidency of the AU, the UN, EU and US — to solve the dam crisis and achieve a solution that satisfies all parties.

Ethiopia is reportedly attempting to create a counter-axis to the Sudan-Egypt position, consisting of itself, Eritrea, South Sudan and possibly Somalia. This is dangerous because forming rival fronts will not lead to any successful solutions. Rather, it will further aggravate the conflict — something Egypt and Sudan do not want. Addis Ababa, which has quibbled during all stages of the GERD negotiations, is probably trying to quibble again by splitting the Nile Basin countries. This is something it would not do if it realized the dangers. Africa is full of disagreements and crises and the time has come for the continent’s countries to move toward development. Egypt has repeatedly sent signals confirming its desire to support any move in this direction.
There are no solutions for Ethiopia other than to accept mediation and finally solve the crisis in a way that does not contradict the rights of states.

The latest offer was from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who on Friday expressed to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry his readiness to mediate. He can do so in accordance with Article 99 of the UN Charter, which gives the secretary-general the right to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Previous UN secretaries-general have exercised these executive powers twice in the past: On June 25, 1950, Trygve Lie drew the attention of the UN Security Council to the aggression against South Korea and, on July 13, 1960, Dag Hammarskjold requested an urgent meeting due to the Congo crisis. The small number of such precedents is not due to laziness on the part of the secretaries-general, but rather the fact that states are usually quicker to alert the Security Council to any dangers to international peace and security.
There are no solutions for Ethiopia other than to accept mediation and finally solve the crisis in a way that does not contradict the rights of states.

The secretary-general has many political competencies, including those related to the inclusion of issues on the agenda of UN organs, issuing statements, proposing draft decisions and submitting amendments to other proposals. All of this provides the secretary-general with a clear basis for exerting a tangible influence over UN apparatuses. An example that can be cited in this context is Hammarskjold’s statement before the special session of the General Assembly on Aug. 8, 1958, which outlined a comprehensive program for the Middle East crisis after the landing of American forces in Lebanon and British forces in Jordan.
Perhaps the solution to the GERD crisis now lies with Guterres because of his competences related to the resolution of international disputes. Involving him in the mediation is an Egyptian-Sudanese desire that stems from their keenness to involve third parties to help achieve a peaceful settlement of the 10-year-old crisis. They also aim to accelerate the pace of sponsorship undertaken by the AU. The success of the UN secretary-general in creating a positive development in this regard would be subject to the acceptance by all parties of his mediation and his proposal to settle the dispute.

The UN mediation may be the last, otherwise the situation will be very difficult and the road will be full of pitfalls because Egypt and Sudan will not give up their rights.

The writer is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide.