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Ethiopia and Eritrea: War or Peace?


The next few weeks will go far to determining whether Ethiopia and Eritrea resume a path toward war – which took some 100,000 lives between 1998 and 2000 – or solidify their peace agreement. Ethiopia must decide whether to allow demarcation of the border to begin in October 2003 even though the international Boundary Commission set up under the Algiers agreement that ended the fighting has ruled that the town of Badme – the original flashpoint of the war – is on the Eritrean side. The outcome will have profound implications for both countries and the entire Horn of Africa, as well as for international law and the sanctity of binding peace agreements and arbitration processes. The international community, particularly the U.S., the African Union (AU), and the European Union (EU), all of which played major roles in brokering the Algiers agreement, need to engage urgently to help Ethiopia move the demarcation forward and to assist both parties to devise a package of measures that can reduce the humanitarian costs of border adjustments and otherwise make implementation of the demarcation more politically palatable.

The two warring states agreed at Algiers to establish the Boundary Commission and accept its judgement as final and binding. The Commission made its ruling in April 2002. After a series of technical and political delays caused largely by Ethiopia’s objections, in particular to the disposition of Badme, it announced in July 2003 that physical demarcation on the ground should begin in October. On 12 September, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which monitors the border, and called on both parties to fulfil their commitments under the Algiers agreement by creating “the necessary conditions for demarcation to proceed, including the appointment of field liaison officers”, providing security for the demarcation process, and pursuing political dialogue.

The governments of both Ethiopia and Eritrea face harder line elements that believe too much has already been given away in the peace process and are unwilling to countenance further flexibility. Many Ethiopians are determined not to cede any territory to Eritrea after having allowed its independence. The most potent mobilising factor for Eritreans is the threat of encroachment by Ethiopia on their hard-won sovereignty. For Ethiopians who opposed Eritrean independence, the threatened loss of Badme is emblematic of the loss of Eritrea, while for many Eritreans the fate of that town of 5,000 cannot be separated from their worry that Ethiopia may one day try to regain access to the sea. For both sides, losing Badme would make the sacrifices of the 1998-2000 conflict much harder to justify.

While neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea wants to return to combat, incidents of isolated violence have been occurring with increasing frequency along the border, as have reports of incursions by troops into the neutral zone. There is no real dialogue between the parties. Each views the other’s government as decaying and its military as weak and unprepared. Each supports elements of the other’s opposition, and, perhaps most dangerously, underestimates the will of the other to hold together if there is a new military confrontation. All these are attitudes eerily similar to those that prevailed prior to and during the war.

The integrity of the peace agreement is on the brink of being compromised. Despite its renewal of the UNMEE mandate and its correct insistence that the agreement be implemented immediately and without renegotiation, the UN Security Council remains relatively unengaged and preoccupied with other responsibilities. Washington, which negotiated the agreement in tandem with the AU, has largely ignored the issue, despite its interest in regional stability. The AU has remained largely silent as well.

The international community cannot afford to look away and hope for the best, however. Vigorous diplomacy is needed now. While the parties should not be permitted to deviate from implementing a Boundary Commission decision that both agreed would be “final and binding”, creative solutions can be found to make implementation more politically acceptable by reducing the security and humanitarian impacts while demarcation proceeds. These diplomatic efforts should not be the prerequisite for implementation. But an early demonstration that the international community is serious about finding ways to soften the losses perceived by both parties would be a positive inducement for constructive action. Timing is important since an Ethiopian decision not to cooperate with the October schedule could set in motion a rapid deterioration of the situation, and a small incident – whether unplanned or provoked by either side – could easily escalate out of control.


To the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea:

  1. Implement the peace agreement promptly and fully and in particular provide the Boundary Commission and UNMEE all necessary support and security guarantees so that demarcation of the border can begin in October 2003 pursuant to the Boundary Commission’s April 2002 decision.

  1. Seek creative ways to facilitate implementation of the Boundary Commission’s decision by negotiating parallel initiatives with the help of the U.S., AU and EU aimed at reducing the humanitarian impacts on the populations of the border region and preventing conflict which might result from the demarcation process.

To the governments of the United States, the African Union and the European Union:

  1. Undertake an immediate public diplomacy campaign that spells out for political elites in Ethiopia and Eritrea the importance of full implementation of the Algiers agreement, the benefits of compliance, and the costs of collapsing the peace process, and develop a set of gradually escalating political and financial measures that could be applied against a party that blocks implementation of the agreement.

  1. Conduct missions to the contested areas of the border in advance of the scheduled October 2003 start of border demarcation to explain the approach taken and absorb some of the responsibility for easing the political, security and humanitarian difficulties that will ensue when the parties implement the Boundary Commission’s decision.

  1. Begin to discuss immediately with each party, and coordinate with each other to the extent possible on, the parallel initiatives cited in recommendation 2 above, which could include the following measures:

(a)    dual citizenship for affected populations, maintenance of existing citizenship in cases where administration changes hands, and/or codification of the rights of non-citizens living in either country;

(b)    immediate opening of the border and negotiation of port access for Ethiopia;

(c)    administration by UNMEE for a short face-saving period of the border areas that are to change hands;

(d)    mutual agreement, in the context of technical alterations suggested by the two parties’ field liaison officers, on small adjustments to the demarcation line to satisfy humanitarian, geographical, security or political needs; and

(e)    generous compensation and development aid to affected local populations, including support for relocation, reconstruction of infrastructure, and restoration of livelihoods.

To the UN Security Council:

  1. Consider early expansion of UNMEE’s mandate so that it can administer for a short face-saving period the border areas that are to change hands, and instruct UNMEE once demarcation of the border has begun to:

(a)    conduct joint patrols along the border with the parties; and

(b)    create a rapid response verification capability to troubleshoot border difficulties and deter those who may want to manufacture a problem, including to embarrass a national government intent on fulfilling its obligations.

Nairobi/Brussels, 24 September 2003

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