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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

19 October 2005

Because of a ban on helicopter flights imposed by the Government of Eritrea since 4 October, the effectiveness of the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Ethiopia and Eritrea was being severely constrained, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told correspondents at Headquarters today.

Mr. Guéhenno, meeting with the press following his briefing of the Security Council, said the ban meant the mission was unable to maintain surveillance along more than half of the 1,000 kilometre boundary they patrolled, jeopardized the safety of the mission troops, as the mission relied on helicopters to evacuate anyone with a serious injury for medical treatment, and forced the suspension of demining activities, since there was no way of obtaining medical help if a peacekeeper was injured in a mine explosion.

Two days earlier, he added, three of the mission peacekeepers had been injured in a car accident and had to be driven over difficult terrain for eight hours to reach a hospital, rather than be taken by helicopter, because of the ban. Luckily, all three were in good condition. Also, the mission could no longer conduct night patrols, and it was encountering difficulties in patrolling in an area north of the Temporary Security. In his briefing to the Security Council, he had appealed to the Council to take action to reduce tension in the area and resolve the political situation so that the mission could resume its flights and full-scale operations.

Asked about the Eritrean Government’s attitude was towards the peacekeepers and the reasons for the ban, Mr. Guéhenno said the Government was unhappy with the stalemate over the boundary, and it had earlier expressed its displeasure by compelling the withdrawal of the mission’s carabinieri in July. “Since the peacekeeping mission is the manifestation of the international community, it’s been the target of Eritrea’s displeasure”, he said.

A correspondent asked whether there was any evidence as to the truth of a statement made earlier in the day by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia that Eritrean forces were gathering in the Security Zone. Mr. Guéhenno said he was unaware of any significant movements, but that the helicopter ban made it impossible for the mission to know definitively. “You see here, by default, the importance of peacekeeping operations”, he said. “If we are on the ground, we can prevent such a situation from escalating.”

Noting that the pullback of the mission from numerous sites appeared to be a “retreat”, not a regrouping, a reporter asked what peacekeeping was for, if as soon as a party began making preparations for war, the peacekeepers “run away”. Mr. Guéhenno said that a peacekeeping operation such as the one in Ethiopia/Eritrea existed to assist the feuding parties in establishing peace, not to provide enough troops to prevent war if the two parties wanted to go to war. The mission only operated with the consent of the two parties and, if one party prevented the mission from doing its job, the mission could not operate.

Asked if there had been any effort made to replace helicopter surveillance with satellite surveillance, Mr. Guéhenno said the United Nations did not have the financial resources to conduct satellite surveillance and had to rely on its Member States to offer their surveillance. Also, radar surveillance was necessary at night, and that capability was not commercially available. No State had offered to provide surveillance in this case, he said.

Asked how long he thought it would be before troop-contributing countries would recall their troops, if they were not adequately protected, Mr. Geuhenno said it was necessary to let diplomacy have enough time to produce results. Even though the mission’s activities were restricted, its very presence contributed to stability, he said.

A correspondent noted that United States representative John Bolton had, when the problems of the Ethiopian/Eritrean peacekeeping mission were brought before the Security Council, recommended that all the peacekeeping operations be reviewed for their efficacy and questioned those of particularly long duration. Mr. Guéhenno responded that the Security Council continually reviewed peacekeeping operations, and he believed that they should be closed as soon as their jobs were done, or they were no longer effective.

Had Eritrea imposed the helicopter ban to exert pressure on Ethiopia to finalize the boundary? a correspondent asked. Mr. Guéhenno said that it was not known why the ban had been imposed.

Asked to characterize the level of danger the peacekeepers faced, and whether it was as dire, for example, as when peacekeepers in Sierra Leone several years ago were encircled, Mr. Guéhenno said it was not so treacherous, and that Eritrea was a Member State and would abide by its “fundamental responsibilities” towards the peacekeepers.

In response to a question, Mr. Guéhenno said no troop-contributing country had said it wanted to withdraw its troops, but India, the main troop-contributor besides Jordan, had requested a meeting with the Security Council later in the day.

In response to another question, Mr. Guéhenno said Eritrea had been asked, and had refused to evacuate the injured peacekeepers earlier in the week.

Did the Eritrean threaten to shoot down helicopters defying the ban? a correspondent asked. Mr. Guéhenno said the mission would not defy the express decision of a head of a sovereign State banning helicopter flights. In response to a further question, Mr. Guéhenno read a statement from the Eritrean Government that said the flights had to stop to “avoid unwanted consequences”.

Asked whether the mission’s obedience to the flight ban was a sign of weakness and a failure to demonstrate the new robustness advocated for the peacekeeping missions, Mr. Guéhenno said the mission would not gamble on the lives of its troops and, in response to another question, said there had been a precedent for a peacekeeping mission to be asked to leave, but it was not the time to do so in the case of Ethiopia/Eritrea.

Asked about allegations of human rights violations in the 1970s by the number two United Nations official in the peacekeeping operation in Haiti and recent calls for his removal, Mr. Guéhenno said those allegations needed to be investigated. In response to another question, he said the United Nations reviewed the resumes and sought the assessment of the home Governments of peacekeeping candidates.

What message did the arrest and trial of a French generalin Côte d’Ivoire on accusations of abuse send to the peacekeeping community? a correspondent asked. Mr. Guéhenno said it was an important message that would help to convey the United Nations seriousness in its declaration that there would be zero tolerance of abuse perpetrated by United Nations peacekeepers.

“It’s an issue that is not going to be resolved overnight”, Mr. Guéhenno said, of abuse by peacekeepers. “It’s a cultural shift that is taking place. We need these very strong decisions. That’s the kind of message that will transform the attitude of the missions.”

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For information media • not an official record

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