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Home eritreahub Reflections on the Eritrea – Ethiopia border war, twenty years on

Reflections on the Eritrea – Ethiopia border war, twenty years on


A number of articles have been written assessing the anniversary of this catastrophic conflict that left such an indelible mark on the Horn of Africa.

After 20 years, can Ethiopia and Eritrea ever reconcile?

The omens on the Ethiopian side are promising.

by Martin Plaut New Statesman

Africa is – tragically – no stranger to conflict. But the war that erupted between Ethiopia and Eritrea on 6 May 1998 was unlike any the continent had seen since the Second World War. This was no slaughter between troops and rebels mainly armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes. This was a full-blown conflict using everything from heavy artillery and trench warfare to ariel combat involving modern aircraft. No-one knows the numbers dead and wounded, but estimate as many as 100,000 were killed. Some put the figures even higher.

The outcome of the war hangs like a dark cloud over the whole region. The Algiers Peace Agreement, signed on 18 June 2000 was meant to end the conflict. It was a Rolls Royce of an agreement, brokered by the international community. Prisoners were exchanged, compensation paid for losses on both sides and a UN peacekeeping force was despatched to patrol the border.

Both sides were required to abide by the findings of a Boundary Commission which would define where the border lay. This was duly completed, only for Ethiopia to insist that further discussions be held. This Eritrea refused – as it had every right to do. Instead of peace, relations between the two countries have been frozen for the past 20 years. The border is sealed and tens of thousands of troops face each other over the barren frontier.

The result? Eritrea hosts Ethiopian rebel movements, who attempt from time to time to overthrow the government in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia does much the same, in reverse. But the Eritrean government went further, training and supplying Islamist rebels of al-Shabab in Somalia. It was aggressive intervention across the region that resulted in the United Nations imposing sanctions on Eritrea in 2009, which remain in force.

Ethiopia too has suffered. Its natural outlets to the sea, the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab are unavailable and Ethiopia has had to develop a convoluted transport network via Djibouti get its goods to the outside world. Communities on both sides of the border have been divided; unable to reach the lands they once tilled and neighbours they once married. It is a tragedy all round.

Two decades on, this confrontation serves neither people. There are – at last – some small signs of progress. The first is an informal and unofficial. In recent years a few hundred Eritrean villagers have been allowed to cross the disputed border to visit the town of Axum for the festival of Maryam Zion. A chapel in Axum is said to contain the Arc of the Covenant and is sacred to the Christian Orthodox church to which most highlanders in both countries belong.

The potential for peace was reinforced by the World Council of Churches, during a rare visit to Eritrea in October last year. It was – as the press release put it “the first such visit in more than 10 years” and the church leaders left promising to “pray and work for peace between Eritrea and its neighbor Ethiopia as they attempt to resolve a border dispute.”

Others have followed. Most recently the most senior African official in the Trump State Department, Donald Yamamoto. A consummate diplomat, with extensive African experience, he completed a visit to Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia on 26 April. It’s not yet clear what the Yamamoto managed to broker, but he is unlikely to have made the trip without a clear objective in mind.

The omens on the Ethiopian side are promising. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn began talking of a “new policy” towards Eritrea a year ago, without going into any detail. He was replaced in April by Abiy Ahmed, who called for an end to “years of misunderstandings” between the two countries. “I call on the Eritrean government to take the same stand,” he said. 

The Eritrean response was less than enthusiastic. Eritrea’s official spokesman declared that the ball remained in the Ethiopian government’s court. “Ethiopia needs to honour its treaty obligations and respect Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by withdrawing from occupied territories,” the spokesman insisted.

These moves to end the stalemate come at a difficult moment. Ethiopia is still coming to terms with the ethnic divisions that have riven the country for many months. A state of emergency has been ruthlessly enforcedand thousands arrested. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is struggling to introduce reforms, but needs to establish his authority.

On the surface Eritrea is far more stable. In reality there is deep anger among its citizens. The country’s youth are trapped in a permanent system of conscription that can be extended indefinitely. Rather than spend years, if not decades, manning trenches along the Ethiopian border tens of thousands have fled into exile.

This suits Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, an absolute ruler, who brooks no opposition. The no-war, no-peace confrontation with Ethiopia has provided the perfect excuse for permanently keeping the lid on Eritrean democracy. There are few incentives for him to make concessions to resolve the situation with Addis Ababa.

Only a dramatic gesture from Ethiopia, reinforced by a promise that UN sanctions will be lifted and closer economic and possibly even military ties with Washington might end this stalemate.

Remembering Eritrea-Ethiopia border war: Africa’s unfinished conflict

Two decades have passed since two of Africa’s poorest countries began the continent’s deadliest border war.

The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia left tens of thousands dead or injured in the space of just two years.

But despite a peace deal signed in December 2000, the two sides remain on a war footing – their massive armies still facing off.

So what happened 20 years ago to spark Africa’s unfinished war – and what hope is there that it might finally come to an end?

‘Two men fighting over a comb’

The war began on 6 May, 1998, sparked by a battle for control of the border town of Badme – a humble, dusty market town with no apparent value.

It had neither oil nor diamonds, but it did not matter: both Eritrea and Ethiopia wanted it on their side of the border. At the time, the war was described as “two bald men fighting over a comb”.

As the war spread, so did the massive displacement of communities.

“This war destroyed families on both sides,” recalls Kasahun Woldegiorgis, who comes from the Ethiopian town of Adigrat, close to the border.

Image copyrightAFP
Image captionA woman sits among the ruins of Zala Ambesa, Ethiopia, in 2001

“We are intermarried across the border and we cannot attend each other’s weddings or funerals,” says Asgedom Tewelde, who comes from Zalambesa, a town once divided in two by the border.

“There was a family from a village called Serha on the Eritrean side of the border and their daughter married someone on the Ethiopian side. Later, after the war, she died, but her family could only see the funeral procession from a hilltop across the border.”

It was not just family ties: the economic impact on the border trading communities was significant too.

“The active commercial activities that we used to see before the war no longer take place,” says Kiflom Gebremedhin, from a border village on the Eritrean side.

The border ruling

The war ended in June 2000, but it was another six months until a peace agreement was signed, establishing the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission.

It was meant to settle the dispute over Badme once and for all. But its “final and binding” ruling 18 months later, awarding Badme to Eritrea, was not accepted by Ethiopia without the preconditions of further negotiations with Eritrea. Eritrea, in turn, refuses to talk to its former ally until the ruling is adhered to.

With neither side budging from their respective positions, peace between them remains elusive.

Border skirmishes continue – either directly, or through rebel groups acting on their behalf. All the while, Badme remains in Ethiopian hands.

And there have been other, bigger implications for the two countries – and the wider world.

Treacherous sea crossing

Eritrea says it needs a constant large army due to the “continuous occupation of Eritrean territories by Ethiopia” – and it feeds that army with compulsory national service.

However, what was originally designed to last for only 18 months can last indefinitely.

For many of those who don’t want to enlist, the only way out is to flee.

Today, they crowd into large refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, or risk their lives to trying to reach Europe through the Sahara Desert and over the Mediterranean Sea.

Eritreans make up one of the largest groups attempting to make the crossing, despite the fact many have died, drowning in the treacherous sea, or falling victim to militants and traffickers who control the route.


  • 24 May 1993: Eritrean independence from Ethiopia officially declared
  • 6 May 1998: Border war beings
  • 18 June 2000: Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities signed
  • 12 December 2000: Algiers Peace Agreement signed
  • 13 April 2002: The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission delivered its “final and binding” ruling

Eritrea also uses the conflict with Ethiopia to justify suspending the constitution, banning free press and quashing any dissent.

During a crackdown in 2001, many of the editors and journalists of the fledgling private newspapers were detained.

At the same time, prominent leaders of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) who criticised President Isaias Afewerki’s handling of the war and his reluctance to be accountable, were also detained. Their whereabouts remains a mystery to this day.

Political prisoners never appear before courts and visitations are not permitted. Government officials accuse those detained of endangering the country’s “national security”.

Eritrea is accused by the UN Human Rights Commission for serious violation of human rights violations, including possible crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia, which is also accused of human rights abuses, appears more concerned with internal political instability than the border town of Badme. It has recently declared a state of emergency, in an attempt to quell protest movements across the country.

Imagining peace

But could the stand off over Badme finally be coming to an end?

The newly elected Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has called for a peaceful resolution of the impasse and extended an olive branch for talks to the Eritreans, who dismissed the offer as similar to those made by previous Ethiopian leaders.

“Peace will indeed be beneficial to the two peoples but obviously, this must be predicated on respect of international law, which Ethiopia continues to flout to-date,” Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel said.

However, the recent visit by Donald Yamamoto, the US acting Assistant Secretary of State, to Eritrea for the first time in a many years has added to the renewed hope. He also travelled to Ethiopia on the same visit.

“The people are demanding peace on both sides and it is good to hear that political leaders are talking of peace now,” Eritrean Kiflom Gebremedhin says.

“I am sure the people will put pressure on their governments and secure peace and return to their normal relations.”

Over the border in Ethiopia, Kasahun Woldegiorgis is also hopeful.

“We believe this road [to Asmara] will not remain closed for ever,” he says.

“The people are demanding peace on both sides and it is good to hear that political leaders are talking of peace now,” Eritrean Kiflom Gebremedhin says.

“I am sure the people will put pressure on their governments and secure peace and return to their normal relations.”

Over the border in Ethiopia, Kasahun Woldegiorgis is also hopeful.

“We believe this road [to Asmara] will not remain closed for ever,” he says.

Can Ethiopia and Eritrea make peace?

Twenty years after a pointless war over a town no one had heard of, Ethiopia ponders rapprochement

No land changed hands. Two decades on, Ethiopia still occupies the disputed territories, including Badme, having refused to accept the findings of a UN boundary commission. But the conflict’s miserable legacy persists. Thousands of troops still patrol the frontier. Centuries of trade and intermarriage abruptly ceased. Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s ports. Eritrea lost its biggest trading partner and retreated into isolationism. It has been on a war footing ever since.


But it is not so lonely these days. On April 22nd Donald Yamamoto, America’s most senior diplomat in Africa, visited Asmara, the capital—the first such visit in over a decade. Eritrea has been sanctioned by the UN since 2009, in part for allegedly arming jihadists in neighbouring Somalia. But a panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council found no evidence of arms transfers and advocates lifting the embargo. America sounds open to the idea. Some reckon sanctions could be removed this year.

Many in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, are also mulling a change of course. With the appointment last month of a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, there is an opportunity for fresh thinking. Abiy, who was an intelligence officer during the war, promised in his inaugural speech to make peace with Eritrea.

He may have more luck than his predecessors. In the years after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seized power in 1991, its policy towards Eritrea was dominated by the Tigrayan faction of the ruling coalition. Tigray shares a border with Eritrea and its people suffered heavily during the war. Abiy’s Oromo faction comes with less baggage.

But any rapprochement would almost certainly require withdrawal from Badme. This would be hard to sell in parts of Ethiopia. And Abiy would need something in return, such as access to Eritrea’s ports, which Isaias has never shown much interest in offering. Moreover, the threat from Ethiopia allows him to keep smothering democracy at home and maintaining a huge army. “Making peace would be the end of him,” says an Eritrean refugee who recently arrived in Addis Ababa. “Why would he?”

Breaking the deadlock: Ethio-Eritrea relations


The relation between the two Horn of Africa countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea, has been in a state of ‘no war no peace’ situation for almost two decades, now. Though the response from the Eritrean government was not favorable, its Ethiopian counterpart has repeated called for normalizing relations and reigniting negotiations. And now, the newly appointed Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) looks determined to take another swing at normalizing relations. This was largely accentuated by his inaugural speech where has also extended his cordial invitation to hold talks. In the meantime, recent, shuttle-diplomacy like visit by US official between the two nations got pundits asking if there is hope yet for the relation of the two nations, writes Neamin Ashenafi.

While at that also posing for some historic pictures; picture so touching that Ethiopian social media patron has to take to the platform discussing another decade-long animosity between similarly brotherly people who have drifted apart in the past twenty years. However, more than the discussions, the pictures of the two Korean leaders with photoshopped heads of Ethiopian new PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki summed up the hopes and aspirations of the youth quite nicely.

Though it is still controversial and at the center of political discourses in Ethiopia, Eritrea declared its formal independence from Ethiopia following the majority of its populations voting in favor of separation in the 1993’s referendum. After the separation, governments of the two countries forged friendly relations and symbolizing their cooperation they concluded different agreements to regulate their bilateral relations. However, all the alliances formed during the armed struggle days and agreements sealed after the separation were far from being sustainable and hence were short lived.

The cultural and political intimacy and the sense of fraternity that is said to have developed between the two ruling parties during their time as rebel movements, is argued in part to be the reason for their reluctance to institutionalize the relationship between their newly established countries in 1993 –and thus made possible the border war. These sentimental aspects of Ethio-Eritrea politics also played an important role in prolonging the conflict and eventually the intractability of the two sides.Emerging differences in socioeconomic and political life of the two nations in the immediate aftermath of the separation is said to have compounded the trouble inthe relationship of the two nations, which later led to a full-fledged war lasting from 1998-2000.

Indeed, the passing of time has brought substantial changes, and the political and physical barriers in the past two decades have led to an increasing cultural disconnectedness even among the people that live along the borders of the two nations. Although the war ended with signing of the Algiers Agreement in 2000, the relationship between the two countries does not seem to have recovered since then. For the last almost two decades, the dynamic between these Eastern African nations has remained hostile; and at the core of this hostility is the border issue.

The deadly boarder war has left a lot of scars on both countries with nearly 70,000 people estimated to have lost their lives during the conflict. After the war ended, the Eritrea–Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), a body founded by the UN, established that Badme, a disputed territory at the heart of the conflict, belongs to Eritrea.

Following the verdict of the Commission, both countries forwarded their requirements in the process of the implementations of the decision. In this regard, the Ethiopian side, although opposed to the decision of the Commission that ruled Badme to be part of Eritrea, it also made it clear that it will fully accept the decision of the Commission as final and binding in principle while urging for negotiation on how to implement the entire decision and border demarcation.

Nevertheless, for Yacob Haile-Mariam, a prominent lawyer who served in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Algiers Agreement and the UN Border Commission are exactly the kind of mediations which has exacerbated the drift between the two fraternal countries. “The present dangerous stalemate existing now is the consequence of involving foreigners in the mediation and settlement of the conflict following 1998-2000 war,”Yacob told The Reporterin an email interview.

According to him, the Agreement and the decision of the Border Commission never addressed vital issues such as giving Eritreans access to the vast Ethiopian market and, investing in Ethiopia if they wished. While on the other hand, the greatest lacuna was shutting off Ethiopia from access to the Sea through its own port of Assab, he argues.

“While Ethiopia pays two billion dollars a year for port services to Djibouti and whose security is always under threat  any agreement for durable peace is indeed a pipe dream, because no country willingly subjects itself  to be asphyxiated within a walking distance to the sea,” he says.

In fact, Yacob holds a rather stronger view towards the Algiers Agreement and in that he blames the broker of the peace process, President of Algeria, AbdelazizBouteflika, who in an alleged persistent vegetative state, and whom Yacob refers to as “a long-time enemy of Ethiopia” and “someone who worked all his life to dismantle the country”. It is his strongly held belief that Bouteflika widened the chasm instead of bringing the two nations closer.

The position of the Ethiopian government which was echoed at the time was premised on the fact that implementation of the decision would see some territories going to Eritrea and some going to Ethiopia while in the process disrupting people’s lives who have settled in these disputed border areas; so government demanding negotiation to come up with some sort of give and take so that decision would not end up cutting off small neighborhoods and households.

However, it was and still is the positons of the Eritrean government that there is no need for negotiation but only the implementation of the decision by the commission. This has been the single most point which has defined the stalemate between the two nations.

Despite the rejection of repetitive calls for talks from the Ethiopian government, the relations between the two sides is best described as ‘no war no peace’. Through time, the Ethiopian side has showed some initiative to restart the negotiation process with aim of addressing this long-lasting squabble. In fact, the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn once said that he is even willing to go to even Asmara for talks. However, the response from the Eritrean government has always been similar “that any negotiation and talk is possible if the Ethiopian government withdraws its troops from the controversial tiny border town of Badme”.

In fact, according to Yacob, the assignment of Badme to Eritrea is not a done deal yet; not even by the reckoning of the Border Commission. He is basing his argument on The Algiers accord and on the stipulation that the Border Commission is required to demarcate the border on the ground which it did not do.

“Since the UN Peacekeeping Force which was supposed to oversee the work of the Commission was kicked out by Isaias before the latter finished demarcating the border,” Yacob argues.

Meanwhile, apart from government to government talks, there have been quite few individual level initiatives to restart talks between the two sides. In this regard, there are still some groups (including public figures and scholars) working on some plans to bring together the peoples of the two countries, to try a new bottom up approach to the deal with the issue.

Meanwhile, also in unprecedented move, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Ethiopia, in his inaugural speech a month ago, took a bold step to call up on his counterpart in Eritrea to discuss over the border issue and find a lasting solution to the problem. “We are fully committed to reconcile with our Eritrean brothers and sisters,” Abiy said urging the Eritrean government to do its part by starting a dialogue that would help to re-establish peaceful relationship.

However responding to a call from the Ethiopian side, Eritrean Information Minister, Yemane Gebremeskel said that relations can be mended but it is largely dependent on Ethiopia. The government of Eritrea reportedly said “its relation with neighboring Ethiopia could be amended if and only if Ethiopia respects international obligations by withdrawing from occupied territories.”

“The ball has stayed for too long in Ethiopia’s court. There is no dispute as the litigation process ended 16 years ago. Ethiopia needs to honor its treaty obligations and respect Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by withdrawing from occupied territories – including Badme,” read the statement.

A diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), who spoke to The Reporter on the condition of anonymity, observes that there is a new momentum building to break the deadlock of two decades. “It reminds me of a similar situation when Hailemariam first came to power. He talked about his readiness to make peace between the two countries on Aljazeera. And many considered this as a new opportunity to end the ‘no war no peace’ situation.”

“In fact, Hailemariam himself had mentioned during the same interview that over 50 attempts had been made to talk to Isaias and his government but all failed. Therefore, the rhetoric by the new PM should not be seen as something new, it has been there since time of Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam. The problem has always been Isaias’s intransigence and I don’t think that would change just because we have a new PM in Addis,” the diplomat argues.

The diplomat believes that the only way this stalemate would be address is after the removal of Isaias from power, “I don’t think peace will come so long as Isaias is in power; even if we are ready to surrender Badme,” he says.

The Eritrean government has rejected any request for talks and negotiation with the Ethiopian government. In the meantime, it has become increasingly isolated from the international community following sanctions by the UN Security Council and the US, which was imposed following an alleged support it has provided to the terrorist groups in Somalia; and of course, an allegation the regime in Asmara denounces vehemently. As it faces mounted pressures from the international community, Isaias’s regime has not shown any sign of slowing down or complying with the international norms and standards.

Though this is the reality on the ground, after at least a decade of isolation from the international community, last week, Donald Yamamoto (Amb.), the US Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, has made his first trip to Eritrea in years. Many observers welcome the visit as a way to change the belligerent nature of the regime. Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, also believes that the visit may aim at engaging the Eritrean government than the existing isolationist approach.

Though the ambassador did not reveal the details of the content of the discussion with the Eritrean officials, he has confirmed that one of the issues that he discussed in Asmara was about Ethiopia and Eritrea relation. He said, “Those are the discussions points I would like to talk about with PM Abiy first, but when I get back to Washington I will have more comment on the matter,” he said while arriving in Addis, last week.

“When a nation is isolated from the international community it will became more aggressive; we can understand this from Eritrea and North Korea, and hence the recent visit by Yamammot to the Eritrea might be an approach to engage the Eritrean regime diplomatically than further isolating it from the global community,” Leulseged stated.

Apart from Ethiopia’s repeated efforts to talk with the Eritrean government, the precondition that the Eritrean government has imposed for further discussions should be lifted, Leulseged argues, adding that “since the decision by the commission is not a point of discontent, the Eritrean government should prepare itself for discussion on how to implement the decisions by the commission so as to bring peace between the two.”

The recent visit by the senior official from the US brings hopes to ignite another round of negotiation between the two sides, scholars argue. This hope is mainly a result of the fact that since Ethiopia is an ally of the US in its war on terror and Eritrea is under sanction from the US and the UN Security Council, the latter might be willing to negotiate in order to return to the world of diplomacy, they observe. Furthermore, they anticipate that the US might devise a new approach to get the two sides talking by leveraging its relationship with both of them.

As far as Yacob is concerned, both countries should reject both the Algiers and Commission’s decisions and start over if they are to find a lasting peace. He advocates the rejection of the Commission’s decisions for “the reason that it is based on illegal colonial treaties which were abrogated by the UN in 1947 and by Italy and Ethiopia in 1952”.

In support of this idea, Terence Lyons, in his article entitle “Ethiopia-Eritrea Conflict Fueling Somalia Crisis” stated that the United States regards Ethiopia as a strategic partner, particularly in relation to the so-called global war on terrorism, and that it is not hard to understand why.

“If you look at the region, the United States has tremendous problems with Sudan, and it has relations with Eritrea that are about as bad as they can be. Obviously, the United States can’t have a strategic partner with a government in Somalia while Somalia struggles to organize itself. Djibouti, with which the United States has good relations and has built military facilities in, is tiny and is never going to be the pillar around which the United States builds a regional strategy,” he explains.

He added, “Rhetoric coming out of Asmara and the statements coming from the U.S. State Department are similarly very, very tough. Eritrea’s public statements indicate they hold the United States responsible for Ethiopia not implementing the peace agreement that would award Eritrea the symbolically important town of Badme to its side of the border.”

And hence, “Eritrea thinks the United States, which was a guarantor of this agreement, should compel Ethiopia to adhere to it. It’s difficult to compel Ethiopia for starters and, second of all, the United States has multiple interests with the Ethiopians and is reluctant to do so,” Lyons argued.

In fact, Yacob is an ardent supporter of an endogenous solution to the problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea. “Ethiopia and Eritrea should in fact not look for external help for settling their conflict. This is a quarrel within a family and as such should be settled by the elders and intellectuals of the two countries who traditionally are adept in settling conflicts,”

At end of the day, the recent visit by Yamamoto might narrow such differences and bring another alternative for the negotiation between the two nations and diffuse the stalemate. However, what the future entails to the two countries seems hinged on the willingness of the Eritrean government to talk with its counterpart in Ethiopian.

“While I have full confidence in our new Prime Minister I hope Isaias realizes this is a new day in Ethiopia where the interest of the country is supreme as opposed to parochial ethnic interest which was leading our country into a dark alley,” he concludes.

Impotence of the United Nations and Ethiopia’s Impunity

April 13th will mark the 16th anniversary of the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s (EEBC) final and binding decision on the Eritrea Ethiopia border. There is not much that can be said about the historical decision that has not been said before, but it would not hurt to re-iterate some facts:

1. Ethiopia’s rejection of the EEBC’s ruling and the 16-year long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories remains an obstacle to peace in the region and prospects for any normalization of relations.

2. By refusing to take any punitive actions, the UN Security Council, long considered to be the vanguard of international peace and security, has emboldened the minority regime in Ethiopia to flout international law and continue to violate the rights of the Eritrean people to live in peace and security within their own internationally recognized borders.

3. It is the responsibility of the UN Security Council to enforce the EEBC’s final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions.

When the Eritrea Ethiopia border conflict of 1998-2000 ended and the Algiers Agreements were finally signed in December 2000, the whole world sighed with relief. It was a bloody war that left thousands dead and injured. The humanitarian disaster created by Ethiopia’s aggressive war of expansion and occupation left vital infrastructures totally destroyed, millions displaced from their homes and villages, over 80,000 Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean descent deported from Ethiopia and their belongings confiscated. So no doubt, it was a welcome event, cheered by millions and said to have the blessings of the international community which helped broker the deal.

In its Presidential Statement, the Security Council said:

“…The Security Council, reiterating its strong support for the Agreement of Cessation of Hostilities signed by the parties in Algiers on 18 June 2000 (S/2000/601), strongly welcomes and supports the subsequent Peace Agreement between the Government of the State of Eritrea and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (S/2000/1183) signed in Algiers on 12 December 2000 (“Algiers Agreemen”). It commends the efforts of the Organization of African Unity, the President of Algeria and his Special Envoy, as well as the United States of America and the European Union for their role in achieving the Algiers Agreement…”

The Algiers Agreements were signed by President Isaias Afwerki for Eritrea and by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for Ethiopia and witnessed and guaranteed by Secretary General Kofi Annan representing the United Nations, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of the Democratic Republic of Algeria, President Obasanjo of Nigeria, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright representing the United States, Secretary General, Salim Ahmed Salim representing the OAU [now AU], and Senator Renato Serri representing the European Union.

Article 4 of the Algiers Agreements stated the following:

“…The parties agree that a neutral Boundary Commission composed of five members shall be established with a mandate to delimit and demarcate the colonial treaty border based on pertinent colonial treaties (1900, 1902 and 1908) and applicable international law…The Commission shall not have the power to make decisions ex aequo et bono… Upon reaching a final decision regarding delimitation of the borders, the Commission shall transmit its decision to the parties and Secretaries General of the OAU and the United Nations for publication, and the Commission shall arrange for expeditious demarcation….The parties agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding. Each party shall respect the border so determined, as well as territorial integrity and sovereignty of the other party….”

On 13 April 2002 the EEBC, established pursuant to the Algiers Agreements, delivered its final and binding delimitation decision on the Eritrea Ethiopia border issue. On that same day, the UN Security Council in its Press Release said:

“…Members of the Security Council express their satisfaction that a final legal settlement of the border issues between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been completed in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the parties in Algiers in December 2000… Members of the Security Council welcome the decision by the Boundary Commission, announced in The Hague on 13 April 2002, which is Final and Binding…”

The African Union (AU), European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), and the United States (US), through their respective Press Statements and Releases officially endorsed and confirmed that the Border Commission’s decision was final and binding, and the UN Security Council adapted and endorsed it as such. In addition to Eritrea and Ethiopia, the witnesses and guarantors were not there just for some photo opportunity-they also had moral and legal responsibilities under the Algiers Agreements.

Eritrea accepted the EEBC ruling and Ethiopia rejected it. For the next five years, Ethiopia presented several gimmicks and ploys to amend, reverse, and revisit the decision that awarded Badme, the casus belli for the border conflict, to Eritrea. Ethiopia repeatedly challenged the EEBC’s ruling and created obstacles to prevent the EEBC from fulfilling its mandate to demarcate the Eritrea Ethiopia border. The UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted over a dozen resolutions calling on Ethiopia to abide by its treaty obligations, but took no punitive actions against the belligerent regime. Suffice it to mention a few of them:

  • In 2004, the UN Security • Council expressed its concern about ‘Ethiopia’s ongoing rejection of significant parts of the Boundary Commission’s decision, and its lack of cooperation with the Boundary Commission’- (Resolution 1560)
  • In 2005, the UNSC • demanded that ‘Ethiopia accept fully and without further delay the final and binding decision of the Eritrea- Ethiopia Boundary Commission and take immediately concrete steps to enable, without preconditions, the Commission to demarcate the border completely and promptly’ (Resolution 1640)
  • In 2007 repeated its call for • Ethiopia to accept ‘fully and without delay the final and binding decision of the Eritrea- Ethiopia Boundary Commission and take immediately concrete steps to enable, without preconditions, the Commission to demarcate the border completely and promptly’ (Resolution 1741)
  • Etc. etc. •

John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations addressed Ethiopia’s non-compliance. Speaking to the Press corps on 14 December 2005, Bolton hit the nail right on the head when he said:

“…One of the reasons we are in this dilemma is that the government of Ethiopia has never complied with its obligations under the 2000 agreement and the 2002 border demarcation… [And also because of] the council’s unwillingness or inability to confront Ethiopia’s three-year-long refusal to adhere to the very agreement it made in 2000. It is an example of what happens when the Security Council is not able to bring an international solution with a U.N. peacekeeping force to a prompt conclusion consistent with the wishes of the parties…”

Bolton understood that it was the responsibility of the UNSC to bring Ethiopia into compliance.

Malcolm N. Shaw, and in his 2007 article, “Title, Control, and Closure? The Experience of the Eritrea- Ethiopia Boundary Commission” said that the composition of the EEBC reflected “considerable judicial, arbitral and scholarly experience. The EEBC consisted of a former President of the International Court of Justice, a former Judge of the International Court, a former ad hoc Judge of the International Court, a former President of the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights and a former Legal Adviser to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The EEBC’s credentials remain impeccable.

Malcolm N. Shaw also wrote about the international community’s responsibility:

“…The close and institutionalized involvement in the settlement of volatile boundary disputes by significant international players, particularly the United Nations… is likely to prove an important precedent. Although to date such involvement in the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute has demonstrated impotence rather than success, in the longer term that may not necessarily remain so and the resolution of many boundary disputes could be given additional legitimacy and weight by such international underpinning, as well as ensuring a level of resource allocation to enable the boundary delimitation and demarcation processes to be completed and ensured. However, it is important to realize that any such international involvement implies responsibility for implementation…”

The international community, represented by the UN, AU, EU and USA, assumed the responsibility of implementing the EEBC’s decisions. So why are the guarantors shrugging off their responsibilities by leaving the implementation of the EEBC’s final and binding delimitation and demarcation decisions on the“two parties”?The US-led international community and specifically the guarantors and witnesses of the Algiers Agreements could have acted in accordance with Article 14 of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement adapted and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council which clearly tells them what to do when one or both parties refuse to abide by the Agreements signed. It said:

“….the OAU and the UN commit themselves to guarantee the respect for this commitment of the parties. This guarantee shall be comprised of measures to be taken by the international community should one or both parties violate this commitment, including appropriate measures to be taken under Chapter 7 of the Charter of the United Nations by the Security Council…”

The UN Security Council chooses instead, to appease the crying and lying regime in Ethiopia.

After 16 years, this author is reminded of a boisterous Statement released by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry in 15 October 2003. It said:

“…There is no use for Eritrea to continue wishing that the Security Council would impose sanctions on Ethiopia and waiting for the prospect of drawing vicarious satisfaction from that. That is unlikely to happen. Not because Eritrea is not big enough to have its way, but because the idea is too crazy and too unrealistic…”

Such statements reflect the minority regime’s contempt for international law, but more importantly, it shows the impotence of the UN Security Council-and the regime in Ethiopia banks on it.

Ethiopia is one of the few countries that repeatedly violates UN Security Council resolutions and never suffers any consequence for doing so. Successive Ethiopian regimes have enjoyed diplomatic, political and military shield and support while flouting international law and violating Security Council resolutions …and the peoples of the region have paid dearly for the excesses and belligerence of Ethiopia’s myopic leaders. The double standards employed for the last 16 years has eroded the moral legitimacy of the international system and contributed to Ethiopia’s pernicious behavior.

Why is the UN Security Council refusing to enforce its own resolutions on the Eritrea Ethiopia border issue? Why is the Council allowing Ethiopia to feel that it can violate resolutions with impunity? It is NOT, as has been repeatedly stated by some quarters, up to the “two parties”, to enforce the EEBC’s decision. The Security Council itself – all the 15 – must take responsibility to respond to Ethiopia’s violations of its own resolutions, the EEBC’s decisions, UN Charter and international law. When will the Security Council shoulder its moral and legal obligations and end Ethiopia’s 16-year long occupation and restore Eritrea’s sovereignty and territorial integrity?

Today, in a bid to divert attention away from the domestic chaos, Ethiopia’s leaders want to talk about “Ethiopia-Eritrea relations”. Once again, this author is reminded of the words of the former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin. When the EEBC delivered its final and binding delimitation decision, he said that Eritrea’s “transparency and predictability” in abiding by its treaty obligations would be the basis for any normalization of relations. Well! What is good for the goose is also good for the gander…Any future Eritrea relations with Ethiopia will also depend on the regime in Ethiopia abiding by its treaty obligations in full “transparency and predictability”- Unfortunately, Its history and record is bleak… Don’t hold your breath!


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