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Eritrea - Ethiopia Relations

The East African countries fought a bloody border war in 1998 that left more than 80,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. A UN-backed peace agreement in 2000 awarded the disputed border territories to Eritrea but the deal was never implemented. The Eritrea-Ethiopia rivalry contributed to security issues across the region, including Eritrea’s strained relationships with Djibouti and Sudan, and Ethiopia’s tensions with Egypt and Somalia.

The "no war, no peace" situation exhausted itself and both nations could no longer shoulder the burdens of keeping themselves on war footing. At the State Palace in Eritrea, President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a declaration of peace 09 July 2018, formally ending the state of war between their countries and setting the stage for a new era of harmonious relations. Both countries stood to benefit from closer ties, and the scope of the peace deal’s potential implications emerged shortly after the leaders signed the document. The agreement specified that “transport, trade and communications links” will be re-established, and the ability to make phone calls between the countries had been restored. Commercial flights between the nations resumed, and plans to reopen embassies in the respective capitals were in the works.

One remaining concern was resistance in some of the border regions to the implementation of the EEBC (Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission) decision. That decision, made in 2002, resulted in a definitive ruling about the border between the countries. Both sides agreed to accept the decision when they signed the Algiers Agreement, which ended the border war in 2000, but Ethiopia later reneged.

Ethiopia announced 06 June 2018 it would fully accept the terms of a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea in a major step toward calming deadly tensions with its decades-long rival, as dramatic reforms under a new prime minister continue.

The peace agreement signed in 2000 ended a two-year border war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, but a no-peace-no-war situation continued, with the two countries skirmishing from time to time. Ethiopia had refused to accept the deal's handing of key locations, including Badme, to Eritrea and continues to control that town.

Ethiopia's ruling party now accepts that agreement without conditions and calls on Eritrea's government to do the same, the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported. "The suffering on both sides is unspeakable because the peace process is deadlocked. This must change for the sake of our common good," the chief of staff for the prime minister's office, Fitsum Arega, said.

Ethiopia's prime minister said 26 June 2018 his country was ready to open a new chapter in their relations with long-time foe Eritrea following a high-level meeting with a delegation from Asmara. Abiy Ahmed received a delegation led by Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh and President Isaias Afwerki's right-hand man, Yemane Gebreab. "Our desire is to love rather than hate. What we miss is to hug our brothers in Asmara. If we are in love then the other things are minor. And if we do that, we might not need a border. Our neighbourliness is sharing things and drinking coffee together," Prime Minister Ahmed said on Tuesday night during a state dinner he hosted for the delegation. The continuing border dispute with Ethiopia represented the most immediate and clear external threat to Eritrean security and stability. Relations with Ethiopia, once close and mutually beneficial, are extremely tense, as the border dispute between the two nations has yet to come to a full and peaceful resolution.

The cornerstone of Eritrea’s foreign policy during the years following independence remained the building of a strategic alliance with Ethiopia, facilitated by ties between President Afwerki and his counterpart President Meles Zenawi who, before becoming Ethiopia’s Head of State, was the chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The two countries signed a trade agreement in January 1992. The following April they entered into an agreement on transit that turned Assab into a “free port” for Ethiopian imports and exports.

In July 1992, further bilateral accords were concluded on cultural and technical exchanges; immigration; the use of trans-border rivers, particularly the Setit river; and security and defence cooperation. Eritrea also continued to use the Ethiopian Birr as its currency. Besides Ethiopia, Eritrea’s main trading partners at the time included Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Yemen.

The failure to delimit state boundaries was to have serious consequences on the relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia where their shared border had never been demarcated, which meant that sovereignty over areas along the 1,000-kilometer frontier between the two countries remained unclear. This was the case of the western border locality of Badme, which fell under the EPLF control in November 1977 but over which sovereignty was not determined.

On 6 May 1998, Ethiopian soldiers shot Eritrean soldiers near Badme, following which a heavy military response from Eritrea caused an escalation into a large conflict involving 500,000 troops from both sides. The border incident in Badme had in reality followed other minor disputes.

In October 1997, Ethiopia provoked the Eritrean Government by issuing currency on which a map was printed that showed areas claimed by Eritrea to be part of Ethiopia. All these incidents occurred in an overall context of deteriorated relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia due to political, economic and military competition. In November 1997, Eritrea abandoned the Birr and adopted its own currency, the Nakfa, a decision that contributed further to political tensions. The military incident near Badme was the spark that started the fire.

The border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia continued until a peace agreement was signed on 12 December 2000 in Algiers. Following the 1998-2000 war, a UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), was established and monitored a 25-kilometer-wide Temporary Security Zone separating the two sides. Eritrean restrictions on UNMEE led to its termination in July 2008.

The December 2000 Algiers accord provided for the creation of a joint Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, with a mandate to delimit the disputed border. It also established the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission (EECC), which was mandated to resolve the damage claims arising from the border conflict.

Headed by Cambridge Law Professor Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, who was chosen by both parties, the EEBC was composed of two members appointed by Eritrea and two by Ethiopia. By common consent the decision of the Commission was to be final and binding.

However, on 13 April 2002, when the EEBC defined the border and granted the disputed village of Badme to Eritrea, Ethiopia rejected the ruling and unsuccessfully appealed to the United Nations Security Council to set aside the decision. When this request was refused, Ethiopia refused to cooperate with the EBBC.

Eritrea for its part accepted the findings of the EEBC. The EEBC dissolved itself on 30 November 2007, without having physically demarcated the disputed border. On the issue of compensations, in December 2005 the EECC found that because Eritrea had sent troops into the area of Badme before the outbreak of war, it had not acted in self-defense in 1998 and had, therefore, precipitated or caused the war. In December 2005, the Commission issued its final determination of liability and awarded Eritrea 161.4 million USD and Ethiopia 174 million USD. However, neither country paid any compensation.

The two countries remained in a stalemate defined by observers and Eritrea itself as a “no war, no peace” situation. Pursuant to the EEBC ruling, Eritrea accused Ethiopia of occupying its sovereign territory, while blaming the international community for failing to compel Ethiopia to comply with the Algiers Agreement. Ethiopia, on its part, accused Eritrea of being at the origin of the border dispute and of fuelling conflict in the region, notably in Somalia.

Both countries led a fight by proxy by providing support to opposition and rebel groups. In April 2011, the Ethiopian Foreign Minister officially recognised the support of its government to Eritrean political organizations based in Ethiopia. He presented this support as one of the components of a three-layered approach to Eritrea, the two others being “diplomatic efforts to get the international community to act decisively about Eritrea” and “a proportionate response to any and every act by the regime in Asmara.”

Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the findings of the joint Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) allegedly pushed Eritrea to support Somalia-based Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), to destabilise the Government in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has repeatedly accused Eritrea of backing rebel groups that attack targets in Ethiopia's Afar area. Ethiopia has a record of being supportive of Eritreans who oppose the regime in Asmara. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated in parliament in April 2011 that his government would actively support groups trying to overthrow Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Mr. Meles's comment came after Ethiopia accused Eritrea of trying to stage high-profile bomb attacks in Addis Ababa during an African Union summit. Eritrea strongly denied the charges.

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Page last modified: 10-07-2018 17:35:32 ZULU