What's In Blue

Meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Regional Relations

Today (29 June) Security Council members will hold an open videoconference (VTC) under the agenda item “Peace and security in Africa” to discuss an ongoing disagreement involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The meeting was first requested by non-Council member Egypt in a letter to the Council on 19 June invoking article 35 of the UN Charter. Under article 35 (1), any UN member state “may bring any dispute, or any situation referred to in article 34 [that is, one that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute] to the attention of the Security Council or of the General Assembly”.

Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, is expected to brief Council members. Representatives of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan may be invited to participate under rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedure, which allows non-Council member states to take part in Council discussions without a vote if their interests are specially affected or if they bring a matter to the Council’s attention.

The disagreement over the dam has escalated in recent weeks. Since 4 May, there have been six letters sent to the Council setting out national positions: two from each of the directly involved parties.

The GERD has been a politically-charged issue in the region for several years, stemming from the complicated water supply politics of the Nile riparian states. Since construction of the dam started in December 2010, there have been several rounds of talks among Ethiopia, builder of the dam, and Sudan and Egypt, which are downriver from the Ethiopian part of the Nile. Ethiopia says that the dam could ultimately provide more electricity at a cheaper price, increase irrigation potential and reduce flooding to the Nile states. It further argues that some treaties outlining use of the Nile are unfair, as they were written without the consent of all of the parties.

Egypt is concerned that the dam could decrease its water supply from the Nile depending on how fast it is filled. It also wants, as part of any agreement, guaranteed access to adequate water supplies if there is a drought while Ethiopia is filling the dam. Ethiopia would prefer year-by-year talks that would reflect the prevailing environmental situation, rather than being locked into a multi-year plan.

Another area of divergence is over dispute resolution when the dam is operational. Egypt is asking for binding arbitration, while Ethiopia wants disagreements to be resolved through negotiation.

Recently, Sudan has been trying to mediate between the two sides, though it is closer to Egypt’s position. In its 2 June letter sent to the Council, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, Asmaa Mohammed Abdalla, stressed that cooperation from all parties was crucial to ensure that the GERD brings about positive changes in the region and to mitigate any negative consequences. Further, in its 24 June letter, Sudan said that “with political will and commitment from the parties” an agreement could be reached.

On 23 March 2015, the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD in Khartoum. The agreement was built around ten principles, which included prioritising cooperation, agreeing not to cause significant harm, peaceful settlement of disputes, and equitable and reasonable utilisation, among other things. The agreement also called for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to agree on guidelines and rules on the first filling of the GERD. While that was seen a positive step, it did not translate into technical agreements that would have a practical impact.

The US Treasury, along with the World Bank, attempted to restart talks in February 2020, but these stalled, and Egypt was the only country to sign a proposed deal. Negotiations resumed in June, this time with three observers: the US, the EU, and South Africa. However, these talks ended on 17 June with no resolution. At this point, Egypt and Sudan wrote to the Council calling for its engagement on the issue, since Ethiopia has signalled that it wants to start filling the dam in mid-July in order to test two turbines.

While being asked to take up this matter, some Council members have signalled their preference for the AU to address this issue. However, as of 26 June, the AU had not taken an active part in this disagreement, notwithstanding Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s public request that the AU, in particular current chair South Africa, mediate.

The Arab League has repeatedly supported Egypt’s position that an agreement on the dam must be finished before Ethiopia can begin filling it. In this regard, on 4 March, the Arab League Council issued a resolution in which “the Council announces rejection of any unilateral measures that might be taken by Ethiopia, including starting filling the GERD reservoir, without reaching a comprehensive agreement governing the dam filling process and organizing its operation”. On 23 June, the Arab League held an emergency meeting during which it passed another resolution rejecting any unilateral Ethiopian actions that could affect the water rights of downstream nations. Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia have reportedly formed a committee to follow up on this issue both at the AU and the UN.  Neighbouring Horn of Africa states Djibouti and Somalia opposed the resolution, believing instead there should be more focus on dialogue between the parties.

UN Security Council members first discussed this issue at a meeting under “any other business” on Monday 22 June in a closed VTC. While the GERD had been mentioned in other meetings dealing with matters such as water security or the Horn of Africa, this was the first Council discussion dedicated to the issue. The US spoke in favour of an open meeting—which Egypt had requested. However, Niger and South Africa voiced opposition to this meeting, and they were supported by other Council members who believe that this would best be resolved at the regional level. Some do not believe that the current developments represent a threat to international peace and security.

Council president France had considered convening a discussion under “any other business” on Thursday (25 June) to determine whether there was enough support to hold an open VTC on the GERD. A decision on whether to hold a meeting is considered a procedural matter. For a procedural motion to be adopted, nine affirmative votes are required: the veto does not apply.  The Council, in uncharted territory in the COVID-19 era, has not developed temporary working methods for a procedural vote. The provisional written voting procedures have to date only been used for resolutions on substantive matters. Furthermore, the open VTCs that Council members have convened since March are not considered formal meetings. The meetings since then have been held by broad consensus, although there have been some discussions under “any other business” that have not had the support of all members. Notwithstanding these procedural questions, France decided that it would ask members at the “any other business” session if they would support holding the open VTC, and that it would convene such a meeting if nine or more members voiced their support for it.

Ultimately, on early Thursday (25 June), South Africa lent its support to having the meeting, apparently after discussions with the US. A 24 June letter from Sudan requesting the Council to consider calling on the parties to finalise an agreement and refrain from unilateral actions (such as filling the dam without an agreement) may have also contributed to South Africa’s change of view, which paved the way for wider Council acceptance for the convening of Monday’s open VTC.

Late Friday night (26 June), there seemed to be progress in addressing the dispute over the dam. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently chairs the AU, held an emergency online meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While details are still being revealed, AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat tweeted that the three men had agreed to take part in an AU-led mediation process that would resolve the issue in the next two weeks. In a press release issued the next day, the office of Ethiopia’s prime minister said that the three leaders had agreed that “the Nile and the GERD are African issues that require African solutions”. The press release also emphasises that the AU wanted to show the Council that it is seized of the matter.

Nevertheless, the Security Council meeting scheduled to address the GERD remains on the programme of work for today. Council members may agree to a press statement or elements to the press that reiterate the need for a compromise solution and call for unilateral actions to be avoided.

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