The Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission set up a year and a half ago to adjudicate a border dispute that left tens of thousands dead and the entire region on edge will issue its verdict on April 13. Both countries have pledged to abide by the outcome.

The judgment will mark a giant step toward the resolution of one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, but numerous obstacles remain to the achievement of a lasting peace. Some involve the behavior of the contending parties, notably respect for the decision and cooperation with the actual demarcation of the frontier. Others concern the response of the international community—both to ensure compliance and to assist with reconstruction and the demobilization of the massive armed forces raised for the confrontation.

Commission’s Decision

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Organization of African Unity (OAU) chair Amara Essy weighed in this week with calls on Eritrea and Ethiopia to accept the outcome without delay and on the international community to support its effective implementation. The OAU played a central role in facilitating the ceasefire, which is monitored by a 4,000-member UN peacekeeping force from 40 countries.

“Once the Commission’s decision is known, it is imperative that the two countries implement it without delay,” the two diplomats said in a joint statement issued on April 11. “As implementation of the Boundary Commission’s decision proceeds on the ground, it will be equally important to continue assisting the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia to overcome their humanitarian difficulties. We appeal to donor countries to extend maximum political and financial support to the two countries in their efforts towards socio-economic reconstruction and development,” they added.

The five-member commission, established under a permanent cessation of hostilities signed in Algiers in December 2000, is charged with delimiting the 600-mile [1,000-kilometer] border based upon colonial treaties and applicable international law. It is comprised of five lawyers with extensive experience in boundary arbitration: Sir Elihu Lauterpacht (President), Prince Bola Adesumbo Ajibola, Professor W. Michael Reisman, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel and Sir Arthur Watts. Their decision will depend heavily on how they interpret deals struck in the late 1800s and early 1900s among competing European powers (mainly Italy and Britain) and the emergent Ethiopian empire.

Rounds of Combat

Eritrea started the twentieth century under Italian rule and fell under British control after World War II. In 1952, the UN linked it to land-locked Ethiopia, which forcibly annexed the strategic Red Sea territory a decade later. The Eritreans finally won their independence in 1991 after a 30-year liberation war that ended with a military victory and the collapse of the Mengistu dictatorship in Ethiopia.

The two states, each ruled by guerrilla movements that had fought together to reach this outcome, started with what appeared to be cordial relations, promoting open borders and touting the possibility of future economic integration. Under these circumstances, neither appeared concerned to delineate their formal boundaries. However, after relations frayed in the mid-1990s over a range of economic and political issues, the precise location of the border became a pretext for renewed conflict. From the outset, many Ethiopians called for the recapture of Eritrea or, failing that, the seizure of its southernmost port, Assab.

Full-scale fighting broke out in May-June 1998 as heavily armed forces of more than a quarter million men and women on each side faced off along the full length of the frontier. Three rounds of combat, ending in June 2000, produced tens of thousands of casualties, displaced hundreds of thousands more, devastated the two countries’ already impoverished economies and kept the entire region off balance.

Remaining Challenges

The truce arrived at then has mostly held, and leaders of both countries have promised to live with the Boundary Commission’s verdict, but their armed forces are still fully mobilized and both countries remain on a war footing. Under these circumstances, it is not only formal acceptance of the commission outcome that will matter, but also the quality and pace of its implementation.

Once the lines on the map are accepted, the task of actually demarcating the new boundary on the ground begins. The potential for trouble starts here, as it will almost certainly involve changes in civil administration, shifts in civilian populations and even redeployment of troops, all of which the leaders on each side will have to explain to their respective constituencies.

Under the cessation of hostilities agreement, UN peacekeepers patrol a Temporary Security Zone, 15 miles wide, along the contested border. However, the buffer zone lies entirely within Eritrea, and Ethiopian troops have moved into some of the disputed areas. If the commission’s verdict does not favor Ethiopian claims in all these areas, as most observers expect, they will have to move.

Much of the frontier is intensively mined, making the placement of physical boundary markers extremely hazardous. Demining, already started but far from finished, will have to precede effective demarcation. Meanwhile, some 58,000 Eritrean civilians remain in displaced persons’ camps behind the battle lines today. They will have to be resettled.

Demarcation will also open the way for the demobilization of the two huge armies still entrenched across from one another. But demobilization of such forces—Eritrea’s total population is only 3.5 million—entails enormous economic challenges and social risks. Both countries will need significant international assistance with this process if stability is to follow peace.

Potential for Instability

A speedy recovery is essential, both for nations involved in the conflict and for the wider region. In the mid-1990s, Eritrea and Ethiopia, acting together and through new regional mechanisms, were playing a particularly constructive role in peacemaking in war-torn Somalia and Sudan and in the promotion of regional economic integration. All that collapsed when war broke out between the former allies in 1998.

Eritrean leaders have long asserted that the border conflict was “senseless” and have not articulated any war aims other than ending the fighting and returning to the process of nation-building they embarked on in the early 1990s. While top Ethiopian officials, who once called for the ouster of Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki, now insist they want nothing but peace, several prominent opposition parties in that country, joined by hard-liners within the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, have called on Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to reject the results and press their claims on the port of Assab.

Though Zenawi has so far rejected these calls, the potential for Ethiopia to sustain a condition of permanent instability along the border after demarcation remains. It was after all a series of minor border incidents, triggered by Ethiopian incursions and Eritrean reprisals, that set off the fighting in May 1998.

Binding Verdict

Under these circumstances, it is essential that the international community also make crystal clear that the results of the Boundary Commission’s deliberations will not only be formally binding on both parties but that any breach of the agreement will meet with quick and effective sanctions. Also, the international community should actively engage the two states in a recovery that will invest them each in the maintenance of peace. Anything less is an invitation to recurring conflict.

“The consolidation of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea has made great strides, but this is a work in progress,” said the UN and OAU chiefs this week. “There are many actors in these efforts. The parties themselves have the major role. But the assistance of others is also required to help the two countries overcome the hostility and bitterness that has divided them in the past.”

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Eritrea-Ethiopia Verdict Due This Week," Middle East Report Online, April 12, 2002.

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