Lines in the Sand

the USA’s disregard for international law has emboldened smaller nations to do the same, sparking a new conflict in the Horn of Africa

by John Sorenson

June/July 2005

Tensions between the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia over failure to demarcate their mutual 1000-kilometre border are now approaching a critical point. From 1998 to 2000 war between these two former allies, sparked by disagreements over this same border, killed at least 70,000 people and devastated Eritrea, where most of the fighting took place. A third of Eritrea’s population was displaced, especially from key agricultural areas which are still covered with landmines that prevent peasant farmers from taking up their livelihood again. In December 2000, both governments accepted the Algiers Peace Agreement, ending two years of brutal conflict. Both agreed to accept the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), an independent group charged with the task of delineating the border based on evidence submitted by both parties. While the EEBC studied the issue, thousands of UN peacekeepers, including a Canadian contingent, maintained a demilitarized zone inside Eritrean territory.

When the EEBC issued its decision in April 2002, it seemed to chart a middle course: each side gained territory it had claimed in certain areas and lost some in others. Eritrea accepted the EEBC’s decision and called for demarcation of the boundary according to the EEBC’s findings. However, Ethiopia rejected the ruling because it did not give Ethiopia everything it wanted. The Ethiopian government was particularly enraged that it had not been awarded Badme, a remote but symbolically-significant village that was at the centre of the border dispute in 1998. Having sent tens of thousands of soldiers to their death in order to assert ownership over this village, the Ethiopian government recognized that it would be politically unwise to acknowledge that Badme had been Eritrean territory all along.

In November 2004, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced a new strategy. In what he called a five point peace plan, Meles stated that Ethiopia accepted the EEBC ruling “in principle,” but now demanded that there be further “dialogue” between Eritrea and Ethiopia on “root causes.” Meles insisted on modifications to the EEBC’s decision.

Not surprisingly, Eritrea dismissed Meles’ plan, and called on the Security Council to take action to force Ethiopia to meet its obligations under the Algiers Agreement. In April 2005, Eritrean government officials pointed out that Ethiopia was in violation of international law by continuing to occupy Eritrean territory and warned that the failure to resolve the issue of the border was leading to another war.

While the presence of UN peacekeeping troops have kept the tension down to the level of isolated skirmishes, international efforts to resolve the issues have been unsuccessful. Both countries continued to mobilize their military forces after the war stopped in 2000, and a renewed round of arms purchases was reported in 2005 as the border demarcation stalled. At the beginning of May 2005, Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki announced that war with Ethiopia was imminent and said that the national budget would be planned with that war in mind.

In December 2004, Ethiopia moved over 40,000 new troops into the border region, calling it a defensive move but clearly intending it as a threat that it was ready to use military means to obtain what it had been denied by international law.

A lack of resolution to the “impasse” has interfered with the flow of aid and trade and relegated millions to greater poverty and uncertainty by keeping them separated from their homes and fields. Both countries rely on international assistance to avert starvation.

The leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia formerly were allies against the previous dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. After defeating Mengistu and holding a referendum in 1993, Eritrea declared independence. The new Ethiopian government accepted this, but both governments became more repressive after the unexpected 1998 war.

In Eritrea, the only political party is the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. National elections were scheduled for 1997 and 2001 but were not held. Dissidents have been imprisoned without charges or trial and all nongovernment media have been closed.

In Ethopia, the military and police have tortured and killed dissidents. In December 2003, the Ethiopian military massacred hundreds in western Ethiopia and has driven 20,000 people into refugee camps in northern Kenya and southern Sudan. The government has arrested and harassed journalists and shut down the Ethiopia Free Press Journalists Association in 2003. Election “irregularities” were reported in 2000 and 2001, and opposition candidates were threatened and attacked.

On March 24, 2005 Lloyd Axworthy, UN Special Envoy to Eritrea and Ethiopia, briefed the Canadian government’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on the situation, suggesting that Canada had considerable influence in the region. In addition to providing peacekeeping troops at the border, Canada has given $100 million in direct aid to the government of Ethiopia, planned to send observers to the May 2005 elections in Ethiopia. In May 2005 Canada announced plans to provide military support and humanitarian aid in the Darfur region of Sudan and to work on coordinating peacekeeping there. While acknowledging that the “underlying premise” of his mission “was to support the authority and role of the boundary commission, and preserve the integrity of its decisions,” Axworthy did not criticize Ethiopia for its failure to implement the commission’s decision and his mission seemed intended to appease Ethiopia. Nevertheless, Axworthy did acknowledge: “First, the rule of law must be upheld. In this context this means that the Algiers agreement and the boundary commission provide the legal framework through which the conflict must be resolved, and the decision of April 2002 must be implemented. There is no alternative mechanism. The only alternative is going to war.”

Axworthy also noted the discrepancy between words and actions on the part of “key international players” who had not made a unified response to the situation. Here we begin to approach some important aspect of the “impasse”—it is not a matter of the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia engaging in “broad-based dialogue,” but rather of “key international players” exerting pressure to compel Ethiopia to abide by international law and to observe its commitment to accept the conclusions of the Algiers Agreements.

Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have bolstered their arsenals and a new conflict would be even more destructive than the 1998-2000 war. War will be devastating for the civilian population, many of whom live on the edge of survival during normal times. In May 2005, the UN announced that existing food stocks in Eritrea had been consumed and estimated that one million Eritreans would face hunger without more international support. The Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission stated that it was reaching less than 60 percent of people in need. Two thirds of the population depended to some degree on food aid and coping mechanisms had reached their limit after the cumulative effect of five years of drought. As grain prices rose, many households were spending most of their meager resources just to purchase food and were forced to eat their seeds or sell animals at low prices just to survive, furthering weakening their ability to withstand future crises. Insecurity over a renewed war with Ethiopia meant that large numbers of young people were kept in the military, reducing the number of workers and income-earners, while borders with Ethiopia and Sudan remained closed, further reducing access to markets.

In Ethiopia, the government issued an appeal for $48 million (USA), calling for emergency food aid as well as assistance with health and water problems. UNICEF noted that while 60,000 Ethiopian children required emergency therapeutic feeding about a half-million required urgent assistance and nine million people would need some sort of help. The outbreak of a new war would not only kill large numbers of civilians immediately but would have longer-term effects by further disrupting agricultural production and distribution of emergency aid.

Noting that a major war could erupt at any time and that much of the tension came from Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the EEBC’s decision, The Economist (April 21, 2005) described the situation in strikingly honest terms:

“Eritrea may have international law on its side, but no global policeman seems inclined to enforce it. With 16 times the population, Ethiopia is commercially weightier. It is also more important strategically, since it shares a border with anarchic Somalia, which America frets might be a breeding ground for terrorists. Meanwhile, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China, are said to be selling arms to both sides.”

In other words, the world seems prepared to ignore international law and to accept the possibility of a new war which might lead to the destruction of Eritrea because more profits can be made in Ethiopia, and because war itself is a windfall for arms merchants on the so-called “security” council.

It is certain that renewed conflict would send a strong message about the irrelevance of international law. Despite its dangerous and obstinate decision to ignore international law, Ethiopia is being rewarded, not pressured. For example, Britain has tripled its aid to Ethiopia and Tony Blair personally selected Meles Zenawi as a member of his Commission for Africa. The USA regards Ethiopia as a partner in its “war on terror” and has been unwilling to criticize the government for its human rights violations.

Small powers seem to have learned well the lessons provided by larger ones: international law can be ignored without consequences. As Canada prepares for a greater role in the Horn of Africa, we may ask if these are the lessons we wish to encourage. Instead of appeasing Ethiopia, Canada should use its influence to pressure that government to fully accept and implement the EEBC decisions, including its ruling on Badme and should encourage both Eritrea and Ethiopia to demilitarize the region. Missing the chance to do so is likely to have terrible consequences.

John Sorenson is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, ON. He has written and edited several books on the Horn of Africa, most recently (with Atsuko Matsuoka) Ghosts and Shadows, a study of African diaspora communities in Canada.

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