June 14, 2011 | World Defense Review

Winds of War Blow Along Ethiopia-Eritrea Border

Two months ago in this column space, I warned that “a little-known border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia is rapidly escalating and threatens to not only the peace of the neighborhood, but also hard won in America's broader struggle against Islamist terrorism.” Since then, others have confirmed that my sense of alarm was not out of order. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's November 1, 2007 report to the Security Council admitted that “the continued stalemate on this issue, the tension between the two parties and the military build-up along the border area are matters of serious concern.” The following week, an International Crisis Group policy brief, citing the fact that the “military build-up along the common border over the past few months has reached alarming proportions,” concluded that “the risk that Ethiopia and Eritrea will resume their war in the next several weeks is very real.”

The dispute between the two countries ostensibly over the poorly demarcated 912-kilometer border that between the onetime Italian colony of Eritrea and Ethiopia, the one African state that survived the 19th century scramble by the European powers, centers on the miserable hamlet of Badme, which formerly had a population of about 1,500. In May 1998, Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki attempted to settle the matter by force, sending in his army to occupy the town center. While Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi correctly regarded the Eritrean move as an act of aggression under international law that should be resisted, unfortunately the ensuing conventional war, over a strip of desert that was near-worthless to begin with and certainly rendered absolutely useless after the fighting, claimed over 100,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million people before a peace accord, largely brokered by the United States with former national security advisor Anthony Lake acting as the President Bill Clinton's special envoy, was signed in Algiers in December 2000.

Under the Algiers Agreement, Eritrea – which was not only the aggressor but had come off the worse for the fighting – was obliged to withdraw its forces back 25 kilometers from the Ethiopian lines at the frontier, with the vacated “transitional security zone” (TSZ), a more than 25,000-sqare-kilometer strip of Eritrea representing more than one-fifth of statelet's territory, to be demilitarized and subject to monitoring by an international peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), which currently includes 1,676 personnel. The border dispute was submitted to international arbitration by a specially-appointed Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC). The EEBC was mandated to delimit the border on the basis of a series of early 20th century colonial treaties and “applicable international law.” (The war itself was subject to a separate international claims commission which, in late 2005, ruled that irrespective of the legal title to the disputed town of Badme, Eritrea's armed aggression to secure it while ownership was still formally unresolved violated the UN Charter and thus Asmara was liable for damages Addis Ababa incurred as a result of the conflict.)

In April 2002, the EEBC issued its 135-page decision awarding Badme to Eritrea on the basis of the colonial era frontiers. In November 2005, after initially objecting to the EEBC ruling as “manifestly unjust” because it failed to account for current realities in the area, Prime Minister Meles, who had come around to describing Badme a “godforsaken village,” tabled a “Five Point Proposal” for a peaceful resolution of the dispute that was subsequently approved by the Ethiopian House of Representatives. The provisions of the proposal include:

   1. Resolve the dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea only and only through peaceful means.


   2. Resolve the root causes of the conflict through dialogue with the view to normalizing relations between the two countries.

   3. Ethiopia accepts, in principle, the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission decision.


   4. Ethiopia agrees to pay its dues to the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission and to appoint field liaison officers.

   5. Start dialogue immediately with the view to implementing the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission's decision in a manner consistent with the promotion of sustainable peace and brotherly ties between the two peoples.

Instead of responding positively to this initiative, Eritrea has been moving troops and heavy equipment, including tanks, into the TSZ since October 2006 – a blatant violation of the armistice as the UN Secretary-General's report documents. Eritrea also constructed new defenses inside the TSZ and, according to the UN, during September and October, brought its troop strength in the central sector of the TSZ to 2,580, reinforced with three artillery pieces, ten heavy machine guns, and five truckloads of arms. The UN monitors also reported that some 4,025 Eritrean troops as well as tanks and artillery were in TSZ Sector West by mid-October. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added:

    Continued Eritrean restrictions have not made it possible for the Mission to monitor all Eritrean troop movements and deployments in the Zone. As underlined in my earlier reports to the Council, the continued presence and deployment of Eritrean Defense Forces and heavy military equipment inside the Zone constitute direct violations of the Algiers Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities.

In response to the Eritrean violations of the demilitarized buffer zone, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has moved men and equipment closer to the border. The ENDF has, so far, remained within Ethiopian territory, despite provocations like occasional sniper fire from Eritrean forces illegally occupying the TSZ. More worrisome is the Ethiopian government's threat to cancel the peace agreement if Eritrea will not respect it by withdrawing fully from the TSZ and allowing UNMEE to operate without restrictions. Regrettably, the EEBC, which is chaired by Sir Elihu Lauterpracht, director emeritus of the Lauterpracht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University and son of the legendary international jurist Sir Hersh Lauterpracht, precipitously brought matters to a head by issuing a statement noting that since conditions were such that the commission could not actually install the pillars demarcating the border as arbitrated and hence, per the Algiers Agreement, at the end of this month “the boundary will automatically stand as demarcated by the boundary points listed in the Annex [of the 2002 decision] and the mandate of the Commission can then be regarded as fulfilled.” While the EEBC's position is correct legally, it is less than helpful diplomatically and may even, inadvertently, hasten hostilities.

Thus the stage is set for a major conflict, possibly within days. Exacerbating the situation is the political and strategic position of Eritrea's Isaias Afewerki which makes backing down a course as potentially perilous course as going to war. As I reported four months ago, Eritrea's 4.9 million people live in a repressive Maoist prison where not even the adherents of the country's four “legal” faiths (Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea), while not as badly off as those like Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses who belong to “unrecognized sects,” hardly enjoy even minimal freedom of worship. On November 6, without giving any explanation, the regime expelled thirteen Catholic missionaries – six priests, six nuns, and one lay missionary – from Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and the Philippines. In contrast to Ethiopia, where real economic growth topped 10 percent last year, Eritrea's economy is actually contracting with little prospect of turnaround given the country's lack of significant infrastructure and less-than-transparent governance and closed economy (consumer imports have essentially been banned since 2005, while most businesses are owned either by the government or the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice party). With the bright prospects which accompanied his country's 1993 independence long since turned to ashes, Isaias may be calculating that any open display of weakness may prove the coup de grace for his government politically and perhaps even for himself personally.

Compounding this misery at home is the fact that the Isaias dictatorship expends what resources it has on adventures abroad, many of which are aimed at attacking its Ethiopian foe through proxies: sponsorship of the “Alliance for the Liberation of Somalia” (ALS) insurgency in Mogadishu and support for an alphabet soup of rebel groups inside Ethiopia including the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Afar National Democratic Front (ANDF), the Ethiopian People's Patriotic Front (EPPF), the Gambella People's Liberation Force (GPLF), the Southern Ethiopia Peoples' Front for Justice and Equality (SEFJE), and the Tigray People's Democratic Movement (TPDM). No wonder last month that at a House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health hearing on the Horn (at which I also testified) U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazier told that the panel that the administration was considering the case for formally designating Eritrea a “state sponsor of terrorism”!

While the official U.S. position in the border standoff, according to a statement from Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Department Spokesman Sean McCormack, is to “call on the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to exercise maximum restraint and avoid any actions that might further heighten tension or reignite conflict” and “urge both governments to disengage militarily from the most critical locations along the border and to cooperate with the United Nations Mission,” what happens if conflict comes despite best efforts to prevent it?

I have previously argued that “we have to ensure that the spat between Ethiopia and Eritrea over a literal scab of a border zone does not metastasize into a runaway infection consumes everything in its path, including the gains America has made in recent years against Islamist terrorists in the region.” While in principle the absence of overt hostilities between the two countries is desirable, maintenance of the status quo is not an end in itself. Rather, as I testified before Congress last month:

    The most significant national interest at stake for the United States in this complex context is to prevent al-Qaeda (or another like-minded international terrorist network) from acquiring a new base and opening a new front in its war against us and our allies. This is certainly the danger posed by Eritrea's dangerous sponsorship of anti-Ethiopian forces which include elements clearly linked to al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements.

To this end, the United States should not “green light” any Ethiopian aggression on Eritrea; if anything, Addis Ababa should be counseled to weigh very carefully the regional ramifications of any renewed conflict. That being said, however, should Eritrea’s erratic despot, Isaias Afewerki, begin a conflict, the international community should not rescue him from his own folly by brokering another ceasefire so he can rearm (as I reported five months ago, the People’s Republic of China has sold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of arms to Eritrea’s conscript army, the largest in Africa, since the last armistice; last week Resource Investor reported that the Isaias regime was offering the Chinese property and mining rights at discounted rates in a desperate bid to pay its weapons bills). I argued in an essay for National Interest online earlier this year:

    Statesmen ought to do everything possible to prevent the outbreak of hostilities, but, once it is clear that diplomacy has failed or one of the parties initiates hostilities (casus belli), warriors are allowed to deliver what diplomats failed to produce: a definitive resolution of the conflict by determining a winner and a loser so that the outlines of the peace to follow might respect the comparative strengths and other realities on the ground – and thus be more stable than the status quo ante bellum.

While Ethiopia is not without its defects and the pace of progress on democratization and other priorities may not be what we would want, there is nonetheless movement forward. Furthermore the country is a reliable partner, not only in counterterrorism efforts, but also numerous UN and African Union stability and peacekeeping operations, including those being mounted in Sudan's Darfur region (to which Ethiopia has pledged 5,000 troops, the largest commitment to date). If a choice needs to be made between a responsible stakeholder in the international system and a rogue state that sponsors terrorist groups and foments conflicts throughout the critical Horn of Africa, is there really a question of where both America's principles and its national interests lie?

— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

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