UN Move on Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Issue Raises Fears of Stalemate Collapse – By Alisha Ryu, VOA

October 26th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

In a report to the U.N. secretary-general this week, (more…)

In a report to the U.N. secretary-general this week, an international boundary commission trying to create a permanent border between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa said that the body will likely dissolve at the end of next month without reaching a comprehensive agreement. As VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu reports from our East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the apparent failure to settle the issue diplomatically has heightened fears that Ethiopia and Eritrea could now try to end the stalemate once and for all through war.

With its U.N. mandate expiring in less than five weeks, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission acknowledges that seven years of negotiations to demarcate the border have largely failed.

A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, says while both sides are guilty of frustrating the process, it could be argued that the border commission may have been able to achieve more if Ethiopia, from the beginning, had accepted the commission’s 2002 ruling, which awarded the fiercely contested border town of Badme to Eritrea.

“Strictly from a legal point of view, the Ethiopians are on shakier ground for the simple reason that it was a binding arbitration to begin with and Ethiopia chose to conclude that there were problems,” he said. “They did not accept the final agreement. Well, you cannot do that. Binding arbitration is binding arbitration.”

Transcripts of the last boundary commission meeting, held in early September at The Hague in the Netherlands and made available to VOA, shows Ethiopia refusing to move forward with talks on the border issue until its bitter rival, Eritrea, met several conditions, including ending Eritrea’s alleged support for anti-Ethiopian rebel groups in the region.

With the meeting going nowhere, commission members ended their final session earlier than expected, reminding both sides that the 2002 decision will stand as is, if the talks fail to progress further before the commission dissolves.

In 1998, a border clash around Badme escalated into a full-scale war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, killing thousands on both sides and displacing nearly 1.5 civilians.

In 2000, the two countries signed a peace accord that called on Ethiopia and Eritrea to withdraw to positions before the outbreak of hostilities.

A 25-kilometer buffer zone, policed by U.N. peacekeepers, was created to allow a U.N.-backed boundary commission time to establish a permanent border.

Complaining that the international community was not doing enough to force Ethiopia to give up the town of Badme, Eritrea began moving troops into the buffer zone in 2005.

Recent reports indicate that tens of thousands of highly-trained and well-armed Eritrean and Ethiopian troops are now in the border area, poised to fight another war.

Nairobi-based political analyst and regional commentator, Ojwang Agina, says he believes Eritrea could launch the first strike.

“There is a feeling in Eritrea that Ethiopia is weak now, that it is involved in the Ogaden region and in Somalia,” said Agina. “If you add a third element, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border, it really puts Ethiopia in a hard position. So, that could easily mislead Eritrea into starting a war.”

Tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops are currently in Somalia, battling an Islamist-led insurgency against the secular government Ethiopia helped put in power nearly a year ago.

The anti-Ethiopian insurgency in Somalia has also emboldened ethnically Somali rebels in the Ogaden region of southeast Ethiopia to step up their activities against Addis Ababa.

In June, the Ethiopian government sent massive troop reinforcements to the Ogaden and initiated a crackdown on the local population that some human rights activists have compared to the actions of the Sudanese government in war-torn western Darfur.

But as thinly-stretched as the Ethiopian military is right now, U.S.-based political scientist and Horn of Africa expert, Ken Menkhaus, says he does not believe Eritrea is in any position to provoke a fight with Ethiopia.

“I was in Eritrea this summer,” he said. “One of the things that was being discussed quietly was the horrific condition of the Eritrean military itself. It is underfed. The country is really in a state of economic collapse. I think most people who watch Ethiopia and Eritrea closely believe that Ethiopia would roll over Eritrea if the two countries went to war.”

If another war does ignite between the two Horn of African rivals, the executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, Jim Paul, says he believes the international community, particularly the United States, must shoulder some of the blame.

The Bush administration had long had a close relationship with the Christian-led government in Ethiopia, which it considers a strategic partner in U.S. efforts to fight terrorism in the region.

Paul says he believes the administration did not use the leverage it has with Ethiopia to force the country into accepting the 2002 boundary commission ruling.

“That they refused to go along with the border commission settlement, the Ethiopians had to have not felt any political pressure. And I think the United States does bear considerable responsibility. It is certainly one of the reasons that this thing has continued,” said Paul.

Ken Menkhaus disagrees.

“The government of the United States has real limits to the influence it can wield with the government of Ethiopia. What the United States can and must do is to put great pressure on both sides not to start a war,” said Menkhaus.

Menkhaus acknowledges that may be easier said than done.

Both Ethiopia and the United States accuse Eritrea of arming and funding rebel and terrorist groups and fighting a proxy war against Ethiopia in Somalia, the Ogden region and elsewhere. Eritrea denies the accusations.
Menkhaus says recent statements made by the Assistant Sec of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, may have aggravated an already tense situation in the Horn.

“She made a statement about the government of Eritrea – in order to stay off the list of states sponsoring terrorism, one of the ways to do that would be regime change. By using that expression, that sent a message throughout the region that looked like the United States was implicitly accepting the possibility of an Ethiopian attack. And I hope that was not her intent, but that is how it was interpreted,” said Menkhaus.

Former U.S. Ambassador David Shinn says he remains optimistic that both Ethiopia and Eritrea will not start a major conflict in which both sides have much more to lose than gain.

Ambassador Shinn agrees with Ken Menkhaus that Eritrea probably lacks the economic and the military capability to fight a protracted war.

And he says the only way Ethiopia could win the war would be to overthrow the Eritrean government and become a pariah state.

“It would create such a horrific problem in terms of its image with the international community I do not think that Ethiopia could stand that,” he said.

Observers also note that should Ethiopia or Eritrea collapse as a result of war, the situation could create a power vacuum in the Horn that draws in outside forces, including terrorist groups.

  1. Andnet
    | #1

    EPRDF/The Ethiopian people must not be fool again this time. we have the 100% seacoast right and no one will stop that other than we as it is happening for the last 16 years.

    UN itself is the first to be blamed about.

    The so called the Eritrean independency is decided by UN without fair, free and clean discussions and agreements. Ethiopia was not well represented during so called negotiation. They were there just to sign quickely in order to legalize the issue. UN had to know and intervine when they saw the so called Ethiopian representatives were working against the very Ethiopian interest in front of the International communities.

    After colonization, there was an agreement in UN saying, “Nations must have the right to the sea especially the biggest ones.” That is why countries like Iraq, Jordan, Cong/Zaire and the likes have got the seacoast right while they are too far from the sea/ocean. But Ethiopia is too close to the sea and she is the oldest and second biggest country in Africa. Yet, UN failed to guarantee the seacoast line to her knowing the country was the only African nation in the League of Nations and the first African to join UN. They also had to know the Abyssinians were controlling the sea and ocean while the rest of the world was living under Dark Age. It is easily to understand by watching the Map from massawa to Asab (800km long and less than 60km wide) that Ethiopia is intentionally blocked from the sea by force.

    The decision was made like it was just a joke. The jokers were US, UK and France voted to landlocked Ethiopia while China opposed and Russia abstained. The happy about and 100% biased referee and the organizer was an Egyptian UN General secretary, which is making the situation more drama than a joke. We Ethiopians didn’t get the chance to decide, but the three nations (US, UK and France) that are under Islamic terrorist attack today decided the oldest Christian country (Ethiopia) to be landlocked in order the Arabs/Muslims to control the whole red sea.

    They didn’t expect to be attacked by those serving them at the time including land locking Ethiopia. What they have to know is that, if Ethiopia is not there strong as she is today and continues being strong more than ever, No western nation gets any chance to become around in that area. The Muslims/Arabs will continue invading Africa, spreading Islam, hating the west and posses fret including the 1994, 1996 in Saudi, 1998, ship Cole, 11/9, 7/7, Madrid, Bali and the likes stile against them in the long run.
    US, UK, France and other nations must reverse their decision about Ethiopian seacoast line by taking the case back to UN. The negotiation must start from the federation case. When Ethiopia gets her seacoast back taken by Italy 100 years a go, it will be very useful to them too as Ethiopia has a long term relationship with them including during the 1529-1543 Islamic invasion against Abyssinia.

    As long as Ethiopia doesn’t get her seacoast right back, there will be no peace. Ethiopia will never listen to any foreign nation as long as she doesn’t get her seacoast line which is her full right.

    US, UK, France and the rest must come to their sense. The situation in the world and mainly in the area is not the same as it was 1991/2. It is very different and dangerous including for them too. Ethiopia having seacoast line means, they also could have the possibilities to attack the enemies they are considering the whole area in the Middle East and Africa. As a Christian country, Ethiopia is/will be the only trusted long term reliable ally to them. But, the seacoast right she has had since her existence is very crucial and must be returned to her peacefully and now.

  2. kififil
    | #2

    not another war, for Gods sake. not now, atleast. if you want one, go fight your own war. you sound like those EPRDF cadres instigate poor ethiopian people to join meles’ war which is originally crafted for saving his trust among the very angry and weary Tigrayans who lost their trust towards him and their piece of land under his watch. so, as a concerned real ethiopia lover, although i agree with the idea of demanding a legitimate ownership of sea coast line, i would love to postpon this war for another time until a democratically elected leadership rules ethiopia.

  3. Berhanu Getahun
    | #3

    Despit the on going posturing of the present regime in Ethiopia, The burning question is what the commentator has mrntioned. For those who have not followed history closely it should be told that Ethiopia was the ruler of all the eastern african cost including Djibuti and what used to be known as The british Somal land. The British and Italy invaded Somalilamd and Eritrea and annexed them as their teritories while France was allowed to use the port of Djibuti on a lease for its good work of Building the railway from dJibuti to Addis Abeba. This was a ninty nine year lease, . The Italians were ruling only the area from Mssawa to the north and east to the river Mereb. When they left Eritrea they have Acknowleged tha the area south and east of Massaw belonged to Ethiopia. In the 1950s Eroritrea was liberated and joined Ethiopia as federatio nalater on united with Ethiopia. In 1991 when the prsent regime came into power it reliqueshed Eritrea and it declared its independence. This was despite the outcry that it was not proper and also without consulting the Ethiopian people. This was a conspiracy between the then Genaral secratary on the Unoted Nations, The EgyptianBoutros Boutros Galli. Thus it becomes the intent of Britain, France Italy and the U.S. To keep Ethioipia land locked. THere barely any livlihood before Ethiopia developed the sea port of Asseb. And still is the roaming ground forecamels. If justice is tobe served where it is, The afar area belongs to Ethiopia . Instead of hammering on the unwinnabale of boarder deliniation The united Nationa should a refferandom in the Afar region and solve this problem once for all. Eventhough manyEritrean would like to stay the framework as a nation with Ethiopia where they belong culturally, religouslyand where they share the same language, Those who are vocal and had arms are manupulating the situation . IF so so be it. For some day when they come to their sences they will come back to their brothers and sisters and we will accept them open heartedly.

    | #4



  5. Damitew
    | #5

    Afworki has a point our primitive meles agreed for binding arbitration and after he saw the result is not in his favor he tried to go against the court decsion as if it is the ethiopian court ot the 2005 election.This meles is the dumbest crime minister i ever know i wonder if the whole tigree is like that.

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