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PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR PEACEKEEPING OPERATIONS ON SITUATION IN ERITREA/ETHIOPIA

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

9 January 2006

There was a clear a sense of urgency and crisis in the Security Council regarding the situation in Eritrea and Ethiopia, where the status quo was unsustainable, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

Speaking after he had briefed the Council on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) and his own recent visit to the Horn of Africa, Mr. Guéhenno said members also recognized the need to avoid precipitous decisions that could increase the risks along the front line between the two countries.

Emphasizing the need to give time for diplomacy, he welcomed Ambassador John Bolton’s ( United States) announcement regarding the sending of a high-powered mission to the region, and noted that peacekeeping operations could accompany a process but they could not substitute for it. The United Nations was only as strong as the commitment of its Member States and the engagement proposed by the United States would be essential to keeping the window for diplomacy open in the weeks ahead. Every effort must be made to take advantage of that diplomatic engagement.

Asked how the issue of demarcation between the two countries would be approached, the Under-Secretary-General said that while the end-goal of demarcating the border and normalizing relations between the two countries was very clear, the way to get there was extremely difficult. Each country was afraid of “showing its cards” too early and losing the possibility to achieve its aims. The two countries would not resolve their problems on their own and there was a need for a real engagement by the international community. The United States had solid relations with both countries and certainly had the clout and credibility to move the process forward.

He told another correspondent, who asked about the latest troop movements, that Ethiopian forces had pulled back from positions they had occupied before
16 December 2004. On the Eritrean side, the Government claimed it had not introduced any troops into the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ). The UNMEE, with its degraded capacity, had seen no significant movement of troops, tanks or artillery in the Zone, but it could not say with any assurance that none had taken place.

The demarcation was a bilateral agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said in response to a question by another journalist. The Mission was prepared to provide logistical support to the process and to ensure the safety of demarcation teams, by removing mines for example.

Asked whether demining action would stop, he said it had already been halted. It was an inherently dangerous activity requiring a very effective medical-evacuation capability that UNMEE did not have at the moment. An injured Indian peacekeeper had had to be evacuated by road, and the United Nations would continue to press Eritrea to lift its ban on Mission flying in the TSZ, which was contrary to peacekeeping principles and posed risks to the peacekeeping force on the ground.

What were the chances for the success of the proposed high-powered mission, and how did the Under-Secretary-General define success, given that the Eritrean Government had refused to see him during his recent visit? another correspondent asked.

Mr. Guéhenno replied that while he was a senior United Nations official visiting UNMEE, the mission proposed by the United States, a key Security Council member, would send a much stronger signal.

He emphasized that it was in the interests of both parties to resolve their differences on the basis of the commitments they had made under the Algiers Agreement that they had signed five years ago. There must be a prompt demarcation of the border and, at the same time, a package of measures enabling the two countries to normalize relations. One was not a precondition for the other. The Mission’s success would be defined by its getting back on track. The UNMEE should be able to do its job without impediment while the border was demarcated, United Nations helicopters should be able to fly, and the Organization should be able to staff the Mission with people from all over the world. At the same time, the underlying issues must be addressed.

Asked what impact Ethiopia’s internal problems had on the situation, the Under-Secretary-General said the country’s domestic situation could complicate things. As for the Eritrean position, they had been clear in their insistence on border demarcation, which for them was the only issue. They had taken a number of measures against the United Nations, which were unacceptable. While the Organization did not dispute that demarcation was a fundamental issue, the Mission must be able to do its job.

Responding to a question about the death of the commander of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Mr. Guéhenno said the investigation was continuing and the United Nations would work with Brazil to identify possible candidates to succeed him.

He noted that an important piece of positive news over the tragic weekend was the announcement that the Haitian elections would take place on 7 February. The MINUSTAH, the Organization of American States and the Interim Government of Haiti would do everything to ensure that the elections gave all candidates a fair chance to compete, and that nobody would be sidelined or crushed by the winners after the polls. Too often in Haiti elections had been a winner-take-all proposition, which had polarized the country. What it needed was fair and transparent elections where winners and losers could reconcile because it was vital for the Haitian people to come together.

Asked whether the United Nations was gearing up to crack down on drug gangs in the Haitian capital, Mr. Guéhenno said that the kind of situation that MINUSTAH faced in Cité Soleil required arrangements where military and police operations could be combined. Specialized units could be needed in dealing with urban violence and gangsters in order to minimize risks to the civilian population.

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For information media • not an official record



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