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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

ERITREA-ETHIOPIA: Review of peace process in 2003

ADDIS ABABA, 8 January 2004 (IRIN) - The year 2003 should have marked a time when the foundations for lasting peace were laid between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two impoverished countries in the Horn of Africa.

The peace deal signed in Algiers in December 2000 would finally come to fruition and the desperately-needed nation building after decades of strife would begin in earnest.

But the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his latest report on the peace process issued on Friday, will cause concern among those who had hoped for a breakthrough in the Horn.

The peace process “remains difficult, even precarious” and there are fears that the current situation could escalate. Inflammatory rhetoric is increasing and tensions are high," he said.


What has gone wrong? The Ethiopia and Eritrea peace process was seen as a model operation between two responsible, sovereign governments, willing to cooperate.

Both had signed up to and agreed to abide by a peace deal. Both continue to declare peace is the only option for two nations struggling to develop their fragile economies.

What was supposed to be the year when the first signs of normal relations appeared and a new border was marked out, will now be remembered as one of disappointment and deadlock.

It was a border dispute in Badme, a small Ethiopian-administered town with a population of around 5,000 people, in May 1998 that flared up into a full-blown and bloody war.

In the ensuing two years of heavy fighting, thousands were killed on both sides, both military and civilian, and as many as a million people were displaced from their homes.

In June 2000, the sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement that led to a comprehensive peace accord signed in Algiers in December of that year.

Article Four of the accord paved the way for an independent boundary commission to finally resolve the long-running frontier dispute by drawing up and marking out a new internationally recognised border.

Eritrea, whose border was never formally demarcated after it officially gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year guerrilla war, would finally have an official border.

Ethiopia could turn its attentions to poverty eradication, avoiding the pitfalls of previous governments whose scarce resources were sapped fighting to prevent the Eritreans breaking away.

The independent Boundary Commission based in The Hague issued its “final and binding” decision in April 2002 stating where the border would lie. Both countries initially hailed the ruling. All was set for peace.


But as 2003 began to unravel so to did the commission’s ruling – the central plank of the peace process – and the planned demarcation of the border began to look shaky.

Although both sides gained and lost territory in the ruling, the wrangling over who had been awarded Badme continued, with each country claiming it had gone to them.

The populations of both nations were largely left in the dark as Badme’s exact location had been left from the commission’s original 134-page ruling.

By February 2003 the international community and the United Nations began sensing that cracks were appearing and that border implementation would meet stiff resistance.

The European Union and the United States both applied diplomatic pressure to keep up the momentum. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki were courted by world leaders and encouraged to meet their commitments.

But it was in late March that the first definitive announcement of the location of Badme, and a second area on the Ethio-Eritrea border called Irob, became clear.

Badme, according to the Commission was to be found in Eritrea based on colonial maps of the region and parts of Irob too were also in Eritrean territory.

Gradually, the hoped-for smooth transition to lasting peace began to ebb away and the downward spiral towards deadlock that now marks the peace process set in.

By the end of March, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which borders Eritrea and witnessed much of the fighting and loss of life, announced that the decision was unacceptable.

The leadership in Addis Ababa remained silent while demarcation deadlines of May and July passed. October then became the definitive date for demarcation.

But by September the first public government criticism of the commission began. Meles dismissed the ruling as a “blatant miscarriage of justice”.

“Indeed, the commission seems to be determined to continue its disastrous stance whatever the consequences to peace in the region,” he said in a letter to the UN.

By the end of October the commission, facing increasing criticism in Ethiopia, announced it was unable to demarcate the border under “current circumstances”.

The hiccups and hurdles that beset any peace process had become a deadlock.


While Eritrea insists the border should be demarcated, as stipulated in the “final and binding” ruling, Ethiopia has warned that further conflict could ensue.

Ethiopia wants a broad-based dialogue to resolve the impasse, while its neighbour has rejected talks until demarcation is complete.

“There is no doubt that a fundamental requirement for the successful completion of the peace process and future normalisation of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea lies in the expeditious demarcation of their common border,” Annan said in his progress report.

In the meantime, the UN peacekeeping force (the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea UNMEE) ensures that militarily the situation remains stable. The 3,800 Blue Helmets that patrol a demilitarised area, called the Temporary Security Zone, have maintained a fragile peace and prevented flare-ups. They will only exit the country once the last pillar on the border has been planted.

The closing months of 2003 have been marked by intense diplomatic efforts to try and break the deadlock.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto visited the region to help ensure peace and defuse tensions, meeting with both Meles and Isayas.

Both countries are important allies of Washington in the Horn of Africa and openly supported the US-led war against Iraq earlier this year.

In 2004, diplomatic attempts to break the deadlock will intensify and continue.

“In the period ahead, it will be essential for the parties to keep an open mind and continue to work with the international community and key supporters of the peace process,” said Annan.

Later this month the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will arrive in Addis Ababa and a UN special envoy, former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, is expected in the region to try and help resolve the impasse.

But unlike the beginning of the year, a date for the eventual border demarcation has yet to be fixed and no obvious breakthrough is apparent.

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict



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